On breastfeeding

I have been breastfeeding for 3 years now and tandem nursing (feeding more than one child) for 9 months. For something that people have been doing since our genesis it has been way more complex than I expected. Growing up around Ethiopian families I must have seen babies nursing at some point, but I really don’t have any memories of seeing breastfeeding. It’s always been normalized in my home – my mom would tell me the story of the first time I bit her and she must have fed my siblings in front of me but again I have no recollection of it. So when my first was born I assumes breastfeeding would take some work at the start but I was not prepared for what it actually entailed.

First of all, no matter how many books you read which explain how often a newborn eats, you can’t really understand it until you live it. There were days I couldn’t get out of the house because I spent the day feeding the baby and myself. That’s another thing no one told me: breastfeeding parents need to eat A LOT! My partner was shocked when I started out-eating him.

Well I got through the first year with my eldest and thought I was a breastfeeding expert. Especially since my academic work also includes work on breastfeeding best practices. But then I ended up breastfeeding through my second pregnancy and began tandem nursing. I never thought I would be nursing a preschooler but it came about so organically that it feels very natural to our family. And things have been challenging. Between sibling rivalry, repeat thrush infections, tongue and lip ties and feeling touched-out, the year has been full of breastfeeding challenges and triumphs. I am hoping to allow my children to self-wean, but if there is one thing I have learned from the past few years it’s that anything could change at any minute.

 

Musings on a cloudy day

I have two young children. This week a study was released by the Yale Child Study Center describing how racism manifests itself in preschools; black boys in particular are being suspended disproportionately. It worries me that my children are being profiled, basically from birth. I wonder how this will impact them…their experiences, their self-esteem, their lives.

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Meanwhile, in local news…a report is being released on child protective services in Ontario. Among its findings: systemic anti-black racism embedded in every possible way and black families suffering. Furthermore, similar anti-black racism in the justice, education and medical systems. It seems we’re not safe anywhere.

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Finding my joy

I have always been what some would call a “serious” person. As a teenager, and perhaps even before, I struggled with depression. While my best friends seemed to always be laughing about something or other, I went through days where I could not see the joy or humour in anything. I was well into my twenties before I finally got a clinical diagnosis but I recognized that “something was wrong” in my early teens and struggled to handle it on my own. I wondered if I was bipolar as I considered how suddenly my moods used to swing to that sad, empty feeling that I experienced once in a while, and which could last anywhere from a few hours to weeks or once, in my final year of high school, for months. I often wonder whether this is why I decided to major in psychology…to help me figure out what was happening in my mind and try and find a solution. When I finally started seeing a therapist it took only two sessions before she told me that I seemed to exhibit the symptoms of an anxiety disorder as well as PTSD. I know it’s a cliche to say but it was really as if a weight lifted off my shoulders. In the years since I have continued to struggle with episodes where my anxiety has caught me up in a web of ruminating. But knowing what I am dealing with has given me the tools to deal with it, and has helped me to recognize that anxiety is something I have which affects me, but which does not define me or control me.

One of the hardest things about my anxiety is that I have to constantly work at finding my joy. I have a very easy time picking up on the negative – in my life, in my mind, in the world around me. It is sometimes much more difficult for me to focus on the positive and see all the good things around me. This past week has been one of those times where I found myself drowning in my own mind, unable to see past the difficulties. You see, my two month old and I were confined to our home for the last 4 days because we had both come down with a cold. Such a minor thing really, but somehow enough to trigger my feelings of despair, worry and guilt. I felt guilty that my baby was sick, guilty that I was too sick to care for my older child, worried that this was more than a cold.

Times like this, it can be hard to distinguish between what is “normal” and what is my mind playing tricks on me. Once I’m in the middle of a spiral, my thoughts come so quickly and are so negative that it feels impossible to pull myself up and out of it. Sometimes it is all I can do to get out of bed, to get through the day taking it one moment at a time. Days or weeks at a time can pass where I feel overwhelmed by life, by my past, by the future. Luckily, I am able to cope using some of the skills which I have learned since my diagnosis. The most important thing for me is to be mindful – to focus on the current moment, and be present in the NOW. This forces me to stop thinking about all of the worst-case scenarios and simply live. To accept that there are a lot of scary things in the world, but that since I am unable to control so many of them I have to accept the scary things and live my life anyway. The other thing which works best for me is getting outside into the world and interacting with other people, or with nature. This always helps to remind me of the beauty and joy to be found in life, even if it is often overshadowed by the negative.

Remembering that there is so much good in the world, so much good in my life…that is what gets me through the hardest moments.

On anxiety

I have a degree in pyschology, so you would think I could have self-diagnosed. I suspected for many years that something was not quite right, and I thought perhaps depression or bipolar disorder. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that a therapist was able to give me a diagnosis: generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As soon as I read up on both the pieces of my life started to fall together. It was like assembling a puzzle without knowing what the picture was supposed to look like. I know exactly what I have experienced – mood swings, angry outbursts, melancholy, a racing mind full of worst=case scenarios. What I didn’t know for a long time was that all of these things were connected to one another, and were a result of a number of traumatic events I experienced as a child/teenager.

On black love

I have never realized how much I depend on him. My partner is away.  It is day 5. Twenty-eight days to go.

My sister has come by to help with dinner and bedtime. She feeds the toddler, helps him wash up, pjs, reads some books, goodnight, no you can’t sleep in mommy’s bed, goodnight. I nurse the infant to sleep, burped, bathed, changed, burped again.  I will come back later to check if toddler has fallen asleep/ sticks around to chat. I am exhausted.

Finally, I sit on the balcony. There is still much to do. But I can’t. I am done. Exhausted. I watch the clouds race across the moon…the sun sets. Twenty. Eight. Days. 672 hours until he is home.

I don’t remember ever falling in love. Was there a moment when I suddenly found myself (falling) in love. Our love is something that grew, that just…came to be…in the background of a friendship. There were times when it felt like we might not make it. But at some point, I just felt it. A sense, a presence, so familiar, it must have always been there. A love. Our love.

By the time I realize I am in love, it feels so familiar. Like family. Like home. Like we have made it.

It feels like I am unable to function without him. Not only is he currently the sole income-earner (I’m a grad student on parental leave), but he does a LOT around the house – including most of the cooking, groceries, laundry. We are fortunate. We have been able to build a beautiful life together. We spend most of the day together with both of our children. We do a lot of our work from home, and he does most of his after the rest of us are asleep. He is our rock.

I love him because he is everything that a black man should be. His strength and resilience are the first things that I noticed. Well, after his tattoos of course. The first long conversation we had on the phone we talked about everything that mattered. Our past, our goals, kids, religion, family, regrets, hopes. I knew then.

I can’t imagine doing this without him. I can barely imagine getting through the next four weeks. Spending the days with our children…all day, every day…will be hard. But spending the days withOUT him? (Just breathe).

 

Immigrant

I am an immigrant.

My parents were refugees, fleeing a civil war in which my father fought. I was born along the way, on the journey from there to here. From the motherland, the land of origins. A warm country, noble, enduring, steady. To here. An unpredictable place, a cold country built on stolen land by a nation of people who still struggle to acknowledge their place in history as oppressors. Colonizers.

Immigrant. A person living in a foreign land.

Foreign. Not your own.

That is what we are. Never belonging, always searching for a place that fits just right. Looking for a space that is ours.

My children are the first generation born on this soil. What does it mean? For me, as a mother. For them, as black children. Immigration amplifies the generation gap. Will it affect my ability to understand my children? To prepare them sufficiently for what they will face, to overcome life’s challenges. Will they find a place to settle?

Or will they roam, like we do, searching for a place that fits just  right. Looking for a space that is ours.

Seeking a home of our own.

Black feminism and more on Beyonce

In the weeks since Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade was released there has been a lot of discussion, judgement and dialogue about its strengths, merits, message, imagery and intention. Critiques and praise have been given by a diverse range of individuals including celebrities, scholars, journalists and academics. Whether or not you are a fan of the album you can not deny that it has sparked a conversation and made an impact.

Personally I continue to read, watch, listen and meditate and my opinion of the album is still developing. I see much to be praised – the centering of black female bodies is one example – and also some things which I might critique – such as the lack of intersectional representation. However, if there is one thing which I am most excited about it is this: Lemonade has created SPACE for all of us to engage in meaningful dialogue about black/intersectional feminism and has included voices in this conversation which usually do not get heard.

Conversations about feminism are usually centered on experiences of white women, and the voices that get centered are often those same women. Now that we are finally having a conversation that is centered on black women we are able to focus on the voices and experiences of women of colour and to me THAT is a wonderful shift, one which has been a long time coming, and which I hope will allow us to dig deeper. Here is some of the commentary around the album which I have found especially interesting:

Melissa Harris-Perry in Elle Magazine

bell hooks’ critique

commentary on the critique by bell hooks

Ijeoma Oluo in The Guardian

Evelyn from the Internets video response

 

I would love to hear your thoughts, and if you have any other articles worth reading please feel free to share in the comments.

Next stop: Stay at home mom to two

Twenty months ago I was nervously preparing to leave my baby in someone else’s care, wondering how I would be able to handle being away from them for a full day. My nine month maternity leave was coming to an end and I was returning to full-time studies. My first week was an intensive orientation where I would need to be in class 8 hours a day, and it would be my first time being away from my 9 month old for more than a few hours. I almost backed out and my partner, mother and sister each separately gave me motivational speeches to reassure me that both baby and I would be fine.

That first day included moments where I suddenly felt like I had forgotten something only to realize that it was just the feeling of being on my own that was throwing me off. On the other hand there were moments of excitement such as when I sat with some classmates and had an adult conversation without being interrupted by a dirty diaper or the need to nurse. At the end of the day I was so excited to get home to my baby, but I was certain that I had made the right decision. Getting out of the house, doing something that I was passionate about allowed me to give my child my full attention without any resentment when I did get home.

After a year and a half as a student, followed by a few months of my second maternity leave, I am preparing to pick up my toddler from the LAST DAY of daycare. Starting next week I will be at home with both of my children (until I return to school again). And I am just as nervous as I was that day twenty months ago. This time I wonder how I will make it through an entire day without a moment to myself. I wonder how my toddler will cope with being away from friends and teachers and whether I will be able to keep up with the endless energy of a toddler. How will the chores get done? Will I be able to get them to nap? What will we DO all day? As these questions run through my head I remind myself that it was not so long ago that I had been scared to be separated. I remember how quickly we both adjusted. And after taking a few deep breaths I am able to calm my racing mind and convince myself that we will find a way to make this work. That I WILL be able to handle the challenges to come. That I can do this, and although it may take some getting used to, I get to be a full-time mother to both of my kids for the next little while. As challenging as it probably will be I look forward to this next phase of parenting and can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Wish me luck!

Initial thoughts re: Beyoncé’s Lemonade

A few years ago I was co-hosting a weekend retreat for a group of black womyn. At some point in the evening we were drinking wine, listening to music and chatting when someone brought up Beyoncé. I remember remarking that although I love dancing to her music when I’m out at a club or party, I wasn’t a fan of her music in particular, mainly because I prefer to listen to music that is consciously trying to say something about the state of the world. One of the participants disagreed with me, arguing that she didn’t see anything wrong with a musician who wants to sing about her personal experiences and that not everyone has to make music that is political. I agreed, but told her while musicians have every right to choose what type of music they make, I also have a right to listen to the music which speaks to me.

Fast forward a few years and I was sitting in front of the tv watching the 2016 superbowl with my sister-in-law and my partner, when Beyoncé debuted Formation. As soon as I saw the back-up dancers and Queen Bey in their black, militaristic outfits I got chills. My first thought was that the outfits reminded me of Michael Jackson’s epic superbowl performance in the 90s. I had already heard the song (which had debuted the night before) and my sister-in-law and I excitedly watched to see if they would censor some of the language (specifically the word “negroes”). When the performance was over we were both grinning and started talking excitedly. We realized that we had just witnessed what felt like a turning point in Beyoncé’s music career. After decades of singing about love and relationships, she had finally made a song which we recognized as completely pro-black and pro-feminine, and we were ecstatic.

Then yesterday I got four text messages from my sister-in-law in quick succession. “I don’t know if you have seen it yet…”, “since you liked Formation I think you’ll like this even more…”, and finally a link to watch Lemonade, Beyoncé’s newly released video album. I told my partner, and we agreed that we would watch it after the kids were asleep. And we did. All 65 minutes of glorious, pro-black, pro-womyn/feminine fabulousness. I was mesmerized from the first minute, taking note of every detail possible…what did the tattoo on that womyn’s shoulder say? what kind of trees are those interspersed throughout? the titles/words during the transitions (intuition, denial, anger, apathy, and so on…). Occasionally one of us would comment on something  such as the beat sampled from an old song, or the images of the many young black lives lost too soon. For the first few songs I thought the album was about her relationship with her husband, but soon began to see, hear and FEEL something more, something deeper. By the time we got to “forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection” I knew that Beyoncé had captured so much more than her own experiences. I recognized something in the message that was meant for black womyn like myself. My partner on the other hand became perplexed, he told me at the end of the video that he felt like he “had been lead somewhere and then left to figure it out”. I realized that he was looking for a resolution, a nice clean ending that explained what it all meant. And after some reflection I realized that is why this video spoke to me.

Because my existence as a black womyn in a world where the black womyn is “the most disrespected person” can not be tied up in a nice clean story. Our stories are nuanced, complex, and intertwined. We can not be expressed in words, or through music. Our essence can not be captured by the media portrayals of black womyn which often depict us as one dimensional. By speaking and sharing her truth, without worrying about whether (white) people would get it, Beyoncé had managed to weave an intricate story, one of betrayal, hurt, anger, sadness, loneliness, strength, confidence, growth, feminine energy, birth, love, rebirth, reconciliation, forgiveness, family, intergenerational trauma, pain, and freedom. A story told by a black womyn, with the help of other black womyn, for black womyn.

I know that there will be a lot of dialogue about the album. I have already seen the media portray it as the story of an angry black womyn scorned. On CNN this morning they were discussing it in a two minute clip that included the scene where Beyoncé is smashing cars with a bat while a fireball explodes in the background. It did not surprise me that they chose to focus on the scenes from “Anger”. It did not surprise me that they gave airtime to some tweets by (one of) the side chicks that is thought to be referenced in the song. That they reduced this one hour album to the story of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their marital strife demonstrates how womyn’s agency and experience is erased as we are reduced to being wives and mothers. That they failed to mention any of the pro-black feminine imagery (the video features black feminine folks, with almost no white people, and no men in the entire 65 minutes) demonstrates the way that black agency is ignored and our attempts to tell our own stories ignored and erased. As someone who is repeatedly called an angry black womyn I was not surprised to see mainstream media interpreting this album in such a manner. And it really doesn’t matter, because I know that there is so much that they are missing and because I know that the point is not what they think of it. I know what I see when I watch this one hour long tribute to the resiliency, power and truth of the black feminine experience. I look forward to watching it again and again to absorb the story and message which Beyoncé has created for black womyn like myself, without needing to explain it or share it. Because this is our story, and we are not here for anyone else’s viewing pleasure. After decades of following Beyoncé’s career develop I feel honoured to be occupying this space with her. This is one album and one artist that speaks to me, and I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Airport security throws out 500 oz of breastmilk

A woman travelling through Heathrow airport was forced to throw 500 ounces of frozen breast milk in the garbage. This story is so infuriating, and as someone who has pumped breast milk for two children I can only imagine how much work went into collecting this supply and how upset this mom must be.

The fact that the milk was frozen is only one of the problems with this decision (apparently someone decided that the milk might “become liquid” at some point during the flight). The other problem is that this happened DESPITE a statement on the Heathrow website that states exceptions to rules regarding liquids on airplanes include baby food. Although the list does not explicitly include frozen breast milk it should be common sense that this falls within the category of baby food.

Breast feeding parents face many challenges and obstacles, and sheer ignorance by a person in a position of authority is just one more. Although it is too late for this mother to get her milk back, I hope that this will spur some changes to ensure that nursing parents everywhere are protected from future incidents like this.

#solidarity