Sustainable Joy

A friend asked me MONTHS ago for my opinion of Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady; Think Like A Man.  This friend had taken her husband to see the movie version on one of their date nights and for some reason couldn’t wait “to ask you what you thought about it because I knew you would have a strong opinion.”

I had to disappoint my friend.  For 37 years, I have managed to never seek the advice of any of the litany of self-help dating books that make up what has to be a trillion dollar arm of the publishing industry. And when Mr. Harvey’s highly successful book turned into a highly successful movie, my desire to see it – for its sage guidance or light entertainment – never arrived. I held no strong opposition to neither the book and subsequent movie nor Steve Harvey’s bizarre promotion from a moderately funny comic to the single woman’s yoda. When Harvey was doing his rounds on Oprah, however, I do distinctly recall being irritated by him.  I could not explain why, but I was certain that my irritation cut much deeper than Steve’s seemingly sincere attempt to let women into the inner workings of the male mind, particularly the mind of the “marriage-ready” male.  

I never read the book; I never saw the movie.  I never could explain why I was irritated by both, though, until last week.

I read an article in the August issue of Vogue that dug into a much-neglected angle of what should be a moot issue at this point in our species’ evolution: a woman’s right to choose.  What made Pamela Paul’s angle unique was that she did not write an article about abortion.  It was not even an article about birth control options. It was an article about women in the prime of their child bearing years CHOOSING to get tubal ligations because they had known since they were adolescents that they did not want children and preferred the guarantee of a child-free life that tied tubes promised.

The women’s doctors soothingly suggested they just stay on the pill since they would probably change their minds later in life.  Some physicians even said they would “consider” performing the procedure if the women’s husbands would come in to verify they both had agreed on what she would and would not do with her uterus. Several doctors spoke wistfully of the joy they found in their own children, ending with the caveat: “What if you meet someone you REALLY love and then you can’t have his child?” Doctors even offered this cautionary tale to married women who could not find the words to counter this unintended accusation that they did not really love their husbands if they were unwilling to have children.

Paul was fair and diplomatic.  She wrote about a doctor’s responsibility to withhold a medical procedure if she felt it were not in the best interest of a patient.  And what ethical gynecologist would dole out a tubal ligation with the same indifferent ease as she would scribble out a prescription for the pill? However, there was something about the somewhat extreme “convincing” that these women had to do in order to get their doctors to perform this procedure that irritated me as much as Steve Harvey’s segments on Oprah.  

What if you really DO want children?

What if you regret this decision you’ve been asked to justify since as long as you can remember?

What if you act your ass off like a lady and think constantly like a man, but…no man ever puts a ring on it?

What if you sleep with that nice, cute guy before the three month grace period and all he’s willing to give you is a courtship of kindness, warmth and some pleasant memories?  What if you give him SIX of your best childbearing months and he STILL wants to offer you only this?

While these questions appear benign on the surface, at a deeper level they reveal a potentially harmful narrative that is subtlety sold to women.  This narrative reads: in order for a person (particularly, a person who possesses a uterus) to be authentically happy, several external factors have to occur.  The narrative suggests that while child-free women can enjoy their current life, they will experience a deep unhappiness later in life because of the absence of this child that would have absolutely brought them joy.  See, it is not the woman herself who determines her happiness; it is this action.  It is the act of giving birth and raising a child from which true joy comes.  This is why the doctors in the Vogue article were reticent to play a role in permanently blocking this source of ultimate female joy.  What if their patients did regret their decision?  How could these women possibly experience sincere, deep-from-the-belly joy while living with the absence of this child that never was?    

As part of the external-factor-determining-happiness narrative is the thesis that asserts: happiness will likely bestow itself on you once you have mastered the maintenance of a loving relationship with the right partner.  Beneath those doctors’ requests that their married patients bring in their husbands to sign off on the tubal ligation was the notion that if he does agree with this NOW but changes his mind LATER, he might be forced to leave you.  And much like the absence of the child that never was, how could these women truly claim deep-from-the-belly joy when having to say goodbye to wonderful husbands with whom they had cultivated healthy relationships?   This narrative is most implicit in Steve Harvey’s well meaning campaign catering to the fear planted in women that to never be invited into the exclusive club of wifehood is to be sentenced to a life of disgrace, forced to roam the earth with a gigantic red “S” emblazoned across your chest.  Harvey merely repackages what society has sold to his readers for generations. When dealing with the requisite sufferings and pleasures of adult life, happiness is expedited if someone provides you with a road map pointed concisely in the direction of acquiring the ideal romantic partner.  Because once you have the ideal romantic partner, you will be in the ideal position to birth the ultimate female joy. 

Again, I hold no ill will against Steve Harvey.  And I understand why a reputable doctor would be apprehensive about performing such a permanent procedure on a woman who she feels has not lived long enough to fully grasp the finality of her decision.  My only question is: What if we sold women a new narrative?  One which claimed they, and they alone, were the source of their happiness.  That through consistent effort, they could cultivate a happiness that was not as transient as we now have them believe.  That such deep-from-the-belly joy could be sustained through the entrance of a bad lover and the exit of a good one.  Since they are the ones who already possess it, this joy could even survive the realization that they had made the wrong choice years earlier in their doctor’s office.  

This is the power of joy that is internal; it is ever-present and can even co-exist with sadness, regret and disappointment.  If women believed this new narrative, they just might begin to evaluate the success of a romantic relationship on how much it contributed to or detracted from their pre-existing happiness as opposed to whether it was progressing fast enough to marriage. This new narrative can even incorporate vestiges of the old.  Maybe women would respond better to the notion that happiness has to be attached to SOMETHING external.  After all, strictly self-focused happiness can easily give birth to selfishness and isolation.  Instead of the time-sensitive and often anxiety-ridden quest to pregnancy, what if we actually told women that their happiness is based significantly on identifying and working toward their true purpose in life?  The reason for which they chose to be born into this world, at this time, under their particular circumstances? What if we led them to believe this purpose does not necessarily begin or end with motherhood?  

What if someone convinced women we are infinitely powerful beings who are worthy and capable of sustainable joy?  What if THIS was where the new narrative began and ended?

11 Responses

  1. Not only do I agree with you 100% (well, except for that line ‘the reason for which they chose to be born into this world’…because I’m not sure if we choose to be born in this world; our parents choose to have us!) but I will tell you about at least two gender theorists who would agree with you too. In her book “Gender Trouble”, Judith Butler takes Julia Kristeva to task for promoting motherhood as the great site of feminism. Butler basically says, “Girl, motherhood is absolutely essential to patriarchy! Without motherhood patriarchy would collapse, honey! So, please don’t tell me motherhood is where feminism is at. Motherhood is always already patriarchal.” The other gender theorist that comes to mind is Michael Warner, who coined the term “reproteleology”, according to which society has already decided that the ultimate goal of your life is to reproduce. This concept is re-packaged much more aggressively by Lee Edelman where, in ‘sinthomosexuality’, he argues against a futurity and a deeply normative pressure on everyone – gay or straight – to reproduce. So, yes, voices such as yours are growing louder. And I hereby add my voice to it! A big hug of solidarity!

    • As always, Niladri, the scholarly insight is appreciated. I am particularly struck by Butler’s theory that motherhood is essential to patriarchy. This is one side of the “motherhood as ultimate role” narrative I had never considered. I must read more of her work.

  2. Keturah, this piece was *marvelous*! I learned, after many years of what was basically self-torment, that as long as I externalized anything to do with my well-being, peace, and contentment, I would have none of those things for longer than *snaps fingers*. And while I see many friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and family members struggle through what I did, I realize how extremely difficult it can be to cut through the external voices (religious, cultural, social, friends, family, ego) to get to our small, still quiet voice. Your piece really captures what woman (humanity) has to beat back to get to that place of sustainable joy. Thank you for writing this.

    • It’s funny you mention that this road to adhering to the internal voice is not exclusive to women, but a journey of ALL humanity. I am glad you said this because I truly believe that this is not a struggle for only women. It is the fight of humanity to accept that as long as we stake our happiness on the external, over which we have little or no control, we are pretty much sentencing ourselves to a lifetime of roller coaster joy. WE are better than that. WE can DO better than that.

  3. I love it. If some women realized that happiness starts from within and not as soon as you get married and have kids, the divorce rate would decrease significantly. Often times people ask me do I feel the pressure to have children because all of my sisters have children? The answer to that is no. I wasn’t in a rush to get married and certainly not in a rush to have kids. I think being a mother is one of the greatest experiences in the world and is also one of the most difficult. I used to feel pressure from my husband after we were married to have children and when he realized that he was being ignored when the subject arose, he decided to let it be what it is. lol Although my husband does have kids from a previous marriage, he would still love for me to have a child or children. Just think if we women had to think like men, our heads would explode. LOL Some may not believe it, I’m HAPPY!!!! If I decide to become a mother I will. If it never happens then oh well. At the beginning of the day, it all starts with me.

    • Well said! And thank you for sharing another voice from the child-free BY CHOICE woman: a married woman whose husband wants her to have a baby. You prove what I have always suspected. Women CAN stand by their decision not to give birth even in the midst of a fulfilling relationship with a man who wants children. It’s a testament to what a nation thinks of a woman’s ability to make conscious decisions when it is assumed (or maybe even, STRONGLY encouraged) that the pressure from a husband (or the love of a husband) should play a major role in a woman’s decision to become a mother.

  4. Steve Harvey irritates me to no end. He is a sub par comedian that could not make it to that mainstream level. Why? Because his type of humor could not keep up with the changing times, it became outdated. His theme is all about the old school. Ex. If you don’t play Earth Wind and Fire, or The Stylistics, you don’t know anything about music. He has a particular hatred towards Hip Hop entirely without acknowledging the breadth and the scope of an American culture (Hip Hop is not all Lil Wayne music). He’s basically stuck in the 70s and has no plan on leaving. This is where he found his niche though. He changed his routine to cater to a “Church Based” comedy. He did a tour titled “God ain’t thru with me, yet”. Where he announced he’s not gonna curse anymore and get closer to God. Basically, using Tyler Perry’s chitterlin’ circuit marketing strategy of reaching Black folk in the southern states and built up that following of women that be prying to the lord to send them a man. I will give him that, he’s a hustler. He is also a snake oil salesman, playing on the fears of Black women. The artificially induced fears conjured up by countless articles convincing Black women only they have such a slim chance of finding love, marriage, and happiness. That some how a washed up comic, an adulterer, who fails at love consistently, can tell you how to be successful in relationships with men by “acting like a man”. Did anyone ask what type of man you’re supposed to be acting like? This idea that back in the day was so much better than it is now, I’m just not buying it. Steve Harvey is trying to convince you that men treated women better than they do today and I don’t believe it for one second and the ladies shouldn’t either. Yeah, Bubba, opened the door for his woman every time, still doesn’t mean he didn’t treat her like crap. The two things that are glaringly missing from this longing for yesteryear is the internet and jobs. If Black women had both back then, you’d be hearing a different story than what Steve is selling. Yes, there is an overall theme in American society that tells you to get married and have kids. In fact you are nothing If you haven’t achieved it. Yet, we all know for the African American experience, it always seemed different for us. We can’t ignore our history. When Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence and was talking all that pursuit of happiness jazz, he owned 500 slaves. A system that was designed to break apart the Black family nucleus. We are still suffering from the affects today. You can’t talk about us and how we view ourselves and the world around us without addressing that. F Steve.

    • I, too, have felt that there is more snake oil salesman to this newer direction Harvey’s career is taking than sincerity. But, I do believe (like you imply) that he is merely tailoring his act/career to the narrative that already exists, PARTICULARLY for black women. When I listen to him advise women and when I hear his pate answers to more complex relationship dynamics, I am surprised at how “helpful” or even entertaining his female followers find him. I do believe that a person who has repeatedly failed at love CAN really give solid guidance on how to succeed at it. I just find myself agitated by his adding yet more fuel to the fear train that women allow themselves to be herded onto ALL THE TIME.

  5. Keturah, you are spot-on, as always! But here’s the thing that people are starting to understand: Steve Harvey is a brand, plain and simple. He is marketing his brand. He has found a particular type of snake oil to sell (brothers are buying his clothes, which is another spoke in his brand, although the line looks like a rack of loud zoot suits) and sisters are buying the oil, suits for the man they hope to snag, the book, the movie – all of which Steve has parlayed into a ‘talk show’ set to begin airing next month. He’s an entertainer, not a therapist. Laugh, but don’t take a bit of it seriously.
    Women need to live their lives as they see fit; we’re not children to be herded around, we are grown-assed WOMEN!
    His brand also feeds into the patriarchal bent of this country, one that is also pushed by every minister, imam, priest, prophet, et al: women and their wombs are to be controlled. If you review any church’s mission or listen to most sermons, it’s about controlling behavior. And since most of the church hierarchy is composed of males, usually women and the controlling of said females are the focus.
    Steve is on his third (fourth?) wife (I lost track), with a passel of children from all the marriages and relationships; all of the previous women can’t be completely wrong. A man who marries that many times has problems and he can’t really tell others what to do. He can talk about what ‘works’ for him, that’s fine, but not one woman should take what he says as gospel.
    It’s just goes back to the old saw that each person should think for themselves and do whatever works for you.

    • Karen,

      Your comment about the male-dominated hierarchy of the church and its mission to control women made me think of this very public bullying the Vatican is doing of the Catholic nuns (The Women of the Religious, I think the name is?) who are too busy tending the sick and poor to lead public shame campaigns against abortion and gay marriage. The Vatican has pretty much told them that since they are not making the condemnation of gay marriage and abortion a part of their platform they are somehow not upholding the mission of the church. Sister Farrell, the leader of this group of nuns, has diplomatically spoken out about the male hierarchy within the catholic church who in essence want to control her and her sisters’ behavior – even though THEY are actually doing the real work of Christ. I think there is a reason why the women who really live and die by Steve Harvey’s “message” take his snake oil for the gospel. They have been taking the snake oil of the Christian church for most of their lives. An entity that seems to have, in many crucial ways, lost sight of the work of Christ and his actions as a human being.

  6. Steve Harvey. I can’t. How about this book: “Think Like A Grown-Ass Woman. Act Like A Grown-Ass Woman. Stop Sweating People of Any Gender Who Can’t Deal with It”

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