August 2011

Post 18.

how does a women deal with the many things she must when her identity as mother shapes what is expected of her? i’ve been reflecting these last two days on how Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first woman PM and Indian woman PM in T and T, should deal with the cuss out and threats directed at her in a non-Indian young girl’s online rant.

This girl’s video carried so much racialised hostility against the PM, it was disturbing and hurtful for Indians and particularly Indian women of all ages. it was disturbing to anyone, especially mothers and women who saw it, regardless of their ethnicity. the attack on kamla was powerfully sexualised, with kamla’s body and “cunt” the site for retaliation for the state of emergency’s penetration into working class, urban, Afro-Trinidadian communities, a penetration that has been perceived as making Afro-Trinidadian males vulnerable. when did the Indian woman’s body become a public symbol for political violence?

the AG rightly advised the girl to give herself into the police. many instead hoped for a solution based in mediation rather than punishment. women in particular wanted kamla to deal with this young girl as the mother and grandmother figure she embodied on the campaign platform.

my mother first asked me what i thought kamla should do. i thought that she shouldn’t get involved at all. she was busy running a country under a state of emergency, having to act decisively on many fronts at once, most of which were getting full frontal public critique. why couldn’t this young girl get her telling off, and letting off, from a magistrate or the family court instead? where were her parents? Was it even judicious to intervene? The PM needed to be left to do the work in her portfolio. Was she supposed to meet with everyone who chose to act out and needed some serious reasoning? that would be all of trinidad, shotters and politicians included.

i discussed this with two colleagues. One said he thought the familial, caring gesture, the challenge to a masculinist model, would be for Kamla to meet with the girl. The other, mother to a teenager herself, felt that teenagers say and do stupid things. usually they think through and mean little of what they say. she pointed out that everyone in our society, from union leaders to political leaders, abuses and threatens and cusses people, with no consequences. why come down hardest on one teenage girl?

in the end, kamla made the gesture that no man politician would likely have done. she suggested, against due process, to meet with the young girl and talk rather than criminalise her. is this what happens when mothers take office? is this how conflicts are worked out when grandmothers become PM?

i have found the way that kamla calls mothering and grandmothering into political life to be brilliant. she’s been critiqued for playing up stereotypical female markers. must women always be understood in relation to reproduction, even when its not relevant to their other roles? but i think its important that she governs in a way that, perhaps, reflects having seen life through the practice of caring.

kamla is an interesting historical figure as well because she symbolises the mother figure of an Indian community, and the nation. To say her success was one for all women is true, but it was also a victory for Indian women who have been defined as one of the most disempowered and marginalised groups in our history. she’s a heroine that all too humanly brings together the sacred, the profane, the personal, the political. Her success has elevated her to status of the mother goddess in the Hindu community. She’s like Kali, the destroyer of her two rivals, Panday and Manning, and creator of a new order. She’s like Durga, empowering and protective. She’s like Lakshmi, symbol of national hope that from darkness will rise light. It’s fascinating, these multiple motherhoods. At the heart of them all is Shakti, the female energy, that powerfully pervades the cosmos…and us all.

Looking back at this incident, there will be much for us all to learn about how we mother our children and our girls, about how fathers and men of all kinds need to set the kinds of examples that mothers would, about how politicians would behave if they thought of themselves less as patriarchs and more as nurturers, about how vulnerable women, their bodies and their sexualities are in office even or especially when they are also Prime Minister, and about how politics may be, not perfect, but perhaps different if situations were handled the way mothers would.

Post 17.

One of the fantastic things about mummy-baby culture is the constant flow of hand-me-downs, lend-for-a-whiles and exchanges. These practices build relationships, reciprocity and community. They challenge a capitalist ethic that everything must be individually bought and be new. They encourage care for what you have and an eye for its sustainability, and help everyone maximize the value of goods produced. What’s fascinating is that, unlike traditional gift exchange, the one who gives may not get back, but the person who gets is likely to give to someone else in return. Gifts keep on being given.

As a new mama, i got a beautiful crib on loan from my doula and friend charlotte. charlotte was the first person to cradle Zi as she slid from the womb, in the back of charlotte’s car in my driveway. apparantly, the crib has been through hands before mine, and after me it will leave in good condition for many more. its a warm thought, picturing so many different babies snuggling in that bed. who knows if they will meet up and be friends one day. my friend diana sent a suitcase of clothes from jamaica. how she kept them in such good condition after two girls amazes me, but there Zi is in cute styles i probably would never have bought, runnning to and fro from work as i do. i have a picture with me and diana breastfeeding our babies together, and i know in twenty years we will look back and marvel at how young, hopeful and carefree we look, even if we don’t see it now. diana also sent her breastpump through mariel’s mom, who carried the not-small case in her luggage. between jamaica and trinidad are these two people, totally not connected to either of our children, like Antillean islands helping to form the Caribbean chain.

from my friend michelle came a walker and playmat. mich can attest to how little she bought and how much she got from friends. there is a swing on loan from makeda whose son shiloh and zi are likely to be hanging out for many years of their lives. and from stone’s buddies came play pens and car seats, as well as much daddy-baby advice. those guys never imagined they would have kids at the same time, its funny watching them (the daddies that is) grown up now. and from my friend tessa, i’ve gotten great books, toys and, the latest, a baby ride-on that i know Zi is going to love. i know i’m going to be turning to tess for advice about how to bring up vegetarian young ‘uns and she’s going to give it to me while acting like surely what she’s saying is perfectly obvious, after all i’m a vegetarian too. but she’s got three gorgeous children under her belt and many things that should be are not always obvious to me.

these are just a few of the baby paraphernalia that have been generously lent or given. kept good with care, these things will one day leave my own hands for others; littler babies now encountering the world as mine once did.

so many of these items make me think of and value people, not stuff. ironic isn’t it? exchanges create connections. they connect memories. they add wealth beyond cost. children live on as presences, as lived moments, in these objects scattered around the house. when i look at them, i feel surrounded by friends and babies whose names i can call, one by one, as i sit here with my own. and i feel surrounded, connected, blessed.

its not surprising that women and reproduction would be at the heart of this endless circle. i learned to take care of Zi’s books and things in ways i wouldn’t have had i not witnessed how mothers do it. they care for stuff not only for their own children, but for others, perhaps those they know or those they have now met or ones not yet born. they seem to plan with wide open arms and extra thought. and the love they put into getting leaves traces in the giving.

the joy and help i’ve gotten, i too want to pass on. its so simple the way that mere stuff can accumulate meaning, but its so special when it does.

Post 16.

Tonight is the first night I’ll be spending at home without Ziya. The only other time that I left her was when i was going to London to present at a conference. i worked on my paper until 2am the night before and Zi was not at the forefront of my mind. I didn’t even miss her as much as i thought i would, but i was also mired in breastmilk storing dramas that sapped most of my emotional energy. in addition to being out of the country and preoccupied, i’m also not an overly needy mom. i love my baby when i’m with her, but i’m not pining for her when i’m at work. i also knew she was fine and wouldn’t really miss me, surrounded by that army of loving care-givers she has.

when i got back home though, all i wanted to do was squash her pudgy wriggly self in a mama bear hug. i might even have bypassed stone at the door on my way to her. as i was leaving for the airport, i had him bring her out so i could kiss her goodbye and then turned around to get in the car, almost forgetting to give him a goodbye kiss too.

i was a super-girlfriend on all fronts. i was busy, low-maintenance, fun and didn’t take stone too seriously. i had time to hang out and we did lots of it in those first years. then came job+thesis and i haven’t stopped since. i’m still busy and low-maintenance, but i’m exhausted all the time and less up for late, late night fun. sometimes i say to him that i used to have a boyfriend (meaning him) that would make me ‘live mixes’ and dj personally for me, and he’ll respond, ‘i won’t bring up what my girlfriend (meaning me) used to do’. i like to leave the discussion there.

the other day he suggested going away somewhere for the weekend. i was like, great! you mean you, me and Ziya go to the beach in Grand Rivere for two days? he was like, ummm, no, i mean Zi goes by your mom and you and me stay home. I looked at him blankly. You don’t want to leave your baby, he observed. i shook my head. i only spend time with her between fridays and sundays, and they are precious. we’ll spend time together when she goes to university, i suggested. he’s easy-going and didn’t really mind so we left that discussion there. you know in marriage how you have parts of the same discussion over long periods of time. kinda like that.

anyway, Zi is now by her grandmother who is overjoyed to be spending her first full night with her, and have her all to herself. we think she has no idea what she’s volunteered for and will be staggering to the door tomorrow, far from recovered from the every up 2-3 hours hell that Zi, all sleepy and cuddly, nonetheless puts us through.

tonight then, will be our first full night without the baby and i’m fascinated to see how it will turn out. we can’t get crazy and party because, naturally, we are currently in a state of emergency and living under a 9pm curfew. we will end up home, both trying to stay awake, imagining we are hearing her cry in the bedroom when she’s clearly left the building. parenthood. you can never go back.

each day of motherhood brings a lesson for me. some lessons are mundane. like today, i realised i knew the right amount my child needed to eat. sounds silly, but i realised i was feeling confident and at home as a mother. i wasn’t worrying about whether it was enough or if i knew what i was doing. i could read my baby and had turned out to be a good mom. i thought back to the day she was born. i had insisted on no one spending the night, it was just me, her and stone. my parents had quarreled that i needed help, that i didn’t know how to bathe or feed a baby. i had disagreed and, looking at her today, i was glad i believed in me.

other lessons are more philosophical. its easy to get caught up in being a mummy. easy to sacrifice the relationships to partners, work and yourself that used to be important and still are. i don’t want to be one of those mothers who wrap their whole lives and selves around their little one. i want to be one that knows what i need and my boundaries, even in the midst of this whole-hearted investment, this ultimate joy. i want to continue to build a life in which she doesn’t have to be involved, just as she needs to build relationships that don’t involve or revolve around me.

these lessons seem obvious. women, mothers, do this everyday. but for me, tonight is another practice step, as i continue to find my own, individual way.

Post 15.

i had a long talk with three grandmothers today. women full with wisdom, with decades-long experience in the ranks of the women’s movement. women who were determined to birth their babies at home alone with their husband – one even during a hurricane, women who run funding organizations with so much money that people continually wonder who their white male boss is – and there isn’t one. Caribbean women who are politically conscious, plain speaking and generous with their advice.

‘hug up your baby’, one of them said as i was on my way out, ‘and make some time for your husband’. this turn in the conversation started because i was discussing the ‘make one child or make two children’ dilemma with them. they agreed that two were really hard in the beginning and, yes, chronic, long term, insomniac-grade sleeplessness was part of the deal. but, in the end apparently, two is better than one. they learn to share and keep each other company.

only thing i added, my husband didn’t really want one and he definitely doesn’t want two. he loves his one and he loves not having two. oh, they said, that changes everything. you all should just have one.

it seems husbands miss their wives and the easy, carefree relationships they had before babies come. they all nodded like this was common and well known. for women, especially those who breastfeed, babies bring so much intimacy and bodily involvement, it’s easy to not need any more from anyone else at the end of a tiring day. on the periphery of mother and baby wrapped up together, husbands stand lovingly looking on, wondering when their cool ganja-smoking, staying-up and sleeping-in late girlfriends turned into vitamin popping wives, the kind that go to sleep at 9pm, do that sexy breast-pumping thing and hum the alphabet song to themselves while folding clothes.

and while the first baby might end up working out because she’s your only love child, and the two of you will always cherish that you made one from two, maybe the second time around won’t be so fresh and new. two might be more crazy, exhausting and expensive, and you’ll be sleeping even further apart, barely holding on to the edges of bed, hoping one day to return to the pre- two-babies-monopolising-the-middle years.

in the mix of managing to barely keep my head above water at work and making quality baby time full of joy, patience and endless hours of being nice, i have to make sure to look after my husband too? and i’m not supposed to think about it like another thing to do, i’m supposed to look forward to the extra effort of care. i get it and i hear them, but i think i’d be into it more if i was simply less tired.

anyway, of course i came home and asked stone if he felt neglected and resentful as a husband because these women said, trust them, he misses you, he wants you back, he wishes you were just still his and he doesn’t want you to forget you were his first. and of course stone feels kinda neglected, but of course he doesn’t really mind because he knows i try my 95% best as i always do. and also he’s got three computers, a 55′ tv, an ipad and two ipods to keep him occupied and truthfully he’s happy to be left to hang with them all in peace. so, we are good. but i was reminded of an important lesson today, not to let motherhood make me take marriage for granted. one helps the other and both are good for me, him and Zi.

the great thing about getting advice from strong no nonsense feminists is that you know they are sharing life-earned lessons meant to keep you focused on what most matters. one day when your baby has gone off in search of her friends, he will still be there to hold you tight, whether its a quick hug when you drag yourself in the door from the office or a long sleep, deep with warmth and familiarity. you know they are not telling you about husbands and marriage because of some idea of your role or status or duty, but to remind you that strong women need strong love too, and getting requires giving. and when they tell you about men’s needs, its not to excuse or indulge, but to suggest you that a little sweetness always feels good. isn’t that why you are in it too? most of all, its easy to stop appreciating good marriages and supportive partners, so it’s wonderful to be so powerfully reminded to value what you may give so little time and thought to.

i’m really lucky to have feminist foremothers willing to mentor, who know that when the personal and the political come together, its about as close as you can come to having it all. so work, baby and husband it is…as much as it can be.

somewhere in there is self, though i’m not sure where, hiding in a dark corner probably…. trying to catch some zzzzzzssss.

Post 14

i’ve had to think a lot about family today. not that i wanted to. instead, i would have rather focused on the course i am creating on global feminist activism or the paper i’m writing on indo-caribbean feminism. i have such reduced office hours, now dependent on when someone can look after Zi, that when I have time to work, I want 100% of my mind to get the most done in as little time as possible. I was like that before, but i have less time to be like that now, so it’s much more intense.

but back to family. i’ve experienced no small amount of family dysfunction. out of that, i’ve developed an unyielding commitment to setting boundaries at the same time as i continually compromise them with a compulsion to be there for my family. sometimes, at my own expense. it’s not a linear journey.

because of my experiences growing up, i’m totally dedicated to honesty, openness, sanity and functionality in my own relationship and little nuclear unit. i’m incredibly proud that stone and i have had these things for the whole time we have been together. breaking family patterns can be very hard to do, but i’ve done it with the help of good friends, stone, good metaphors, lauryn hill songs, and the forgiving universe.

amazement at our relationship is, in fact, one of the reasons why i love staying home, why i’m trilled by mundane domestic bliss and why i can never get enough of this quiet happiness. i’m filled with joy that Zi may experience having a family life with two parents. stone and i like each other, like spending time together and almost never fight. peace and love and stability between us is what i want for her as part of my life achievement.

to achieve this so far, i’ve had to develop clear-eyed understanding of what unhealthy family relationships look like. doubtlessly, there are unhealthy people in my family. the question is what do i do with them?

i want to just cut them off, but i know i would regret it one day far in the future. i’m not an enabler, but i’m not an abandoner. i want to demand honesty, but i’d rather things be unsaid just to keep the peace. i feel great compassion and love, but also anger and disgust. i’m so done, yet without a doubt they can count on me. i’m already exhausted and just dealing with them makes me tired, but somehow, if that is what it takes, i will find the energy.

so, while balancing baby and work, i’m also trying to figure how how to balance their needs from my own need for self-preservation, stillness, safety. so many families are just like this. complicated and messy, happy and hurtful, full of truth-telling and lies, wrongs and acceptance. in the mix, things that shouldn’t happen do and people say nothing and the most vulnerable have to find their way on their own, in full knowledge of everyone else. we tolerate so much that shouldn’t be in the name of family. and while i’m not an abandoner, i’m not a rescuer either. i’ve learned that i can’t be.

i lost crucial time at work today, distracted by these thoughts. how much do i take responsibility for others who won’t for themselves? how much can i help? when do i say enough? can i live with untruths and unsaids and unfixed pasts and presents and futures? what is the priority around which all these decisions should be made?

all i want for Zi, Stone and me is a quiet life, together. exactly what we have now, but forever. i’d like to not deal with anyone else’s unworked through issues and karma and chaos. sometimes its enough trying to be the best person i can for my own life, and i dont always succeed. i could do without having to be the best person i can for another person too, someone i can only approach with ambivalence.

but here i am, and i have no choice but to try…perhaps because of who i am or because i have something to learn from this situation or because things are unfolding as they should or perhaps just because this is my family and my role is to breathe, be grateful and give.

Post 13.

I’m writing from inside our ‘limited state of emergency’ and with mixed feelings. On the one hand, i know that the population has no idea how many crimes go on because many remain unreported or do not make it on the newspapers. a few years ago, just hearing stories from kidnapping victims, stories no one knew about, taught me lots about how little of the horror people actually hear.

quite a few of the folks on fb that i’m friends with have been sharply cynical and often quite glib, making jokes, the kind that pass for critical engagement on things like facebook. others whom i have a lot of respect for, like gayelle’s errol fabien, warned of the threat to our democracy, and the dangers to those profiled as criminals from poor communities easy for the police to advantage.

given this, i was surprised to see people interviewed by news stations saying how much they supported this measure, but it seems that ordinary, working people are fed up of being terrorised by crime and fear, and they are willing to trade liberties for security. i fear that i agree. for all of us, there is some desperate hope that this will make some difference, any difference.

i also have concerns. i worry at the exploitation of power by politicians and police, about illegal surveillance and detentions, and the shut down on protests just when unions were planning to strike. i also agree with the ‘big man vs small man’ thesis, that rich men get away with robbery, corruption, impoverishment of masses and forcing countries into spiralling debt while running the big shipments of guns, drugs and women. at the same time, the crackdowns are on small time thiefs, dealers and murderers, the ones whose class war is just trying to make a living.

i believe in safety not security, in community-centred not police-centred solutions, and in fair distribution of resources and wealth as the basis for peace. still, truth be told, i’m less afraid of the big men than i am the small ones, the ones most likely to enter my yard, thinking that if i’m living in this house, i must be rich and it must have come easily and some of it should be theirs regardless of the costs. i also think the class war isn’t fought with guns, regardless of what men like to say. its fought by organising the poorest to do more than rob other hardworking, barely managing people. i think the hardworking, barely managing people would agree.

my disappointment in this emergency is mainly rooted in the fact that it won’t fix the things that really enable crime, like the fact that the majority of crimes don’t end in convictions or that the police are inept, uncaring and corrupt or that the justice system barely functions or that there isn’t serious rehabilitation including basic literacy classes or that no one wants to talk about the problem of masculine status as a cause of crime, violence and gangs or even that the in-shore economy remains woefully underdeveloped leading to few real options to make a legal living wage. you know, that stuff.

ironically, the people who will be the most angry are the ones most invested in the PNM’s long neglect and dsyfunctional governance of the country. the ones in the urban communities with bad roads, bad schools, bad water supply, bad community centres – or no schools, water or community centres at all. the ones still voting for de party. and the opposition, given too many chances to be taken seriously, only seems to be making noises about how much should have been done by the government in its 15 months of office and how they should have been consulted and what failures this shows. i really think they who presided over this deterioration for decades should shut up.

what can this emergency really accomplish? i’m not really sure. is setting a 9pm curfew realistic? definitely not. many working people will lose income and, as in any third world country, administration and implementation of this period will be chaotic and ad hoc. do desperate times call for desperate measures? yes, but what happens after? is the ruling party playing politics? sure. high office calling down war makes good show. is my hope misplaced? clearly. but like any worker, woman and mother, the safety of my family is what i think about at night. i’m already thinking ahead, to when the dust settles and the status quo returns.

clearly, many of us have been lying in our bed uncertain and unsafe, asking imagined gods to do what the government can’t seem to. i’ve had to live in a prison and so do many people i know. maybe that’s why so many think this should have happened a long time ago.

Post 12.

these days, i’m leaning to having just one.

i’ve been going back and forth in my mind since Zi was born and so far i’ve been 50-50 on having a second child. in the past months, i lost some of the baby fat from my face…and other parts. and i’m beginning to fit into clothes i was about to give away. i’m on my way out from breastfeeding to keep her alive, and i’ve joyfully given up breast pumping as much as i used to. i’m even in a pretty good work routine – its not enough to get all i want to done, but it could be worse. also, at 9 months, Zi should soon start sleeping through the night, insha’allah.

maybe then i’ll actually spend sometime with my husband who i only see through the bleariness of exhaustion, after the distractions of work and from the far other side of the bed. when the love of our lives sleeps between us, as she often does, she’s splayed out like a 2 foot, pudgy starfish with one foot cocked up on (usually) my shoulder. stone and i are teetering on the edges of the mattress and she’s taking up the middle ‘half’ of the bed.

mostly, i’m loathe to go back to those months of breastfeeding every 2 hours around the clock, feeling like a prisoner of war barely surviving to each morning, only to know the whole thing continues unabated. i met the mother of a 9 week old boy at yesterday’s post-natal support group (hosted once a month by mamatoto) and all i felt was, better her than me.

at 37, the question of a second child isn’t theoretical, it’s immediate. in my mind is a soft-focus of two kids, playing together while stone and i sit on our macs blissfully ignoring them, knowing they keep each other company. then later on in life, they can share the burden of dealing with us as we get old and will each have one to commiserate with the other. in this way and others, i really do believe that Zi would be better off with a sibling than alone. similarly, our dog Shak Shak was clearly less lonely and more happy after we got Zouk.

but a second child is nothing like a second dog. i’m only now getting used to the idea that, unlike a pet, you can’t give away your kid when the novelty has worn off after a few months and you are ready to get back to a life with no responsibilities.

when i first had Zi, i realised why motherhood is really the greatest thing ever and appreciated how, in comparison, so few things matter. what rank did publications have in relation to this new baby? none! where was one’s life work? it was obvious. now, i’m changing perspective a bit. i’m excited by the publications i’m working on and could do with more time, a few weekends to do nothing but think and write. and there are a thousand projects on my plate for which i need extra hours in the day.

kids are expensive and i think by the time Zi is 10, i’ll be able to invoice her for about TT$200 000. pre-school is $4000+ a term and we are already barely saving for the mortgage we one day look forward to carrying. if i add money, sanity, work, marriage, getting back my body, sleep and time for myself, and returning manageability to life, the sum says ‘stick with one’. if i look at the whole thing with rose tinted lenses, i think maybe it would be nicer with two.

i’ve gone around manically polling all my friends who are only children, and they seem like pretty happy well adjusted people. i’ve got lots of friends, with siblings, who coud do with affordable therapy. i’m happy to love one baby, but wonder if i’ll be guilty of over-loving. is this enjoyment fooling me into irrational decision-making?

i know that stone is done. for him the answer is obvious. he’s wondering where i’m going with all this wondering. we can manage one and be a happy family. we might be happy with two, but we will also be broke, stressed, tired and missing those wonderful weekends when we did nothing but stay in bed, which is really the only reason we were together.

before we had the first baby, stone used to try to convince me i hadn’t really thought the whole thing through, and really i hadn’t, but i knew i’d be fine. i wanted to have a baby no matter what and that’s what i was going to do. however, this next time, if there is one, i’m more convinced of the value of weighing what i’m getting myself into. the truth is, i’m still undecided about what to do.

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