I’m the youngest in a family of six, so naturally, you may think that softness was my birthright. Youngest siblings are supposed to be wild, carefree, and just a little bit spoiled because they know that they’ll always be taken care of. In reality, I’m the baby but not really; whether it was assigned to me at birth or self-designated over the years, my role in the Komonibo household is more of a peacekeeper and moodmaker, here to manage the vibe in the event that things go awry. It’s my job to make sure that everyone is okay.
Our family dynamic has blessed me with a fierce sense of independence that has also unintentionally cursed me with a phobia of asking for help or inconveniencing the people around me. That mentality bleeds into almost every asset of my life — from my career to dating and friendships. I need to be the most capable employee at work. I need to be the most emotionally stable (read: emotionally detached) lover in my romantic relationship. I need to be the most empathetic, most reliable one in my friend group. I need to be the woman who can figure things out on her own, even if that means stressing so much and so often that she can predict an emotional breakdown down to the very second.
This obsession with aptitude almost broke me during this pandemic, forcing the realization that I didn’t need to be stronger in order to carry it all. On the contrary, I need to be softer — especially in my relationships.
My dating life is a work in progress. Years of dating wastemen led to a rigid expectation of romance, as well as an immutable skepticism towards love itself. I recently met someone who has all the traits that I’ve asked for — affirming, patient, emotionally mature, honest, consistent — but there’s still a small part of me that tenses up at the thought of allowing him to give me the princess treatment that I said was absolutely non-negotiable. The anxious-avoidant in me is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, mentally prepared for the inevitable red flags that will be my green light to hit the door. (If your guard is always up, you can’t ever be disappointed, right?) Despite being in the chapter of my life in which I’ve vowed to only date men who are (healthily) obsessed with me, there’s something genuinely frightening about actually being faced with that type of energy. Yes, I know what I want, I know what I said, and I know what I deserve, but old habits die hard. I’ve been taking care of myself for so long that it almost feels unnatural to sit back and let someone else take the reins.
There’s a good chance that if you’ve been on any of the major social media platforms recently, you’ve seen the term “softness” being discussed at length, particularly by Black women. While there’s no one dictionary definition for the phrase, the idea behind softness is fairly simple: living your life in a way that makes space for vulnerability, and subsequently, peace. It should be a given that people approach life this way, but it turns out that just existing in this world has always been …hard. Like, really, really hard.
And it feels harder than ever right now. Collectively, we’re not the same people we were when the world first shut down. Remember how we spent the early days of lockdown trying to be our best selves, attempting to be harder, better, faster, stronger even as the streets burned right outside our windows? The mandate of the strong Black woman once gave so many us the edge we needed to survive no matter the situation, but it also guaranteed relational burnout. In addition to balancing our work and our physical and mental health, we’ve also had to do the heavy lifting in our personal lives, making sure that everyone else is okay while we’re just out here suffering. So many of the connections we have often feel unfulfilling because we’re pouring from an empty cup, providing unconditional love and support without being met with reciprocity. We’re out here getting slippers, and dinner, and dessert, and so much more, but who’s catering to us?
The first step of living the life that you want is understanding that you don’t have to be God’s strongest soldier to make it happen.
“We spend so much of our time taking on responsibility for everything and everyone as Black women,” my roommate bemoaned in one of our mid-day chats. “And after living through a pandemic that’s lasted for 10,000 years, I’m just tired. I don’t have the capacity to be the strongest person in my group or the one always looking after somebody else. It’s not even that I’m specifically choosing softness. I’m just choosing myself.”
It’s so important to choose ourselves, even when we’re in a partnership. “I’m not interested in being with anyone who is only attracted to me for my ability to handle a lot,” my sister said during a recent phone call. “It used to be a badge of honor for me, but I’m now rejecting that tough outer shell that had me carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
My aha moment stemmed from a casual question that my therapist posed mid-session about why my primary love language is acts of service. I’d always thought that being independent was just my nature, but was it possible that the quality was a trauma response to the turmoils of life that I had turned into a personality trait? What if the real appeal of being served was just my inner child trying to make up for lost time?
Knowing that so much of this deep desire to be taken care of (and my subsequent rebellion of it) stems from the way I was raised, I recently made the big girl decision to ask my parents to treat me, their 29-year-old daughter, more like, well, their baby instead of their hassle-free child. The lead-up to the request was marked by anxiety — I never want my mom and dad to feel like they didn’t do their very best raising me — but the conversation ended positively, and the result was life-changing for me because it showed me what was possible for the rest of my relationships. My parents and I are so much closer now because I dared to drop the burden of hypercompetence. I’m a grown woman, but I’m also somebody’s baby, and now I get to experience the joy of that duality. If I need help, I can ask for it. If I need more affection, I can get it. If I need anything, it can be mine. All it took was realizing that I was someone worth a little more care.
After playing tough your whole life, you don’t just wake up soft; you have to choose it, every single day. Allowing yourself to be complimented, catered to, and cared for. Letting people’s actions speak for themselves and acting accordingly when they do (or don’t). Hoping for the best because you know that you deserve it.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Black women all over the world are making the active shift to a softer life, realizing that we are precious beings and should be cherished as such. It’s not an overnight transformation, either; letting go of the beliefs that dictated our every move is a process that can take years. But as a community, we’re consciously shedding the armor that protected us while simultaneously weighing us down. Ironically, being this soft doesn’t make us weak. As it turns out, it’s really the key to unlocking a peace that we once thought was impossible to achieve.
Last New Year’s Eve, I promised that 2022 would officially mark the start of my “baby girl era.” That vow, thoughtfully scrawled in the personal letter that my mom makes every member of our family write every holiday, detailed plans of softness in all aspects of my life to make up for the past 29 years. The hardness that I saw as essential for me to survive in this world had eaten away at my very soul, but the first step of living the life that you want is understanding that you don’t have to be God’s strongest soldier to make it happen. It took years, but I now get that ease is my human right. And I’m going to keep asking for it from the people around me.