April 21, 2012
Chatting outside of class at the end of the semester, a student asked me if I’d post an example answer for the exam to help him study. I told him I was really busy, but I’d see. He responded that instead of gossiping in the night, I could make the time to do it. Gossiping? I get home at 7pm, feed my child and breastfeed. I fold clothes and answer emails for major research projects, I take notes from books I’m reading. I wash dishes, pack lunch, write my diary and plan for my child’s future.
Obviously, he was joking and I knew that, but we not bredren, we doh lime and we wasn’t throwing block talk on no corner. Women are being tested when forced to confront sexism. Unapologetic feminists, like myself, are always being watched in these moments: Can we, above all, take a joke whatever its message? Do we quickly resort to anger, fulfilling nothing but the most predictable idea of who we are? Are we articulate enough to explain what our problem is, to not become emotional, to adopt a cool pose in the face of such violence?
This student’s comment was not only his small way of rebalancing the scales between us, it was also a moment to test my truth in the face of a male privilege he could draw on without trying. In the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to learn that students will tell you the most unexpectedly sexist or homophobic things, things that make you wonder if you’ve been in the same course with them, even at the end of twelve weeks in a gender studies class. That’s not ideal, but it’s life. Learning is a process, consciousness-raising takes time, everyone is walking their own path, and each of us has to choose our solidarities for ourselves. I just took a breath and let it slide.
This second year, Jamaican student was bright, critically-minded and I liked him. Like many of the men I teach in Gender Studies, especially in Men and Masculinities classes, he’s working through discomfort with the material and with me, a woman, as his teacher. Some students prefer that men less qualified than me teach what I do. I’m guessing because they think men will be less biased, which is based on the assumption that women are completely biased when it comes to men and not vice versa as well as the idea that women best understand women, but men can understand everybody. It’s also based on the fact that men are seen as being authority figures in a way women are not, even if they know less about a field of study. Go figure.
Still, I’ve had male students come back years later and say that, though they were uncomfortable with feminist critiques of patriarchy in class, later on when starting their football group they refused to agree to female cheerleaders. Either women were equal sports-players or they weren’t, but they were not going to support the men from the side. And, usually, by the end of a course students have a more nuanced understanding of how ideas about women and men work unnoticeably, and they are questioning assumptions they came in with about the course material, about feminism, about gender,and about me.
Yet, there are always surprises. This young man’s comment was one. Another student waiting to speak to me was so offended, she insisted he apologise. I watched the scene between them play out and listened to his apology, delivered with a laugh like he was still joking. Why don’t you go over to the male Head of the Math Department, I suggested, and make the same joke with him and come back and tell me if he finds it funny. He said he had made a joke with a male lecturer before about all the time he spent in the gym. Well, that’s not what he said to me. He said I was home ‘gossiping’. This was something he would never dream of saying to a male lecturer as a joke. He’d know it wouldn’t be considered funny, it would be risky, and it would seem like disrespect. He acknowledged this as we stood there. So, why feel he could do it with me?
There’s an important lesson here for all the women struggling to advance in education and employment. It doesn’t matter how much schooling you have. It doesn’t matter how much institutional power you bring. It doesn’t matter what kind of position of power you occupy. We live in a patriarchal world where students such as this one can draw on the rich historical authority of stereotypes and prejudices to trivialise and belittle you, simply because you are not a man. We live in a world where women face comments and views men never will, on the streets, in our homes, at our jobs despite our education, job titles or institutional position. There is nothing we can do to individually earn this respect, this freedom, which comes to men without them trying. It can only come from creating a world where those demeaning preconceptions are not available. Where they are available, they must carry no sense of right to define how women can be spoken to and spoken about.
There’s an important lesson here too for all those folks who think that women have won, that women and men are treated equally all the time everywhere, that women have everything they could want and that sexism is a thing of the past. It’s not. It’s present, it’s powerful, it comes in skin teeth and straight talk, it comes behind your back and to your face. As little difference as I clearly make in twelve weeks, my work in this world is to ensure that one day, for some young woman, mother or worker like me, it does not come at all.
April 9, 2012
Post 54. As a working mom there’s only one thing I’m really proud of. That’s the amount of time that Ziya has spent in rivers and seas. She could run with de best, including children growing up in Cedros and Nariva, when it comes to communing with the waters of the earth. For a little person, just 16 months, Zi has swam in Balandra coast waters twice, she’s been to Avocat waterfall, twice she’s soaked in the blissful waters of Yara River, twice she’s dipped in the springs of Las Hermanas Estate, she’s been to Paragon Beach, she’s had her Tobago sea bath, and she’s practically grown up on Maracas. The girl knows her water goddesses intimately. I’m proud of this because I it takes extra effort and commitment, but its important to me that she appreciate what’s truly gorgeous and inalienable about our Republic. I want her to have her green days by the river, I want her to know the names of our trees and rivers as if they are the spirits that people her dreams at night, I want her to know that the earth is the cathedral of every religion, and that it is giving, fragile and sacred. I want her to know the sound of the wind off the sea and its breath through the corridors of trees that shade a stream. I want her to want to stop to listen to birds. I want her to be unafraid of insects, bats, spiders, lizards, snakes, frogs and everything else that is part of our ecosystem, and to which we can be callous and inhumane. I want her to both respect forests and be able to walk in them feeling at home. That I’ve been doing okay so far makes me feel good for a number of reasons. First, I hate driving, and rivers and seas are usually far enough away that I have to psyche myself up for the drive from the night before. Second, I’m really really really tired and doing as little as possible on a weekend (in addition to the four baby meals and three baby baths per day, laundry and tidying) is my prized joy. I’d go on a honeymoon by myself and do nothing but sleep if I could, I’m so wrecked by 16 months of Zi not sleeping in the night. Exhaustion, plus a basic desire to not leave my home once I’m there, combine to make me a functioning zombie on the weekend, capping out virtually mid-way through a book with Zi, and unable to find the will to travel beyond the front gate. Third, there’s lots of other things that good mothers do that I don’t do. I’m not saying I’m bad at the other stuff. It’s just that, on a weekend when Zi is with me, I’m not doing the colouring, spelling, word/picture recognition, building-blocks, baby puzzles, make-believe, stacking toy, tricycle riding, running around and other activities that one should do as part of stimulating learning. Mostly, I just hang out with her and leave the serious socialisation to her grandmother. I’m just too tired. I feel guilty about it, like a sloth in a room of tiger moms, but I’m too tired for the guilt to translate into much action. Except when it comes to putting her in my backpack and taking her to the blessed and beautiful waters that weave across and at the edges of our country. Somehow, I’ve just made the effort and made it happen. On Saturday, Zi, her fairy godmother Auntie Tracy and I drove to Yara River. Zi loved the cold water and was doubtlessly in her element. I just felt good. We stayed until she started to shiver and the tide began to rise, and then we drove home. Of course, to do this trip on Saturday required doing nothing on Friday, Sunday and Monday. Seriously, I think I expended whatever I had in me for the long weekend on just that one trip. I was so spent, I let all kinds of things slide, just handed the baby over to Lyndon to bathe and entertain, left the dishes for him to wash, heaped the unfolded clothes on a chair, didn’t make the bed, and relegated everything else to that place where unnoticed things go, even if I noticed them. It’s very unlike me to not try to be a superhero/control freak when it comes to the baby, completely OCD when it comes to tidying and putting away folded clothes, and manic about all the things that need cleaning and doing in the house. Even as I am typing, half my brain is feeling out of sorts because of the unfolded clothes and the messy things I haven’t neatened into straight lines. But, I’m telling myself that it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t do everything this weekend. Maybe (probably!) on other weekends, it will matter. What makes this weekend special is the trip to the river, which is what most counted and what excuses everything else. I might not feel on top of it all, I might be keenly aware of all the ways I can do better, I might wish I could do more, I might feel like I’ve failed when things are left undone, but this weekend I’m feeling proud anyway. Watching my baby in those waters was pure bliss and whatever it took was worth it. The experiences she has already had and the ones I continue to plan are a gift of knowledge and understanding, and a sense of place that may one day radiate from the mirror in her gaze. This gift is important to me, to the earth, to a next generation and one day I hope it will be important to Zi.
April 5, 2012
Out on third-anniversary date night, assessing our relationship, Stone and I concluded that basically we had being doing great and that there really wasn’t much we could change. We were doing our best and things would get better once both of us simultaneously got a full nights sleep. I proposed a toast: Here’s to not needing to improve!
But wait. ‘Well, there is one area’, he suggested. ‘We could spend more time together, watch a movie, listen to music like we used to, you know after Zi is in bed on a weekend’. Hmph. ‘This is an improvement?’, I thought. After I deal with all the needs of my job and Ziya’s needs, improvement is now about turning to your needs right after? It’s not that I don’t get it. I miss the weekends of movies, music and hugging up too. It’s just that after she’s down, the only need I can think of is to sleep.
‘We don’t have to do it every weekend, but every other weekend would be an improvement’, he gently pressed. ‘I hear you’, I countered, ‘but on weekends, I feed the baby four times and usually bathe her three times a day. That’s why I’m too tired to look after your needs’ (our needs, he countered back). ‘I hear you’, he said. ‘I’ll take two meals and two baths then, so you’ll be less tired.’
‘Great! I’ll just shoot off an email to you recording this decision, but before we toast to it’, I proposed, ‘wouldn’t it be better if we tried to improve on the time we spent together every weekend’?
‘Every weekend?’, he asked, beginning to sense a trap looming in the recesses of such generosity. ‘Sure’, I went in for the kill, ‘we should be spending time together every weekend so, for that to happen, you can do two meals and two baths every weekend’!
I could see he suddenly began to question the wisdom of starting this conversation. ‘Yep’, I continued, ‘that means two meals and two baths on two days every weekend’.
‘Two days!’ Now he began to plan a retreat that could nonetheless retain some terrain of victory. ‘I only meant the one day we’d be hanging out’.
Not a chance, I was on a roll. ‘But, I’m not heading straight to bed just because of that one day, I’m also conserving energy to do it all again the next day’. For me to have the energy and inclination to stay up late being your girlfriend from twelve years ago, means not having to manage exhaustion from two full days of reproductive work after a whole week in the labour market’.
That led to a whole discussion about whether having a baby was at all worth it if I’m exhausted all the time and I end Saturdays with the exhaustion of Sundays on my mind. But, of course, creating life from nothing but your body is worth it. It’s just that, well, here we are.
So, I announced, a toast! To two meals and two baths both days of every weekend, and then hanging out on evenings after! This of course was nothing like how he saw improvement, but I felt like it was a successfully negotiated conversation. So successful did I feel that I even could throw some crumbs. Okay, I gave in, two meals and two baths on two days every other weekend, and only on one day on the weekend in between, and we hang out on the weekend with the two -day shift, but not the other weekend.
He couldn’t stop laughing. What else does one do in the face of one’s own folly? I couldn’t stop laughing myself. What else does one do in the face of such sweet strategic victory? That made two of us, laughing hysterically with tears rolling down our faces over third anniversary dinner. What else do we do in the face of mutual checkmate?
I guess this is the lived representation of when and how negotiations occur in long-term relationships, the ways moments must be seized to have conversations that need to be had with the kind of emotional good will they need to be had amicably. The skill of familiar poker players that partners bring to those conversations. I tell you, UN Security Council deliberations, don’t bring that kind of sophisticated nuance and engagement to nuclear treaties as parents bring to whose turn it is to change a diaper. Political horse-trading is clearly child’s play next to the thrust and parry of power in long-term love.
A toast! To those romantic heart to hearts over anniversary dinner! A toast! To improving always!
A toast! To weekends missed and still looked forward to!….though perhaps for different reasons.
Happy anniversary husband!
April 5, 2012
Last night, I got ready for my third wedding anniversary date with my husband as a stunning almost-full moon rose over the Santa Cruz hills. I was, of course, jealous that the moon could look so celestially heavenly with so little effort. Meanwhile, my non-luminescent, just-battled-traffic-on-the-road self was trying to make the best of a dire mothering-worker what-not-to-wear situation.
Naturally, I was in need of a haircut and my hair looked like those commercials for shampoo and conditioner in the clips before the model gets shampooed and conditioned. I opted for these hot rollers that my mom gave me, hoping that they wouldn’t make me look like I was inadvertently (or worse purposely) rocking big 80s hair or, alternatively, trying to look like my mother (not that looking like her is bad, she’s actually way more glam than me, it’s just that who wants to go on a date with their man looking like their mom?). Of course I had a mustache, because I didn’t have any time to go to wax and my salon lady was short-staffed because her waxing person was pregnant and home feeling ill, but I figure marriage is about for better or worse, through mustache and waxed, and in sickness and health, right?
Moving down, I realized that I had no appropriate wedding anniversary-date going out clothes. This was for many reasons: a) I go to work, I go home to my child, sometimes I go Maracas. I don’t go out, ergo I don’t notice when I don’t have going out clothes; b) in the two years comprising being pregnant, giving birth, breast-feeding and being back at work, I’ve changed sizes multiple times and have given up getting new clothes until my body makes final decisions about which parts have grown, shrunk and shifted; c) I don’t have time or energy to shop, except for rushing to get pampers at Pennywise; and d) I’m not really a shopper and usually am most comfortable in grungy jeans or barefoot by a river.
So, I stared into the dark night of my closet, feeling the least hottest one could before going on a date. People may think going on a date with some stranger or new person is pressure. Nuh uh. Going on a date with the person you’ve been with for twelve years is pressure. You want them to look at you as they did twelve years ago (when you really felt tsss! hot), you want them to remember why they thought you were hotter than the rest, you want to be checked out, looked up and down, dog-pant wanted, despite the fact that they’ve seen you push a placenta out your vagina (which is powerful, but not sexy), they’ve seen you look like Mac from hell put together your exhausted morning face, they’ve seen your breasts point in decidedly different directions than they used to, and you have a mustache.
I’m good in crisis though. First, I figure the least you can do in these keep-the-spark-alive situations is wear a sexy panty. Now, my man isn’t into lingerie, which I happen to love and find very cool about him (he just likes “natural skin” which I think is great, free and one size fits all my sizes), but no hetero, happily married man is going to be unimpressed with the effort of donning some black lace pulled from the back of the drawer. And, I still got some swag in my back pocket (that place where politicians keep election dates). So, I began crisis management from there.
Somehow, I found a top bought in London before I got pregnant and never wore – and it kinda matched what husband was wearing too, which, you know, felt sorta cute. But, then I remembered I never wore it because, among other reasons, I never had – and still don’t have – the right, strapless bra. Bras are over-rated in my mind and I hardly used to use them (and didn’t have to, kaching baby!), but things have changed and there are just some outfits I can’t al fresco my way through anymore. Plus, strapless bras have never worked for me and I don’t know how they do for other women. Don’t they just slide down? Is it only me? Is it possible to have a PhD and still not know how to wear a bra? Clearly. That said, of course I haven’t gone bra shopping to outfit myself for my new conditions. See a), b), c) and d) above.
Breathe. Okay. I’ve got hot rollers. Check. The kind of underwear he’ll want to take off. Check. I rig up a bra-esque something. Check. I got jeans that fit. Well. They kind of fit, but I could really do with a belt. Yep, no belt works with the top, which I’ve finally got to work with the bra, which I’ve done the work to basically invent.
Breathe. Okay. Skip the belt and just keep one hand pulling up the hook of the pants. Pretend strategy isn’t obvious. Find shoes to match. Ah shoes…Now, I’m not a strapless bra kinda girl and I’m not a high heels kinda girl, just like I’m not a Chinese foot binding kinda girl – which is how I think of high heels. I don’t need shoes to feel empowered, I need them to feel comfortable. So, you know I have four pairs of sneakers I basically wear, and who want dress code have to jes dress back. But, sometimes, I wish I had the gear to just get into a good look and out of the house without an over-the-phone session with a therapist.
Breathe. Okay. Find shoes that work with the hair/top/bra/panty. Start to feel arrright! Husband comes in, sees the rollers. Asks ‘if all dat is necessary’ as ‘we jes going out’. Bless his blurry-glasses self, he thought my hair was already perfectly fine. Wonder if it’s better that he didn’t notice I was in a mess or doesn’t care.
Take out rollers, fluff hair. Look like younger, less glam version of mother. Accept the inevitable. Decide its time to go and I look good enough to focus on the fact of love, the moment of togetherness, the importance of what’s on the inside of each other and the relationship, and the cosmic radiance of an almost full moon on a rare, date night.