These days, I consider it pure joy when my children ask questions, especially questions that stump me. Like when will the pandemic end? Or why do we still have school, even homeschooling the week before Christmas. Or this one that warmed my heart, why do we give presents on Christmas Day? My daughter thinks it’s because the wise men gave baby Jesus presents, silver, gold and oil she thinks. My son wants to know when Christmas will begin so he can start to open the Christmas presents he has received from our family friends. My children’s questions even around things like Christmas or the pandemic reminds me once more, about the significance of questioning in children.

We all know the value of questioning in the classroom, but what about at home. How might we foster the joy of questioning in our households and with everyday activities? How might we encourage questions to naturally arise in our children? Or how might we train our children to ask questions in the way we potty train them? How can we help our children use their questions to seek knowledge, explain things, or understand a phenomenon? How can we simply foster opportunities for our children to ask more beautiful questions, including questions of things they want to know, things they are curious about or what they themselves see as important to discuss, whether it’s Christmas or a pandemic? I was inspired by this keep and the need to continue to work to hone my children’s questioning abilities after seeing a 1995 book in my collection, of 1001 Enuani (an Igbo dialect of Nigeria) proverbs during a cleanup around my home. I scrolled through the pages and landed on proverb 732, my all time favorite proverb in this book and one I have used in a speech to Bucknell undergraduate students about the significance of questions back in my grad school years.

I forgot about this speech until I wrote the prior post on why we all need to keep knowing our why. If you recall for me, my why centers around being a professional questionologist in every sense of the profession. I am inspired by my mentor whose motto in grad school was that we ‘learn to question the questions.’ Also Warren Berger’s book on the need for ‘more beautiful questions.’The primer though for me is proverb 732. It has been my guiding light since grad school and one that I hope to pass down to my children. It simply states: Onye ajuju, aya e-fu uzo: He who asks questions, never misses his way. Keep asking questions my children!

Yesterday on NPR, I listened to an interview with Director Steve McQueen. He was there to promote five standalone films that he created and premiered on Amazon Primetime called the ‘Small Axe’ Anthology. When asked why he made the films, he noted to did so because the stories he wanted to see where never told, never projected, in this case the stories of black people of West Indies decent who resided in the UK. Their stories, their realities, even the joy or struggles are almost never seen on films or tv shows. It’s almost like folks deny their existence. Deny themselves to a certain kind of truth, the compassions and triumphs of being black and of West Indies decent in the Uk. Yet people of West Indies culture are so influential in the UK. So he created the films because it was long over due. It was time for these stories to be told.

I loved listening to his interview as for some reason, I felt seen. Listening to him felt validating to me. It was as if he was speaking directly to me. Every story I write on this blog, every keep is a provocation that I want to read. I started this blog because it was time for my everyday existence to be reflected as well. There are instances where motherhood, family life, even work, as a black woman in academia is full of joy, full of triumphs, full of survival and there are times full of pain, full of one impediment after another, times full of silence. I have shared elsewhere that this duality of existence matters, our silence and survival for example and it’s worth keeping, worth focusing on. Still, I can’t help but feel unseen, undervalued, mostly by the public and why remains a big question for me. Every keep is my attempt at opening up and sharing what life truly entails. Not for likes and definitely not for shares, but so that these stories are recorded, especially now, in the middle of a pandemic, where mothers are juggling with so much. I focus on what really matters, those that help me make sense of me on a daily basis, my innermost core, one keep at a time. Listening to Steve McQueen yesterday made me feel seen.

Towards the end, he was asked why ‘Small Axe’ and he shared that he got the name from Wailers in a song popularized by Bob Marley. It’s essentially an African Proverb that states how ‘if you are the big tree, we are the small axes sharpened to cut you down.’ To McQueen, as a collective, though we maybe small, together we are strong. I really like this proverb. Though motherhood may not be valued as it should, though our stories, all of it, the moments of joy, moments of survival, moments of pain and moments of silence, our duality, are never really projected, though being a black woman in academia remains also this never ending cycle of silence and survival, I am a small axe, sharpened to cut you down. That’s all. Keep being small axes.

My infant son plays with his feet with confidence. He received a toy set from a dear friend that allows him to use his feet to play with a toy piano. When we initially introduced him to the toy at around 1 month of age, he would just sit there and not interact with it. Granted he was still making sense of his world after only just leaving a dark womb 30 days ago and so his interactions with everything were very minimal. But recently and now at 3 months of age, I introduced the toy set to him again and he was in love. His eyes lit up to all the colors of the toy piano. He became determined to master the toy and boy did his determination pay off. It helped him learn to play with his feet, and he played over and over again, playing tunes on the toy piano. Truly, how he make sense of his world fascinates me, especially how he learns, and how he adjusts to life playing with his feet. And he is playing away.

My first undergraduate research job at Penn State University was for the Family Life Project, a longitudinal study of the biological, individual, family and community influences that affect rural children. As an undergraduate researcher, I was trained to code how children interacted with the toys they were presented with. Specifically, I coded an interaction whereby a child was presented with a jigsaw puzzle and watched for certain cues like; did the child reach for the toy immediately or did the child simply stare at it? Did a parent assist the child with the toy in anyway he or she chooses? The idea behind these coding was that how children interacted with a variety of developmental competencies even with something as simple as toys may lead to later success or failures not just throughout childhood but also in adolescence and adulthood. So early acquisition of skills necessary for interaction or play are in turn important for interaction with peers as well as adjustments to tasks in schools.

This study as well as my overall background in human development and family studies thanks to my undergraduate years at Penn State, is one of the key reasons why I remain fascinated with how children make sense of their world. Research from the Family Life Project would suggest that my son’s interaction (albeit one small data point) with toys are necessary for self-regulation. I say that it’s is simply delightful to watch his determination with play especially his vigorous playing with his feet. Keep playing in life or with your feet as the willpower to learn, to make sense of your world, is in you.

We learnt about the letter ‘I,’ my son and I this past week. It was the perfect letter for a son who adores ice-cream. He also got the perfect math assignment to count with his favorite thing, ice cream cones. Homeschooling has been grueling the past few weeks and we finally did our first set of parent teacher conference this past Thursday and Friday. As I reflected with each teacher, as I listened to their assessment about this experience with learning, as I looked back on my children’s achievements this past quarter, as I even argued with one about a letter grade in art (I had to bring out the researcher in me for this one) I can’t help but smile. Their resilience, their courage, their determination, their perseverance, and even their ease with making learning work in the middle of an ongoing pandemic has been mesmerizing.

Homeschooling for all its difficulties and it is extremely difficult to homeschool 3 children while also nursing a baby and maintaining your own work-still, all of it is worth it. I have learnt so much from my children this past few months and I have slowed down a lot. Homeschooling forced me to focus on what really matters. Of course I love my job, but I love my family more. Of course, I want to make an impact in the world, implementing sustainable solutions that will improve people’s health in limited resources settings, but my family makes this passion truly worth it. Because if I can succeed with homeschooling, if I can make sense of the rugged difficulties at times like with homeschooling a child who has 1-5minutes attention span on Zoom, or the rugged ease at other times like with learning the letter ‘I’ with a three year old who adores ice-cream, then I can continue to refine my ideas about the rugged complexities associated with implementing sustainable health solutions. It’s all rugged in a way, homeschooling, global health and yes I love the word ‘rugged.’ But the ease of it all when it makes sense is sublime and truly worth fighting for.

Our letter ‘I’ assignment

As maternity leave slowly comes to an end, in the middle of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, I will keep the rugged ease of learning with my children that homeschooling has taught me this year. It’s my mood for now, this ‘rugged ease’ with life and homeschooling three young children. I hope to continue to reflect on why as our experience with learning continues.

On an occasional basis, my first son cries. For no reason at times. Just cries. He wants to stop. He asks you to please help him stop. But still he cries. He also laughs. For no reason, just to himself, he laughs. Then another son cannot seem to remember his sight words. I know he is 3 but it’s frustrating to be here again. To struggle once again with another child’s delay even though it’s as trivial as sight words. The significance of the past makes me alert to every struggle. Then there is the baby, another son whom we have to watch. He is only 3 months old, but I want to know early what we are in for with him. Does his eyes follow a toy when you present it across his face? Is he able to sit up on his own or with aid? I am well aware that this is too early also. But if you know what we went through with son number 1, then you will know why we are alert with son number 2 and 3. This struggle, every significant aspect of it is important. It’s the reason why I choose to look on the bright side.

I enrolled son number 1 in a daycare right after he turned 2. He was kicked out 2 days later. I cried alone in my car with him that afternoon. How could my own son be kicked out of school at 2? That day, I vowed he would be more than he could ever hope or dream of. That day, I vowed he would excel in all this academic work. That day, I knew I had to protect him from the world, line his being with love for his unique ways, empathize and adapt to his struggles, insulate him when he stumbled, and elevate and praise all his distinct ideas with relating to the world. That day, I also slowed down and did research. This time not for work but for my family, for my son. I read all the evidence-based literature I could find on ways to encourage play, interaction, eye contact, even what to eat whether on a gluten or casein free diet. I took him to the park the next day. Just the two of us. I watched as he swung back and forth on a blue swing. I smiled as he went through a tunnel. The shirt he was wearing said look on the bright side. I did. I have been looking on the bright side ever since. He is one of the best things that ever happened to me, alongside my daughter, my other sons, and my husband. He is the glue to our unique family.

Like the hummingbirds who build and line their nests with silk, my nest is built, lined and surrounded with love, fierce love, and passion, deep passion, with bonding, intense bonding and protection, supernal protection for and from my family. My children and my husband are my secure base through life as a working mother. They protect me from the struggles of academic life, line my being with love for my unique ways called research, empathize and adapt to my struggles and failures, insulate me when I stumble, and elevate and praise all my distinct crazy ideas with implementing sustainable innovations in resource limited settings. Nothing fazes me at work because of them. Nothing surprises or overwhelms me because of them. In fact, I am a great multi-tasker, a better thinker, a better researcher because of them. I am innovative with life and work because of them.

Yesterday at my son’s appointment with Dr Anu, his integrative developmental pediatrician, he was interactive. Something he rarely does. She was amused. He told her he wants to be an astronaut. Named all the planets and noted that he specifically wants to go to the moon. We chuckled. I looked on the bright side. He was kicked out of school at 2 years. He wants to go to the moon at 6 years. The bright side is better to me, sublime in a way, with a future way brighter, way bigger than he could ever hope for or imagine. On an occasional basis he still cries and he still laughs, but this time, even his tears and laughs are brilliant, a sign of his beautiful struggle through life, a sign of my beautiful struggle as a working mother. Like the hummingbirds, my family is my silk and because of them I’ll keep looking always, at the bright side.

One of the best things about homeschooling for my 3rd grader is her journaling assignments. Every morning, prior to the start of her school work, her teacher provides a prompt and asks the students to reflect on the prompt. For the past several months since school started, my little girl has been writing her heart out. It is the most beautiful thing to watch. One of the prompts at the beginning of the school year focused on what she would like to learn through the year. My daughter, (bless her heart), said she would like to learn how to be a doctor. Not just any doctor, but a pediatrician. She felt that in 3rd grade, she should be exposed to medical science that would allow her to practice medicine. I was in awe.

Warren Berger’s book A more beautiful question, helps me understand the power of journaling among children. Berger emphasizes the power of inquiry even for children as young as my daughter. He suggested that questions, especially when posed to children, can be used to gain information, foster a desire to know more while enhancing an awareness of what they don’t know. One good journaling question posed to a 3rd grader can give rise to several layers of answers, inspire decades-long searches for solutions, prompt changes in entrenched thinking and ultimate generate new fields of inquiry.

Reading my daughters journals this school year have been gratifying. The floodgates of her imagination seem to open up every time she journals. Watching her unlock her potential every time she writes has also been quite stunning. Whether it’s her thoughts on ways to be a good friend or why she would rather live in a tree-house instead of an Igloo or a sandcastle, I see firsthand how crucial it is to ensure that children write. Her curiosity and creativity with every journal entry helps to maintain her propensity to inquire and learn in profound ways even now as a 3rd grader. She would live in a treehouse by they way, as it would have a fun slide and allow her to see or have a good view of everything. That by they way is why writing as a child matters. It fosters inquiry. Keep encouraging it.

We spent this morning at the hospital. Baby Ray was due for his 3 month shot. We got up early. I gave him a warm bath, put on a blue play suit as it was a cool morning, gave him his meds and spent a little over 30 minutes breastfeeding baby. Hospital visits like today have a way of making me feel nervous. It’s almost like I am the one getting the shot and not baby. It’s nerve racking in a sense.

When we got to the hospital, and into the room where it would happen, I almost had a panic attack once I saw the shot. I was told by the nurse to undress him down to his diaper. I did. She took his pulse and temperature. He squirmed. I held him closer to my chest. She brought a weighing machine and asked me to put him on the scale. He was 7.595kg. I didn’t bother to ask for his weight in pounds. It didn’t matter. As if sensing something was amiss, he drew closer to me. I held him tightly. The moment was close. I unbuttoned my black shirt and placed him on my breast. I hoped the feeding would blunt the pain of the needle. It didn’t. He cried. A slow soundless scream that erupted into heavy sobs.

I tried to console him, said sorry in Igbo over and over. Ndo, Ndo, Ndo. Placed his lips back on my breast. Fed him for about 4mins. The nurse came back with the discharge summary. We didn’t speak. Baby didn’t smile and I didn’t either. I slowly put his clothes back on, slowly but him back in his car seat, and without saying goodbye, we left. What can I say, I was relived the experience was over, but wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. I know these shots are important and vital for all newborn baby. We have another appointment next month. I’m sure this cycle will start all over again. In the meantime, his smile at the end of the day, even in pain, keeps me going.

I grew up in Nigeria watching a series on TV called ‘Tales by Moonlight.’ In the series, an aunty, gathered children around and told them traditional folktales or stories that inculcate societies values into children. She began by stating these words that made a deep impression on my mind: ‘Story, story.’ The children replied: ‘Story.’ Then she stated; “Once upon a time.’ To which the children replied ‘Time, Time.’ Then the story began. The stories were mostly about societal norms, respect for authority, unity with siblings, and morals heavily laden with lessons on how to live, how to act, when to speak, or when to talk and what was expected from every child even in childhood. The stories were inseparable from every aspect of life in Nigeria and used to tell children what to do and how to do it.

In turn, the show became an exemplar on how to transmit and continue values that make society and family systems whole. An exemplar on how values of a society enhance unity, group solidarity and cooperative effort rather than individualism, how values foster understanding between generations, how values teach the proper role of everyone in a society, and how values vividly imagined in our minds, in informal, serene and unruffled ways, highlight the essential conflicts between what is right and what is wrong in any given society. Tales by moonlight with its stories full of lessons for life, was valuable to me.

As a mother now to four little children, I am always in search of materials that teach life lessons in informal, serene ways, especially through stories that allow my children to vividly imagine for themselves, the things that are of value in any given society. In fact, some nights we end the day in the same way aunty began her stories on Tales by Moonlight, ‘Story, Story.’ In the absence of the show Tales by Moonlight, book helps my children imagine and gain practical lessons in values of our society. Enter the book, ‘Anansi the Spider.’

The book Anansi The spider.

As part of our weekly reading series for homeschooling, we read Anansi the Spider to my junior kindergarten. His sister made a spider for her class work last Friday and so today’s reading was a perfect fit.

Anansi the Spider is a tale from the Ashanti People of Ghana adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott. It was a 1973 Caldecott Honor book for its vibrant, stylized realization of this classic and timeless folklore from the Ashanti people.

In this colorful retelling, we are introduced to Anansi’s sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion. When Anansi got lost and fell into trouble, all his sons used their special skills to save him. When he wanted to reward the sons for saving him, he discovers an important lesson. Each son, from See Trouble who knew when he was in danger to Cushion who helped when he fell from the sky, is equally important. None of the sons are more valuable than the other. In other words, everyone one is valuable and has a role to play in this life.

Stories like Anansi play a role in fostering values of everyday life that matter. They impressed the traditions and values of my heritage deep into my consciousness. The essential goals of folktales like Anansi are admirable and remains sterling. We should all do our part to keep reading these folktales to children.

My son Olisadubem.

If there is one thing I am thankful for with homeschooling during this pandemic, is that I am learning new things about my children everyday. Learning what makes them happy, what makes them sad, and what makes them curious about life. But what I love the most is the assignments from their teachers. My daughter’s 3rd teacher gave them an assignment focused on writing a narrative about their families. Toni Morrison once shared that ‘narratives are one of the ways in which knowledge is organized.’ To her, they are the ‘most important way to transmit and receive knowledge.’ But sometimes, even narratives, no matter how well organized, are never enough, noted Ms. Morrison.

Lotanna’s family narrative assignment.

Sometimes what is written about one’s family in narratives, what is useful or what ought to be discarded is eye opening. But eye opening is not enough. Instead, sometimes what is described, in simple language, particularly from your children lens, is remarkable. Not that a child is telling the story, but that it’s from their own perspective, from their own details, their own consciousness, their own critical voice about what makes their family, a family. That maybe telling and enough, a child’s critical examination of what makes a family, a family.

Dad, mom, Lotanna and her brothers.

For my daughter, it’s that we are cool. That’s all! Mom, a professor likes to run and dad, a doctor loves chocolate. We are both strict with school. Grandma called Mama, loves to pray everyday and cousin Tochi is in college. Then there are three brothers. One with autism who loves the color blue, another who also loves blue and computers and a baby brother who eats and throws up a lot. This is the first time I am reading an assignment with a reference to her brother’s autism. Articulating her thoughts about her brothers illustrates her nurturing and caring power. Being a family is not only about her, but about them too.

Grandma and Tochi.

But the test of the power of family narratives lies in the child’s own perspective of themselves. The ability at the age of 8, to imagine the self, to familiarize the trivial, enlighten the essential, makes a child’s narrative of their families, powerful. For my daughter, who loves bunnies and elephants, I learnt she was a day dreamer, with a ‘big dreaming imagination.’ She also loves to read, chapter books being her favorite especially the Emmie and Friends series. She prays with Mama and loves running bath water for her baby brother. She loves exercising with dad, jumping on the trampoline at the back of the house as well as playing fun games with her brothers.

Lotanna reading a book to her baby brother.

Clearly Lotanna loves her family, and we are very special to her. Her story, her ability to imagine and create is compelling, is sterling to me. Family narratives can help make sense of what makes families, families. At least it made me look deeper about what makes our family special from my daughter’s lens. Keep writing family narratives, they are remarkable, especially from a child’s perspective.

Our family narrative by Lotanna.

One of my 3year old’s first assignment as a junior kindergarten student was to make a butterfly. His teacher sent the video of Eric Carle’s The very hungry caterpillar. We also read the book. It one of my kids favorite books to read. His teacher shared how caterpillars start as eggs, then into a pupa, then a caterpillar. Then they build a house for themselves called an cocoon, spend some time in their house before turning into a butterfly. This lifecycle of a butterfly was eloquently portrayed in Eric Carle’s book.

As I read the book to my son again and we made our butterflies wings with watercolors, I was struck by how caterpillars do not adjust to their environments on their journey to becoming butterflies. They infuriate many as they look for food. They refuse to be defined by their small stature. They build and nurture themselves first! Imagine something so small building their own home so delicate, all to nurture themselves, their whole being in their own safe spaces, their way. They then guide their homes through treacherous landscapes until it’s time to display their beauty. In the midst of rough terrains, in the middle of uncertainties, they emerge light and beautiful, stunning and sterling, like a baby coming into the world for the first time. They fly away almost immediately, living life courageously, still through treacherous landscapes and rough terrains. This courage has been on full display from the beginning.

Our butterfly!

Courage is heightened for every pupa who seeks to become a caterpillar, every caterpillar who seeks to become a butterfly. Courage demands swift action, sometimes infuriating, but always on your own terms, at your own time, like a new baby coming to the world for the first time. Courage involves building safe spaces, your own space, where you nurture yourself, until it’s time to display your beauty to the world. The condition of life from the beginning, from being pupa to caterpillar is courage. Without it they never become butterflies, they never fly. Like butterflies, we all have the same courage, to live through treacherous landscapes, through rough terrains, but most importantly, to fly. So keep flying like butterflies!

Fly butterfly fly!