Post 411.

ALTHOUGH I am home with Ziya, there are days when she barely sees me. It’s hard to imagine as I make meals, wash dishes, sweep up her pencil and eraser shavings on evenings, supervise homework, and sort out ten-year-old difficulties. Yet it’s not quality time and I fear that this rare opportunity to be together, brought on by the pandemic, will soon pass, and I will have missed moments we could have had. As for so many parents, long hours of work and then exhaustion are like the flow of high tide, taking over time.

When you are not there, you don’t even know what you miss or what you should have been there for, and I think about the sacrifices Ziya makes for my life. I spend so much time preoccupied with violence or other issues, sometimes I can’t switch off early enough to give an hour for us, not to rush her through dinner or to bed, but to listen, counsel and give caring the priority it deserves. She appears quite independent, but needs me more than I may recognise. For those giving to their communities or contributing to social change, there are costs to their families that no one sees.

I had spent International Women’s Day focused on the facts of women’s lives, glad to engage the public in ways I hope helped to inform and inspire. IWD is such an important date for women; we commemorate the history of women’s struggle, the successes of their achievements, the world created through their labour, and the injustices still to transform.

It’s a day when my family shouldn’t expect me to be present, given its usual manic pace. However, events ran late and I missed the Walk Out for Women, an action organised in Port of Spain by Act for T and T, Conflict Women, Womantra, CAISO, Network of NGOs and other organisations to highlight calls for safer transport, a national plan to address gender-based violence, and greater emphasis on peace-building strategies to counter our increasingly violent society.

From the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly in 1958 to the Network of NGOs and CAFRA in the 1990s, each year, women carry the baton.

Whereas I would have rushed into town, everything slowed down. Instead of hustling up Zi as I usually do, I had time to hear her practise piano and see her delightedly play, fleeting gifts I would have otherwise missed. I chided myself that she’s my most important work because she’s a girl growing in a world in which gender equality does not exist.

Changing that world matters; raising a girl to navigate its harms and deceptions, emerge with confidence, and feel connection to her potential as much as to her feelings matters just as much. I suppose I’m better at the first than the second, though finding the right balance takes hourly intention and self-forgiveness. It was a reminder to value, not just public leadership work, but the loving labour of the private sphere, where gender socialisation can be challenged, where social norms are changed, where girls will find their greatest safety and be guided through to resilience.

At home instead of marching to Woodford Square, I found Zi in a home-made scrub extravaganza sourced through the internet. Her latest jar, a green concoction of sugar, salt, food colouring and essential oils, was filled with even greener glitter, the kind that washes down drains and rivers, and into the ocean, killing fish who think it’s food.

Parents can monitor viewing hours and block content, but won’t see every video their child watches. So we sat down and had a long conversation about the internet; how it presents dangers without providing warnings, how children don’t yet have the capacity to sort its good and bad messages, how it doesn’t show the potential harms and consequences of what others present, how adults will deliberately or irresponsibly mislead children, how content isn’t monitored for age appropriateness the way it used to be for television, how anyone can post anything, however fake or predatory, and how she shouldn’t believe or follow whatever she sees.

It was nearly an hour of serious reasoning with a little girl who thinks she knows what America is like from Youtube. It left her better able to protect herself from immensely perilous online and offline worlds she hasn’t begun to understand.

I fell asleep thinking about activism, mothering, costs and priorities. Another March 8 spent dreaming of a different world, and recognition of women’s rights and responsibilities.

Post 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.

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 311.

Every end of term is a chance to assess whether we are teaching children the way that they learn or making them learn the way we teach; a misguided approach that helps to explain why so many students fail to do well, experience terror and fear at test time, and don’t particularly enjoy school.

In thinking about this, I’ve spent time looking at other schooling systems. In Amsterdam, they don’t begin to teach reading until seven years old. In Japan, there is no testing at all until children are ten as all their first years in school focus on developing ethics, independence and resilience; building community-spirit; and creating connections between children and nature.

As my own eight-year old child walks away from class bent over under the weight of her school bag, I’ve wondered if our understanding of childhood is the right one, for it emphasizes children’s mental development, but hardly attends to their emotions.

This is such a strange decision to make as emotional experiences which we have as children define so many adults for the rest of their lives, and because children’s development is primarily emotional – in terms of their understanding of their feelings, their ability and willingness to express them, and their capacity to connect knowledge to emotional intelligence.

Childhood is when our life long emotional map is established, often in ways we don’t come close to realizing, despite the fact that these early emotional maps determine many of our decisions and relationships as adults.

What I’m referring to here is different from teaching morals and civic virtues, and even kindness and cooperation. There’s excellent guidance for that in children’s classes already. I’m referring to children’s relationship to their feelings, to each other’s feelings, and our own understanding of how key these are for their own success as well as for the fate of the future and the world.

How else to say it? Our future isn’t only in the books weighing down the school bags of our children, but also in the hearts beating like tiny bird wings in their little chests. Let’s not forget.

Indeed, who attends to children’s emotional development with the same time, effort, guidance and revision that is put to their school curriculum? Do parents and teachers even know what this means, and when and how to do it? Or what the consequences are of it not happening?

I’ve been thinking about this myself because I’ve been wondering how to react to Ziya’s end of term results. I’m not focused on her marks, she’s too young for those to indicate her academic future, but because final marks are signs of both academic and emotional strengths and weaknesses. We can revise the curricula all through the holidays. How to know what to do about everything else that shapes how she learns and copes and feels?

In wondering what kind of parent to be, I’ve thought hard about accepting lower marks because I know she’s an emotionally complex little character and there have been a few hard months for her over the course of this term.

In accepting possibly lower marks, how do I build her confidence through appreciating she’s doing her best, she while also ushering her into the next life stages when she can do better? And in that process, how do I even know what her emotional needs are and what giving them the same focus and priority as schooling looks like?

As the end of term approaches, I’m urging gentleness and reflection from parents when opening those report cards. I’m also urging reflecting on context – both school and home – because those are where the answers to their marks also lie, with us, with our parental understanding of children’s developmental stages, with our capacity to attend to the emotional and mental fit necessary for learning.

There’s no rule book for knowing how to get the mind-heart balance. Each child is also different, and there isn’t a single parent who always gets it all right.

Keeping that in mind, know that some of their mistakes are reflections of ours, and if their report cards tell any truth, it’s that school marks count for some aspects of life, emotional learning is all that matters for others, and not one adult parent always gets an A grade at both all of the time.

I’m just trying to remember to support all forms of learning which children need. And to equally value all they know just as much as all they feel.

Post 264.

As term concluded all over the country, parents sat through sweet, wonderful and interminable school and extra-curricular Christmas shows of various kinds. If you want an ethnographic look at the nuances of the modern social contract, observe hundreds of parents generously applauding each others’ children’s best attempt at anything audible or coordinated on stage  (or not) in a mutual agreement of after-work patience and reciprocity. 

Thousands of parents will help make these shared moments happen; those in the parent-teacher associations, those who work full time and give far more than I can even imagine, those who are primary care-givers and are the real glue in school efforts at Christmas shows, carnival costumes, Divali celebrations, and fundraising efforts. Most, but not all are women.

I’m not one of those moms. I’m terrible at staying on top of what my one child has due in school, attending choir meetings, helping to paint the classrooms or cultivating a school food garden.  I don’t have an excuse. I know mothers of more children than me, working full-time and raising their children virtually on their own, who also make muffins for class bake sales and show up in the right length shorts for the school fundraising car wash. 

You mothers are amazing. I honor and appreciate you. I’m wracked by guilt for being what feels like a bad mom, often more interested in work than anything else, but I haven’t yet organized my life to contribute in ways that share the care. I always wonder if dads ever experience that guilt. Nonetheless, it’s a resolution for next year.

There’s the expectation that a good school will put on these Christmas plays or Carnival productions, but there’ a lot of extra effort needed to pull off something that parents won’t quietly grumble over.

This year, rather than going big, Ziya’s school held their play in the school hall and the decorations had that handmade for the school auditorium feel. It’s always a negotiation between the fanciness of the production, and the cost and effort required.  

I liked the scaled-down version because it felt authentic. It simplified the point, which was to collectively be there for children to shine for a few minutes in more than their parents’ eyes, not spend money which some don’t have during economic hard times nor make the space and style more impressive than the small people singing in or out of tune. It was clear that the teachers had acted, not only out of professional responsibility, but out of immense pride and love, to display to us how our children have grown through their hundreds of hours of care. I want to salute teachers too and recognize your contribution and value.

A school production is not only an prime example of community, it’s a rite of passage for parents; those memories you will lovingly cherish, and yet are happy to leave behind, of sitting through class after class or age group after age group of skit, song and dance of questionable though super-cute skill.  The extra-curricular end-of-year productions are like that also, lots of rehearsals and costuming, and lots of empowering parental response, an extension of the way we look at our own little ones’ drawings and imagine their adult artwork hanging in the Louvre. It’s a shared soft-focus approach and one of the best things about the end of term when everyone is tired, but a coalition of the willing.

When strife dominates the front pages, it’s easy to forget that these end of term shows can be those precious moments of life which matter most to thousands of families, often taking priority over headline news. 

I highlight them here because, now that the term and tests are over, it’s good to remember that teaching and learning is sometimes less about our heads or our ranks and marks, than the memories we are blessed enough to gather in our hearts.