We break our backs in the act of giving, and we forget that we need to be cared for, too.

The first act of giving I came to know of was by my mothers. 

I was born at 26 weeks, three months before my due date. Undeterred by the consequences for herself and her unborn baby, my mother fought to deliver me on the operating table. After four months in neonatal care, I met Betty, my family’s domestic helper and the mother who has largely raised me. 

In her essay, The Crane Wife, CJ Hauser references a story by the same name from Japanese folklore. In the story, the crane wishes to marry a man she knows will not love her if he knew she was a bird. To trick the man into believing that she is a woman, the crane hides her true self. Every night, she plucks out all of her feathers with her beak. Every morning she is exhausted, but she is a woman again. “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one,” Hauser writes. 

Hauser is right. To become a woman is self-erasing. I lost my identity long ago in the act of giving to the men around me. I was shuffled into shoes that had already been worn by the women before me, and was expected to assume the role assigned to me: preened into the perfect woman for marriage. 

When I was a young girl, I was already conditioned by my mother and grandmother into assuming the role of caregiver. My parents bought me baby dolls to nurse, invited me into the kitchen to learn how to roll rotis with my grandmother and thrust a tea tray into my hands to serve the men in my family. Meanwhile, my uncles and boy cousins sat comfortably on couches watching football and on deck chairs smoking cigarettes as the women waited on them. The only time the men would lift a finger would be to beckon me or my girl cousins over to pass the sugar.

I am fortunate that my mother has always encouraged me and my sister to strive for our goals. Marriage, at least for my mother, was not the final goal to be attained but rather a milestone to be passed on the path to achieving whatever we wanted. For me, that was a journalism degree and a career with AJ+.

But there remains the traditional conception of women that threads itself through the minds of the older women in my family. On the morning of my birthday every year, my grandmother calls me to wish me well and to remind me of my ticking biological clock. For Indian girls like myself, 22 is on the way to being too old. A girl is not a woman until she has found a man to complete her, and to give to.

Like the crane-wife, my mother, grandmother and I pluck out all of our feathers every morning and give to our fathers, brothers, husbands, children, colleagues and friends.We must put our own needs on the back-burner while we attend to those around us.

But when a woman is in need, Hauser writes, she is considered needy. “She is meant to contain within her own self everything necessary to be happy.”

I have watched the women in my life wrestle with their needs to accommodate everyone else around them. In myself, I have noticed the need to put the men in my life before me, to always settle for less. My mothers gave, and continue to give. We break our backs in the act of giving, and we forget that we need to be cared for, too.

We do not need to pluck our feathers. Like the men we help raise, we are capable of flight. In the words of Toni Morrison, “If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” All we have to do is break away from tradition and the norm even if it means getting married at 45, if at all.

FEATURED IMAGE: Imaan Moosa. Photo: Wits Vuvuzela.