On Motherhood & Sanity

Saturday, January 10, 2015

I can't breath

I’ve worked hard for 10 days straight and finally get a day off. I’ve flown for over 24 hours and driven on  a beat up jeep for miles on end. I am beat and getting what is probably the best massage of my life. Earned and deserved. And then my mind wonders over to yesterday and puts things painfully into perspective.

I’ve worked in the development sector for over 14 years now, but until yesterday I never had a “beneficiary” cry during an interview. And it wasn’t even one, it was the whole lot. The translator turned over to me and said “they are all crying now” as if it wasn’t painfully evident.  As if that needed translation. I wanted to get up and hug her, but the table, the chairs, the computer, everything was in the way, and then the moment passed.

I’ve met women who’ve survived war, sexual abuse, domestic violence….  But my questions always revolve around “the project”. Yesterday I just asked about the old days, what was it like to be a woman. They recounted how the women looked after the house, the children, the agriculture and livestock, as well as cleaning and all other tasks.

“and the men?” I asked

“their job was to sleep and to order the woman around.”

The women could not leave the house nor look a man in the eye.  (This puts into context what a female politician said a few days back about how now a days women gave good speeches  with eye contact). She continued to tell me how the mother in law would cook tasty food for the husband, the children, for her, but not for the wife. The wife could only eat what was left over from the husband’s plate. “We are sold onto marriage”  was another woman’s response when I asked why she stopped studying when she got married “doing something for yourself is unthinkable”.

And the woman who broke down in tears, her story, she had served her husband tea and asked if she could have some. In response to such an outrageous demand he had proceeded to kick and beat her.

And here I am, getting a massage. It stings. It stings more when I think how back home women continue to beare an unequal share of the household work and the childcare, even if they are working full time. How women are paid  70cents to a man’s dollar. So far ahead and still behind. How everyone –myself included- keeps telling my daughter she should be softer and sweeter.  And I can’t help but wonder if we would hold a boy to the same standard. Then my mind drifts to the protests on the TV and truly, I can’t breath. The world seems rife with systemic injustice and it is too much to bear. For the first time I think maybe I should stop my work and go into politics. Fight for women’s rights in “my world” instead of hiding behind other’s struggles. Part of me feels like I owe it to them. Another part  is glad I am here because they received the news of our visit through the women’s group, and the men did not believe them. They did not believe important things could be transmitted through women. “even yesterday they did not believe them” says the translator. But we came. “They feel like today they won”. At least there’s that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dreams of Africa


The earth here is not as red as in the East Africa I know, but it still rumbles under your feet, rebelling to preconceptions and to the meters turned into kilometers of telephone poles and cables I am not used to seeing in the “African landscape”.  Many things in Zimbabwe are not how I expected. But then again, I don’t know truly what I had expected. How could I draw a picture in my mind when all I knew was of politics and polemic?

I cannot, and I have no interest in trying. I am old enough to know my eyes can lie and seeing does not immediately mean I get to understand. My tale is another. One of a school bus filled with young and old, musicians, academics and other culture related practitioners charged with safeguarding the history, or rather, their story. As soon as we set off the mbira begun to weave us into it’s dreamy melody. Mild clapping came and went as did song, discreet, almost shy, with no defined end or beginning, just like a dream. As the bus moved on the earth around us was weaved into the story, reminding me of the innate human desire to create. The dream woke my dream up. That desire to grow roots from my groins, to nurture the seed that gives birth to the fruit. It made me want to sing and write. It made me see the light, the clouds, the colors and the sounds  around me with the other eye, the one that falls asleep when we are not paying attention. It brought me back to my own slumber and its dreams, usually kept hidden from me as secrets of the night, now laid bare under the African sun but still incomprehensible.

We danced and shared secrets like school children, while actual school children pointed and laughed at the color of my skin, calling me names that had no ill intentions. They told me of the rain maker that was able to stay dry, except for his feet, the clouds going out of their way to keep it that way. They told me of the ceramic pots left by no one, in the middle of nowhere, so that they could stop to eat during this long dry walk, and of stones that called out their names to share with them bits of their futures.  They told me of their childhoods immersed in instruments, and of early Sunday mornings when that child, now the community’s grandpa, is woken up by the children who try to steal his stories.  They sang about the white man and how his wagons brought with them an inexhaustible source of peanut butter.

They photographed me with as much curiosity as much as I did them. Then the bus stopped, the music stopped, I got off and we woke up.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

soul carrying rivers- photo post

This was hands down the most intense experience of my visit to Nepal. I don't think I had a right to be there and it felt wrong to be a witness of something that in our culture is  considered so private, but, still an incipient tourism industry, you can pay a small fee to access the temple where the bodies of the dead are traditionally and ceremonially  burned before their ashes are thrust to the river, whose job is to secure their soul's journey. I have always felt that this is the most beautiful (albeit not the most ecological) way to dispose of our dead.  I'll post more photos as I have time to process them -and my own thoughts on the visit. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Finding the humanitarian G-spot

This post was originally published as a guest post on Tales from the Hood. As it now no longer live, I thought it was worth putting it up here again. 

I was reading a recent post by J. at Tales From the Hood about “local” being an article of faith in the Church of Aid, and it occurred  to me that Gender is the G-spot.

You know I'm right. You just cannot (and certainly should not) have a document, meeting, program or strategy that does not address gender. Depending on the place and theme it can range from anything along the lines of combating FGM to increased political representation and decision making.  As aid practitioners we are acutely aware of the pitfalls and structural biases that leave women vulnerable to abuse and dependency. We ignore the local’s arguments that link these forms of discrimination to culture or tradition, and demand equality be treated as a basic human right.

So why is it we are failing so miserably to achieve gender balance at home?

Some years ago, when the goal of gender balance for UN staff was set for all the agencies, I was working in a large UN agency myself. Very responsibly they hired a (female) consultant to undertake some focus group discussion in order to discover why it was so difficult to retain qualified women. I took part of the young professionals discussions. The YPP was a group of staff selected through an intense process for their management skills to be fast tracked within the organization. For the most part they were in their mid twenties/ early thirties and females. The group discussion, as might have been expected, revolved around two things: motherhood and the difficulty of having men follow a woman around, (which the UN career requires as there is constant rotation between duty stations all over the world, much like a diplomatic career).

I also took part of another mixed group with men and women from different departments and ages. I remember a man in his forties talking about how young staff would come to him for advice on how to advance their career. His advice was to go to a difficult duty station. These are the places were you get noticed, where you get fast tracked, and are mostly non-family duty stations, so, he admitted, hard for a woman in her thirties who is probably starting a family. His suggestion was to introduce the possibility of extended 2-3 months missions to these places for women past the recommend six month breastfeeding period so that they’d be in  a position to compete for these spots.

 I was secretly a few weeks pregnant back then. There was something about this proposal that just did not quite work in my head, back then I didn’t understand what. 

The consultant’s conclusion after weeks of intense study was that the best way to ensure that women don’t fall off the career track was to have their babies later on in their career, once they were established. No mention of the fact that many (most) women would not be able to conceive by then.

Fast  forward a few months, I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty:

“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month but has decided to quit instead”

As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…) but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.

Fast forward to the day I gave birth to my first born. I had been preselected to be part of the first training for middle level management. I’m not middle level management yet. I’m not even based in Africa which is where the training will be placed. The mere fact they are considering me is a huge pat in the back. As the phone interview to confirm my spot begins I warn her I am in labour and might stay quiet during the contractions. It sounds extreme, but it was the last day they could interview me, and I was determined. I knew what being part of that group could mean for my career. She said:

“Go have your baby and call me back in a couple of weeks.”

I ended up doing the interview while breastfeeding and my mom holding the phone. I got in but I never did it because, like the mother whose job I had wanted, I decided to extend my leave.

Fast forward again towards the end of my extended leave. I get an email from my old boss all excited that my name has been put forward for deputy (second in command) for a small office in south America. I contact the office and set a day for the interview. During this call I mention that although my leave is indeed about to end, I am now 6months pregnant with my second child. Silence. The interview is set. After a long struggle between my old and new identities, I call back and cancel the interview. You can hear the relief in their voices through the phone line. They thank me.

At the time I was based in Cambodia for my husband’s job. The one he got when I was 7 months pregnant. After some months as a consultant for a UN agency I am offered a fixed term position. My old career self is about to have a fit, but the new mom side wins again, I turn it down. I never got another consulting job from them again.

You might say this was a personal choice, that I didn’t have to turn those jobs down, and you would be right. You would also be ignoring the fact that I’m a psychologist and for a living I look after the wellbeing of children, and that inevitably entails their family and, in particular, the mother for   the role she plays. How can anyone expect me to work all day to get the best possible life situation for other people’s children, and not aim to get the same for mine? We are talking about regrouping families in Africa and Asia, and at the same time about ways to get the women away from their own children so that their careers wont suffer.

I’m not saying stay at home is the only choice or even the best choice. If it makes you a bad mother (which it would make me, trust me,  I would go insane), then it’s definitely not the right choice. Sometimes it’s not even a choice. All I’m saying is that it is high time that we started looking at what we preach and helping families (emphasis on family, not women) find the best solution. This might mean flex-time, it might mean that some days you work from home. It probably entails an obligatory paternal leave to level the playing field.  It might mean that each parent can take one day off a week so the kids spend 4 days out 7 with at least one parent, as opposed to 2, (before you laugh, this is common in Holland, so yeah, it’s doable, and in the private sector too where it’s not about politics but about getting the job done).

I'm saying that what we are doing now is not working, it’s not good enough, and as a consequence we are hardly in a position to go around preaching to others what we haven’t managed to work out at home. I feel like we keep trying to will the typewriter to be the best option, and frankly, the world has changed, the tools and mechanisms we use to work have evolved and it’s high time that we do too. We can do better. If we are looking at remote management for unstable situations that might blow up, maybe we can consider introducing these options for the benefit of our own staff and their families, and as we know from all the research, the impact of this would benefit us all.

Personally, I believe that these changes would lead not only to happier children and parents, but to more productive, creative and efficient aid workers. Trust me, you’d be surprised how much a working mom can get done in that ONE hour she gets between drop off and the TV repair guy.

Deep down we all know that if we could just find that humanitarian G-spot, we’d all be much happier and better people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

on stories

Bright lights, big cities. like spiders webs knit of stone and metal. they hide the stories of the lost souls that wonder like ghouls, crossing each other's paths unseen.

sometimes amongst the crowds we remember. we are all here. we are all individuals. every single one of those windows contains a full story. An entire lifetime of memories, of hurt, of love, of passion,  loss,  fear, struggle and rebirth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Update from the Asian Market series

in love with this fruit shot.
Greetings from East Timor

to see more shots of the Asian markets series click here