Revolutionary Mothering

In fifty plus years, this is a first for me. Mothering, considered as a revolutionary thing. Thank you to the women who brought their gifts to bear on Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, including Cynthia Dewi Oka who, speaking about the book, drew my attention to the power of mundane repetition. For my lack of knowledge of revolutionary mothering I have plenty of experience in mundane repetition, and this insight helped me to feel included. Wiping faces, changing nappies, holding hands, explaining for the umpteenth time some irksome fact of life such as the need to pick up after oneself – these iterations of mothering are the ones that I know well, so well that they barely register as action, much less as revolutionary acts. Cynthia helps us to claim mundane repetition, not only as action, but as a tool of transformation. She pulled my attention away from the seismic shifts and explosions that I think of as revolution and back to the daily practices on which we pivot in the direction of transformation. And, as she says, nowhere is transformative daily practice better embedded than in mothering.

I’m intensely relieved, if I’m honest, that back when I was a younger mother, I could be repetitive in relative privacy – that I didn’t have the choice of being an Insta mum, and so could do the wiping, cleaning, hand-holding stuff without having to frame it as art. I see my daughters’ generation literally framing their mothering – putting their best feet, faces, and smiles forward and posting it under the world’s eye. I wonder though, what it is that the world actually sees?

What worries me is that, as far as seeing mothering is concerned, we mostly come to it with dead eyes and consequently, as I did, easily miss its revolutionary nature. Mostly, what people really see of mothering is what they already think, and it is unfortunate that this thinking is done largely in terms of right and wrong. So, sometimes I am wrong for having five children (don’t I know the world is overpopulated?), but then sometimes I am right for having my children with a man who is my husband (all five of them? – applause!). Sometimes I am wrong because I let other people care for them (sleepovers? You can’t trust people these days and anyway GOOD parents look after their own kids). Then sometimes I am right because my children are polite and know how to greet their elders. Then I’m wrong when they play video games and right when they play the guitar. I’m also right when they’ve been to university but wrong when they drop out and don’t get a job, and wrong when they get drunk and throw up on the stairs. Still, even if I’m wrong because they answer back (rude!), I am sometimes right because they can express themselves and right when they’re happy and wrong when they’re queer, and right when they’re good at sport, but wrong when their skirts are short. When they enjoy reading Chinua Achebe I feel right, so it is perplexing when, in the very same day, as they lie around snacking on crisps and watching trash TV (Love Island – sigh*), I can feel so very, very wrong.

What have I learned from all of this? That revolutionary mothering can make me dizzy; also that there is an insistent part of me that exists solely to nag me about knowing what I’m doing, and doing it right. Too bad that I spend so much time not knowing and not being right. What sweet relief then, to consider, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs suggests, that by refusing to dominate my children, I am unlearning domination, and also to hear the other editors/contributors acknowledge the things that they have learned from their own children. One says that she learned from her son, that it is okay to want things and this strikes me as a fairly revolutionary thought in itself. Wanting things? Resisting the evacuation of needs (physical and psychological) that has become almost synonymous with mothering? Revolutionary acts indeed.

It would be easy for me to criticise the Insta Mum generation, but if I’m honest, I know what it is to want to be seen. I want to be seen too. It is okay to want to be seen – and recognised. I want the recognition that is recognition of revolutionary mothering as not a type, a style, a body, an age, a sexuality, or even a gender. I want the recognition that revolutionary mothering is not a status, neither a hashtag and definitely not a filter. I want to recognise the fact that mothering doesn’t always look good and that the practice and art of mothering that I know will never fit between the goalposts of right and wrong. The choices open to us – the most helpful ones – are not anyway between right and wrong, but between criticism and care. It is along this axis that we pivot towards and answer the call for transformation. I wonder then, from within this hot mess of opinions that we seem to be, how might we transform our criticism into care? Let’s see;

Insta Mums, I salute your industry, generosity and courage. Instead of criticising you for inviting the world into your homes, I send hope and good wishes, including the hope that you maintain a practice of checking in with your own eyes – your own seeing of you – so that you might recognise when you are being invited to abandon your mothering self in favour of some idealised or scandalised version of what mothers should or should not be. My wish for you, in your beautiful presentations, would be that you allow yourselves to be seen, not only by the world that is tempted to mis-recognise and judge you, but also by those who, as well as eyes, have the hands that are available to cook soup when you’re hungry, and the arms that will hold your baby when you’re weary, and the mouths that are ready to sing the songs that you have forgotten. Let us see you too, unedited, so that we might join. Revolutionary mothering is a practice supported by strong community. 

For today, this is how my criticism becomes care. Tomorrow, when I ask the question again, I will likely find a different answer, and that’s okay too. We would do well I believe, to ask ourselves the criticism-care question on a daily basis. Another mundane repetition maybe, and one on which revolutionary mothering might continue to thrive.

Props to my God daughter (and favourite Insta Mum) Remi (booksbabyandback), currently travelling, and showing her own daughter how big the world is.

 Respect and thanks to Barby Asante and Chandra Frank for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on revolutionary mothering at Tricksters Brewing Futures at the Tate on Saturday

 Love across the ocean to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, Mai’a Williams (editors) and Cynthia Dewi Oka for walking the road and offering the inspiration

YOUNG GIFTED & (why I sometimes think twice about telling) BLACK

You are Young, gifted and Black, we must begin to tell our young    Nina Simone, Weldon Irvine

To the Young Gifted and Black, Reni Eddo-Lodge

Congratulations Reni on the first anniversary of your book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’. It is a fantastic achievement. Thank you for the research work, the insight, the humour and probably most of all for the accessibility of the text. Now, instead of talking to white people about race I can (and do) choose to signpost them to your book. It is, as you say, ‘sometimes about self-preservation’. I was inspired to hear you speak at the Words of Colour event this week (big thanks to CEO Joy Francis), and to witness the intergenerational conversations that took place there. One particular strand of conversation made me sit up – not altogether comfortably I will admit – and has remained with me through my navigations of a busy week. What happened, you asked, to your generation? What happened to passing the information down?

I include myself in this ‘your generation’, because I am one of the fifty-plusses, who could be your parent, and who has children of your age, to whom I think you were referring. Thank you for your question. What you seemed to want to understand, was why you had had to root in the archives to excavate a body of the potentially forgotten history of Black UK experience. When you noted the relative newness of the Black Cultural Archives (though it is actually a lot older than its current home in Windrush Square) your frustration was palpable – a felt presence that asked questions directly of me, and others of my generation, who were there in the room. As so often happens, when faced with a good question, I had no immediate answers – or at least I spared you the ones that I had, which were probably borne of tiredness. I could have been reactive and defensive, but instead I let the question – and your frustration – stay with me. They discomfited me and rippled out into and through many other conversations within my week. Please don’t feel bad. I am a therapist. In my world, discomfort is also possibility.

Should we tell young people the truth?

 There’s a world waiting for you…

There’s a world waiting for you, Nina sings. An important question though, is what kind of world is it? A woman in the audience – someone from my generation who is herself responsible for mentoring young people entering her profession – asks if we should really be telling young people the truth. She, and others, are concerned about truth telling and question earnestly, whether our first responsibility should really be to act in ways that motivate and encourage, and give hope to young people. In this context, telling the truth – about our experiences of racism, discrimination, and exclusion – would be to risk snatching the wind right out of the sails of those coming up, before they’ve even had a chance to launch their boats. Even if we decided to leave out the catalogue of micro-aggressions that most of us have experienced so frequently that we get bored talking about them, I know very few Black people who don’t have stories, that as well as being hard to tell, are also hard to hear. Selective telling – even silence – are sometimes us not wanting to be discouraged or discouraging. Perhaps this contributes to the generational communication gap of which you spoke. My rippled conversations this week have stoked my curiosity about this gap and about what exists within it. I have wondered about things that are not being told, and the other things that are not being heard. We need to stop lying to ourselves, you say in your book, and we need to stop lying to each other. I agree. We also need, I think, to work out what this looks like in practice and how exactly we might stop/start doing it.

At what stage should we tell children the truth?

Your soul’s intact

It is true to say that the struggle to keep our own children’s small Black bodies and souls intact while living in London was a wearying one. You might conclude that leaving to raise them in West Africa was a form of surrender. In some ways it was, but it was also the enactment of a very basic desire – that the souls that we had ushered into the world might, in their formative years, experience a wider spectrum of Black possibility conducive to a positive sense of identity, self-esteem and confidence. We have no regrets, but it is important for the record I think, to acknowledge that there really is no way to outrun the reach of racism or white supremacy. Pertinent to this discussion is the reality that there is no escaping the truths that ask to be told.

During a trip upriver to the island of Janjanbureh (during the colonial era known as McCarthy Island, and Georgetown), we visited the ruins of what we were told was a former slave house. This was, it turns out, not accurate but it didn’t impact on a difficult moment between us, and the other family who were our travelling companions. Whilst we took our children inside the ruins they, who felt that their children were too young and needed protecting from this painful history, waited outside. We stood, as a family, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness and allowed the children to make whatever they would of the experience. They did this in their own ways – sometimes listening attentively to the local guide, sometimes exploring the walls with their fingers, and a lot of the time playing chase in and out between the dungeon-esque basement and the hot sun outside. Were they, I wonder, old enough for this truth? One of the challenges of being a parent is the imbalance between the heap of people who want to make you right or wrong versus the very few who actually want to help. Who can claim to know really, what it is that souls do and do not need in order to stay intact? What feels true is to say that the choice was one that we, as parents, were responsible for, and that notions of right and wrong were and are of little help.

How do we regulate ourselves while telling the truth?

When you feel really low, there’s a great truth you should know

Professor Christina Sharpe, author of In the Wake, asks how we can memorialize transatlantic slavery when its afterlives are still unfolding. Another good question and one that evokes, for me, therapeutic work with trauma. Generally, we understand trauma work to be most effective once the person concerned is safe, and the actual traumatic event is behind them, in the past. The paradox of the Wake then, as Sharpe describes it, is that the past is not past, but instead ongoing and everyday. This is exactly the kind of ongoing trauma that we might naturally feel a pull to dissociate from – to lie to ourselves about – as a strategy for survival. At the same time, it is also a traumatic inheritance – a trauma that our children are born into, and for which we also carry a responsibility to speak truth to. Another of the paradoxes of Black being. Sharpe calls the processes of thinking through how to do, think and feel in this reality, wake work. The positioning of practices of parenthood/elderhood as wake workhelps me to navigate these paradoxes and impossibilities by reminding me that they are in fact, irresolvable. Sharpe argues that,

“Rather than seeking a solution to blackness’s ongoing and irresolvable abjection, one might approach Black being in the wake as a form of consciousness”

It is with this consciousness – of living in the wake of the past that is not past with an eye to the future that is not here yet, and that may not arrive – that I regulate myself. I regulate myself as a parent/elder in order to tell the truth, and sometimes, to withhold it. I am not convinced about the linear relationship that we have been encouraged to believe exists between history and time, (I am more interested in notions of the spiral and spiralling that came up in conversation with the fantastic Dr Karen Salt this week) but I am interested in the gaps with which it leaves us. Our historic timeline offers us generation gaps, information gaps, and gaps between what and where we think progress should be and what and where it actually is. Then of course, we also have the gaps between what we know and what we choose to tell. What I can tell you now is that, in managing the trouble and grief of the wake on a daily basis – and still being able to experience joy, success and love – I, and all the people around me employ many strategies. Possibly, you do too, which begs the question; how often do you/I tell the truth of these strategies – of the ways in which we get by? These survive–thrive strategies are, in my opinion, in urgent need of telling and sharing, parent to parent, elder to youth to elder, and across as many generations as we are able.

Bridging the Gaps

I am fortunate to be around younger people – my own children and those that I think of as my children but who technically belong to other people – on a daily basis. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, and even if I were you would be unlikely to be reading it because I am a long way from being able to utilise the internet and social media to its full advantage on my own. It is worth noting that the processes by which information can be passed on, have transformed in my lifetime. I wonder how easy it is to imagine the world in which I grew – without blogs and vlogs, email or mobile phones, and with no Black twitter to laugh it off with on rocky days? I very much appreciate the Black cyber-universe in which harsh truths can now be more collectively held, including our family Whats App group chat, where truths can arise, meet several minds and attract an array of responses. I like that we can now share and pass things on more easily. I especially like that when I’ve finished writing this, I will enlist the help of one of my children, and they will sigh and roll their eyes and walk me (again) through the intricacies of tweeting and tagging, and they will think that I don’t know that pictures of my confused but determined face are featuring in their Instagram stories. I like that it will all be good. These days, a lot of our truth emerges in this way, through collaboration.

Maintaining intergenerational circles

 There are times when I look back, and I am haunted by my youth

 I was tired when I arrived at the event where you were speaking. I am often tired these days. It crossed my mind that I would be better in my bed, especially when I saw all the people who looked so much less tired than me. I will admit, that it isn’t always easy to look upon youth, shining and sexy, and radiating success. It is hard not to fall into comparisons – to inventory one’s own life, cataloguing where you were at that age and what you should have done by now. Or perhaps it’s only me – in any case, I’ll own it. I could have snuck out, and legitimised it by reminding myself that I had already read your book, appreciated it, disseminated and recommended it, hence performed my civic duty. I am glad that I stayed, and heard you speak, and that I was there to witness your question. I don’t know if it took courage, but it did feel like a courageous question, addressed as it was, publicly to the elders. What happened to your generation?

You didn’t frame it as criticism and I didn’t hear it as such. I heard a curiosity, a stepping towards, an invitation to share, to be proximal and intimate, and to come into a circle. I wanted to respond at the time but was interrupted by invisible things – tiredness, time, the trauma of the wake – which is why I am writing now. I know that we (my generation) can be indignant at times, feeling that so called ‘millennials’ are not listening to us or valuing what we have lived and done and seen. To be listened to and heard is to be recognised and respected. We want this for ourselves, and I’m sure you do too. I dislike the term millennial when applied to people precisely because it sets itself up as a border – distancing and separating us as though we belong to different categories of humanity who need and want entirely different things. If we can prise ourselves away from the timeline – turn towards each other, form spirals instead of lanes – we can reduce this distance. We needto reduce this distance. In asking your question, respectfully and openly, you did just that – reduced the distance, at least for me. Thank you. In truth, it does pain me that I cannot now go back to give you, or any of my children, what you have already found for yourself. I can though, respect, appreciate and honour your finding.

 

What happens now?

But my joy of today, is that we can all be proud to say

When asked why you wrote ‘WHY I’M’, you said that it was perhaps the book that you would have liked to read yourself, that didn’t exist when you wanted to read it. You noted that the publishing industry follows the money, and in this way, has supplied us with lots of books on tidying up and far fewer on socio-political structures. I have similar thoughts about parenting; if I have wanted advice on weaning and potty training, there are shelves full of it. When however, what I have needed is help with explaining to my children, the world that they have been born into and the paradoxes of Black being – the shelves were bare. Perhaps I should follow your example, and write the book myself. Until then, what I am doing is recommitting to staying awake in this wake, and to encouraging all of us to be mindful and vigilant so that we might avoid the well-worn tracks to where the generational clichés live. Let’s give a wide berth to ‘young people are this’and ‘old people are that’, and think twice before we start sentences with ‘in my day’and ‘in your day’. These are all of our days, until they are not. The spiral spirals, not up or down, nor in or out; there is no right way to go. By continuing to make circles, stepping in and towards, gathering and talking (virtually and otherwise), and staying connected, we respect the truth of all of our days. More importantly, we simultaneously honour the past that is not past, and the future that is not here and the gifts of now. What a lovely precious dream…

 To be young gifted and black

Is where it’s at

Furies

The Erinyes
Female spirits of justice and vengeance, also known as The Furies

Teenage mess is difficult to live with and difficult to live without. Constant nagging wearies me, but so too does constant mess. I know that I need to get them (teenagers) to change, but how? Nagging doesn’t work, doing it all myself raises murderous impulses and several other ‘good’ plans that I instigate fail miserably. A friend suggests the answer lies in ‘caring less’ and insists that this is the best way to preserve my sanity and stay out of prison. It sounds improbable but I’m desperate so I give it a try, and make strenuous efforts to close off my senses to the chaos in which I now live. I refuse to see the dirty dishes or smell the bins that are not being emptied or hear the slurping sound that follows me around as my slippers repeatedly unstick themselves from a manky floor. I also attempt empathy with my children who, in the middle of significant pruning of their teenaged neural pathways, have only half a brain and virtually no empathy to share between them. Physically they have adult capabilities. Typically they can dress themselves, climb the stairs without falling over and work a toasted sandwich maker. Sometimes, when they’re feeling adventurous, as they were last night, they explore the freezer for ideas. Last night’s idea was apple strudel. At 10.30pm on a Friday night, apple strudel is an excellent idea. No prep, (preheating an oven is for losers) a half an hour wait and you don’t even need a baking tray to put it on. Do you? Best of all, while you wait for it to cook you can go back to more pressing, entertainment based tasks.

I arrive on the scene fifteen minutes later in search of a glass of water before bed. I’m still practicing my ‘I can’t see the mess’ meditation (let’s call it mindlessness) when I meet an apple strudel in the process of collapse, losing its integrity all over my oven. I rush to salvage the situation – to catch and shovel back the syrupy stalactites stretching down through the oven shelves – but no matter how teasing or insistent I am with my spatula the strudel simply refuses to pull itself together. It’s decided it’s not dessert but art. If I didn’t know better I would think it was laughing at me. In my mindless state I don’t know better so I swear hideously and smash it to pieces with the spatula. It’s a bit of a commotion. Various teens appear to bear witness. The strudel is an installation now – multidimensional. It’s still art, but it’s not laughing anymore. I stomp off to bed.

So, is the parent’s answer to teenage mess to make more mess than they do? Doubtful. I wouldn’t propose to add it to a list of good parenting strategies and I’d have to admit that it does leave you defenceless against accusations of being a poor role model. I’d be lying though, if I said it didn’t feel good (especially the next morning when I woke up to a sparkly clean oven and spotless kitchen).
It was the Furies. They made me do it.