We wear a lot of weight in our lives.
Expectation often forms the heaviest of those weights. It’s piled onto us from the moment we squiggle squalling out of a womb and, slime-slick, gasp a breath.
I sometimes think of the babies I don’t want to have and the babies that exist out there in the world and I wonder about the weights we pile upon them. It starts with whatever happens to be between their legs. We look at them in utero or right as they emerge and pronounce them male or female and we give them a he or a she and that shapes every interaction or experience they will have from that first breath. It starts with a pink or a blue and it evolves into “man up, pussy” and “you fucking cunt” and every goddamn thing in between. If, because biology does not give any fucks about our human-made binaries, a baby is born and does not neatly fit into “she” or “he” as we consider, we choose for them, and to hell with the consequences for that baby, because we cannot bear the weight of our own manufactured and learned discomfort and prefer to instead hand it off to that soft new skin and teeny tiny hands, hoping they won’t ever notice what we did.
Each expectation is a tiny grain of sand, so small that we don’t feel its mass, and unobtrusive enough when it starts that the grit doesn’t chafe our skin.
My body weight has fluctuated somewhere around 45 pounds back and forth for the past six years. One day, when I was at the heavier end of that fluctuation, I found myself at a grocery store with a ten pound sack of sugar in my hands. My knees hurt from carrying trays of beers up and down stairs at the restaurant where I worked. I was tired and anxious, because that is my default setting a lot of the time (though to assure you — I am made of so many other things as well). I remember hefting the weight of that sack of sugar and thinking, “This is how much more I’m carrying around than I was six months ago.” I looked down at my body, which was perhaps a bit rounder — fuller breasts, curvy booty, le petit pooch at my middle — and thought that though it didn’t really look that different, the sack of sugar felt heavy, and I wondered if perhaps my bones resented the extra weight I’d given them to carry.
After that sometimes I would feel those pounds and wonder what it would be like to be able to put them down, like I could set the sack of sugar on a shelf or in a cupboard and not use it until I needed it. I could rest my muscles and let them breathe and let the lactic acid fade away.
When expectations are piled on, it’s a lot more like gaining ten pounds than it is like picking up a sack of sugar. Sure, sometimes we get saddled with a heavy thing all at once. A family member falls ill and suddenly we have to care for a child or ferry someone back and forth between home and hospital. Sometimes a colleague is sacked and our job description takes on a few more lines.
The other kinds of expectations, the ones that come along with gender and class and race and ability and sexuality, though, those ones are the slow-gained ones. And those are the ones that, when we realise they are not universal, it can be tantalising to wonder what it would be like if we could just put them down for a while.
Those ones live in the space between sentences. In Hillary Clinton being berated by male pundits to smile after her win last night. In Barack Obama’s ever-careful and modulated tone, so as not to be the Angry Black Man. In every “You don’t seem autistic — I never would have known!” In every “Ugh, what a skank.”
There’s a weight of expectation that comes with intersectional identity. It’s a weight that insists we prove ourselves. Work twice as hard knowing we’ll get half the acclaim. To be approachable but not too inviting. To work for free because exposure. To look pretty but not slutty. To overlook that comment about crazy women because you don’t want them to know you are a crazy woman with actual mental illness. To smile through it when someone touches your locs or your fro without asking and remarks on how different your hair is. To be really really nice because you are nice, but also because you don’t have another choice. To be gruff as a woman is to be a bitch. To be brusque as a Black woman is to be wrong. To be angry as a gay man is just not fun. So you’re nice even when you’re drained, even when you’re exhausted, even when you’re angry, even when you’re hurt, offended, left out, in pain. To spend extra time getting ready so you look the part. To try not to overwhelm, overshadow, overpower because you finally have a seat at the far end of the big kids’ table and you really-really-really want to stay because gods, you’ve worked so fucking hard for this.
And at the end of all this expectation is the weight that comes with always wondering if you’ll ever be enough.
It comes with a constant wondering whether if, you let one person down or say the wrong thing once, if you’ll be done for.
Part of this is Impostor Syndrome. A lot of people feel that way. But the big other part is that a lot of it is far beyond feeling like a fraud: it’s about being told in myriad ways both implicit and explicit that you are one because of the expectations placed on you for who you are.
Fake Geek Girl. Uncommercial. Exotic. Attention whore. Crybaby. Unrelatable. Niche. Ethnic. A lot of different ways to say, “I’d rather you go sit over there.”
What’s scary is the realisation that, due to expectations far outside your control, you really aren’t that welcome and there are plenty of people who would rather you keep your mouth shut, your words off your paper, your presence in carefully-scheduled slots of time or existence, and your seat at the table edged out.
It’s not always conscious — a lot of the time it’s not, since bias is very often subconscious — but it’s present. And it affects everything from getting your work read to getting your work sold, reviewed, nominated, and more.
That is why I think so many people burn out, because you can’t put the bags of sugar down, and there’s not just one you’re carrying. You have to play the game to change the game, and playing means holding a metric tonne of sugar while you do it.
It’s not sustainable, to go on feeling like no matter what you do, you’re going to disappoint someone. You’ll snap at someone when you “should” be in Nice Defcon One. You’ll have to turn down something that doesn’t pay because your schedule is full of desperately trying to get paid. And through all of that, you’ll have the weight of all that sugar bearing down, the gritty little crystals wedging themselves under the elastic of your underpants and in the creases of your armpits and saturating your scalp.
So what is the point of this blog post? It’s a depressing blog post so far.
There’s a point to it. Here it is:
I hereby give you permission to disappoint someone. Say no. Talk back. Make a fuss. Tell someone you’d appreciate if they didn’t touch any part of you without permission. (Erm…make sure it’s someone who has tried or done it — probably best not to startle random passers-by who are minding their own business.) Decide not to let that comment slide by. Cry about that rejection you got in coded language that said your book was too queer. Be angry if you’re angry. Be nice to yourself. Be okay with saying, “I can’t do this right now” without falling over your own feet to apologise for not having unlimited [time/money/emotional energy]. Wear a blue cap if they gave you a pink one, or vice versa. Throw out the cap entirely and knit a new one, or make one out of newspaper. Write hard sci-fi under your noticeably female-cued name. Keep your head held high instead of ducking it when someone expects you to. Take up some space.*
You don’t have to be perfect in accordance to the world’s boggling expectations all the time. Hell, you can say that to someone if they get on your case. You have a right to exist, you have a right to create, and you have a right to put your elbows on the same table other people have left elbow-prints all over for eons.
You can’t do everything. You can’t be everything. And you’re allowed to not exhaust yourself trying.
Two years ago next month, I told my then-husband that I could not be a mother to his children because I had learned (and relearned) that I didn’t want to have any. His expectation of our marriage was that we would start trying within a year or so. I couldn’t carry that weight anymore. Disappointing him (admittedly a mild word for divorce) was the right choice, however. It allowed me to fully let myself become a person I’d been hiding away for a long time. It allowed him to find someone more suited for him. It freed me to find someone I now cannot imagine my life without. Now, I look around at my life that is getting happier each day with a partner I am all googly-eyed over, two absurd little cats, and a career that busts my ass but still makes me love it — and I feel like somewhere, somehow, one of those ten pound bags of sugar got lifted off me.
Sometimes you have to choose to disappoint someone, even if it has consequences. It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.
We carry enough weight of expectation — you’re allowed to not take on more.
If you were expecting a St Patrick’s Day post, this isn’t it…but please to not pinch anyone today no matter how little green they’re wearing. Read about the history of today or the struggle of Irish independence instead.
*Sometimes there are safety concerns (physical and emotional and otherwise) to disappointing someone, which I think we all know, so maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but yeah: take care of your safety first and foremost. Disappoint away when you are safe and have the need, though!
Get every new post delivered to your Inbox
Join other followers