Post 302.

Keep me company while I remember Anuradha Rekha, known to all as Baby. Baby was an ordinary Indian woman, secondary school educated, one of fifteen siblings, married for thirty-three years, with three grown, good-looking sons of whom she was very proud, and a six-year-old grandson, with whom she would bake on Sundays.

She drew the loyalty of all, including parrots, goats, dogs and ducks, who loved her like children. If you asked Baby, she’d tell you the cow, Gayatri, would call her ‘ma’ when it saw her coming, and you’d have no doubt it was true.

Everyone knew Baby, from San Juan market through Santa Cruz to Avocat waterfall. Almost anywhere you could turn, there would be one degree of separation between you and some unexpected member of her dizzyingly vast family. You’d probably get better treatment across El Socorro and Aranguez if you said you knew Baby than if you were related to the MP.

Even though she was also daughter, sister, in-law, niece, and neighbor, she was matriarch to many. She commanded respect the way that women do, without wielding authority or domination. You could be her age, with more degrees, and feel you were in front of a woman full of sharp smarts you hadn’t yet earned and far more resourcefulness than you.

I was boss, but ten years younger and knew my place. My job was to go out there, do well and earn enough for us both. At home, my role was to do whatever she advised me to do.

She had the rarest of qualities; a capacity to instantly win you over with her kindness and genuine care, mixed with an immense amount of affectionate banter, scandalous laughter and natural zest for life.

Few people could have financial challenges, times of ill-health, and daily ups and downs, and still stand out as the person most likely to bring joy, life and light to others in a room. Few people could request duty-free Scotch, when I passed through the airport, with Baby’s brand of expectant charm.

Baby worked in my house for more than ten years. She was already working there when we arrived and began our family. She didn’t just look after it, she walked in like she was entrusted with it, the way we are entrusted with responsibility of the nation for another generation.

Baby was there when Ziya was born, at home, and immediately decided that she was her first grandchild. Whether cough, fever or unsettled crying, Baby was ready to jharay it away. She’d carry her home, and Zi would emerge plump, powdered and looking proud, with her hair curled in rings like a doll. Baby’s dhalpuri and curry mango was legendary, and she had begun to teach Zi to make aloo pie and roti like a proper dougla beti.

She wasn’t just a ‘domestic employee’, the official name for women who contribute their invaluable labour to others’ households. She was CEO of all that went on in my house, and her thorough system of sorting, folding, packing and more is in every cupboard. Almost as in her own home, her conscientious, mothering spirit is in every room, just as I am sure it touched all the children along her street.

Domestic workers are a category of women workers whose value we underestimate. We highlight stories of those considered successful, such as heroes, national medal winners and business people, as if such women were not the backbone to their lives, and they often go nameless in public recognition and thanks.

I’ve never attended an awards ceremony where the women who cook food, look after children, clean, and hold your greatest reserve of trust, are acknowledged. These women are not just workers relied on to create the conditions for others’ success, they are women without wealth, fame or power, who are also often hidden in history.

My professional advancement relied on her. The labour of such women, and the importance of their friendship, is hardly cited in print and in public, but gratitude for the difference Baby made and the example she set makes me do so today.

She was avid about Play Whe, which was convenient given the regular appearance of snakes and centipedes in our house, and some part of me now feels duty-bound to play a mark for Baby.

If you open a bottle, pour a drop in her name and join me to wish her beloved spirit rest in peace.

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Post 231.

Global emphasis on women’s economic empowerment has taken centre stage. The UN is talking about it as are Commonwealth countries and top women execs. Headlines on this goal are set to become more common. What do they signal?

Feminist goals regarding economic power build on a century of analysis regarding women and work around the world. ‘Economic empowerment’ is an idea with long history: from the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual, reproductive and labour exploitation for colonial plantation profits to contemporary women’s subsistence agriculture or informal economic activities and housework hours remaining uncounted and unvalued. The idea has filtered into decades of focus on micro-finance, small-scale saving, sustainable income opportunities, fair trade, and public policies to support work-family balance.

Caribbean women have deep knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of economic empowerment. Our grandmothers were raising families, theirs and sometimes others, while also taking in sewing work, selling cakes and pastelles or marketing their garden produce. Many Caribbean women labour in the informal economy, manage small savings through sou sou systems, and take risks to start their medium-scale businesses. Yet, it’s only been in the last decades that women have shattered glass ceilings in middle management. They have yet to do so among top CEOs and in areas like finance.

Caribbean feminists have added an important dimension. For them, economic empowerment should not be reduced to women’s entrepreneurial survival and success. In other words, empowerment isn’t only how well you do at business nor is business logic the best way to ensure equity, rights, freedoms and a good life.

Rather, economic empowerment is when women, including the poorest among us, can collectively and powerfully influence states’ macro-economic policy, and push through legislation and protocols that effectively stop waste and corruption, which ultimately emaciate social sector spending. Have women secured such influence in Trinidad and Tobago today? If more women became successful business leaders, would they be more likely to take on these issues?

Economic empowerment is when women’s experience of labouring in both the public sphere and private businesses occurs within the context of all the policies that they need. It is when market vendors can shape agricultural trade policy or when domestic workers can get the government to ratify International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which enshrines their right to decent work.

Women’s economic empowerment isn’t just about jobs, financial services, property ownership and legal rights, though those are important. It’s more than increasing the numbers of individually wealthy women. It’s certainly about more than their charity and greater ability to help others. It’s about more than increasing the numbers of women in the workplace, for many of those jobs may be dead-end, like hotel cleaners at a Tobago Sandals resort.

Strong, women-led, social movements, which successfully hold the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, are the best example of women’s economic empowerment. These movements recognize the unequal burdens and intersecting sources of subordination as well as the forms of dignity and value that characterize women’s labour. They collectively challenge ideologies and institutions that sustain existing inequities in power and patterns of control over economic, natural and intellectual resources. They compel investment in public infrastructure, for example in drinkable water and safe transportation, that affect women’s home-based and waged-based work.

Will the current focus on women’s entrepreneurship advance such movement-building? Will it sustain commitment to cross-class solidarities among women, or a trickle-down form of feminism?

Indian feminist, Srilatha Batliwala, writes, “in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual – from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signaling individual power, achievement, status” (OpenDemocracy 2007).

Yes, there should be more equal numbers of wealthy women to wealthy men. But, there should also be less extreme economic inequality between wealthy and poor. There should be access to justice for all regardless of their place in the economy.  Such justice must include the legitimacy and influence of movements to end gender inequalities.

Given all that women’s economic empowerment thus means, we wait to see what emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship actually achieves.

Post 230.

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Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

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Post 213.

Is your child’s homework sparking greater creativity? Is it igniting her imagination? Is it encouraging her to ask and follow her own questions about the world? Is it teaching fearlessness as well as compassion and cooperativeness? Will it make her more passionate about learning? Is her homework fun?

I reflected on these questions while on a boat to Nelson Island this Saturday, thinking about how much learning should happen outside of classrooms, promising myself to create my own curriculum of subjects like math, geography, history, science and languages by roaming as much of the country as I can with Zi.

For example, she learned about her indentured Indian ancestors’ confinement on the island, Butler’s six year incarceration, the words “workers’ rights” and “capitalism”, and saw the prison cells where the grandfather of a boy she knows was held in the 1970s. She counted islands and observed ocean garbage. I know many parents who value just this approach, involving their children in cooking, growing food, stargazing, and know-your-country-trips to highlight the relevance of knowledge and skills to their lives.

I know fewer parents as opposed as I am to early induction into stress-producing test preparation, free-time-eliminating extra lessons, and strictness as the key to academic success. I also don’t believe that children, especially five year olds, should get homework. Nor do I think children’s other activities should be determined by how much homework they have.

With test culture and standardization, teachers are doing their best, and schools can’t do or be everything. I’m not against revision, but feel that homework should either include or leave evenings and weekends free for other possibilities for dreaming, making-believe, and making unique and unexpected meanings. Mostly it does neither, and is more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than inspire delight and curiosity.

I have my own philosophy about the purpose of education, and my own take on schooling’s approach to learning as well as its weight on how learning is experienced in and out of school. I’m open to the benefits of school, and the genuine love and efforts of teachers, but after the bell rings, other ways and kinds of learning should be given fair chance. When can that happen when children spend so much time on homework so many evenings each week, even on weekends? Is more time spent sitting still, being stressed by pressuring parents, and being taught to complete work to avoid trouble the best lessons we can provide?

Other activities, like music or gymnastics, where the body moves as part of learning, even if it’s just hands beating pan or fingers tapping piano keys, are necessary for growing minds to map themselves and for different learning styles to find their space in ways that P.E. classes cannot substitute. After-school play helps children’s brains to develop capacities and connections which schools may be able to give neither time nor priority. Self-directed time is crucial for cognitive and emotional development, which are inseparable. For me, adventure, beyond habitual routes and routines, is key for continually opening those boxes that my university students eventually think from within, without even noticing their passivity to the status quo.

Imagine asking children to do whatever makes them super-excited about the subject for homework. What would they choose? And, if we tried that, what might we discover about how children wish to learn and actually do? Perhaps then, there might be less quarreling about not staying focused or taking responsibility, not wanting to do well or taking an interest in school work, and not trying hard enough at an almost everyday activity which, let’s be real, isn’t meant to be interesting or likable. We would instead ask ourselves about our own responsibility, as adults, for reproducing a national system where a good portion of students opt out of learning or forget it’s something that they were hard-wired to pursue and enjoy.

Wise parents warn me about homework burdens in years just ahead, the pleasures it infrequently offers, and its narrowing rather than expanding of independent reasoning. I’m not sure how I’m going to negotiate it then, but there’s a good chance I’ll decide while Zi and I are somewhere on land or sea, dreevaying.

Post 212.

Picture Paul-Keen’s Douglas’ script for “Party Nice”, with him insisting “is only a little ting we having”.

Ziya turns five next week. A birthday party is expected. If not by her then by my mother, who takes the memorability of the party personally, like Ziya’s public advocate on all things grandchildren rightfully deserve. For her part, Zi buffed me up for buying her dinosaur-themed party paraphernalia, asking me if I think her friends would want to go back home when they realize there were no princesses or little ponies. Who tell me buy dat?

I’ve spent the last two years emphasizing the coolness of dinosaurs, science and outer space, bought books with awesome paleontology facts, watched endless episodes of “Dinosaur Train’, drove to school on a morning letting her label every person we saw as a different kind of dinosaur. She has been genuinely into it. Not for her party. Here gender socialization, keeping up with friends, worry about fitting in and others’ approval prevail.

This seems inconsequential, but it highlights how narrow the options for girls remain, in their own peer circles and among parents, despite decades of women pushing the frontiers of femininity. This seems obvious from separate distribution of pink and camouflage-printed goods in toy store aisles. A few months ago, it had me poised between sets of Lego, in the ‘boys’ aisle defined by Jurassic Park and Minecraft, and, in the girls’ aisle, defined by limousines, make-up dressers complete with mirrors and lipstick, multiple kinds of hair styles, and leisure settings, like liming in a yacht. Eventually, I bought a submarine, with no girl figures in it, but satisfyingly complex, and neither about violence nor beauty.

It’s like Caribbean women’s rights is in a gendered war with Disney Corporation, and with Disney mass marketing across both media and merchandising, my messages of imagining a girl’s self beyond the most stereotypical are of little worth. If I had more time, I’d publish my own character, called Empress Sapodilla Sugarplum, whose series of stories I’ve already written in my head, and who imagines herself in backyard adventures as Jamaican warrior leader Nanny of the Maroons as much as she dresses up as Camille Alleyne, Trinidad and Tobago’s own awesome astronaut, up and away in a box with the sounds of a rocket launch streaming from Youtube. Thank goddess for Doc McStuffins, we reached a truce. As the mother of a brown sapodilla, who wishes for anything other than white mermaids and princesses, both Zi and I love this character, her message and music.

Good. Snacks. Cake. Drinks. I’m all like, you can invite five friends and we will play ‘pass the parcel’ and musical chairs. The child squinted up her eyes at my clearly last- generation idea of a party, unsurprisingly, for everyone else’s had a bouncy castle, and face painting. Indeed, I wondered if the handful of children I let her invite would all appear and stand around not knowing what to do with themselves.

“Is only a little ting we having” isn’t what parents put out at children’s parties anymore, and these are working middle-class people, with no businesses or trust funds. I’ve watched professional moms, in particular, turn up totally put together and triumphant, but completely exhausted, having baked, packaged, put up, handmade, ordered and organized everything, with it all costing about $5000, and me there, both awed and appreciative, but askance that the same might be expected of me.

I think Zi can have a big party when she has a job and can save for it herself. At this point, my mother prepares to look offended on her behalf, like Thelma when Keens-Douglas says, we go have the party, just buy some “cheeweez”. I don’t blame her, if I had my way, there would be a yard for kids to play, snacks, and the other parents, Stone and I would watch our children tire themselves out while we dressed back with drinks. US media dominance, middle-class pressures, working mom’s aspirations, and resilient gender stereotypes are all there to be managed even at such seemingly ideologically-innocent times. Whatever little ting she gets, Zi better end her birthday like Tantie Merle, only saying “party nice”.

Post 211.

This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.

I was a speaker at  ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.

‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.

I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.

Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.

Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?

Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.

It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?

My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.

Post 197.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’, the well-known pediatrician and fellow columnist asked me, I hoped rhetorically.

As Stone, Ziya and I entered in his office, he eyed Zi’s bottle of diluted cranberry juice the way US customs officials profile suspected narcotics traffickers as they step off the plane.

‘No more processed juice’, he declared, like entrance rules of a worm-hole to some healthier space-time. ‘It’s processed?’ I countered, because I like to think we buy healthy. ‘Did it come in a box, tin, container or carton?’ he spelt out, because obviously it did. ‘It’s processed unless your squeeze juice from fruit yourself’, he concluded, because clearly we hadn’t.

Then, he seemed to stop himself from starting a radical, anarcho-feminist, anti-big pharma, anti-global-food corp critique, one he had no doubt been championing since the 1970s. Instead, he simply outlined that big companies fool us into thinking that what we buy is beneficial instead of defined by chemical colours, acidifying preservatives, emulsifiers, and harmful processes, especially for children. Just read labels. I mentioned that Zi has Kellogg’s bran on a morning with banana and, I swear, it was like watching Harry Potter bristle at a Death Eater.

I appreciated his hard core line on what we should feed our children. Like Zi’s teachers, who chastise parents for sending chocolate, fruit snacks and cookies instead of real fruit in lunch kits.

Except at birthday parties, Zi doesn’t access soft drinks, or eat those biscuits, Kiss cakes or other packages of salt, sugar, sorbic acid and various four-syllable poisons. I’ve stood in the Pennywise hair products’ aisle wondering, if I died tomorrow, who would take the time to buy her shampoo without sulfate. I pointlessly rant, as I am never home to do the cooking, about the harms of canola, corn and soy oils, and pointlessly insist, as I am never home to do the grocery shopping, on us buying more costly grapeseed and cold-pressed coconut oil.

Zi’s vegetarian because twenty years ago I read so much on the horrors of meat production that I was done. If meat was raised in somebody’s backyard on grass, that would be different. But, what we buy has often been raised with antibiotics, growth-hormones and genetically modified corn, usually in stressful conditions, and we don’t yet know what long term harm that does to children. Finally, she has never had milk because so many children are lactose-intolerant, and milk is the cause of far too many rashes, infections, upsets, sinus irritations and allergies.

We sought the doctor because Zi was suffering from mosquito bites that she scratched into sores, which wouldn’t heal for weeks. ‘Cut out juices and other products with sugar, including overly processed brans and granolas as well as cheese,’ were our final pediatric instructions as I imagined the Mission Impossible soundtrack ricocheting around the room.

It’s here I felt justifiably overwhelmed. Fresh juicing, baking with unrefined flour and buying more organic everything seemed like plenty more effort for one woman logging long hours at work. It seemed like even more effort to my pork-loving, three-kinds-of-carbohydrates-on-the-plate-eating, lettuce-as-a-vegetable-counting, skeptical-of-Gab’s-probably-unneccessary-consumption-commandments, but nonetheless supportive husband. Stone and I exchanged one of those married people glances.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’ He contested my politics when I contested his expectations. I knew better than to duel with a doctor whose crew is midwives, and fearless breastfeeding and reproductive rights activists.

Indeed, feminism includes building a healthier world, for us, animals and the earth. It includes giving consumer power to organic farmers and green markets rather than to the handful of corporations that make us stuffed, but starving, with shortening life-spans, and combinations of children’s diabetes, obesity and attention deficits.

If I wanted to be feminist, I’d have to defend the rights of my child, first in my own home, and value the responsibility and power of such reproductive time and labour. My soundtrack would have to be more Thug Life than Nestle, Pepsico, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Wrigley.

As we left I thought of a joke, but don’t tell anybody. How many feminists does it take to make fresh cucumber juice? Just one! His name is Stone and we love him dearly!