This is a post from July 2012, and a For Harriet contribution. I really like this piece and I think it’s perfect for a new column on this blog called Afropolitan Voices; a space to read about the challenges, triumphs, and stories of Afropolitans just like you. If you’d like to contribute, email me.
This picture was taken in March 1986, I was 14 months old and my mom lovingly soaked up as much as she could of me before she handed me over to my grandma to enter the passengers only area at the airport. She did what, I think, is possibly the hardest thing in the world; have my grandma take me “home” for a while, while she worked to get herself situated in a new land.
I was on my way to Sierra Leone.
Now that I’m a mother, it’s hard to stare too hard at this picture. My stomach knots up, a lump bobbles in my throat, and my tear ducts start to burn. Why?
I feel empathy.
Behind her uncertain smile, underneath that thrifted wool coat, and ‘supa fly’ Jheri curl mohawk was a young immigrant mother doing what she had to do to survive.
Look at me , I looked totally oblivious, but uncertain too. I guess all kids can sense sadness. At one and a half I was probably just becoming fun to be around. The slew of sleepless nights and newborn discomforts were most likely subsiding and here we were, temporarily parting ways.
How does a 25-year-old immigrant mother choose? I sure couldn’t. I remember my rambunctious Ellie at one and a half; walking, wobbling, laughing, giggling, and happy. Most kids are. Mothering is just getting sweet at this point. I would be numb to my core if I had to give up wet kisses, chubby cuddles, a warm little hand in mine, toothless grins, and soft caresses on her plump cheeks, for full-time, minimum wage drudgery at a local nursing home.
I guess numb to the core is an adequate description because mom demanded I be sent back to her six months into the one-year arrangement. I assume the angst was too much to bear.
I share this story—her story—as part of my inspiration to stay home.
I’d be lying if I said my decision to be a stay at home mother is because my mom stayed home with me, or because I saw my beautiful baby’s face and couldn’t face going back to the office again. No, I stay home because no mother in my family had the option, but I do.
The women in my family are hard workers, they know how to survive. My mom is sixth of my grandmother’s nine children. My grandmother raised one son, and eight daughters. Can you believe she had six of them before her thirtieth birthday? She held down 1001 jobs/projects/businesses, simultaneously, just to feed them all, this included selling, (gasp!), monkey meat.
Eventually, the double shifts paid off and my mom did manage to carve out success for herself. She opened and ran 3 hair salons, married her high school sweetheart and was the first of her sisters to own a home in the suburbs. By every definition, she was a strong, successful, black woman. But success was short-lived because after the divorce she lost everything, most importantly, in my opinion, any intangible gains she’d made from those early sacrifices.
Even though she got the job done, I doubt the life was sustainable. The long hours, the strained relationships, the drain of mothering and working because she had to. The bills, the constant cycle of acquiring more. Over time, I observed that living life in perpetual survival mode, with an eye on upward mobility, and keeping up with the Joneses was a costly affair. It costs, among other things, the option to fully indulge in one’s womanhood, motherhood, and personhood.
Last week I visited with my beloved grandma who is visiting from Ghana and she was curious to know if I’d ever go back to “work”. “How old is Ellie now? Two? So, aren’t you going to work again?” The crickets in my head got super loud. I reacted the same way I do whenever I’m asked that dreaded question in various forms; my brain went blank. Sensing my hesitation, grandma went in for the kill. She looked pointedly at me and waited for my answer. I gave her my “Oh grandma!” gig, regained my composure and rattled off something about not being in a rush… doing this for a while… finding something that gives me the flexibility to work from home…yada, yada, yada.
Obviously I’m not comfortable with this question. Even though people ask it a lot. I mean, explaining my brand of feminism to an 85-year-old African rebel grandma who prides herself on having a den of children and fearlessly hustling to feed them all requires precise tact. Likewise responding to an uncle who doesn’t see the point of “wasting a good education,” or an aunt or cousin or friend who thinks hard work (outside the home) is a badge of womanhood, female independence and motherhood (if you bring home the bacon with babies in tow).
At times I can’t help but feel I traded in my legacy of strength for one of simple domesticity.
But it’s deeper than domesticity. Than cooking, cleaning, and laundry. It transcends titles of housewife, or stay at home mom.
But it is about legacy.
The way I see it, the best thing I can leave my children, especially my daughters, are examples of choosing to go against the grain when the whole wide world says follow the crowd. Choosing to live slower in a very fast world. Choosing to live simply in a superficially complex planet. Choosing to blossom wherever I may find myself planted. Choosing to be soft and strong at the same damn time. Choosing to own my life’s pace. Choosing to be vulnerable when those closest say I’d be a fool to. Choosing to do all the little things to make “happily ever after” work. Choosing less when the world says I must have it all. Choosing to embrace all aspects of my femininity, and my humanity. Choosing to nurture my soul so that I may competently nurture others. Choosing to engage what stirs my soul. Choosing to buy myself options, because there’s nothing like being able to afford choice.
Choosing. Choices. Choosing choice.
Grandma’s generation left a legacy of fearlessness, my mother’s legacy is survival, mine is conscious choice. They all symbolize sacrifice and strength to me.