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.