The series premiere of Being Mary Jane last week was everything I imagined it would be: edgy, revealing, and at many points, relatable. Whether I saw myself or someone I know in the characters or situations, I was totally engaged in the rollercoaster of an episode as Gabrielle Union successfully brought us into Mary Jane Paul’s world and painted a portrait many have come to know personally in some way or another.
Like most viewers I sat in suspense, as the layered story line—the signature of writer Mara Brock Akil’s mind and pen, began to unfold.
We’ve already been bombarded with statistics—and perhaps anecdotes from our own networks—that suggest that Mary Jane’s story is like many women’s today: driven and successful on one end of the spectrum, yet seemingly empty and unfilled in other areas. Struggling to find a happy medium or in denial that one facet of life is outshining the other. For Black women, our community’s unique conditions seem to present a more challenging climate for this growing reality. (It might help to note that the series was originally slated as Single Black Female.)
As the show’s intro began Mary Jane’s words, “I did everything right. What do I have to show for being a good girl?” echoed numbly through the screen as she drowns in a tub of sticky notes, voiced-over opinions, and apparent stress. The “doing it right part” alluding to her educational accomplishments and success as a news anchor. What we’ve learned of the ambitious Mary Jane Paul so far is that she drives a fly car, lives in an amazing home and can drive down the streets of Atlanta and see her face painted across billboards advertising her daily news show, yet her relationships and family dynamic bring loads of drama or leave much to be desired. The icing on the cake is the voice of her niece probing, “Where is your man? Where are your kids? Where is your happy ending?”
While the notion of a happy ending is highly subjective, and in no way does marriage and children automatically secure a happy or successful life for someone, there is something to be said about working to attain the elements you feel would make up your ideal lifestyle. It brings to mind a story floating around the internet of a philosophy teacher who introduced his class to the idea of filling up your life cup with the important things first.
Standing before the class, the professor puts a cup on the table and first fills the cup with a few golf balls. He asks the class if they think the cup is full, most respond “Yes.” Next he adds marbles then asked the class again, the answers are again mainly, “Yes.” He continues to add lighter, smaller objects to the cup—pebbles, sand—then adds liquid to completely fill any space left in the cup.
As the story goes, the professor goes on to say to his students:
"I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things–your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions–and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. Finally, the sand represents everything else; the small stuff. If we were to have filled our jar up with sand first, there we wouldn’t have had enough room for the marbles or the golf balls. If we use all our life and energy on the small stuff, we won’t have any room for the important things.”
Say hello to the struggle of today. The challenge of the 'Mary Jane' era.
The journey of figuring out what the important things are to you as an individual, and ultimately striving to fill your cup up with the right pieces in the order that best suits your personal needs. Is it education, career, then family? Family, education, then career? Does a successful life need to include all these elements and does the order in which you secure them matter? "If I focus too much on my career, will my biological clock be in countdown mode when I finally find a spouse?" "If I have children too early, will I lose who I am and resent never focusing on my career?" " Do any of these choices make me selfish, less of a woman…wrong?"
The questions can go on and on until you make yourself crazy.
It’s well known that people are marrying later in life today. The average age is now 28 for women, 30 for men–a big jump from the early-twenties unions of our grandparents. One of the biggest factors in this change seems to be a sense that we need to achieve our educational goals and get our footing career-wise before settling down.
Cultural attitudes are changing as well. Now more than ever, I believe women are defining success on their own terms; whether it’s strictly career-oriented, a hybrid of family and corporate climbing, or all about meeting 'The One'. You have a woman like Oprah, hailed for her business acumen while she openly admits she does not desire marriage nor does she regret not becoming a mother. You have Mrs. Mara Brock Akil herself who seems to balance her power couple status relationship with her husband (director Salim Akil) while tending to their two sons as well as her own career pursuits. And then you have a woman like Mary Jane, who is secure in one area but can’t quite seem to get things all the things she truly wants. These women are obviously far more professionally successful than the average sister, but do represent some of the varying attitudes about career and family.
Although it may be premature to fully assess Mary Jane’s character, from what we’ve seen of her so far, it's pretty clear that she deeply desires a family of her own. As pairing personal ambitions and married life often seen as a battle, it’s easy for anyone in similar shoes to be overwhelmed.
Truth be told, many of us are stumbling through it all in a society that creates an atmosphere where it seems career and family are a constant tug on opposing ends, rather than an attainable balance. We’re bombarded with media stigmas, jaded opinions and–as Black women in particular— unique realities that can make the hope of finding an ideal partner discouraging at the least. Add to this a chaotic stream of entertainment promoting troubling standards around relationships, and it’s easy to see why.
And if you let TV tell it, gone are the Clair Huxtable days—a woman who seemed to gracefully balance it all—career, family and a sense of self. Replacing her is the era of Single Ladies—a message that achieving career aspirations may lead to a life perpetually filled with navigating a disappointing maze of dating.
I don’t believe either storyline to be an accurate depiction of Black women today, nor should we take one or the other to be the "ideal" outcome for us. But I do see that now, more than ever, we as women (and men) need to constantly assess what we want out of life to avoid feeling that one layer of our goals has overshadowed the full scope of what we want; all the while filtering our ambitions through the noise of social expectations and input from family and friends.
There is no one recipe for success nor is there a universal idea of what brings happiness. Most would agree that success is mapping out and journeying the path that brings true happiness and fulfillment, regardless of what that road looks like to you. It may be a home surrounded by a white-picket fence on the hillside where your family leads a simple life or a life of jet setting across continents with your significant other and holding off starting a family. It could include a wall full of degrees and a resume that slays or all or none of the above. Whatever you believe will fill your cup–the challenge seems to be defining that happy ending and charting the course.
So, let’s not drown in the sticky notes ladies, but on the other hand let’s keep the things we truly desire in the forefront, and hopefully as we journey through the paths to our happy ending, our life cups will fill up how we’d like.