Post 186.

Though most days I don’t leave work until 6.30pm, my mid-week classes end even later and I don’t get home until Ziya is already asleep.

At that point, the best part of the day is finally having the chance to snuggle close to her, smell her eyebrows, neck and hair, and feel her reposition her warm, soft self all around me, with all the entitlement of familiarity.

In these moments, I wonder if the long hours are worth it, and what kind of sacrifices would be necessary to organize life otherwise.

Something would have to give, but what? Maybe my support to Caribbean feminisms, without which I’d feel empty of passion and meaning, or this diary, which provides crucial oxygen for creativity, or the greater sanity resulting from exercise, which women over forty need to do just to survive. Maybe, I’d just have to choose slower career advancement, with implications both for my worries about making ends meet as well as for my fulfillment of dreams that demanded fourteen years in university.

Truth is, as much as I miss irreplaceable moments with Zi, there are also other identities, as activist, writer and worker, which matter. As we entangle under the covers, I wonder if that’s okay or whether I’m being selfish, whether I’ll regret or defend these choices, even just for giving Zi reason to be proud of me.

I had decided my searching the dark for answers was privileged fluff, best kept to myself, for there are more important issues to talk about, like the fact that police shouldn’t have to engage in civil disobedience to get pay and benefits that are overdue, or the fact that come election day, our choices are between two political parties that have proven records of overseeing and overlooking massive corruption, waste and mismanagement, or the fact that we have a mere six months to make sure that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and EMA actually put everything in place for proper, promised national recycling to become reality.

Yet, over this weekend, so many other women shared similar negotiations, I was reminded that our collective experiences tell us about the times in which we live, and deserve more than self-conscious silence.

On Saturday, at the Fearless Politics conference honouring Hazel Brown, both Nicole Dyer-Griffith and Khadijah Ameen spoke about the challenge of balancing mothering with public life, especially given politics’ history as male dominated and defined, where parliamentary hours are set by the assumption that someone else is caring for your family and where parliament has no crèche, daycare or breastfeeding space, as if the business of the House is not answerable to the business of the home.

On Sunday, at Zi’s school friend’s birthday party, all the women there were also mothering workers; teachers, administrators, lawyers, web designers, flight attendants and more. Women who leave work at 5pm, spend evenings with their children, and then complete their deliverables from 9pm to 1am. Women who have no choice but to collect their children at 2.30pm and bring them to work for two hours, despite their boss’ annoyance, for between traffic and cost, what else could they do? Women who leave their children with their mother or sister while they and their husbands fulfill their scheduled shifts. Women whose wish to have more than one child came at exactly the age when they wished to achieve their professional aspirations.

It is much worse for more disadvantaged women and I’m not describing dire circumstances here. Just late night recognition that reconciling work and family is less simple than it appears.

Advertisements

Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

Post 167.

One morning, after dropping Ziya to pre-school, on time, I drove away thinking about her teachers’ emphasis on preparing her for primary school next year. What no one talks about is how much pre-school is primary school preparation for parents like me.

I suspected her teachers knew this given that, when Zi was entering Year 1, I somehow didn’t know that you are supposed to show up at school registration day with actual documents and not just the child. I caught them exchanging glances like, well, there’s one every year and, indeed, here she is.

And, now that she’s in Year 2, how was I supposed to know that Zi would be self-conscious walking into class after it started because we arrived late? First, that she would be self-conscious about lateness at three years old never occurred to me. Second, I thought pre-school was where children went to learn through play and could join in activities anytime. Apparently, not. It’s all about routine and schedule and also learning discipline. Who knew?

I’m good at books-related parenting and Zi’s library covers everything from astronomy to dinosaurs to art history with gorgeous and child-friendly artwork. I’m good at giving her life experiences, whether of rivers, restaurants or protests. Zi marched with citizens saying no to the electoral run- off proposal, imposed without adequate consultation. She participated in the climate change march, giving us a chance to talk about how the birds, animals and marine life need their homes protected too, though she was primarily focused on her snocone. She almost lives by Yara river. Her godmother, aunties and I give her abundant experiences of good food, leading to her suddenly declare her love for decaf cappuccino last month. Don’t ask.

Aside from this, I’m often too preoccupied to notice that forgetting her virtually empty, mostly symbolically important, schoolbag is a big deal. I figure Zi’s got to learn that few things constitute a crisis. I tell her better to make Pete the Cat’s “‘Buttons come, buttons go. Do we cry? Goodness no”, her survival motto.

My mother practically started a custody case when she realized I would have blithely sent Zi to school in ordinary instead of Indian clothes for Divali, prompting her to rush to Chaguanas to spare her one grandchild not fitting in or having the whole experience. I mean she’s got a lifetime to wear shalwars, right?

I didn’t think about starting the school year with a new lunch kit just because her current one is rusty or her best friend got a new one or it’s what parents normally do. Zi had to have a talk with me in her ‘mummy, you should have’ admonishing voice while I rolled my eyes, but listened.

Zi’s teachers finally took charge when I was explaining that I’d forgotten to dress her in Republic Day colours as requested. They sent me an email announcing that when children do what teachers ask, they get rewarded with a sticker. It seems I’m now on a sticker system, with my own chart. Not the other parents, just me.

Zi’s being prepared for primary school, but my learning curve includes getting her to school on time, mostly. I make sure she’s got her show-and-tell in her bag, mostly. I remember to collect her on afternoons without setting an alarm or being reminded by a concerned co-worker, mostly.  She’ll be dressed in proper outfits for all national days from now on, mostly. It will have taken, not just her, but me, two full years to be prepared for primary school, mostly.

I thank her teachers.

Now, where’s my sticker?

Post 121.

I was surprised to hear her experience, though I suppose I already knew inside why we need to attend to the truths of women’s lives.

In my Women’s Studies class, we were reading Catharine MacKinnon’s classic piece on consciousness-raising.  A woman quoted in the article said, ‘I am nothing when I am by myself…I only know I exist because I am needed by someone who is real, my husband, and by my children. My husband goes out into the real world. Other people recognize him as real, and take him into account….I stay in my imaginary world in this house… The work I do changes nothing; what I cook disappears, what I clean one day must be cleaned again the next…”

A housewife in my class, articulate and passionate, read this excerpt to us because it described how she feels every day.  Then, she began to cry. Don’t worry, forget it, she said, dismissing her feelings and her voice.

Not in my class. Knowledge should touch not only our minds, but our hearts. It should rattle the cages we peer through. It should teach that our silences will not protect us, and it should turn our fears into language and transformation.  Invisibility and inequality hurt, and we can also get cut by the shards when we shatter those glass walls. It’s totally okay to cry.

Another woman suggested that the first not let anyone undervalue her contribution as a mother to her family and to society. However, it is not that housewives must discover self-validation from within themselves.  It is that our values must change.

Housewives live in a society where their labour has no visibility and no value. CSO does not count the number of hours spent on cooking, cleaning or caring for elderly or children. It is as if the care economy, for which women remain unequally responsible and without which the waged economy would collapse, does not exist. The government has no clue what the these many thousands of hours and skills add to Gross National Product (GNP). Yet, we know they have value because a price can be put on that work when it is not performed, mainly by women, for free.

When a woman leaves the paid workforce to mind children, she cannot put any skills she uses or gains on her resume. She is not only considered unemployed, she is considered a cost.  That’s damn untrue. The majority of housewives are home-based, non-unionized, unwaged labourers for whom negotiating access to power, status and resources may not be easy. 

Housewives subsidize the cost of reproducing workers for the economy. This is why unions used to fight for a ‘family wage’, not only because men were seen to be the family breadwinners, but because those producing and being paid are like a two for one deal.  

Of course, the women in the class then began to debate whether housewives should get ‘wages’ from their husbands, whether there was an income to which they were due. These wages are not a sign that the wife is the husband’s employee, but that his income includes her contribution. After all, the hand that rocks the cradle, labours, sometimes night and day.  

The personal is political precisely because it points us beyond our own individual experience to women’s shared social and economic realities. Consciousness-raising aims to enable women to find the words to identify the annihilation they must resist, make the connections they need so that they always struggle collectively, and enable even, or especially, housewives to name the problems that rule the world, and which must still be changed.

Post 119.

Yet again, I found myself standing outside of the PM’s office watching the women of the Highway Re-route Movement peacefully but defiantly sit against the walls of the building, trying to give visibility to what happens when government disregards its own rules. They were not going anywhere and why should they when they have their very houses and lands to lose, potentially leaving them with money as compensation but no place to go and no community that is home.

I saw the police first try to reason with them, and then physically lift them out of the compound.  I saw the actual tears in these women’s eyes, tears from feelings of frustration, defenseless, anger, disappointment and fear of loss. I could have cried right then too.

I saw how elite politicians pit police against people, forcing those who must enforce the law to simultaneously fail to protect people from state illegality.  These women’s breaking of the law, by occupying the PM’s compound and blocking the pavement, was more morally valid than the police’s exercise of force.  Officers were just doing their jobs, keeping their jobs, upholding one law for ordinary people and another for those on the inside of those walls.

Wayne Kublalsingh also watched from his usual spot across the street. Once my UWI colleague, Dr. Kublalsingh’s contract was not renewed because he missed classes while undertaking his breathtakingly courageous, 21 day hunger strike, and because the university decided he was a “risk” to students.  When I heard that news, I could have cried then too.

Universities should provide intellectual and political leadership to nations and communities. Our job is to spark, engage in and educate about progressive social change through theory that informs collective and individual action.

Some of us are full or part-time, have family responsibilities or are at a career stage where we need to get tenure or secure promotion, and so we make decisions about focusing on our research or our teaching or our families instead of our politics. It was therefore our responsibility to make sure that colleagues who are taking risks we are not, over issues of governance and development that affect us all, get to keep their jobs too.

Research gives universities an international reputation, but so do their public intellectuals, whether they are Arundati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis or Vandana Shiva. The university desperately needs students willing to take risks for democracy and sustainable development.  As Sunity Maharaj sagely said to me, it is when you are taking a risk that it’s most important to speak out. Those are the kinds of theoretically informed, civic minded, ethical, politically astute and fearless students we need to produce, and the lecturers who can inspire that are role models to be held onto. Our message should never be conform to the status quo or we have no room for you.

On my way to the PM’s office, I passed Sea Lots’ graffiti that shouted, “ we not taking dat”. That, more than any campaign speech, is the national mood. Chaguanas West already told the PM that it felt alienated and even betrayed. Mon Desir is saying the same. People are resisting exclusion from decisions that affect their families and communities. Forget tears, one day all that will be left is anger which has less and less to lose in the face of power. 

I saw real leadership in this small group of committed women, leadership that I do not see in our political and academic hierarchy. That’s why I was there on Thursday. Solidarity on the streets and from the university is necessary.   

Post 103.

On Wednesday last week, Labour Day, I took Ziya to Yara River on the North Coast. I use every opportunity that I can to teach her that our islands’ true value is in their pristine rivers, primary forests and undeveloped coasts, and the diverse life that they support, and consider it invaluable work that I can’t usually do during the week.

One day when Ziya is older, I’ll take her to Fyzabad with me to appreciate that other aspect of the nation’s terrain: our history of continuous labour resistance from the day that empires defined indigenous women and men, and then later arrivants, in terms of profit and not as people.  

On the one hand, Zi needs to learn that enslaved and indentured women, and later 20th century women like Elma Francois, Daisy Crick and Thelma ‘Sister T’ Williams, have always been on the front lines of workers’ organizing. They had children, they earned their own money and they led mass movements of women and men. On the other hand, I also want her to be aware of how the labour of family and community mothering is a politics of struggle against sexism and capitalism too.

As I looked at a Labour Day picture of today’s union leaders, I wondered about the negotiations of women workers like myself. Every leader was male. None had children with them. None of them was a young woman with a baby like me. No doubt women and mothers with babies were there that day as they have been throughout history.  Still, that picture says something worth unpacking about the options and choices for combining labour, motherhood and leadership.  Acknowledging this, unions, in their support to feminist movements of women and men, cannot get weary yet.

It will always be important for workers across every sphere, from farmers to domestic workers, shop clerks, housewives, teachers, nurses, sex workers and more, to publicly organize for their legal right to decent work, decent wages, equality and equity, and collective bargaining.

It will also always be important to recognize that the work associated with nurturing of our families is about labour as much as it is about love, and it includes inequalities as much as it does fulfillment.

As I stood in the OWTU Hall learning about the life of Thelma Williams, I was intrigued at how many there were women from her Spiritual Baptist community, rather than union men. Male leaders, including members of my own generation such as Ozzi Warwick and Akins Vidale were there, but the numbers spoke volumes about how the building of family and community, and the work it takes to sustain them, are also enduring achievements. Commemoration of this grandmother, also ‘grandmother’ to a movement, made me reflect on the way that collectivity, consciousness-raising and contributing to justice should both make room for and bring together all of our many identities. Just from those gathered in that hall, you could see that Thelma Williams was nurturer, prayer warrior and also labour fighter.

One Labour Day, you ‘home school’ your daughter about healthy ecosystems and river fish. One Labour Day, you take her to march in Fyzabad.  Both are necessary for women to give the work that we do the recognition, status and value that it is still due.

Post 100.

Considering that last week’s anxiety was about how little time I spend with Ziya, it’s ironic that this week I’ve been thinking about how every mother needs to make time for herself. Those first two years, all my energy and every last second was given to working and mothering, and I still felt that neither was getting enough time. With hindsight, I can see how those efforts were unsustainable.

At some point, you start to feel like you need to get away, you need something for yourself, you need to make time just for you even if it means that someone else – your husband, his parents, your mother or your babysitter – is filling in for what should rightfully be your shift. Your options may be guilt or self-preservation, but chances are that some minor or large crisis in your sanity, relationship, health or capacity to manage everything eventually compels you to choose.

I was meditating on my choices while walking through a river and climbing the cascading terrain of a waterfall in the hills of the Northern Range, enjoying having no responsibilities for anyone or anything beyond the next step. It was really a day I should have spent with Zi, a gift of extra time over a long weekend, and I felt like I was neglecting her, knowing how much she misses me, and knowing that someone else was with her when I should have been.

Still, I had made a choice, if necessary to be even less of a present mother for now and the next while so that I wouldn’t neglect the chance I needed to kneel in a crystal river flowing through an ancient forest, and to reconnect to the quiet spirit inside of me. Some go to church or mosque or temple. My cathedral’s walls are towering trees, scattering leaves like psalms in the wind. For me, streams are calls to prayer that draw you closer, promising to wash away unconfessed sins, and the open sky is an orhni resting softly over my head as I revere the elements of the earth and find stillness within.

I had realised that I couldn’t be a good mother, worker, partner or even person if the combination of job stress, marriage commitment and sleepless motherhood had pushed me beyond my current reserves. Some women get their hair and nails done, some take evening classes, some splurge on desserts or clothes or rum. If I didn’t walk these clear waters, whether deep in Chagaramas or in Cumaca, I’d look for escape or rejuvenation or a brief suspension of reality however it came.

I’m not sure if it’s like this for all of us, but I think that many women will give until they are empty before realising that looking after themselves though it may feel selfish, and taking a long view of relationship, responsibility and reciprocity, is an absolute necessity. You want to do your best in every moment, but it’s also important to see your investments beyond just the now.

When I sacrifice time with Ziya, I wonder if I’m setting up a bad pattern, whether one day she’ll think I didn’t spend enough time with her. However, if I don’t forgive myself for those decisions, I’ll miss why my instincts propelled me to them. I’ll also miss the lessons that will enable me to share with her the predicaments of womanhood, and its perils, pressures and growing pains.

Luckily, that day, pristine waterfalls help me to find, not my old carefree self nor a new and more perfect maturity, but an understanding that healing is found in steps in-between.