Hanging up the Cape: Practicing the Ethic of Self Care – The Feminist Wire

Hanging up the Cape: Practicing the Ethic of Self Care

By Natalie T. J. Tindall and Markesha S. McWilliams

Research in Brief

Tindall, N.T.J. & McWilliams, M.S. (2011). The myth and mismatch of balance: Black female professors’ constructions of balance, integration, and negotiation of work and life. In E. Gilchrist (Ed.), Experiences of single African-American female professors: With this Ph.D. I thee wed. Lanham, MD: Lexington

The concept of “having it all” implies that women can successfully fulfill all of the roles given to them by society and circumstances. Our research project The Myth and Mismatch of Balance: Black Female Professors’ Constructions of Balance, Integration, and Negotiation of Work and Life appears in an edited volume on the experiences of African-American professors and challenges the notion of balance. The issue of work-life conflict for Black female faculty members has not been widely researched. For two years, we engaged in a qualitative study on work-life conflict issues facing Black women who are employed in tenured and tenure-track academic positions. This topic is of considerable interest to us as a tenure track professor in communications and a doctoral candidate in education. The findings from this study are not only instructive for the profession but reflective of our own narratives as Black women in the academy.

Some women may consider having a successful career, a happy relationship with your significant other, and raising children who do not become sociopaths as the trifecta of work-life balance. As noted in our research study,

Since self is lumped into the life side of the balance and is not treated as an important factor within the dynamics of work and life, we argue for the inclusion of self to make any construction of work-life balance a holistic, constitutive, and realistic construction that captures the richness and intensity of the phenomenon” (Tindall & McWilliams, 2011, p. 61).

A common theme that emerged in our qualitative data, in our informal conversations with peers and colleagues and in our own lives is the quest for the trifecta results in a lack of self-care among black women in academia.

This is not a new revelation. bell hooks discussed this topic in Sisters of the Yam. Toni Cade Bambara’s The New Black Woman, published in 1979, talked about the revolution starting with the self as well asking in The Salt Eaters if we as women wanted to be made well “because wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” Yet, many of these messages from the general media about pampering and self-care and concerns about self-care and self-preservation in academic literature have been heard, processed, yet ignored by many professors.

Like many faculty members, Black women experience spillover where work life seeps into home life. The work that we do is not tied to a laboratory or a desk; we can grade lab assignments and homework, read emails, catch up on correspondence, and view files during our commutes and at home. The blurring of the work and home spheres negates the ease and flexibility of the academic lifestyle. As one tenured professor said,

. . . there is a kind of paradox or irony . . . here we are in the academy because of the flexibility of time, and yet we so discipline ourselves that we blow it.

These disciplines are learned behaviors that faculty members receive and observe throughout graduate school and in our careers.

Black women in academia expressed a squeeze for time and resources with little time to allot for ourselves. As we noted,

The juggle, the balancing act, and the desire of “having it all” crushes women under unrealistic burdens and expectations. Likewise, the push to be resilient women who can do it all requires a reshuffling of priorities. For women, self-care and pursuing things that give them identity are lost in the shuffle (p. 72).

Many of the women we interviewed had hobbies and interests outside of family, home life, community obligations, and work, yet they were pressed–and frustrated–about the lack of time they could dedicate to these things that gave them joy.

The data from our project suggests that “the processing and pulling of cultural and societal roles fractured these women academics into pieces, though some women resisted the pulling attraction and decided to lessen the gears’ impact and effect on their lives” (p. 62). As a result women often subject themselves to managed chaos which wears the deceptive disguise of functionality. As noted in our study a person can meet their work deadlines and the household can be running efficiently but all at the cost of well-being.

The testimonies from our participants caution us to not be self-critical in absolute terms. We can be good scholars, good mothers, and good partners; however, it is unrealistic that all these things will align at the same time. Situations which require the prioritization of family needs over work does not make one a bad lecturer or researcher. An occasional trip to the drive thru for dinner because you stayed longer at work than anticipated does not make you a bad mother. Furthermore, when the stars are not aligned, our knee jerk reaction is to sacrifice ourselves rather than make adjustments in our other roles.

Some women have experienced success in navigating their multiple roles by calling upon other women for support. These other women, as one participant put it, are “sister-wives” and ranged from paid caretakers, their mothers, friends, other professional mothers, or neighbors with children.  Often, women have difficulty asking for help out of fear that it exposes their own inadequacy. The participants unanimously agreed that extra help is essential in order to manage home and work responsibilities. Any trepidation for asking for help outweighs the guilt they feel when responsibilities go unattended.

Our research sounds the alarm for Black women to hang up their capes. We have been socialized to embody the “strong Black woman” image to our own detriment. Neglecting self-care is demonstrated in the unfulfilled promises to go to the gym, missed doctor appointments and screenings, the deferment of hobbies and interests, and failing to regularly enjoy the company of friends and loved ones who make us laugh. We are either consciously or unconsciously emulating the grind we grew up watching the women in our lives perform. Ironically, our predecessors’ hard work and sacrifice was so that we would not have to endure similar suffering. It is time to reprogram superwoman for a more holistic approach that will allow us to live happier and healthier and reflect on the realities that exist within the parameters of work, life, and leisure.


Natalie T. J. Tindall (Ph.D., University of Maryland, 2007) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on diversity in organizations, specifically the public relations function, and the situational theory of publics and intersectionality. She has authored many book chapters and online publications along with peer-reviewed journal articles published in Journal of Public Relations Research, Public Relations Review, Public Relations Journal, Howard Journal of Communications, PRism, and the International Journal of Strategic Communication. Currently she serves as the chair of the Public Relations Society of America Diversity Committee, member of the Public Relations Society of America Work, Life & Gender Task Force, and Vice Chair-Elect for the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Markesha S. McWilliams (ABD, The George Washington University) is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Her dissertation explores the career development experiences of female college students participating in intercollegiate athletics. Currently she serves as chair-elect of the Commission for Recreation and Athletics for the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). In addition to her scholarly work, McWilliams is co-founder and executive director of Operation P.L.A.Y., a non-profit organization dedicated to childhood obesity prevention and awareness.