A New Year, A New Reality

Tuesday, 04 January 2011 17:23 Written by  Nicole Walker

These women have done everything the right way: their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and teachers told them to put education first. “The boys will come later,” they would say. They warned young women not to mess up their lives. These women were good girls and did as they were told.

Thirty years later, they have at least one degree and maybe even two. They are the upwardly mobile women, fulfilling their families’ collective dreams. They are young, or at least, relatively still young, confident and on the right career track. What could be the problem? They are stressed and perhaps even on the verge of what has now been called the quarter-life crisis.wr

Cynthia Roberts* does not know the word “rest.” After having left university life to work full-time to pay off personal debt and help her family, Cynthia re-enrolled seven years later. She worked because that is what she knew how to do. She could not imagine not working. Although she took out additional loans to help finance her education, she never stopped working.

Through it all, she found ways to remain sociable. “I always have a friend,” Cynthia said. “On the first day of kindergarten, everyone was in their little groups. By lunchtime, I had at least three new friends.”

Cynthia considers herself a joiner. She remains an active member of her sorority. Her apartment is covered in memorabilia, paraphernalia and pictures testifying to her love of her sisterhood. Through her affiliation, she also knows many men in a fraternity she considers her “brothers.”

One would think that Cynthia is poised to take the man of her pick, but she disagrees wholeheartedly. “These guys…they don’t know what they want,” she said. “They don’t want to settle down. Why would they? Would you if you were them?”

Cynthia’s sentiments echo the voice of a generation of women: those who strove to achieve the dreams of their forbearers and yes, their own personal dreams as well. Yet, given their own circumstances of need and lack, these older women possessed something Cynthia did not yet have: marriage.

We have all committed the damning statistic of the often quoted Yale study to memory by now. Forty-two percent of African American women remain unmarried. To those women who are in that 42 percent, it may feel as though everything would be better, every problem would work itself out, and the pieces fall into place if they achieved this one last goal. Is this really so?

Sandra Peterson*, an attorney for a government agency, is married to her husband of three years and lives in gated community in a suburb of Atlanta. She and her husband were both the high-achievers of their families, both graduating from college at an age younger than their peers. To friends and family, everything is in place for them.

“They look at us and say, ‘They’ve really got their lives together,’” she said. She takes pride in being a positive role model for her younger sisters, letting them know that there are good men out there who are honest, hard-working and ready for commitment. What could be wrong?

“We’re at the point where we should be starting a family, I think,” Sandra said, “but I don’t know how we’re going to do that.” Sandra is up at 5 a.m. every weekday morning to begin her daily routine and her commute into the city. She gets home around 6 p.m. Her husband commutes as well. Sandra says she is too tired to cook in the evenings and could not imagine having a responsibility as heavy as nurturing and looking after another person. “You can’t have it all, can you?”

This question, no doubt, has entered the mind of Denise Jones*. Denise, like Sandra, gained both her undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and married her husband while in graduate school. Unlike Sandra, she decided to live in a town she loved rather than following her classmates to the big city.

“My husband and I met here. We love it and want to raise a family here,” she said. “There’s more than enough for us to do as a family, and we have friends here too.”

For a while, Denise seemed to have it all: She worked in her field in the town she loved and did not worry about the stress of being too tired to start a family. Before long, she was pregnant and family and friends congratulated her, not only for the joyous occasion of carrying her first child, but also for the commonly held opinion that she had done it “right.” Here she was: a bright career woman who was happily married to a loving man in a town where they could raise a family and live happily ever after.

Then the recession hit. “I knew it was a risk. No one stays here for the jobs,” Denise says. “They go up the road for that.”

Denise’s job was intimately tied to real estate and when the bubble burst, she found herself eight months pregnant and without a job. “I tried not to stress myself out too much. I had the health of my baby to think about.” She did give birth to a healthy baby boy, but five months later, she still is out of a job. “I’m committed to being a stay-at-home mom for now. Luckily, when times were good, we budgeted and saved just in case the unexpected happened so we’re okay for now.”

What does this all mean for those sitting at the beginning of a new year, poised to take a step into the new reality ahead? The question implied in each of these women’s scenarios is this: Is there a formula for success?

Many have felt shaken by the current economic climate. Older Americans have watched their retirement savings vanish while their children and grandchildren have spent years educating themselves only to find no jobs available in their field upon graduating.

Generations of high-achieving black women have told themselves, “I can do better.” Now they ask themselves, “Can I really?” What can women take away from all of this?

“We all have struggles,” Cynthia admitted. The key perhaps is to continue to strive and do your best, but forgive yourself if you fall. Know that it is okay to have a setback. Realize that everything does not always go according to the plan.

Finally, ask, “What is it I really want?” Is the house in the suburbs, family or high-powered career something you desire or is it something you have been told to desire? The degree, career, husband, home and kids all sound great on paper, or, more accurately stated, on a Facebook wall. Perhaps measuring success by your own standards is more fulfilling in the end because it leaves room for deviation.

In this new year, take some time to think about that question. Know that your "Black American Dream" may not be the same as hers, and that’s okay. There’s no need to compare notes or find out who is keeping up with whom if you are busy fulfilling your own dreams.


*Name changed at the request of the interviewee

Nicole Walker

Nicole Walker

Nicole Walker has been a writer for 10 years and has had poetry published in the University of Georgia's Stillpoint literary magazine.  She is currently working on a short story collection.

She can be contacted at editor@glossmagazineonline.com