May 2012

Post 58.

The other morning, as soon as she opened her eyes, Ziya turned over and started to tickle me. It was a baby kind of tickle, more of making the sound of it than the actions, and even then it was barely a tickle at all. Still, I had to curl up and do my best impression that I was being actually tickled by someone who knew how to do it. I didn’t even know that she could, and she couldn’t really, but who knew that one day she would.  

It seemed so sudden, that move from tiny newborn to little person now reflecting back what I didn’t even know she was observing the whole time.  They’ll wake up and suddenly you realise they are older, smarter, more independent and assertive, more ready to take charge of their interactions with you. Ziya’s first instinct to play, be funny and make me laugh that morning was more glorious than the rising sun and it made me smile for many days after. It also made me appreciate how careful and attentive I need to be about who I am and how I am in my interactions with her. I’ve come to realise that exactly what I give to her, she will give back to me.

Less glorious were two other moments that brought this home.  One time, she was sitting in her chair having a meal, and like many babies when they get fed up, she started throwing food on the floor. I tapped her on the wrist, the kind of tap that seemingly all West Indians instinctively resort to when children are giving trouble. It didn’t hurt, in fact she thought I was making a joke, but it didn’t stop her from instantly tapping me back on my wrist and saying to me, “beat!”

Shocked, I looked at her, just over one year old, perfectly able to distill and articulate the essence and sentiment of my action. And, worse, to enact it back to me.  I sat in front of her, suddenly seeing through her eyes all the things I say and do, and feeling overwhelmed at the power and responsibility I hold for what she learns.  Most respectable Caribbean parents would have immediately hit her back and raised their voice to bark, “Don’t hit Mummy!”, thinking without irony that we were instilling respect, authority, discipline and obedience, and not fear, violence, hierarchy and hypocrisy. I decided that unless it was okay for Ziya to hit me, it wasn’t okay if I hit her. I couldn’t tell her not to hit me or other kids (as kids do) in words, I had to teach by example. This is going to sit all wrong with those who believe in licks as a method of teaching discipline, but I got the message. Ziya will reflect to me who I am to her. The challenge is really mine to learn how to love and teach her with that in mind.

As if I needed another reminder, during a hectic moment last night, while changing her dirty pamper and trying to keep her lying flat, I said to her, “just now Ziya!” in what I didn’t realise were harsh tones. Again, she didn’t miss a beat. “Just now!” she expertly imitated, with the exact rushed, gruffness I had just used. I could have cried. I didn’t even realise that was what she heard and experienced. I knew I certainly wouldn’t want her now or as an adult to use that tone with me, even if it was a hectic moment. I’d be hurt even if I knew she didn’t mean it. I’d think, we don’t have to talk to each other like this Ziya, whatever we have to say, we can say it nicely, even gently, to each other. Yet, here I was teaching her something else.

Being nice to Ziya is something I’m committed to. It’s something I think she deserves, after all she didn’t ask to be here and, like all of us, she has her fragilities and her feelings, and she just wants to be loved. It’s something I have to be conscious of though, through the scrambling to and from work, the hustling through errands and mealtimes, and through grinding, cumulative exhaustion. Yet, I find myself realising just how conscious I have to be again and again.  Without being conscious of it herself, she’s telling – no, showing – me this lesson. I realise too, sometimes, that I may learn more from her than she from me. For both of us, it’s a precious opportunity.

These momentous trivialities make me think about all the Caribbean children who have had adults bawl them out or quarrel with them or put them down or just be casually, carelessly insensitive again and again and again for their whole lives. Imagine what they have observed about how they can be spoken to and treated, imagine what they may give back to those adults or to others they love someday. Even worse are the many children who get beaten my parents, teachers and others schooled in the old-style discipline that makes for a long Caribbean tradition of stories of running from a broom or pot-spoon. Maybe those children learned discipline and respect, but imagine what else they learned. And, when we look at the everyday violence in our families and communities, in our words and in our relations, we can see what else is reflected there.

As with all children, the challenge is to find a way to set boundaries and establish ground rules that will enable them to learn how to be healthy, cooperative, loving, non-violent, thoughtful and fair in their relations with others, accepting that like us they are not perfect, they do foolishness and they will make mistakes. The challenge for me, however, is to find a way to be the person I want Ziya to be because one day she might wake up and, like the tickling, I won’t even know when she learned what she knows or when grew up enough to be like that with me.

Post 57.

In my work, I read about it all the time. Women go into politics less than men, and do less well, because of their unequal family responsibilities. Women’s careers bear the cost of these responsibilities, in terms of both their choice of job and their ability to advance there. Women struggle to fulfill their roles at work while also putting out more labour hours than men at home. It’s the story of many women who work, virtually everywhere in the world, both in the past and now.

It’s one thing to read about it and another to negotiate it. People, not just partners, expect women to put their children first, regardless of the cost to their careers, as if women don’t have an equal right to do well in their job while also having a family. I swear, men can both put in the time necessary and count on someone else handling it at home so that they can do better for themselves and as breadwinners.

Do men have the career-family conflicts and dilemmas so often experienced by women? Do men go into parenthood expecting to do an unequal amount of child or family care in addition to their full time jobs? Do men in vast numbers decide that their careers are just going to have to suffer for a few years because they’ve become new dads? Do they choose careers that would allow them to work, father and stay sane?

There might be some out there, but they simply don’t match the numbers of women globally. Of course, paternity provisions that allow men to take time from work without loss of pay or status would make a huge difference. So would making the work of caring not seem like a detraction from the real, paid work of the public sphere…you know, something you can’t put on your CV.

Yet, women do this everyday. They leave jobs to care for children. They take leave without pay and a personal cut to their economic autonomy and power. They up the labour hours they spend on reproductive work, despite the fact that they can’t put that on their CV. They do it because women have, largely, always recognised the value of work for family and they’ve continued to prize the joy of caring. But, they also do it because parents, in-laws, partners, friends and strangers on the street think that extra labour and those personal costs are ‘naturally’ theirs and not men’s to bear.

People have told me that women are naturally meant to spend the first years with their children. Whether that is true or not is up for debate. What’s obvious is that this ‘natural’ addition to their labour is almost completely unrecognised by workplaces and the state, who provide 14 weeks – not years – of subsidized maternity leave. So for years, it’s up to women to manage both their desires and right to work outside of the home, and the popular conception that their rightful work is actually in the home. Any dudes out there going through this too?

Somehow, women have to also account for the sacrifices their families make for their careers. Doing what you have to do, and what you used to do before family in order to do well seems like a luxury, something to be grateful for, because really it’s not something that should be expected, without guilt, as a right. Relationships and parenting are a negotiation, but how many dudes make decisions about their work duties in relation to their partner’s permission. Or their sense that if they are not there at home with the kids, they are lucky that someone is willing to fill in for and stick by them. Yet, people of all walks of life invest in these ideas.

Somehow, few people are as invested in what this means for women across classes, careers, family types and size, aspirations, ethnicity, religion and nationality. If women’s inequality, precisely because of their double burden, doesn’t appear on the horizon to you early, you can’t miss it once you have a baby or a friend, colleague or sibling has a baby. Suddenly, you see it everywhere.

With the social expectation that women must naturally, expertly and effortlessly combine their career aspirations with unequal responsibility for family, while still looking good, we are being set up to fail, even if its only in terms of properly looking after ourselves. Women do it of course. They get up at 5am to cook. They fold clothes at night. They hustle from work to hustle to take their children home to hustle to get to their class on time at UWI. Somehow, they still make it to the gym, the hairdresser as well as to church or to their community group or PTA meeting. Some men might do it too, but doubtlessly this is a women’s reality for many – even educated women, empowered women, feminist women.

If women are ‘naturally’ meant to unequally labour for their families, the entire economy should be organised around a valuing of and support for that. Otherwise, who loses? If mass numbers of women take up this responsibility although it is not ‘naturally’ theirs, this too should be seen as a social and socialisation issue, not an individual experience. Otherwise, what about women’s collective experience will remain unrecognised and invalidated? If women have to negotiate with men around these issues, how can they best be supported? And, what does a lack of real institutional, societal and structural support say about the naturalisation and acceptance of women’s inequality?

Women, with or without children, have equal right as men to work and a career. Women with both full-time jobs and children have a right to equal labour hours as men, whether in or out of the home. Women who become unequally responsible have a right to have that additional labour valued with societal and institutional support. Anything less withholds rather than shares care – and I mean care for women – and is simply not fair.

Post 56.

Marriage is hard. Even good marriages, happy marriages, peaceful marriages. You don’t always agree and yet you can only move forward together. What’s hard is figuring out the balance between protecting yourself and protecting the relationship. It’s this way for all relationships really, not just marriages, not just straight partnerships, not even just amongst couples. That old dilemma of knowing how and where to set boundaries, which of course requires you to know yourself; what you will let go and what you insist upon, what makes you feel good or sad, what you’ve decided your priorities are regardless of the costs, and what you want most from those who love you and whom you love.

The dilemmas are not just about knowing the boundaries that you consider non-negotiable, but knowing how to set them in a way that produces the give and take that you need to live with and love someone else day in and out. Love is hard. Even strong love, lasting love, committed love.

As with most partnerships, children bring complications as much as they bring joy. Children really test the stances you agree on and the differences between your ideas of family, care, discipline and sacrifice. They add extra work and demand extra time, all of which brings new negotiations. They compel parents to take the implicit and honestly interrogate it as gently as they can to see what’s actually there, what’s actually shared, what’s actually possible. So many things that were easy or didn’t need planning or could happen without full communication have changed, and every path is a two way street that presents choices about the direction the whole family will go. And, this is the crux of the whole thing. Either you choose a direction together or everyone eventually goes their own way.

I’m so tired these days that when a young colleague asked me if I was happy, I didn’t have an answer. I was actually too tired to connect to my own emotions. I wonder how women manage to (stereotypically) be “more emotional”, that is connected to their feelings, than men when so often we are giving our all on all fronts, putting in more labour hours, doing more of the care work, and often still helping somehow to help patch up and heal the world. That “more emotional” state has got to be some kind of achievement because emotions are the most pure register we have for knowing when things don’t feel right and, when all the work that’s been put in has been worth it, and they do.

For me, at the centre of surviving the demands of work and family is emotional connectedness, without which we would drift like constellations, connected to each other, but far apart in separate orbits in the sky. I’ve come home every evening these past weeks and turned exhausted eyes to the evening moon, watched that bright star right below, and felt that it seems so simple for them, with their set paths and measured distance and similarly celestial light. But really, their silent sharpness is deceptive. Stars are living intense, fiery lives just like us. Just so, life is full of intensity through which we continue on our own and on our shared path as celestial beings.

So I try to make sure I’m emotionally present as I can and as partnership and parenting needs me to be. I’m trying to connect to both the joy and the commitment of making it work despite lack of sleep, lack of time and lack of more to give. Having Ziya is an unparalleled gift and she makes me realize that what could be assumed or ignored or deferred before, needs to be dealt with now in myself and in all my relationships however hard that turns out to be. Like all children, she can make her parents our best selves together, but only if we know that caring, cooperation and connectedness are an achievement. Especially caring that nurtures communication, patience and a fierce sense of protection for marriage and love as valuable, just because they can make each of us shine, separately and together.