For art this week, my third grader made a unique, ravishingly beautiful but simple depiction in celebration of the Day of the Dead. The instructions were simple. Watch the Festival of the Bones book on YouTube, then draw skeletons in white in an interesting background highlighted with a bit of accent color and gel pens. The cute, funny book, Festival of Bones by Luis San Vincente is a delightful read, apt for her assignment and this weekend’s celebration about the Day of the Dead. But it’s my daughters drawing, her focus on rethinking the architecture of skeletons, to mark out a space where even skeletons can flourish via the possibilities of her imagination, that I keep today.

My daughter’s art assignment

My daughter drew 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. I asked why a picnic and a snowy night. She simply said it is her drawing, as a result, anything is possible. Why not render skeletons in another light? Not as scary creatures but as delightful beings, doing delightful things even at a time or during a weather vastly different from how people imagine skeletons to act, to be, to live. I was stunned by her description, and her vivid and confident illustrations of the 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. This same vivid and confident portrayal of skeletons is possible even with motherhood, especially for working mothers.

Two skeletons, a picnic and a snowy night by Lotanna.

My daughter’s artwork helped me to rethink the subtle yet pervasive attachments we may all have to the fabric of motherhood. The need to think about what it means and what it takes to do both, work and motherhood, effortlessly, defiantly, with struggle in many cases and but a rugged ease in some instances. Just today, I not only reviewed four NIH grants in need for funding as a peer-reviewer, but I managed to put on a home-based Halloween party, albeit for four children, while also watching a movie that celebrated my daughter’s art assignment.

The artist herself.

Rethinking motherhood, for working mothers is a necessity. What I am determined to do is take what is sidelined, the sheer strength, fortitude in all our roles, and elevate it, concretize what it is, outside of fiction, whether rendered or thought as impossible for working mothers like me, who do both work and our roles as mothers effortlessly sometimes or with impediments other times. For us, anything is possible. My daughter’s imagination is a reminder for me continue to work to rethink the piecemeal notion people may have about work for mothers and mothers who work, to lay it bare down to its bones, because every successful advancement, every failure, every hope or every struggle, requires that we all learn and know firsthand that being a working mother, is both possible and meaningful like 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night.

Friday’s and every day are for the future. Today we read a splendid retelling with brilliant illustrations on why everyone should care for the planet. It’s a story that’s at least 500 years old, a Benin folktale on why children should respect the earth and the sky. Why the Sky is Faraway, by Mary-Joan Gerson and Illustrator Carla Golembe was published in 1995 and won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the year for use striking illustrations to retell this folktale that resonates with today fight for a sustainable future for us and our planet.

In the beginning, the sky was very close to the earth with plenty to eat and drink just by reaching up to the sky. My son and I tried to imagined such a world. There would be strawberries in the sky as illustrated by the book and french fries and Ice-cream plus pizza and chicken, he said. If anyone was hungry, all they have to do is reach up and take a piece of the sky and eat. Such a world seems wonderful to him. Such a world seems so radiant and perfect. A sky full of everything you want, all your favorite meals, all by reaching up to the sky.

But like everything we inherit on earth, even a sky full of food was not sustained overtime through people’s wasteful habits, people’s disregard for something vital to their own existence, something as simple as the food they eat. It’s no wonder the sky became angry and moved faraway. So what do we do I asked my son? Whatever we do to bring the sky back, he said. I agree. We may never live in a world where the sky is very close to the earth. We may never physically reach up and take a piece of whatever we want from the sky and eat to our hearts content. But we can do our part to not be wasteful, not be greedy and actually take care of our planet. Whatever we can do to respect the planet is vital and for my children, telling these folktales is a necessity.

How do we harness love in the middle of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating? Joining meal trains is one way. The other day I got an email from one of the moms in my son’s junior kindergarten class. She asked if families could start a meal train for a family in our community with a baby born with a heart defect. I have never heard of meal trains in this format until her email and I was moved. For the past 2 months of his life, the baby has been in a NICU fighting for his life and in the middle of a pandemic. I was moved by the email because I cannot imagine being in this family’s shoes right now. The baby was also born one month after my own baby so this feels personal. Plus in my Igbo tradition, there are so many things a new mom should have access to by now including certain foods she is supposed to have eaten by now to start the healing process following birth. Food is also one of the critical ways we show new families support and so this modern day approach to supporting new moms via meal trains is inspiring and vital.

My jollof rice.

In addition to their baby brother, there are 2 young children to nurture as well as the mom and dad. I signed up to participate. It’s my first online meal train, providing dinner tonight for the family. I made my traditional jollof rice with a dash of curry and bay leaves. I also baked salmon to go with the rice. For starters, I went with a kale salad and dessert, a box of red grapes. I hope that as the eat their dinner tonight that they feel and know that they are loved. I also pray that this love continues to surround them during this truly difficult time. Whether the pandemic comes to an end or not, whether we social distance or distant ourselves socially due to the pandemic, I hope we all find unique ways to keep spreading love. The world needs love right now and you can join me in spreading it via meal trains.

My first meal train.

In Religion yesterday my son learnt about God and how he created everything. Religion is the one subject that truly captivates his attention for a long time compared to other subjects. Since the start of the school year we have been coloring and learning about the 10 commandments. I honestly don’t know if he remembers any of them. But there is something about learning about God and Jesus in particular, that makes him still. His stillness with Religion (via the same technology he loathes with other subjects) is piercing. His love for religion, with word for word memorization of the Catholic mass since he was 3 for example, has been profoundly insightful to our family.

At 3, he knew how to say the Catholic prayers during Holy Communion.

Yesterday we spent time learning about the wonderful things God created. Like the moon. My son adores the planets and the moon. The picture of the moon in the chapter we read was his favorite picture. His teacher asked why the moon was his favorite? He replied, because it shines on everything. Just when we thought he had provided his answer, as his responses are often short, my son goes on to explain why the moon was his favorite.

The moon he said, shines on the trees as well as the elephant. It also shines on the grass as well as the peacocks. Even the fruits and vegetables, the horses and the butterflies and also the fishes and the birds in the sky. The moon shines on everything. I love it because of that. His teacher and I were stunned. I was also speechless. The depth of his thoughts surprises me always. Here is a boy for whom interaction can be quite a task, his responses very minimal, and his disdain for homeschooling very high. But the moon and its power to shine on everything was spectacular to him and worth underscoring how it shines on everything.

Just when I thought the class was over, his teacher asked him to draw what of all God’s creatures he loves. My son said his family. He would draw his family as that’s what he loves. He proceeded with focused and purposeful determination to draw me, his dad, himself, his sister and his brother. I was in awe. Everyday with him is different. Some days can be silent. Some days like yesterday stunning. But in the end and like the moon he continues to shine bright in ways that make me smile. Keep shining my son, as bright as the moon, shine.

Our family.

At the time of this writing and given the urgency of the situation we all find ourselves in today, a fierce courage is brimming. More than 62 million people have made their voices heard in early voting. For them, this isn’t the time for despair, or self-pity, no need for silence or fear, as suggested by Toni Morrison (here). There will always be elements to curtail our voices. Even if victory was theirs yesterday, over the long haul, they lose, because of this fierce courage to vote. The burning issue of our time, one that should consume everyone every single day on the eve of the greatest election of all times is how to keep your fierce courage, your disruptive singular courage to vote. In the wake of all the political discourse and many, many negative news surrounding the election, I watched on TV yesterday as people joyfully marched to the polls. It’s a movement aptly called ‘Joy to the Polls’ (see here and here) one that reflects the resilience of ‘we the people.’ The dancing crowd waiting in lines for over hours is democracy in action, a fierce courage in action.

Vote they often say, as if your live depends on it. It does. Vote because elections have consequences. It does. Vote because your vote matters. It does. Vote so you can bear witness to this thing called democracy. You can. Vote so you can change the stakes that have never been higher. You can. Vote so you stop the stifling of our voices. You can. Vote so you can make ‘We the People,’ work. You can. Vote because all we have, when all seems helpless, when all seems hopeless, when disruptive forces try to suppress our voices, is our fierce courage to exercise our power. Vote!

The power to effect the change we all want starts with your ability to exercise your singular vote. Your vote can change the deliberate destruction of the fight for equality. Your vote can change the deliberate destruction of our climate. Your vote can change the deliberate destruction of science. Your vote can change the deliberate destruction of morality, right versus wrong. Your vote can change leadership so it reflects we the people. This singular power that you alone possess can expand our democracy, make it more inclusive, more reasoned, more sustainable to fight for liberty, fight for justice, fight for equality, fight for the voiceless. The power is in you all along. For this election, your power, your vote is as crucial now more than ever. There is no time indeed for despair, or self-pity, no need for silence or even fear, instead take that fierce courage you possess to the ballot box and vote. This is what I intend to keep, my passionate courage and power to vote.

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.

Tina Turner in a recent interview for Instyle Magazine (here) shared that ‘ambition is having a dream and dedicating yourself to making that dream come true, no matter how many obstacles stand in your way.’ In her latest book entitled ‘Tina Turner: That’s my life,’ she shared how she has always been ambitious because she believed she would accomplish all her wildest dreams. And she did. Ms. Tina accomplished everything she could every imagine or hope for.

Peter Lindbergh, 1980

In fact, here is a woman who start working when she was young and continues to work even at the age of 80. Here is a woman who describes her work as breathing to her, a necessary oxygen that keeps her going, for when you love your work, it fills you with energy and strength. Here is a woman who treasures the relationship she has with her audience because they gave her love when she had none. Here is a woman who wore beautifully designed costumes, one for example with wings that made her feel should could fly and soar when she was on her own for the first time (after leaving her husband Ike) and she did. Here is a woman whose red lips and legs were always glamorous, always powerful, always ready for anything.

Harry Langdon, 1980

Her career has been epic, everything she did, transformational, even as she reflects on her most cherished moments for the book, all I can think of is here is the woman who simply lived her best life despite all obstacles. Like Tina, I will keep living my best life being ambitious with what I love to do especially with my wildest dreams, loving work which is like oxygen to me also, treasuring the relationships I am build along the way, flying and soaring no matter the obstacles and with a red lipstick, my favorite color as well. I intend to keep simply being the best me.

Harry Langdon, 1980

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.

Two days ago, I read a Hollywood News Reporter story (here) on Shonda Rhimes. Here was a woman who produced some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, but yet in constant battle with her network ABC, over content, over budget for her series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

In 2017, after 15 years with ABC, she left for a first-of-its-kind, nine-figure overall deal at Netflix. However in February 2018, according to the report, before Rhimes had even found a first project to sink her teeth into, Ryan Murphy, another television shown runner inked a deal, reportedly worth as much as $300 million, or double Rhimes’ then-reported sum, and the media narrative shifted. ‘It was no longer, simply, “Shonda Rhimes, trailblazer,” but rather about the now booming eight- and nine-figure market for producers, with at least a few reporters wondering, publicly, why the Black female showrunner appeared to be making so much less than the white male one.’

After reading this section, I saw myself in Shonda. I saw multiple black women who work extensively but rarely claim their space however they define it. Our spaces are never ours to own. Our spaces are never ours to even brag about. Even Rhimes described feeling obsessed watching Murphy not only claim, but own his space. But when she was awarded for Luminary award at an Elle’s Women in Hollywood event, she came to the conclusion ‘that men brag and women hide, even when they don’t deserve to brag, men brag. When men do deserve to brag, they’re good at it.’ But because of the award, because she was being celebrated for inspiring other women for the first time ever, and on behalf of women everywhere, Shonda bragged and rightfully so. Not only is she a black executive producer in Hollywood, she let it be known that she was ‘the highest paid show runner on television.’ She claimed her space even though it felt uncomfortable. She claimed her space not only for herself but for every other women she inspires everyday.

Coincidentally, claim your space is the title to a paper I co-wrote with colleagues years ago. In it we shared an African proverb to illustrate why leadership and claiming your space matters. The proverb simply states: He who is leading and has no one following is only taking a walk. Leaders we argue, all have to do the necessary work to build up the visions of those around them and not just their own. I try my best to embody this style of enlightened leadership with the students I mentor.

But the African quote on the section we wrote on claiming your space, which simply states: ‘Until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt would glorify only the hunter’– is my favorite proverbs of all times. Shonda Rhimes, is the lion of our times, claiming her rightful space as the highest paid show runner on television. Her story, her resilience, her ability to inspire is the reason why we should all do our part to keep claiming our space and brag about it too.

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.