Post 374.

As Ziya distractedly watched TV, I watched her pour extra sesame seeds from some crackers into a bowl. I counted how many likely fell on the rug, and thought of how I’m constantly cleaning throughout the day even while I’m home working full-time.

I paid less attention than I should have when she went into the kitchen, pulled out flour and poured water, while I again prayed simply for minimal mess. Half an hour later, she had made dough with parsley and rosemary picked from the plants she had helped pot over the last weeks, and covered it all with a cloth. My nine year old made bread.

Each family is different. Some mothers are simultaneously remote-working, cleaning, caring, supervising on-line schooling, and engaging in extra-curricular activities at home. Some describe feeling like they are failing. Where they are teaching, schools have cut down on workload, yet working and single parents may be barely managing. Those reeling from economic shock are worried about their children’s nutrition and schooling. Thousands of mothers are now back at work as part of this phase of opening, and worrying where to leave their children.

Still, each of us has small victories at this time. We need to notice them as signs that, amidst more effort and less productivity, and more stress and less certainty, there are precious moments that provide a bridge from one challenge to the next.

Now that it’s daily and not just on weekends, Zi has washed more dishes, folded more clothes, helped with cooking, taken walks, biked, made art with whatever supplies (including all the masking tape) she could find, and had to learn to deal with a different reality where places are closed, friends are distant, and health is at risk.

On the days when I was too busy to notice what she was doing, there was more television, boredom and loneliness. That’s life for children of working mothers. Eventually, she would figure out how to survive – learning life-long lessons in independence and resilience.

In many ways, her capacity, calm and creativity improved now that we were not rushing out each morning, spending evenings on homework, and then rushing her back to bed. Her complex personality began to flourish because she needed to achieve less, and life became a little less demanding for her even as overlapping responsibilities increased for me. She experimented more with everything, even empty boxes, because she had time. I loved the break from the academic rat-race.

Meanwhile, there is no substitute for seeing each other throughout the day, having a chance to hug up, eat lunch together, and for much more conversation. It’s taken me time to appreciate that as a gift. I’ve had to grow from an old pattern of treating my family as an obstacle to my work deliverables to remembering that they are and should feel like a priority. I’ve recognized that maybe, the whole time, I was out of sync with the emotional beings now in front of me.

The newspapers are full of economic analysis, but I retreat to reading how other parents are managing, laughing with their stories, learning from their strategies, finding community with those who are happier to give children space for self-directed learning, life-skills or just to be, as well as feeling compassion for others overwhelmed by children home with little to do and fearful of their future failure. Such stories provide a qualitative picture, and point to realities and priorities, in a way that statistics can’t.

If the PM and his ballsy recovery team thought of workers, not just as having families to feed, but as parents with nowhere else to leave their children, how would they incorporate recognition of childcare? What multi-tasking stories would they hear?

Tens of thousands of children are usually in school at this time, often attend camps during school holidays while their parents continue to work, or in a usual year are at greater risk of sexual abuse and neglect because safe and affordable care options are unavailable. A child-centered approach would highlight the responsibility of care during economic recovery, draw on how children are coping and growing, and consider what they need.  

Zi and I are both learning, earning small victories. I keep thinking that, by September, we will finally have worked out a routine, just when she has to go back to school, and I’ll deeply miss this time with all its messy mix-ups, sacrifices, tinkering and fears, and combinations of string, glue, paper, and crumbs everywhere.

Post 368.

Name any number of stresses and you would find most of us are now dodging several of them daily. What are the implications of such higher stress when we are locked inside together? On the other hand, what are the implications for so many people who are living alone, and now without options for human contact?

Having rightly closed down bars and other public recreation spaces, mostly frequented by men, how will they cope? Men dominate public spaces, whether playfields, streets or rum shops, which are also spaces for establishing masculine identity and camraderie, and setting boundaries on the spheres of men’s lives within women’s control.

What happens to men, women and families when such spatial distinctions collapse and men are locked indoors? What new conflicts over time, power and decision-making are emerging, which we should publicly talk about and protect ourselves from inside our homes?

In a region where men, particularly older men, may also be among the higher numbers of those living alone, do we understand the realities of our different needs, coping strategies and levels of risk?

Behind our closed doors has become more complex than ever in a world where home may already have been lonely or unsafe, or a rest stop between places where one would rather be. Some may have already begun to lose income and are tense, with nowhere to turn.

Some are beginning to feel trapped or out of control. In response, they may turn to threatening and controlling behaviours as part of expressing frustration. Cases of abuse and the severity of violence in families might increase while options for running to family or friends are closed. For those victims, physical distancing can occur even while those around them help prevent the greater dangers of social isolation.

As with any crisis, women remain particularly vulnerable, whether because they dominate the service and retail industry as workers, and are at risk of losing those jobs, or because they predominate as nurses, and are taking risks that leave them distanced from their families, or because there is deepening isolation for those already being separated from friends and family by abusive partners, or who have been isolating themselves because of shame.

Girls’ risk of sexual abuse is especially high now that uncles, step-fathers, cousins and other men are more present and difficult to escape. The vulnerability we are all feeling right now can make victims feel even less able to report or leave, particularly if they are also women and girls with mental or physical disabilities. Many women in the Caribbean are also primary breadwinners and single parents, and the impossibility of balancing parenting and their profession will fall on them unequally.

Ziya’s school has shown a model response this past week – ‘live’ online sessions every day, three a day over the next two weeks on both mornings and afternoons, and assignments every day, but there’s no chance that, as a working mother and primary breadwinner, I could match their expectations and also accomplish my job.

It’s felt like going insane. The assignments come through a non-child friendly system where they must be downloaded, completed as word files or printed as PDFs, and then photos taken and uploaded. All week, I’ve wondered why primary schools don’t adopt a more empathic approach to learning, think about the child friendliness of the software, consider the realities of the learning environment children are in, send a package of material that could simply be done in the afternoons when office work is completed and two hours can be found to do assignments, and encourage home schooling approaches that don’t require a stay-at-home parent attentive to curriculum throughout the day.

While my mother is concerned about surviving, my friends reach out across their feelings of disconnection and my family panics about declining income, I worry about the implications of opting out of Zi’s school’s zealous teaching strategy or the implications of barely doing my job, when the days seem to demand one or the other.

Many people are protecting their health, but are deeply affected by the psychological and familial challenges of this time. Addressing them is as important as the health and financial responses.

Schools should remain closed after April 20th or we risk an infection spike that could particularly put the elderly at risk, for many of us can only work because grandparents provide after-school care. In the meantime, we need to rethink our assumptions about parents and homes, and our educational philosophy. We need to emerge, not only alive, but intact emotionally.

Post 355.

Vincentian feminist Peggy Antrobus once told me that women can have it all, just not at the same time. There are life stages, she cautioned, and knowing your stage grounds your choices.

The thing about elder wisdom is that you don’t necessarily agree until you reach the life stage where you do. In the meantime, you debate the advice you get and, as they say, hold a meditation about its relevance and worth.

Over the last year, I’ve been wondering if indeed Peggy’s right. I’ve discovered that, not only is it not possible to have it all, but that the choices you make determine the next stage, foreclosing options, and that widespread expectations of womanhood and motherhood are not incidental to these choices. The ‘all’ isn’t about having money, luxury and leisure, it’s about basics that women have a right to, such as both family and a career.

As I’ve become more responsible for Ziya as a working mother, I’ve become more aware of the job sacrifices I’m making, my lower expectations for my abilities, and reduced capacity for leadership.

This is common for professional women in their forties, who are primary carers of their children at the same time that they are in their most important years for professional advancement. Every ambition has its costs and you start aiming for what’s merely realistic as if schoolgirls’ aspirations are just a modern fairy tale.

In making these choices, I’ve become more attentive to the older women around me; the ones who delayed achieving their degrees until after their children grew up, the ones who took less demanding jobs so that they could get home earlier, the ones who start their work day at 4am so that they can do school pick up at 2.30, the ones who took on three jobs despite the extra exhaustion so that they could pay for extra-curricular activities, and the ones who reliably go to pediatricians, parent-teacher meetings and counseling sessions with their children knowing that their best chances for development and emotional resilience have to be planned, communicated, managed and honestly reflected upon.

The very women who can’t have it all are simultaneously at the center of making so much happen, like magicians coordinating a whirlwind, at risk to their sanity, self-care and self-definition. I’m not saying that dads are not important. I’m just saying that the unequal burden of care is real and it’s at the heart of a life stage many women reach.

Working mothers, whether on their own or not, often have to be on top of all the details, from Diwali and Christmas concert contributions to knowing where the uniforms are for each week, and the mental room this takes up is taken for granted whether they work in KFC or have PhDs.

Looking on, we often say to ourselves, I don’t know how she does it.

I’ve listened more for the everyday sacrifices; in health, in self-confidence, in savings, in sleep, in dreams. I deepened appreciation for the crucial role of women’s sisters, mothers, neighbours, children’s friends’ mothers, long-lasting friends, and compassionate co-workers.

Working mothers depend on understanding, encouragement, help, patience and time from a widespread network just to get their family through each day. Women everywhere could barely achieve what they do without the other women who invest in enabling them to.

I always saw these women around me, fitting the common character of the strong Caribbean mother, without really seeing their inner lives, difficult decisions, necessary relationships or wearying stories. Now that I live it, who feels it knows.

In a sense, I have had to decide what I want to excel at, what I am prepared to do my best at, however badly, and what I simply won’t accomplish this month or year or the next. The consequences are ones that will settle into experiences of acceptance and regret that accumulate with age.

In having to spend more time with my daughter this year because that’s the life stage she is in, I have come to recognize that motherhood means her needs determine my life stage for me. All further decisions follow, however this sets other achievements back.

It’s not a complaint, it’s an adjustment to embrace, like a soucouyant who would forever soar the night skies in fire if only daylight didn’t compel her into the confines of her skin. Daybreak has brought knowing what it means to sacrifice for your child as a life stage and as more than a line women so often say.

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 347.

For a long time, I wasn’t into school work. Ziya was barely seven or eight years old. My own expectations didn’t fit the overly academic approach of Caribbean education. I disagreed with the teaching philosophy and psychology that gave children homework at ages five and six, required revising for tests, and substituted chalk and talk for learning through play.

I disagreed for many reasons. Primary schooling undervalues emotional development and social skills. It often leaves children bored and stressed, and emphasizes competition and hierarchy, rather than compassion and collectivity. A fear of making mistakes or doing anything other than what you are told sets in, leaving children less inclined to ask questions than to reproduce established answers. Children are being trained for a single, ultimate survival of the fittest that could determine their life chances. Dreaminess has no real place and certainly no rewards. There’s a formula they must learn to fit in.

I also disagreed because I teach bright university students who are worried and intimidated by everything: getting in ‘trouble’, what others will say, being seen as ‘weird’, and the risks of challenging power, injustice and hierarchy of all kinds. What’s the point of being smart, but passive or high achieving, but individualistic or imaginative, but afraid?

Finally, I disagreed because I remember being good enough in primary and secondary school, but not particularly high-achieving. I remember feeling less smart and less of a success because of it. None of that was necessary. I began to love my classes and naturally excelled at university. I was determined not to reproduce pressure, that at best is pointless and at worst causes harm, from a failure to recognize that children don’t have to always do well to do well eventually.

So, Zi and I would trek to coasts and rivers, and spend hours adventuring on weekends. I didn’t pay attention to her school marks because she’s a child and, frankly, they do not matter. I admired homeschooling, but as a working mother and breadwinner, couldn’t manage. Our compromise was a brief, blissful period of being in the school system, without being bullied by its demands. Providing a bohemian break from regimented reality during our time together was my personal priority.

You have to know your child in a way that no one else will, and commit to her developmental needs, her need for free time and outdoor openness, her obliviousness to scores and rank, and her dreaminess in a way no one else may value.

Then, last week, after her school’s achievement day commemoration, she came home with her certificates, and said she wanted to do well enough for a trophy. I wondered if all this time I had prevented her from being as proud of herself as she could be, but knew it was best that I waited for her to be motivated on her own and ready.

So, this weekend we began. We by-passed the beach and spent the day on math and grammar. It was long, but she had a goal, and my role was not to push, but to support her. On Monday, when tests began, I could see her greater confidence and certainty. She had grown up a little while I wasn’t quite looking, in her time and in her own way.

She came home, proud of her test results and prepared for more revision. I started to think about what it would mean for my time, my career and my sacrifices to be with her every step of the way, not because marks matter, but because feeling good about the results of aspiration and hard work lights a spark which lasts a lifetime.

How remarkable to catch when your child enters a new stage, requiring reflection on how you must grow too. My dream is to enable her to avoid the pitfalls of subordination to school, to empower her to excel but also to know how to escape, to emerge with fearlessness, kindness and dreaminess intact, and to nurture her instinct to learn from Orisha festivals, feminist marches, waterfalls, museums, and groups as diverse as market vendors, Jab masters, URP workers, and LBGT activists.

While Trinidad and Tobago stumbles through its myriad inequalities and failures, there’s one small person that most needs what I can uniquely contribute. This seems unimportant to write about in the face of national headlines. Yet it matters, for so many mothers like me lie awake at night thinking about what we can get right one child at a time.

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 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.