My husband is Senegalese. I am not. That means the beginning of our marriage was full of cultural adjustments that were tough but beneficial. Like his incredibly big and open heart. This man will give away our belonging in a minute. He’s also quick to invite people to visit… or live with us. It’s the West African way: teranga, a Wolof word that can be loosely translated as hospitality, but its far more than that. It’s not just about obligatory niceties. It’s about going above and beyond to make a person feel loved, to let them know you truly appreciate their presence. I can’t front; I was annoyed at first. Like, “Who are these people and where is all my stuff?” But my heart softened and I think I’m much kinder and more considerate because of it. Guess I developed a bit of teranga myself.
Another adjustment I had to make was hearing the word “sure” all the time. He used to say it with the cutest little accent, which has since faded. *Insert one lonely tear* Any time I’d ask him a question or to do something, he’d use that word, and I really liked it. Like most people, I was used to “yes” and “ok,” but he said sure for everything. I couldn’t really pinpoint why I liked it so much, but I did! Made me feel good. It took a while for me to realize that embedded in the word sure is the indication that not only is the person willing to meet your request, but they’re actually happy to do. Sure is teranga, hospitality of the highest order.
Think about it. Is it even possible to say sure with malice or annoyance in your voice? It’s the word we use when we’re eager to please, happy to be of service. It lets the person know, “You’re not bothering me. I want to help you.” How good does it feel when someone responds that way?
Business owners (good ones) say sure when customers ask to customize orders. Grandmothers say sure when grandchildren ask for yet another piece of candy. Fathers say sure when weary children ask to be carried. It’s a word of genuine appreciation of presence. That’s why I felt giddy when he said it. It wasn’t the accent; it was the love the word comes wrapped in, the gentle whisper of eager service. Every relationship needs that. To know your life partner wants to serve you, derives joy from serving you, produces a sense of security and respect that only pushes you to want to do the same. And so a cycle of service is created. This is where love lives and grows. The ebb and flow of marriage is still there, but the undercurrent of service always brings it back to balance. So I guess it isn’t really the word that’s magical. It’s the intentions that drive the word, the kindness behind it. So much packed into those four little letters.
It’s not just marriages that can benefit from its use. I try to use it in every relationship of value. I make a point to say sure to my children as frequently as possible. “Say ‘sure,’ mommy,” my son will say. He notices when I don’t. He hasn’t told me as much, but I think he gets the same feeling I got when I first heard his dad say it to me. He’s only five, but he’s astute enough to feel the good in it. I think we all are.
I posted one morning on FB, as I’ve done many times before, about my struggles with parenting– a whole list of things that make parenting particularly challenging for me. It was pretty cathartic to say those things “aloud,” but as I got to the end, I felt the need to make it more palatable, to drop some sugary prose on the end like, “But parenting is also wonderful and grand and blah, blah, blah.” And I actually did it. I typed up a quick, cute little something so no one would accuse me of not being grateful for my children or not enjoying the journey. ‘Cus, ya now, God forbid a mother doesn’t enjoy parenthood every second of every day.
But you know what, I took that ish off! Because though it was true (parenting is great and so are children), the road is not smooth and it does not always feel good. And that prickly discomfort is what I wanted to communicate, NOT the warm fuzzies that come at other times. But for some reason, mothers are made to feel bad for not always enjoying the ride. We’re supposed to grin and bear and act like our mystical ties to our children blot out the magnitude of this task. They don’t. I love my children in an unimaginable way and thank God for them daily, but that love and thankfulness don’t temper the strain and friction of being responsible for a tiny person’s life. It’s tough, and I should be able to say that without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.
And so I did. I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it and drowned out the voices that whispered, “Shame on you for being other than happy. Shame on you for not presenting yourself in the expected way.” As I submerged those voices and muffled their condemning cries, I was left with a silence that allowed me to feel ok about not feeling ok.
We all need that. We all need to be able to say, “These kids are getting on ALL my nerves and I’m ready to blow,” without someone else saying, “Oh, but children are so precious. Be thankful.” Sigh. Yes, I know children are precious, but sometimes they fight and lie and break things and whine and don’t listen and disturb my peace and make my left eye twitch just a little. And when that happens, I’m not thinking about how precious they are. I’m thinking about how lucky they are that I choose not to use corporal punishment. I’m also thinking about what room I can lock myself in just to get some space. And then it passes and I’m able to function again. But I need my moment. Don’t deny me that.
It is downright oppressive to condition mothers to bury our feelings under a forced smile. Even though most people are trying to help by reminding us of the good, it feels like judgment and it feels like we’ve done something wrong for sharing how we feel.
For those who are wondering, a better response would be to say, “I know how that feels/I’ve been there.” Or maybe you don’t know how it feels and haven’t been there. In that case, just say, “That sounds tough. Hope it gets better.” Silence works too. Sometimes just saying it aloud does wonders. We don’t always need a response. Aside from HELP and support, all we need is the space to truly feel and process the full range of emotions parenting produces.
I have a daughter and a son, so I can’t help but be concerned with the messages and images hurled at young women AND men. For me, there is no separation. They are two sides of the same coin. I can’t empower my daughter and teach her her worth, only to leave my son defenseless and open to the metal attacks of a society that would have him believe he has carte blanche in his future dealings with women. That would leave someone else’s daughter, empowered though she may be, vulnerable to his unchecked power. I can’t have that.
I tell my daughter regularly that she is strong, powerful, intelligent and fully in control of her body. I tell her no one has the right to touch it or do with it anything she hasn’t first approved, but you know what (and I hate to even type this and acknowledge it as true), but some entitled, unmolded man could come and ruin that–real quick. Just like the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner.
So when I’m giving my son the “You’re strong, powerful and intelligent” speech, I add on a special caveat that he must always respect and protect women. I tell him that in a few short years, he will be (most likely) bigger and stronger than his sister and me, and he must use that strength to our benefit, to the benefit of every woman regardless of what she looks like, acts like or wears. And yes, I know, telling my young son that women need protection (thereby implying our vulnerability ) may not gel well with the “women can do it all” feminism of today, but I make no room in my house for other people’s interpretations. Because sooner or later, my son will learn of his physical strength. He will feel it in his growing body and see how other men use it to intimidate and control women, so I won’t be doing him any favors to gloss over it and act like it doesn’t exist. It does exist. He must learn how to use it.
But no amount of talking on my behalf will take the place of his father’s doing. I can give feminist speeches all I want, but if his father were to be physically, verbally or financially abusive, my words would have little chance against the norms being created in his mind. And it doesn’t always take full-on abuse. A mere cavalier attitude toward the objectification of women is a seed that could grow into something quite dangerous. If we are ever to gain equality in this world, boys must be groomed to value women, and they must be made aware of how to harness their power. It’s not enough to wrap our daughters in “Girls rock” tees and serenade them with Beyonce and Taylor Swift songs. It’s not enough to teach them about math and science and how to change a flat. It’s not enough to take a stance against princess culture. Our sons, too, must be taught to stand. They must have pounded into their minds the idea that is NOT ok to exert control over a woman. They must see adult males loving, respecting and protecting (yes, protecting) women against those who, apparently, didn’t get the memo.
Perhaps Brock Turner wouldn’t have felt comfortable thrusting himself atop an unconscious woman had he been taught to be a feminist, taught how to handle his power differently. But it is quite clear what Brock was taught. Based on his father’s disgusting plea to the courts, it is clear he was taught that his getting “20 minutes of action” is far more important than a woman’s right to give consent regarding what is and isn’t entered into her body. To Brock’s father, all that matters is his son’s ease and comfort, his ability to carry on with life as though he hadn’t raped someone and made her own body a prison. There are far too many “Brock fathers” out there who give their sons pass after pass and never instill in them the value of a woman and the responsibility of a man. And when those miseducated males find themselves unsupervised and in the presence of a woman, her empowerment can be stolen in an instant.
So please, pour into your sons as much as you do your daughters. The need is grave for both.
A funny thing happens when water wells up in a woman’s eyes and—God forbid—falls out. It seems those tears, salty and shameful, trigger a mighty trumpet to blow, signaling to the world that weakness has arrived. Never mind the strength she’s had to develop just from living in a world that scrutinizes her so deeply. She is definitively weak. Her leaking eyes are my witness.
And though a woman’s tears they may look similar to regular, run-of-the-mill tears, know they are not. They belong in a class all their own, far away and separate from everyone else’s. Because other tears have meaning. They bring about empathy and compassion. Baby tears, for example, are considered a valid form of communication. When a baby cries, people know there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Man tears are sweet, endearing, and sometimes sexy. Even whiny kid tears, which can be soooo annoying, get more love than the cleansing waters a woman produces. Silly me, here I was thinking all tears mattered.
Over the past week, I have been bombarded with comments regarding my “Mind your own womb” blog post. Though much of it was positive and quite moving, I was struck by the number of women who were upset with my “portrayal of women.” According to said comments, I made women look weak by suggesting that we cry all the time.
First off, can we talk about the fact that I only mentioned three women in the whole post? There is a 30-year-old, a 34-year-old and a 40-year-old. That’s it. Sure, I mentioned various scenarios that I knew would apply to many different women, but at no point did I mean for this tiny group of ladies to be a symbolic stand-in for all womankind. The fact that so many people would assume this is, well, pretty crazy to me.
Second, can we talk about the fact that I only described these women as crying in response to this one particular, highly personal matter? At no point did I say that they cry all the time, every day, about everything. In fact, it seems it would make more sense to assume they spend most of their time NOT crying. But then, I wrote it, so perhaps I’m able to read into what others can’t.
Third, can we accept, claim and rejoice in the fact that crying is a natural and healthy part of the human emotional response? And though not all women are frequent criers, the ones who are have nothing to be ashamed of. I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling many of these decriers who found fault with my portrayal probably consider themselves feminists. They probably felt like they were standing up for the portrayal and progression of women. Good for them. Please do stand up for what you believe in, but recognize that equating crying with weakness does nothing to further the cause of women. And recognize that crying is only considered weak because it is a so-called feminine trait. It crying were considered masculine, no one would have a problem with it, and they’d probably be encouraging us to do it more.
But guess what? I’m that type of feminist who doesn’t feel the need to take on so-called masculine traits to be valid. I’m the type of feminist who feels comfortable crying (or not crying) as much as my little heart needs to, and I recognize that different women handle different emotions differently. And I’m so cool with that.
But since you want to equate tears with weakness, let’s take a closer look at that. I’m reminded of my late aunt Umaimah Khalifah (may Allah have mercy on her soul), a true pillar of strength in my family. She died in 1999 and left a void no one could ever fill. Talk about strength. This is a woman who was always looking to help others, always looking to give—even when she didn’t have much herself. I remember it like yesterday. She would say, “If there’s enough for one, there’s enough for two.” Wasn’t no way you were coming in her house and not sharing whatever you had! She used to let a whole group of us, my cousins and I, come over her house to spend the night. She never complained, never seemed in a rush to send us back to our parents. Her heart was so full of love and kindness…and strength.
She was one of those “I only fear my Lord” sort of women. I remember she took all us kids to an amusement park once. It was probably around 5:30 pm or so and it was time for Asr (the 3rd daily prayer for Muslims). We just assumed we’d make it up when we got home, but she wasn’t having it. She found a nice spot in the grass and made us pray on time, right there in the park. While we were embarrassed and concerned about onlookers, she stood tall and unbothered. She didn’t care who looked or what anyone thought. My aunt would let no one interrupt her connection to God. She was loving, kind and unapologetically Muslim. And she was also a crier, a huge crier. She cried so much that her nickname was Boo. She’d cry if she hadn’t seen you in a while. She’d cry for happiness. She’d cry for sadness; it didn’t have to be her own. She just felt things deeply, so much that water leaked from her eyes. I assure you, there is no weakness in that.
I’m also reminded of my own daughter, a nearly 7-year-old with a heart of gold. Like her great-aunt, she feels things deeply. She’ll even get teary-eyed during touching commercials, and I swear I saw her crying once during an episode of “Iyanla, Fix My Life,” but she denies it. I guess I’ll let that one slide. Her heart is incredibly open, and that scares me sometimes because there is so much ugly in this world that I’d hate for her to take into herself. But I can’t live in fear. That would be unfair to us both. So me and my leaky-eyed child just live day to day, sunrise to sunrise. We don’t focus on the many people who lie in wait, judgment in hand as if we were made of glass and gears instead of skin, blood and bone.
And even with tears in her eyes, perhaps because of the tears in her eyes, she is strong. Every day this child becomes more of herself—more confident, more intelligent, more grounded in who she is. A few weeks ago, her first-grade class had a performance. Her teacher asked them to wear something special, so she wanted to wear a headscarf, the first time she’d done so in school. This is a decision she made completely on her own despite the fact that no one in her class, maybe even her whole school, wears hijab. But she didn’t care. She wasn’t concerned about the possible judgment and didn’t fear rejection. On that day and every other day, she was nothing more and nothing less than her entire self. That’s strength, and I dare you to tell me it’s not.
So on behalf of my aunt, my daughter, myself and everyone else whose eyes tend to leak, kiss my tear ducts.
On May 25, 2016, I published “Mind your own womb,” about some of the struggles of women who want to conceive and others who already have. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would go viral. It actually started as a simple Facebook post, but it got so long that I decided to move it over here to my blog. I assumed I would get the usual assortment of shares and likes and that would be that. But it touched so many people and I’m truly grateful for that. I always hope that the things I write are beneficial to someone, even if its just me.
But what I’ve noticed (and this is common) is that anytime I write something that gets popular, there are people who cry, “What about me? You didn’t tell my story!” The only reply I have for those people is that you have to tell your own story. I say this not because I’m unwilling to tell it and not because I don’t think it has value, but because there CANNOT be only one story. There just can’t be. That blog could have gone on for another two thousand words and some women still would have been left out. No one person can do it all. If this world is going to work, if people are going to see and understand and receive each other, it will be because of the varied stories we tell that allow others to truly see us for who we are, no filter or distortions.
This is the message I tried to get across in this FB video, but I’m a better writer than I am a speaker so… just check it out.
MY BFIMH (best friend in my head) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks so eloquently about the danger of the singular story. To quote her 2009 Ted Talk (which I highly suggest you watch in its entirety), “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” That is not what I am here to do. I am fully aware that there are people who exist outside of those I describe. I know there are ideas, circumstances and emotions I have not shared. This is not to be exclusive, but only to be focused. My intention in everything I write is to share MY perspective. That perspective may mirror yours or it may be nothing like it, but it is mine always. So on those days where my perspective rubs you the wrong way, rest assured that there is more than enough space for you to share your own. And know the world will be better off because of it.
As a black Muslim woman, I stay on the outskirts of representation. Discussions of black women rarely include me spiritually, and discussions of Muslim women rarely include me racially and culturally. (Plus I’m just kinda weird in general so I don’t really fit with nobody!) But that’s why I have a whole separate blog dedicated to the intersection of race, religion and female bodies. Because what I’m not gon’ do is wait for other people to speak on my behalf. Nah, son. Can’t do it. If I’m feeling lonely in the dark, I’ll light a candle and make my own light. This is a message marginalized/under-represented/misrepresented peoples really need to make use of. Wait for no one to champion your cause.
To that, some people may say, “But not everyone is a writer. We don’t all have the resources and ability to create a platform.” Understood, but if your story is important enough that you felt the need to give me an earful in the comments section of my blog, then you need to use your network to find the right people who can help you make it happen. Every day, cultural narratives are being maintained and changed based on the new stories that emerge and the old stories that linger. Don’t think you have to be a bystander in that.
Somewhere there is a woman: 30, no children. People ask her, “Still no kids?” Her response varies from day to day, but it usually includes forced smiles and restraint.
“Nope, not yet,” she says with a chuckle, muffling her frustration.
“Well, don’t wait forever. That clock is ticking, ya know,” the sage says before departing, happy with herself for imparting such erudite wisdom. The sage leaves. The woman holds her smile. Alone, she cries…
Cries because she’s been pregnant 4 times and miscarried every one. Cries because she started trying for a baby on her wedding night, and that was 5 years ago. Cries because her husband has an ex-wife and she has given him children. Cries because she wants desperately to try in vitro but can’t even afford the deposit. Cries because she’s done in vitro (multiple rounds) and still has no children. Cries because her best friend wouldn’t be a surrogate. “It would be too weird,” she said. Cries because her medication prevents pregnancy. Cries because this issue causes friction in her marriage. Cries because the doctor said she’s fine, but deep inside she knows it’s her. Cries because her husband blames himself, and that guilt makes him a hard person to live with. Cries because all her sisters have children. Cries because one of her sisters didn’t even want children. Cries because her best friend is pregnant. Cries because she got invited to another baby shower. Cries because her mother keeps asking, “Girl, what are you waiting on?” Cries because her in-laws want to be grandparents. Cries because her neighbor has twins and treats them like shit. Cries because 16-year-olds get pregnant without trying. Cries because she’s an amazing aunt. Cries because she’s already picked out names. Cries because there’s an empty room in her house. Cries because there is an empty space in her body. Cries because she has so much to offer. Cries because he’d be a great dad. Cries because she’d be a great mother, but isn’t.
Somewhere else is another woman: 34, five children. People say to her, “Five? Good lord, I hope you’re done!” And then they laugh… because those types of comments are funny. The woman laughs too, but not in earnest. She changes the subject, as she always does, and gives the disrespect a pass. Just another day. Alone, she cries…
Cries because she’s pregnant with another and feels like she has to hide the joy. Cries because she always wanted a big family and doesn’t see why people seem so disturbed by it. Cries because she has no siblings and felt profoundly lonely as a child. Cries because her Granny had 12 and she’d love to be just like her. Cries because she couldn’t imagine life without her children, but people treat her like they’re a punishment. Cries because she doesn’t want to be pitied. Cries because people assume this isn’t what she wanted. Cries because they assume she’s just irresponsible. Cries because they believe she has no say. Cries because she feels misunderstood. Cries because she’s tired of defending her private choices. Cries because she and her husband are perfectly capable of supporting their family but that doesn’t seem to matter. Cries because she’s tired of the “funny” comments. Cries because she minds her own business. Cries because she wishes others would mind theirs. Cries because sometimes she doubts herself and wonders if she should have stopped two kids ago. Cries because others are quick to offer criticism and slow to offer help. Cries because she’s sick of the scrutiny. Cries because she’s not a side show. Cries because people are rude. Cries because so many people seem to have opinions on her private life. Cries because all she wants to do is live in peace.
Another woman: 40, one child. People say to her, “Only one? You never wanted any more?”
“I’m happy with my one,” she says calmly, a rehearsed response she’s given more times than she can count. Quite believable. No one would ever suspect that alone, she cries…
Cries because her one pregnancy was a miracle. Cries because her son still asks for a brother or sister. Cries because she always wanted at least three. Cries because her second pregnancy had to be terminated to save her life. Cries because her doctor says it would be “high-risk.” Cries because she’s struggling to care for the one she has. Cries because sometimes one feels like two. Cries because her husband won’t even entertain the thought of another. Cries because her husband died and she hasn’t found love again. Cries because her family thinks one is enough. Cries because she’s deep into her career and can’t step away. Cries because she feels selfish. Cries because she still hasn’t lost the weight from her from her first pregnancy. Cries because her postpartum depression was so intense. Cries because she can’t imagine going through that again. Cries because she has body issues and pregnancy only exacerbates it. Cries because she still battles bulimia. Cries because she had to have a hysterectomy. Cries because she wants another baby, but can’t have it.
These women are everywhere. They are our neighbors, our friends, our sisters, our co-workers, our cousins. They have no use for our advice or opinions. Their wombs are their own. Let’s respect that.
We’re homeschool lite around here. That means I send my kids to traditional school, but I work with them at home too. It works, and I plan to continue in this way unlesssomething shady goes down and I have to roll up in there and set it all the way off unless I begin to feel that traditional school just isn’t a good fit for them. I don’t forsee that being a problem, but mama’s always got her eyes open.
Anyhoo, I have a cousin who teaches kindergarten at an elementary school that is big on structure and discipline. She told me the kids often have to do their work over if it isn’t done correctly. She gave an example of a child having to do a coloring sheet over because he went far outside the lines. My first thought was, That’s too harsh and it’ll stifle their creativity! We shouldn’t be teaching kids to “live inside the lines.” That’s what I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I just listened. She said she felt uncomfortable at first, being so “critical” of kids, but she now sees the benefit and result of having high expectations.
My concern was their confidence. Wouldn’t that make them feel like they aren’t good enough? But she explained that there is no actual criticism. They don’t tell the children they did a bad job. They simply tell them it wasn’t what they asked for, and then give instruction again. So for a child who colored outside the lines, she’d say, “You see how you went out the lines here? I want you to do it over, but stay inside the lines this time, ok?” She then hands him a fresh paper and he colors it again, staying in the lines this time. The point of this exercise isn’t to teach them to be robots who do everything exactly the same, but to help them develop their fine motor skills. And it really works. She works at a top-performing school, and she is always amazed by how well the children do when they have a clear and reasonable expectation.
I was hesitant at first, but it made sense, and it got me thinking about the well-intentioned disservice we may be doing our children when we don’t push them to do better. Because we love them so much, we always want to encourage them, fill their minds with positive words and let them know we love the work they do regardless of what it looks like. Hi-fives all around for unconditional love, but there is no reason that our love should prevent us from teaching them to be their best. So I was forced to ask myself, why was I so bothered by the idea of having a child do work again? Why was I so convinced that a child’s first attempt should be automatically accepted? Are children so incredibly fragile that they will be destroyed by any level of correction? Of course not. Children tend to be far more resilient that adults, and while that is no excuse to be hard on or critical of them, it does provide solace that they won’t break under the “weight” of edification.
So I took this newfound understanding into my homeschool work with Son, a soon-to-be kindergartener. Before, when I’d have him write letters, I’d praise almost anything he did and just assumed it would get better as long as we kept doing it (and that probably would have been true in the long run.) I can remember times where the work he did looked nothing like what I was trying to teach him and I’d still rush to offer up a hearty, “good job!” But once I stopped with all the praise and focused more on building skill, his handwriting got so much better, almost overnight!
Below is a picture of some of the jammin’ works he’s done. First I had him trace his name and then write it by himself. (The boxes help him control his movement.) I’m not sure how visible it is in the photo, but there are erase marks on the R, Y, A, 3 and 4. Those are the letters and numbers he had most trouble with, so I asked him to do it over, but I told him exactly what I wanted him to do (e.g., “I want you to write the letter A again, but this time make the top pointy instead of round.”) If he had a lot of trouble, I’d flip the paper over and practice with him there. The end result is the neat, completely legible work you see before you. (Clearly I’m biased, but I’m impressed!)
I wish I had a picture of some of his older work for comparison, but I just recently started keeping track of what he does. Everything else is probably crumpled up under the sofa somewhere, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say the improvement was great. And the best part: his confidence has actually grown! He’s genuinely excited to show me his work, and–if he’s in a good mood–he’ll even volunteer to do it over if he recognizing something isn’t looking right. He’s never responded in a way that suggests he feels shame or defeat.
But be warned, this method is more work on you, the parent. Taking the time to do it over (and over and over if need be) means more work and possible frustration for you. Wish I knew some kind of workaround to eliminate that step, but I don’t think one exists. I simply accept that it has to be done, and I know that the work I put in now will benefit him throughout life. This isn’t just about pointy As and rounded Bs. It’s about self-mastery. So I hope this encourages other parents to “harden up” when it comes to working with your little ones. I promise you, they won’t break.