Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

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 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.

Post 207.

Tears. In the morning when I left the classroom after pulling Zi off me, feeling her like a small, green sapodilla clinging to its branch. Tears. In the afternoon as I transitioned her from the end of school to her extra-curricular activities, and because there were more new teachers, new rooms and new children, and she wanted me to stay.

One particular afternoon, she realized it wasn’t the gymnastics teacher she already knew, and watched the large number of unfamiliar children in the class with increasing apprehension, for her shy self the perfect storm of terror. More tears upon tears. One teacher held her while I walked away without looking back, as if everything was okay.

In my office, I’d have to recover from that last plaintive wail of ‘mummy!’, that I turned my back on, echoing in my head. I knew that within minutes of my leaving, she would be getting on with the moment, but the tears made me wonder so many things.

What if the world followed children’s readiness to separate, when might that happen instead of at such a young age? When you know your child feels overwhelmed in new situations, with new people and large groups, is there a parental secret to helping her adjust? Or, is tough love the right, real deal?

When you see the value of teaching philosophies that point to the importance of children identifying what they are interested in learning, does insisting your child press on through tears help or hurt their relationship to education? I thought about myself in childhood piano lessons, bored and afraid of the teacher, who somehow failed to nurture passion, curiosity or fun. Being forced to go wouldn’t have helped me learn and, eventually, to secure permission to stop going, I might have bawled down the place too.

Of course, when it was time to collect Zi, she was busy doing floor rolls with the other children in the same flood-of-tears gymnastics class, her sobs forgotten by her more than by me. I thought about how I almost got fooled, almost agreed to take her home, through wanting to value the kind of learning that children choose when they are ready, almost to counter the opposite experience of typical schooling.

How to know when to lovingly push children past their comfort zone, or when to listen to and follow their instincts, for there are important lessons there, particularly for girls, which they may carry into the ways they see their emotions, treat their bodies or defend their choices. Yet, life involves learning to make the most of situations we are in, chosen or not, and in the process to develop skills that include patience, self-discipline and courage. Better to learn them at four than at forty years old, free of charge from mom instead of through lost jobs, relationships or creative opportunities, or nose-bleedingly expensive therapy.

For moms, community is a must. Observing the momentous trivialities of Ziya’s first two weeks of primary school, one mom wrote me to share that she took the week off work to settle her daughter into secondary school. I sent back my respects. My aunt told me how she was granted milk and cookies from her 1950s, primary school nutrition programme. She drank the milk and, until she left for high school, used the cookies to bribe the school bully so she wouldn’t beat her up. She was so introverted that she didn’t tell her sister who was also in the school, nor her mother.  But, “it worked,” she said, “no beatings and no osteoporosis”.

Uncertainties and fears are life-long challenges as life continually changes. As every parent knows, it takes children different lengths of time and different kinds of support and smarts to adjust, but all have to. “One of our biggest jobs as a parent, messaged wise mom Gillian, is simply “to be there after they return from the sometimes heavy world”. “We all have to go through growing pains”, concurred my sistren Shalini, “just always receive her at the end of the day with love”. As I watched Zi skipping off this morning, I thought, there are tears, but there is time, toughening up, and hugs.

Post 205.

Growing into parenthood is truly an opportunity for life-long learning.

As you prepare your little sapodilla for that memorable moment of starting primary school, you learn that your skills are really not up to that sticky, plastic wrap, book-covering thing. You learn from a next mother (for it seems that it is moms who cover children’s books), and after you paper all the copybooks in brown paper,  that they are sold already covered in plastic. So, you tell yourself you had planned it so to be more environmentally-conscious anyway.

You learn that you can actually iron those tiny school uniform pleats with love in the days before primary school finally starts, even though you hate ironing, and you know that you will likely not iron with such love by week five.

You learn to make new friends with parents with whom you may have nothing in common, but the collective, educational welfare of your children, and the fact that you will attend more of their children’s birthday parties over the next year than adult dinners, drinks or fetes.

You learn you might be the only parent who thinks its scandalous that the mandatory school swimsuit for a four year old costs $45 USD, precisely because education should rely on low cost resources unless those costs are for the best books, labs or musical instruments, and you realize, in a suddenly less naïve moment, that the children of UWI lecturers might be the poorer ones in the classroom.

You learn how to manage your self too, your philosophy and your ways of securing the kind of education you want for your child. I couldn’t find a school that didn’t believe in tests, homework, hierarchical ranking of students, or the idea of learning through competition, rather than in relation to their personal best. All of children’s educational experience from Reception is geared toward that master-test, the SEA, itself a grand, nation-wide, hierarchical and competitive ranking and, eventual, class stratification.

And while we think that discipline, structure, examinations, conformity and competition are the core principles of learning, I’d prefer to see care, cooperation, creativity, acceptance of eccentricity, and fearlessness for nonconformist experimentation emphasized, as these are historically the bases for art, activism, science, philosophy, invention and ecological conservation

So, I know I will have to learn how to negotiate my own values of alternative education with those of Zi’s teachers in a way that puts first her ability to feel at home and forge an enabling relationship with her school.  Zi’s already asking if its okay to make mistakes in her school work, just as she’s asking why its important that her hair be so neat, just as she’s already looking amongst her motley belongings for a present to take for her teacher, just as she asked me to let Miss know that she’s scared of the big children because they are too rough, just as she wants to know why no one else besides me thinks God shouldn’t always be referred to as ‘Father’, for that’s a hidden curriculum in every assembly, just as she will learn to identify who writes, reads or adds well, hopefully realizing children should help rather than judge others with weaknesses where they have strengths. So, listening, I’m aware of this new experience as a complex one for her, and the reflection it requires of me.

As always, there is labour and logistics. There is love and letting go. There is taking the best of what is offered while protectively nurturing a sense of the right and capacity to challenge the status quo in the best ways, based on what most creates confidence and independence, as well as instincts for justice.

There was pride and nostalgia shining like morning dew in mom’s eyes this week as we watched our children step away and into a new experience. Zi entered a school and class I was in, at her exactly her age, thirty-seven years ago.

Life long learning as a woman and mother over that time have brought me this far. As my sapodilla grows with each school lesson, her challenges will also challenge me to best support her learning, as well as her individuality and empowerment, in a holistic, harmonious, healthy and honest way. In this educational experience for us both, I guide, but she’s leading the way.