Post 348.

Parents often hurt children in ways they never realise or are willing to acknowledge. Later on, when the relationship between them breaks down, parents can feel unappreciated, rejected and frustrated. It’s as if the child was always so uncommunicative, so difficult, so angry and so cold.

A little honesty and self-reflection, and investment in listening, both of which are harder than they sound, would explain so much to parents who find their children’s behaviour inexplicable as they grow into adults.

The hurts are often unintended, but they begin from young, in how adults speak to children and discipline them, pay insufficient attention to their feelings, or fail to acknowledge their own wrongs. Those hurts bury themselves deep and become the knife that slowly tears bonds of trust.

Adults rarely apologise to children for their behaviour and rarely take responsibility for the many times they made their children feel rejected, abandoned or unsupported. They rarely acknowledge the dysfunctional contexts that children have had to grow up in or the instability created by everything from divorce to depression in the adult relationships around them.

We pretend that children are unaffected by our personalities and stresses, despite the fact that they live with us every day. We expect them to be grateful to us to the point of negating their protective strategies. We expect good behaviour at any cost. Mostly, adults feel that they did their best and can be unwilling to hear children’s experience of difficulties and struggles, as if doing their best ends any further conversation.

When parents reach a place where their children don’t think that there is any point opening up, for they will either misunderstand, disagree, deny or blame them for having those feelings, that’s when trust is nearly irreparably torn. On the one hand, parents grieve. On the other they insist that everything should still be normal, as if this is what respect entails.

Parents can hardly deal with blame at this stage in their life when past decisions can’t be fixed and are possibly already regretted. Children are not interested in their regrets or their explanations. All they want is to have their hurts acknowledged. For every disappointment a parent expresses to his or her child, there are many that children could validly respond with, but are not allowed to.

The other day, I shouted at Ziya for making me tell her a dozen times (or it felt like a dozen times) to do something. She got upset and said I told her to tell me when I do hurtful things. She said I didn’t tell her I was getting angry that she wasn’t listening. I was exasperated, what did she expect would happen when I had to tell her the fifth time?

I’m a child she said, you need to explain these things to me. How else will I know? I decided to listen. We took a walk and held hands. I apologised for yelling. I said it was wrong. I explained I get frustrated, especially when I’m tired, and she needs to do things the first time I tell her. She said I should tell her when I’m getting angry so that she will know that’s how I’m feeling. I agreed. I thanked her for being willing to talk, for helping me to become a better mother, for trusting me enough to believe that we could improve things together.

Now, when I’m getting to the weary, fourth-time-I’ve-told-you point, I remind her of our conversation. Just as she told me to, I tell her I’m getting frustrated, and she gets up and goes do what she’s told. It’s not perfect, but it works. There’s one less tear that may never mend.

There will be many other times I unnecessarily hurt her feelings. That’s life. None of us is perfect as people or parents, but saying that to a child is simply a way of not taking responsibility. I understand that I did my best, but that imperfection has its costs.

Such acknowledgement would protect the threads of connection, communication and trust between us. It would enable me to thank her for emerging into a strong and smart adult, and for deciding to forgive me as many times as she will, despite my failings over her lifetime. Such honesty would make me a better parent in the present.

Children want parents’ love and protection, but not when their trust in us is broken. If this feels familiar, and you don’t understand why, it’s your turn to listen.

Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.

 

Post 314.

Traditions matter.

One day, those will be your go-to memories to provide a sense of certainty about how things should be and what belonging to family or childhood looks like. No doubt, nostalgia for such familiarity will occupy a small, but well-kept shelf in your heart, and some of your adult practices will be best understood as cared-for pieces you’ve taken out to feel and show and share.

Amidst the chaos of working motherhood, it was Christmas Eve when Ziya and I embarked on establishing a new tradition for us. First, we needed a tree.

I have warm, soft-focus memories of a real tree in my childhood recollections of Christmas. They are vividly clear and I can see the red carpet in the living room, the carved furniture and Indian wooden screens so common in the 1970s, and a six or seven foot tall tree in a corner by the stereo.

The tree smelled like pine and shed its darkening green needles all season. It was a big deal to put up, and had to be properly potted, stood in a corner where it wouldn’t tip over, and placed where it held pride of place when the strings of lights were plugged in.

Ziya wanted a plastic tree, and immediately folded her arms at the inconceivable premise of anything else. One of my friends, who herself has her lights and years of collected decorations strung on a towering and bushy ficus, empathized. Eight-year-old kids want what their friends have, she suggested, and don’t want to feel out of place.

I tried with Zi anyway, tugged by those memories, returning to that fuzzy time when a tradition I was now passing on somehow became set in my mind like a loved, framed photo on that well-kept shelf.

As we drove past Aranguez’s greenhouses, I asked her to look for any trees she might like. Mummy I see one, she exclaimed, and I, who don’t believe in almost anything, joyfully thanked a chorus of angels. We turned off the highway and walked in, checking size, shape, and fullness, and caught sight of the perfect one at the same time. This is it, she declared, won over by the swaying branches just at her head-height. My heart sang the way angel voices ring.

Look around so you are sure, I said. She did, finding one that was a hundred dollars less and, like any sensitive child of a mom managing all the bills would, stoically suggested the smaller one would be better. We left, holding hands, in one of those too-quickly passing chances with young children, with the perfect tree for our budgetary circumstances, and our singing hearts in chorus with those angels heralding on repeat on the radio. In some decades, maybe this would be one of those go-to memories forever providing a sense of place and belonging.

It’s unique, I told her, stroking the tree’s soft needles. We should give it a name. Fern Eve Jamela Hosein Livingstone Khan, she announced. A dramatic title encompassing a not so accurate nor scientific identification, an additional name for the day before Christmas when it was born into our home, three separate family lines, plus a shared middle name that has also been handed down three generations.

I raised my eyebrows. There’s another pine tree in our backyard, which arrived a mere foot tall and now stands above the roof. This could be like that. Who knows what traditions await such a small, somewhat thin-foot plant chosen by an equally small girl?

A Christmas Eve tradition of putting up a tree means you wake up on Christmas to see it on its first morning, freshly decorated and sparkling. Even if it’s small, it’s yours. If it’s made by sun and soil and water, it has a little extra spirit. It can live in our garden throughout the year, I suggested, and come inside at Christmas, and maybe it will still be the tree you decorate when you have a daughter.

Why she changed her mind, I can’t answer, but I’ll accept that it was Christmas magic. As we hung the few individual decorations we chose, I could feel my childhood fleetingly recreated in hers. It offered me, and might offer her when she’s my age, a chance to gift well-loved traditions that renew a sense of certainty, childhood and family. For such joys in the world, framed on a well-kept shelf in my heart perhaps as now in hers, first we found a tree.

Post 313.

Some days are beginnings and some are endings.

Some feel like potential new chances, but really you are not seeing the signs of something already too far in its decline, when its better to stop trying and walk away. Some days feel like endings, full of emotion and hindsight, but really they are beginnings that you’re too preoccupied to notice with the kind of positivity that replaces regret.

On those days, you’ve got to realise the last second is already the past, and what you think you’ve lost has freed space for more lasting gain. Some days you think you know which one it is. Today is a beginning. Today is an ending. Turns out that it’s neither, and you’re just in a longer cycle than you imagined and one you don’t yet sufficiently understand.

Think of those times when you imagine yourself decisive enough to ensure something never happens again. Then, years or decades later, you are back right there. After all the lessons and changes and maturing, how is it possible to spiral back to such a familiar place you thought you forever left behind. How is it possible to repeat the same pattern in two instances so far apart in your life?

This week, I closed a door I opened twenty years ago. I opened it precisely to walk out of a room I ended up walking back into, like some kind of surreal house of mirrors. I thought I was smarter and stronger and had moved ahead. Imagine my shock to find myself in the same space, like I had spent all that time crossing a thin divider that separated it into two, thinking it two different rooms, though it was just the other side, in the same place. I wasn’t sure what to feel; anger, sadness, regret, terror.

So, again, I opened the door to walk away from that room, stepped out and closed it behind me, wondering if I was about to begin to repeat the past and the present again in the future. Was this really an ending? Was the beginning going to lead to a different end? How to escape these cycles you don’t even know you are in? How to escape situations when the consistent factor in all the decisions you make, all the ones that create your reality, is you?

People get on with life, going to the grocery, finishing up their day at work, packing lunch for their children, surviving daily traffic, but underneath their daily routines and their management of all the moving parts are these undercurrents, defining everyone’s life over time.

I’ve watched people repeat the same mistakes. Probably, they have watched me do the same. I’ve watched people run faster and faster in the same place as if that would lead to any difference in their disappointment. I’ve watched people escape circumstances they repeatedly end back in. Endlessly, people everywhere are experiencing beginnings and endings, whatever their specific permutation, their exact pain or their accompaniment by sharp intake of hope.

What’s the secret to going on?

A guy I know is dying of terminal cancer and, yet, when I speak to him, he sounds joyously full of life. When I ask him how he is, he answers “great, I saw the sunrise this morning!”

How are you, he asks. “Not as good as you,” I say in response to his radiantly optimistic voice and I immediately regret the words, for I’m doing much better than he is. I’m always ashamed that I’m mired in comparatively petty work, family, money, house and other life challenges, and don’t sound as grateful for life as he does.

When I hang up the phone, I’m humbled by a profound lesson. Some days are beginnings and some are endings, but every moment that has breath of life and capacity to appreciate it is when you do your best to decide.

And, decide you must, with mindfulness and forgiveness, self-love and kindness, gratitude and the will to let go and start anew with the same kind of optimism that someone who is dying can teach you about the next twenty years, however your lessons begin and end, one sunrise at a time.

 

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Post 310.

It was entirely an old familiarity, recalled by the smell of airplane fuel in morning heat. You know when a drifting scent or shade of light suddenly puts both your feet back in the past?

As I crossed Piarco’s tarmac, I glanced up into the brightness and the yellow-painted side of the airport made me look twice, the first time mistakenly seeing a waving gallery and, the second time, vividly remembering the old one, from the old airport, as if it was there in front of me. I breathed, feeling goosebumps, maybe because of the hot wind blowing along my arms or from being caught momentarily convinced by this mirage.

As a child, I’d marvel at so many beloved families and friends crowding that second-floor verandah to share an experience of travel, to emotionally wave at their loved ones until they disappeared through the plane door, or excitedly identify them from the line of rumpled travelers as soon as they disembarked.

Something in the new airport design, whether for modernization, security or cost-cutting, lost sight of this Caribbean custom or never understood or valued ordinary Caribbean cultural expressions of connection and community, and the narrow, barricaded gate at which one now says quick goodbyes has shut such a space for sharing into the past.

I was coming home from commemorating the 25th anniversary of The UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the Cave Hill campus in Barbados. The three founding professors of the IGDS, Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock and Eudine Barriteau were being honoured, and I sat at the conference with graduate students who, in just two years’ time, would never have these Caribbean feminist foremothers on the campus with them. After nearly forty years, such passing of a generation that built scholarship, institutional strength and academic activism from scratch was the end of an era.

For twenty years on campus, I was under their wing, gaining invaluable guidance, compassion and protection. Looking through the shimmering above the tarmac, and blindly seeing a memory instead of the present, I thought about the past and what makes it live on.

These women tried to understand and value Caribbean customs and cultural practices, treated them like the true richness of theory and the deep wealth of scholarship and, in so doing, created a homegrown feminism that connected countries and generations in our region, crossing from one tarmac to another.

This homegrown Caribbean feminism’s head cornerstone was the one that the builder refused. It looked for what was ours, found the everyday ways ordinary people cared and created citizen coalitions, and built that into the design that my graduate students and I inherited.

The head cornerstone’s strength was its grounding in gendered analysis of the region and its realities; women’s rights histories and stories; mothers’ and grandmothers’, godmothers’ and aunties’ ways of raising up and nurturing; daughters’ aspirations to improve on the past; and the solidarities of male allies. None of these are yet taken seriously or valued in economics, social sciences and political theories in the Caribbean today.

Yet, somewhere, that window to our lives as they crisscross the Caribbean hasn’t disappeared. Twenty-five years on, in IGDS, it’s still here. Honouring these three women, I treasured the homegrown feminist foundation laid for us to remember to examine and empower the ways we make time and space for love, family, survival, connection and equality as well as the little traditions through which we recognize each others’ heart and humanity.

As I entered the airport’s cool interior, the past, present and future walked through with me. I thought about whether we educate both for Caribbean transformation as well as recognition of what most matters to Caribbean people, whether in terms of how we design our built environments or our social policies.

I thought about how few places teach another generation to understand, and protect from new ideas about modernization, foreign models or almighty profit, the spaces and practices that can be so easily relegated to obsolescence even when they have significance for care, connection and community. Now we get to decide what to keep.

Honouring the professors and the past would live on in our design for a future of Caribbean living and loving. For, one bright morning, the right hazy mix of scent and hue could fully return an old, familiar flutter of emotion and eagerness, along with nostalgia for what was simply deconstructed out of our collective memory.

It’s such an unnoticeable thing, the disappearance of that waving gallery.

 

Post 296.

The floorboards creaked and tore as if daily life was almost too much weight to bear. The windows broke from their rusting hinges for their joints ached and they gave in to the pain. The roof hung with a sadness only the neglected know, its desire to protect unnoticed, its watchful eye met with ones closed to its needs. The house had been falling apart for a long time.

I’d describe its crumbling as imperceptible, except it was everywhere – in the decaying cupboards, the stained kitchen countertop, the scuffed furniture, the torn curtains.

These were plainly apparent, but too overwhelming to see so the best option appeared to not look. It’s like that sometimes, living in an old house past its grandeur, the walls of the rooms are made of memories, so you can live in the past when the white paint shone and the roof glistened like a whole beautiful blank sheet, before botched by time, weather and neglect.

Meanwhile, parts fall or break down, like organs, and the structure becomes unreliable so that even its all will no longer be enough. High winds, normal for changing seasons, blow from unexpected directions and everyone holds anxious, insecure breath.

Moving was inevitable and overdue, but gutting. You wake up for twenty years in one room and the light falling across the floor just so feels like the quiet intimacy of long-time companionship.  The birds sing from their perch on the eaves, and your heart aches that their song cannot be wrapped in newspaper and carried with you in a cardboard box.  Your favorite corner of the room will disappear when demolished.

Taking pictures down from the walls, and seeing their outline remain written in dust, like a ghost that won’t leave, makes your vision ricochet between all the past times you looked there – the contexts, reflections and familiar sounds, and the present – which is all that matters. The house remembers everything in its bones, in every break that wasn’t mended, in every echo of anger, laughter or silence.

Anyone who has ever had to pack up a life to move knows that it’s a reckoning. What you discard or keep evokes the story you want family history to tell and the stories even you want to forget. What gets put in boxes for immediate unpacking rather than those you may not end up unpacking for years tells you much about what once mattered and now can be forgotten.

As glossy as the new house may be, you have been shaped by the old space, the way that your mouth shapes your words or your hands curve around another’s or the way a coocoon envelops a butterfly. A house isn’t bricks and mortar or wood and galvanise, it’s the ribcage in which your breath has been steady and protected. It’s a space for a heart.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy even if you don’t want to or can’t still live there. It’s like pulling away from your own skin, which shrank from the salt of too many tears and, now, like a soucouyant, you cannot get back in. It feels the way that thin, slivery cobwebs cling to your hair and lips because they are not built to let go.

You are going to somewhere new and better, something that isn’t threatening to trap you in its collapse, but as I keep coming back to, a house is the embrace you sleep in at night, its arms warm and familiar.

The new house, with all your life teetering around you in boxes of different weights and sizes, isn’t quite finished, and it will take a while to get the windows and doors right, to know where the motes dance in afternoon light, and what calls speak to your house at night. You stand amidst all this, in limbo between past and future, unsettled, but asking for acceptance from the foundation and walls, and the wind that moves through.

In the old house, grown decrepit and ruined, sorting each object reminds that this moment will never come again. In the new home, everyday construction and care, fresh eyes and fresh paint, are the loving gestures you make to complete a dream you returned to when you couldn’t sleep.

Such departing and arriving are the only metaphors I can find for when your heart and mind are occupied with the many emotions of moving, and when you walk away from an old life and open the door to one both necessary and new.

Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.