Until recently, I don’t know that I asked myself, What do you want, Uché?
I had spent most of my adult life checking off boxes. Go to college. Be pre-med. Attend medical school. Get a residency. Oh look, a fellowship! Find a faculty position. Meet someone. Get married. Have kids. Live happily ever after. The end.
For women, especially Black women, we are rarely granted the space to deviate from expectations — those of our loved ones, society and everyone else in between. So I tried to make it all work.
The first year of my marriage was great. I was genuinely happy. My then-husband and I were on the same page about starting a family together. Everything happened as planned: I got pregnant quickly and birthed a beautiful and healthy baby. But to be honest, becoming a new mother was incredibly hard for me. After bringing the baby home, I often felt lonely, isolated and exhausted. I really needed my mother in those tough moments and to be mothered myself. I often wondered what she might’ve said or done to help me, but she passed when I was 19. Since her death, my twin sister and I tried to support each other, but frankly, I needed a whole system of support. I needed a village, but I only had my husband.
Two years later, I gave birth to our second child. I was doing all the “right” things. I kept checking off those boxes. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children deeply, but something happened to me after becoming a mother. I lost myself for a little bit. I think this is probably normal, but I wasn’t prepared for the experience. I was trying to manage raising two little ones while working on my career and being a wife. I felt both internal and external pressure to make a choice about who I really was when the truth was, I was more than the sum of all parts of me — a wife, a mother, a physician, and a visionary who wanted to make a real difference in this world. I am also a Black woman in this country who faces racism and sexism every day at every turn. So while I was just trying to figure out how to exist and keep things going at home, I was also dealing with a toxic and oppressive work environment.
Being a physician should hold a sense of accomplishment and pride, being able to work in service to others. However, that wasn’t always the case for me. As a Black woman physician, I was working as faculty in a place that never truly valued me and chose not to change systemically. I felt unworthy and unappreciated at work. Because of that, I questioned myself and whether or not my talents were good enough. In addition, I grappled with my own experiences working within a health care system that never really cared about Black people — and certainly doesn’t serve us well. I absorbed the burden of not just having to do my job as a physician but doing it while also facing bias and racism from patients and colleagues, as well as the mental toll of watching countless Black patients experience it, too.
I honestly felt worried for my mental and physical health and well-being — living with the constant fear that someone might retaliate because I spoke up about my experiences. The pressure got to be too much. I couldn’t show up to work as my authentic self. Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to leave my job. At the time, no one I knew just left academic medicine. Even within oppressive environments, we stayed to try to make a difference or for a number of other reasons, whether it be financial certainty or the hope that leadership will make changes. I decided to forge my own path.
When I left, I left academic medicine entirely. I left to focus my time and efforts on a venture that I founded a year earlier — the organization Advancing Health Equity. The mission of my organization, inspired by my own personal and professional experiences, was to engage with healthcare providers to create more diverse and inclusive work environments and to provide racially competent care for Black patients. I would finally be able to do the critical work that I always wanted to do at my previous job, but now I could do it on my own terms. Enter a new identity: I was an entrepreneur.
Sadly, as Black women, we’re not often given much wiggle room in terms of who or what we choose to be. I felt like I had to choose. Either be a wife or a mother or a physician or an entrepreneur. When I told my father that I was leaving my job, he asked, “What are you going to do now?” When I would eventually tell him I wanted a divorce, the conversation did not go as I had hoped. But I thought to myself, why did I have to make a choice because of what other people thought I should be?
We are socialized to expectations. We are conditioned to believe that we’re checking off boxes for success when we are actually boxing ourselves in. I realized that just being a wife and mother was not enough for me. I wanted and needed the space to just be me — all of me. Not only “mama.” Not only “boo.” Not only “Dr. Blackstock.” Me. Uché.
Who gets married thinking you’ll divorce? I sure didn’t. But as bell hooks once said, we should keep “a sharp, ongoing critique of marriage in patriarchal society — because once you marry within a society that remains patriarchal, no matter how alternative you want to be within your unit, there is still a culture outside you that will impose many, many values on you whether you want them to or not.” By all appearances, we were a beautiful family. He was a great partner and is a wonderful father. But I was not being true to myself. I thought I was being selfish for putting myself and my needs first. I admit that I worried about what other people thought, too. Black women deal with this all the time when we’re trying to figure out our truth.
My truth is that I walked away from expectations of myself to call myself in. My truth is that I love my children. I love my family. I love my work. But I also want to help make a better world for my children, too. I have spent the last few years rediscovering who I am, experiencing the grief of divorce, loving up on my children, co-parenting with a great father, and building the organization of my dreams. Today, I am better for it — walking a brand new path, one that I’m carving out for myself. As we mark this Valentine’s Day and we talk about love, I’m loving myself in a different way. I’ve resolved to no longer go through life checking off boxes. I refuse to box myself in. I am living wholly, fully, and intentionally. Most importantly, I know now that self-love is actually the greatest love of all and the greatest gift a Black woman can have.
Dr. Uché Blackstock is a proud mama, physician, health equity advocate, and the founder of Advancing Health Equity.