October 2011

Post 35.

Imperfectly. My friend Nicola asked another friend, mother of five children, how she did it all. How did she manage children, husband, self, sanity? Imperfectly, she answered, as relayed by Nicola. I’ve been coming to terms with that word since. Thinking about its meanings for me.

One the one hand, there’s the baby, spending quality time with her and enjoying it, making sure she eats enough and feels loved and cared for. On the other hand, there is my job and that thing i don’t do enough of, publishing.

of my days, the hours during the week are spent on office life, teaching, emails and who knows what else. the hours during the weekend are all about Zi, folding clothes, tidying and who knows what else. there are no more days nor hours left for writing. I’m a slow writer and i need hours to get my brain spinning and to set a thought in serious motion. I’ve tried to do it in the nights after i put Zi to bed, but there’s a few wake ups between 11pm and 6.30am, and anyway who can write in an exhausted two hours left at the end of the day? Somewhere, some woman can of course do it, and is of course doing it, and i’m here thinking about that standard i wish i could meet.

i’m behind and short on time, over-extended and not where i want to be. i keep thinking back to my ghost wings, dreaming of myself in sci-fi with four arms, each writing the four essays due by year end. my mummy academic friends say that i should accept i’m off the fast track and on the slow train. nicola says, just accept. i’m all about the details and what i make should reflect my capacity. but maybe now i can only do my best imperfectly?

the real wake up came in a conversation with a super-amazing colleague who somehow manages to head a programme, raise two children, organise a weekly newspaper column, supervise students and engage in outreach. she said her daughter, now at adolescence, is entering one of the most demanding periods of her schooling and that its really really really hard.

really? somewhere in mind, i thought that after a few years, it would get easier. i had a weird, linear progression of getting my act together mapped out in my head. it never occurred to me that there could be steps back just as there are ones forward. i never imagined that someone so amazing would still be feeling as i do now.

here is what she wrote to me: “I am so behind with deadlines and getting resentful that people just do not recognise how impossibly hard it is to make everything on time. The thing I am realising is the priority is the family, that’s the constant, and never to compromise on that. I don’t always get it right but I have let go a lot more. second comes my public intellectual work, specially the column and also the community gigs that we organise here. then academia. i am so tired of the grind gabby, and i think and feel that women studies gets caught up in it in ways it does not imaginatively try to renegotiate. u and i are similar this way but the difference may be u do not have tenure as yet. try to put blinkers on, focus on one or two pieces u want to write, do not bite off more than u can chew, don’t develop new courses right now, and try to breathe. the work will be better for it. it is disheartening to hear – though not altogether unsurprising – just how hard it is to do this, in a world that actually does not give a damn about much else beyond the publications…keep a strong head”.

knowing that it’s not only me was heartening, this woman said to me the words i wanted to say to her and her solidarity lifted me from panic to setting my mind on a way through to a resolution. but knowing that her words could still be mine ten years from now was terrifying. what a wake up.

i’ve re-read her words several times, glad beyond belief for women, friends and colleagues who share with me the imperfectness of their reality and who give me perfect advice about how to accept my own. i’m trying to do all these things: accept, focus, prioritize, breathe, let go, keep strong. i’m also trying to make balance, being present and being grateful my foundation because i know that today life is perfect and tomorrow that perfection might just be gone.

so, i’m reaching deep for words and maturity and spirit. and i’m heartened and terrified at the same time because somehow i’m doing it all…imperfectly.

Post 34.

Babies change relationships. A marriage before a baby and one after a baby may be two distantly related things, and the key is to thread one into the other, recognising that what was is gone and what is here is something new. This can take some getting used to.

Intimacy and common ground before a baby are built on having leisurely time to appreciate each other’s qualities and perspectives. If not leisurely time, it’s certainly time that can be found more compatibly. Once the baby comes, one partner is sleeping and the other on shift, one busy and the other pre-occupied, one trying to work and one hoping for sex, one organising help while the other buys the groceries, one out driving while the other folds clothes, each also trying to connect with different sets of friends, each needing a little time just for self, each sometimes too tired to think or communicate or notice what’s going on with the other. Intimacy and common ground are now not so easily found.

In the gaps of conversation, it’s easy to miss out on important things that need to be said or heard, and it’s easy to not really care. You are on autopilot half the time and you’ve stopped sweating the small stuff. The baby is a vortex of energy, taking up time, attention, emotion, thought and planning that otherwise went to creating a working union. And whereas before there were only two of you, now, the third sits squarely in the middle, perhaps often sleeps in the middle as mine does, mediating a relationship that used to be clear, direct and one-to-one.

Partners may not be on the same page either. Sometimes, you already know this but hope it will change. Sometimes, you need to just work with that reality, without expectation. Sometimes, its only about learning patience, and remembering that two completely different people are walking intertwined but not exactly similar paths, with all the frustrations, pleasure and lessons which that brings. Regardless, consensus can’t be rushed, pushed, demanded or enforced. It can be negotiated, but knowing how and when is part of the new too. It can be annoying to have to explain, bargain, accept and set boundaries, and inequalities and neglect can arise, but long-term relationships have to be approached with a desire to deserve, agree to and maintain long lasting love between two good people. It’s a lot to ask for even without having to be your best on a year of lack of sleep.

You have to be prepared to not win every battle and to not conceptualise the whole in terms of a war. Yet, you have to defend yourself at all costs rather than risk being taken for granted or negated, particularly as a woman. In the midst of this, it’s calming to remember that the goal is bigger love, deeper appreciation and better cooperation – if that’s what you want. Conviction, shared with gentleness, goes a long way when the means is also the end. It’s a balance between not losing yourself and not losing the companion you are committed to, and not losing what was for what is still new.

I know parents invent all kind of strategies to keep dialogue and partnership healthy and central to their changed relationship. There are tough moments, but those can help you grow. There are good moments too when you’ve made a step together and know where each other now stands. This builds trust that you just might make that next step together again, a little wiser about how much genuine valuing of yourself and the other it takes to really be in sync.

I’ve known for almost two years now that this cycle of my life is about the new. My friends Elspeth and Hebe did an ‘anew’ ritual with me one 6am morning, under the mango tree in the backyard. We wrote down and then rubbed off the past, shaking if off our shoulders. We affirmed our intentions and hugged the positive new vibes that were given room to rush in. We watched the fullest moon transform into a fleeting rainbow, seeing how the basic elements of the universe can cast new light on life.

So, I’m aware that I’m on new ground in both motherhood and marriage. I’m not sure yet where the changes will take us, how Zi will influence our paths and our future, who we will become. I know that eventually this too will pass and we will have found another familiar groove in which to thread, forgetting that we once had to get used to this different configuration of hearts, hopes, hurts and honesty. I guess I didn’t know so much would change while remaining the same, how much we’d be the same people we were while becoming such altered versions of ourselves. The new is everything rolled together with full responsibility for the now. Babies may change relationships, but it’s up to us to shape the transformation.

Post 33.

As a vegetarian, I plan to raise my child as a vegetarian too. i stopped eating meat 17 years ago and i had my last Coke then as well. in those years, i started back eating eggs and fish, mostly because i dont make the time to make sure i get enough nutrition, and i need to not suffer from starvation because of a combination of food politics and personal neglect. i try even if i don’t get it all perfect. still, the reasons i became vegetarian remain relevant – animals are bred with hormones and other drugs, in cruel and factory conditions and in ways that are a wasteful use of the planet’s resources. philosophically, i’m not against meat eating, though i totally get and support people who are. evolutionarily, i think that humans are omnivores, i just don’t think we should carnivore as we do.

there’s me and then there is stone. i eat vegetables, no meat. he eats meat, no vegetables. i am from muslim family who do not eat pork. he loves pork more than any other meat. we are the Sprats. you can imagine it’s going to be interesting for Zi.

so now that she’s started eating food, the debates have come up. expectedly. stone’s all like ‘wait till she wants to try some bacon! you never go back!’. i’m all like, ‘well, it better be organic, free-range, happy bacon or else its not healthy and my child’s not having it’. this is one of those marital conversations that last for years.

luckily, without my prompting, our pediatrician gave him the same retort when he asked her if its normal to let kids try meat if they want to (meaning he was warming up to some argument that not letting her eat meat is one of my ‘issues’….and i was thankful she instinctively crushed that like a discarded cigarette). luckily too, he’s so unlikely to get himself to some over-priced shop in town that sells meat i’d approve of (which is none really), so through sheer unwillingness on his part to make the extra effort, i know that this whole meat thing is only going to discursively revolve around our kitchen without ever actually landing on Zi’s plate.

in the midst of this, when Zi had dengue and wasn’t eating, I started giving her a little egg for breakfast because I thought that the protein would be good for her. so, of course, i myself went into town to buy her expensive eggs from non-hormone and non-antibiotic filled chickens. but who’s gonna go into town every wednesday to get these eggs – not me (i work), not him (these are my ‘issues’ remember?). so now i’m on the hunt for other sources, what regular folks call eggs from ‘common fowl’, meaning raised in your backyard and fed household stuff, corn and whatever else they scratch up as they run around. you know, chickens raised old-school style.

stone wants to know what the point is. why buy organic-shop eggs, but not everything else i give to Zi? what about the pumpkin, bhaji, apples and the pesticides they’ve been grown with? and lord only knows if she’s eating GMO basmati. i shudder to think about the non slow-food, non locally-grown New Zealand Gouda. he thinks i’m making fuss and hullabaloo without making enough commitment or much difference.

and while i disagree, partly because i think you can’t fight all battles but you can wage some successfully and partly because i’m not going to entirely lose this one, i too wonder how far i’m supposed to go and at what point to stop. and if i’m not going far enough, do my efforts make any difference at all? and, of course, all this is wrapped up with my own notions of what makes me a good or bad mother in relation to not making efforts when i should or letting things slide that i shouldn’t or being apolitical when my consumption counts or making my child’s health enough of a priority.

i’d totally buy everything organic if i could except that the logistics are difficult and the costs are beyond me. lecturers make good income, so i’m not yet having to drive taxi in the night to make ends meet (though its not unknown for university professors to turn to the informal economy to survive hard economic times), but just buying the eggs made me thankful that i had a job. between carrying Zi’s costs, handing out extra money to my mom and her helper and my own helper, paying my bills and saving, i’m not sure i can afford more than eggs. certainly not everything she eats. we grow a bit in our garden, but as with everything else i could do more if only there were 34 hours on the clock, i still wasn’t up in the nights and i didn’t get home from work around 7pm on most days.

i know my position is defensible, but credibility is all in the doing, the doing well, the doing in full. i got the eggs and now i’m paranoid about the pesticides, and wondering if i’m wrong to not spend the money, make the effort, organise the logistics and somehow make it happen weekly. this feels like just adding another responsibility though perhaps its really just recognising a responsibility already there.

this is the personal as political, how the mundane decisions of life highlight society’s systemic arrangements as well as the difference our own choices make. i’m still figuring out this one, linked as it is to animals, agro-capitalism, health, motherhood, the earth, social movements, household negotiations, wages, consumption, the global economy, bee populations, sustainability and, of course, Zi.

i wish old MacDonald had an organic farm. she was really called old MacMoonan and hailed from Santa Cruz. And coincidentally she lived right around the corner from a doing-my-best, wondering-what-to-do working mom like me.

Post 32.

Most of our foremothers came as independent workers in systems of slavery and indentureship, and later on as free labour. Except for white and creole plantation elites and women, whose lives were shaped by an early 20th century ideology of housewifization, our history is not one of being dependent wives. Caribbean women have always worked.

Even thinking of my own mother who, since I was three, raised two children on her own, I look back now on the fact that she always worked. I wonder how she did it. An ambitious person, my mother soon began working at professional jobs where she exercised a great deal of leadership. She moved countries to take up a new post, traveled across the region frequently as part of her job, put in very long hours. Added to all of that, she always looked spectacular as she left the house, a trail of perfume following her impeccably matched figure.

In the midst of that, i hardly remember thinking as a child that she didn’t have time for me. there were other family problems to be sure, but i don’t have any visceral memory of that being one. Far from it, I remember her driving us to Princes Town to see my great grandmother, I remember her watching the plays I came up with as a child, I remember her sewing a huge doll for me one Christmas, and spending nights and weekends watching movies with me when we lived on our own in Barbados. There was always a huge amount of food, books, toys in the house, and I don’t remember ever being in want. In fact, I grew up very conscious of money and demands on her income and savings, and would often refuse clothes when she wanted to take me shopping (for this reason, i was awful to go shopping with and remain someone pretty anti-materialistic today).

She always had a helper and that, of course, made the difference. The helper looked after the house, me when my mother traveled, pick ups from schools etc. But, still, my mother clearly called on a great deal of resources to balance work and motherhood.

i think more about working mothers now that I am one. being a working mother has been the reality for the majority of Caribbean women throughout our history and, here I am today, probably thinking about dilemmas that women might also have been thinking about one or two hundred years ago or even just in my mother’s generation: How much time must be spent working. How little time that leaves for family. How much less time that leaves for self. How to make ends meet?

I was shocked to learn the ways that my mother was under-paid in some of her jobs, and experienced the inequities of sexism and the sexual division of labour in her workplace. Looking back now, I wonder, when did she ever see her friends if she spent so much time with me? I don’t recollect her going out to dinners and parties as I might now. Sometimes I think that she over-invested in me, making sacrifices of her own personal life that she shouldn’t have and then not knowing how to respond when, as a teenager, I began to establish separate identity, relationships and spaces. I’m more aware of the negotiations on both fronts – work and family – that she was constantly managing. I wonder now how she coped, why she made some of the choices she did, what she thinks as she looks back now.

these questions are the spine of the story of working mothers. they have become the spine of my own story too. I think about the time I spend at work and how to fulfill my ambitions. I am loathe to sacrifice time I should spend with Zi, knowing it’s an important, precious and fleeting labour of love that is necessary to build her sense of self and our relationship. I lie in bed sometimes wondering if we will be able to give her the best of everything she needs and make ends meet. I imagine myself in the future, hope I will make the right choices and wonder what will influence the decisions I end up making. I hope I can give Zi the political consciousness that my mother gave to me. I plan and plan who i would like her to be, knowing that I both have to do my best and learn to let go.

last Friday 7 October, Zi went with me to her first ‘popular action’ with my students and in support of the National Union for Domestic Employees.

We took our placards and our brooms to highlight that ‘sweeping changes are needed!’ and Zi was there with Ida Le Blanc, the Gen Sec of NUDE, the other union representatives, Philo the domestic worker character who has become a T and T celebrity, and the ordinary working women of the union with their stories of injustice and hardship to tell. Listening to them, i thought of my own privileges as a woman in the labour force and yet our similar concerns as women, workers and mothers. I thought of generations of working women who came before, struggling individually and collectively to do better for themselves, their children and the region. I thought of Zi, one day to be a working woman, and possibly mother, herself. I thought of how the story of us as Caribbean women who work and mother continues to be repeated and, when our visions become hard-won realities, potentially re-written. Across generations, we rework the legacy of those women who came on ships.

I never leave the house looking as glamorous as my mother did, but i think i will also have learned from some of her mistakes. I wonder what Zi will learn from me and how she will continue this story 37 years from today.

Post 31.

thank goddess, my little warrior of light is recovering well. I was never seriously worried, but i was on the verge and it was great to see her beginning to be back to herself this morning. she hardly ate anything this weekend, but breastfed night and day. thank goddess for breastfeeding. thank goddess for my baby.

this week i’m going to start writing her a letter. in the weeks after she was born, i wrote her a letter describing who i was at the time of her birth, my feelings in the weeks after, and the changes she brought to my life. i described my relationship with her dad, what he was like and what shifts in our relationship had occurred. i described her as she came to us and the wishes and dreams i had for her as she blossoms. i wrote without plan or editing, more than a dozen pages, filling a entire set of writing paper than i’d had since my early twenties.

zi turns one in november and given that i probably get a clear 1/2 hour to myself each night, i’m going to have to start this letter early. i’m excited. it will be fun to describe her changes over the months. when she starts talking to me from the car seat in the back, i can remind her about those first weeks of driving with me when she bawled down the place every time we were in traffic. when she is running about, i can help her date when she began to smile, make sounds, cut teeth, crawl and stand up in bed, saying loud baas, chewing the bedhead and climbing over us with full confidence that we are hers.

i’m also excited to tell her about the changes i’ve experienced to my life, relationships and emotions as well as the challenges of balancing work and family. i want her to know who her mom was in these years as so many aspects of who mothers are as women gets forgotten later on.

when should she get these letters, written each year for her birthday? i haven’t decided and may not know until its the right time. i think when she can read them herself is important. i think when its important to remember that her parents are people too, just before adolescence and on the cusp of adulthood. these letters are to let her know that i have a history of my own. i am not just mummy. she has a history of her own too. ours are interwoven, though different, paths. the letters are to help her map her past and, from that, chart a future based on knowing who and where she is from.

i want her to know some of the little ways that being a woman in this time is not easy. yet, how being a woman can be powerful beyond compare. as well, both the exhilaration and exhaustion of being a mother. the fulfillment of working at something you like and are good at, and the importance of getting an education in whatever you are passionate about. i want her to know that love and marriage are not easy, but that finding a tried and true soul mate is possible and it is bliss. i want her to know how her dad treated me and that she has a right to be treated right in her relationships too. i want her to know that her mom is a feminist, in the Caribbean sense and all that that means, as she decides how she wants to be different from me. i want her to know how a wealth of self-knowledge and insight into her past can help her to understand herself, her decisions and her vision for the world.

for me, the letters are an attempt to continually remind myself of the importance of communication, reflection and honesty in my relationship with her. honesty about myself, my aspirations, my failings, my expectations and my life lessons. i don’t want to reach a day when i have so much to say, but don’t know how to say it or she doesn’t have the time to hear or it seems the past should just be let go even though there is so much about it to know. i guess i am hoping that the letters will help her to understand, love and, where necessary, forgive me as we all must grow into understanding, tolerance and forgiveness of our parents for being only too human.

i’m writing to her, but i guess i’m also writing for me. things that, from my own experience with my parents, i wish could be said or had been said by each of us, but which will never be said now. there are things about their and my past that i’d like to ask but don’t want to get into. these letters are a window into a world that she inhabited before she began conscious of its contours.

women’s writings, letters, diaries are where our herstories can be recorded, where a matrilineal connection can be established, where the panorama of feminine experience can be valued and where legacies of truth, love, politics and dreams can be handed down. these letters can show her what she has taught me, how i hope to make her proud and the value of baby steps for us all along the way. they can show her how sacred it is to be a woman, to be me, to be her, and how powerful simple stories of our lives can be.