“One of the most courageous things you can do is identify yourself, know who you are, what you believe in and where you want to go.” – Sheila Murray Bethel
As a young girl, I was limited by my expected gender roles. I was expected to be nurturing, dress a certain way, speak politely, and often told to “stop acting like a boy” when engaged in sports or playing with toys considered “for boys.”
When I was asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “I want to be a writer”. My father looked at me in disbelief and told me, “No daughter of mine will be a writer!”
When I was a senior in high school, my uncle who was visiting Addis from the United states asked me what my future plans were. I, with confidence replied, “ I want to be a lawyer. I want to help women who are in abusive relationship and unfortunate situations.” His response, “why don’t you major in something “easy” for women like business. You are a woman. Do something that “fits” a woman. Till this day I struggle to figure out what he meant. What “fits” a woman?
Every woman, whether it comes from close family members or from society as a whole, struggles to find her “fit.” Now more than ever, women have many different choices, and with those choices come tough decisions and sacrifices. Especially for women who are in a relationship with a significant other. In these cases, women are more likely to give up their personal dreams more than men. Women are the ones who are expected to be patient and stay in unhealthy relationships. Women are the ones who push aside their own needs for the sake of their families, regardless of what that may mean for themselves. The expectations for women are endless!
Even with all these challenges facing women, I have had more encouragements to get married young, than I had for following my dreams. Due to this belief, I got married young and had a child within a year. I had the “it” life from other’s perspective. I had the nice house, the beautiful family, the “comfortable” life. It was when I started to question my former beliefs, questioning how I had put aside what I’ve always wanted to fit into the idea of what it is to be a good women, that a lot of thing started changing. The moment I decided not to have another child until I accomplished my own goals, I saw how rough it could really be for a woman trying to stick to her guns. From the rumors, to the constant questioning and smart comments, I had to fight it all, both internally and externally.
I was often asked (by the same people, every time they see me or people who didn’t know me that well) why I would not want to have another child. When I explain my dreams and my goals for myself before expanding my family, they look at me like I had lost my mind. They hit me with the “Lij beLijinet” bullshit and “you will regret it later” comments. What does that mean anyway? Is your twenties not Lij? How were they certain that I would regret it? Why would anyone regret wanting to fully grow into the person they feel they were meant to be before being strong enough to be a backbone for their family?
We live in a society that expects a woman to simply go for what is considered the norm: to get married young, have kids young, cater to her husband and support his goals, oh and his family too and pretend like her marriage is all peaches and cream. Or if she chooses to have her career and other things lined up, the expectation is to still to get married young, have kids young, cater to her husband and support his goals, oh and his family too and pretend like her marriage is all peaches and cream. Did I mention you have to have your hair and makeup intact, a spotless home and a smile on your face at all times?
I also find accepting challenges and facing them head on, is rarely encouraged, especially if you have what is considered to be a comfortable life. When I had a semester and a half left, to finish school I got a job offer that I didn’t want to turn down. I knew it would be a challenge to go to school full-time, work forty-five plus hours a week and raise a child at the same time. Yet I accepted that challenge. With that I chose to kiss my social life good-bye and focus on my goals. This didn’t sit well with many people around me. I always got the, “isuan bilo degmo busy, hulum yimarina yisera yele indet? Birk honebat?” from people I didn’t attend their serg or lekso. I guess there are other women who work full-time and go to school and raise children and be super human? But for me, I had to stay true to myself. Working and going to school taking up an average of 16 hours of my day, I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to play all the other roles I had to play to be deemed a good women.
Life can be very difficult especially when you have to consistently fight for what you want. Yes, while going through this tough time, I admit that I cried many nights praying that it would all be over soon. Yes, I went on like a zombie almost losing my mind. Yes, I considered “taking the easy way out”, quitting everything and staying home (which has it’s own challenges by the way no matter how people paint their lives to be as stay- at- home moms), but I chose not to, because that was not what I wanted. And Yes, I admit I chose to go through counseling to overcome depression. I am a better woman today for doing so.
I worked really hard to get to where I am today. As a twenty something year old woman who is educated, with a career that I love, and a daughter that constantly keeps me on check, here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way which I’ve decided to share with you.
Get to Know Yourself
While trying to fit into society, we seldom remember getting to know ourselves. In the movie, The Run Away Bride there is a scene where Julia Robert tries different kinds of eggs to figure out what she really likes. Because the type of egg she likes changes based on the man she is dating. I would tell my younger self, get to know YOU first and don’t change yourself for anyone. When you know who you are, you make the best decisions for your life.
Surround yourself with people who support you
Our lives are filled with ups and downs. Don’t be afraid to admit that you have flaws. Don’t be ashamed of your mistakes in life. The important thing is you learn from it. One of the challenges I have had was getting over judgmental friends. If your friends don’t support you like they should, they shouldn’t be in your life. Figure out what is holding you back in your life and change it. If it means ditching judgmental friends, so be it. You deserve people around you that support you and that you can be comfortable with.
It’s Ok to Ask For Help
If you are having a problem, ask for help. Don’t burry your problems because you are scared of what others might think. Everyone has their own problems they are dealing with; there is nothing wrong with that. So ask for help when you need it. If talking to your friends or family doesn’t help seek professional help. Although I was raised to believe going to a “shrink” should not even be an option, I chose to do so and I am glad I did. I would not be where I am today if I had chosen to hide my problems.
Follow Your Dreams
I was once told that my major was not “appropriate for habesha women”. Really? What major is exactly appropriate? It is sad to know that this is the kind of mentality that teaches us to be followers and not leaders. If you want a different path than what is expected of you, take it. You do not need to justify your actions. It is your life! Own your unique qualities and reach your potential.
Celebrate Your Accomplishments
It breaks my heart when people make comments like, “When you meet a man, don’t tell him your success because you will intimidate him” or “ Make sure you don’t tell him you make as much as you do, you will chase him away”. We constantly hear these comments and some take the advice. But I say celebrate what you worked so hard for. If a potential partner doesn’t want to take your accomplishments as a plus you need to find someone who does. Don’t be afraid to talk about your dreams and aspirations. Most of all, be proud of what you have accomplished so far and never be ashamed to have future goals that don’t necessarily fit into others’ expectations of you.
One Size DOESN’T Fit All
Everyone’s life is different. Even people who choose to take the same path in life experience it differently. So choose what works for you best and don’t expect people to understand your choices. Your life doesn’t have to be the same or have the same outcome to be considered the “right” way. Don’t let people’s comments get to you. LIVE your life the way you want.
As an Ethiopian woman, I grew up with high expectations of how my life should unfold. Most of these expectations came from external influences. It was a challenge to break free from those expectations. But once I broke out of these expectations, I became much more content with my life. I no longer live to please people. In that I have found peace.
So when my daughter proudly says she wants to be a firefighter when she grows up. I smile and reply, “Yene konjo, you can be whatever you want to be!”
Disclaimer: This post is by no means trying to prove a certain way of life is better than another. It is not a post about rebelling against the Ethiopian culture. It is a post that would hopefully encourage women to follow their dreams and break away from cultural barriers that hold them back from reaching their potential.