I read in the book ‘Finding Flow’ by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, that our choice with life is simple. We can choose either to die or choose to live. If we choose to live, note that everything conspires against life. Everything. But still the choice is ours. The ability and will to live begins with me. Living life to my fullness, my greatest potential, my desire, even in my own unique way, whether ambitious or alert, in silence or in survival, however I choose to live begins with me. Today I mark 90 days of living, my way, one keep at a time.

Every keep is serene to me. Like melody, they sooth my soul, like the Wailers singing ‘Small Axe.’ Every keep is joyful to me. Like the joy on my 5 month baby’s face. I can’t believe it’s been 5 months already. Every keep is full of grace, full of gratitude for the many people that make life magical, make life happy. Like my son’s shirt and my decision to choose happiness. Every keep is a reminder to choose the slow route or a route that stops to reflect or admire the journey thus far. Like the journey towards knowing and understanding my ‘why’ and how it’s all connected to asking more beautiful questions for me.

My 5month old baby.

The past 90 days has been surreal. Writing one keep at a time has indeed shaped my life. Words so unreal, but mine, teach me to be intentional with what I can do or even feel. Many may say that there is nothing new or special about writing. All I can say is try doing so for yourself for 90 days.

And so I write. On my own terms, and to my fullest potential. In the book ‘Finding Flow,’ the author noted that ‘to live means to experience, through doing, feeling, thinking.’ Every keep I reflected on this past 90 days are my attempt at living. They are also my attempt at a steadier life, one filled with people and things that matter to me. That the world is an exquisitely unkind place to mothers who work is well known. The pandemic exemplifies this with people for example having work related meetings in the middle of homeschooling as if children are not home as well. Every keep forced me to prioritize, something I must confess I lacked the fortitude to do. Some keep made me alert to homeschooling and my children’s learning, while others helped me appreciate my dual roles in life.

We choose happiness.

I started writing this list of something to keep, to persuade you the reader that life beyond work, life with children, family, work, especially for women, matters. Every mother and father in many cases, is worthy of praises. I like to think that each keep, written the past 90 days gives our stories air to breathe. Every silence, every meltdown, every pain, every survival is startling worthy of delving into albeit in 300 words or more. So I delved. The past 90 days have been exquisitely divine, with me finding my flow, one keep at a time. I look forward with zeal to the next 90.

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.

For this past thanksgiving, though a quiet one, we kept happiness in mind. Like the shirt my second son wore, we all choose happiness. With so much going on in the world, so much to be thankful for, happiness is a necessity. The promise of happiness seems more urgent to me these days.

On the evolution of happiness, David Buss in a 2000 article for American Psychologist, once shared that ‘happiness is a common goal many people strive for, yet it is frustratingly out of reach.’ I agree. To improve on happiness, he shared that we should do certain things like increase our closeness with our family members especially those close by and those far away. If there is one thing I have learnt during this pandemic, my family is my happy space. I choose them everyday. Every joy, every peace, every heartfelt desire I possess, even every word spoken or unspoken, every moment, big or small, every significant thing that made me happy, begins with my family in mind and for them, happiness is a keep worth fighting for.

As if that’s not enough, David Buss, mentioned the need to form deep friendships, especially with those who are deeply engaged in your welfare. My dear friends know themselves. They give me joy every time we speak and I am better person because they choose to go on this journey through life with me. I spoke to one of them this past weekend. After catching up on everything, she shared that she had surgery just last month. I was aghast at first because I didn’t know. She didn’t tell me and I could have swore we spoke recently. When I asked what was the surgery for. She said I shouldn’t judge her, then she started to laugh. She noted that she finally got the liposuction she wanted and a butt implant. I couldn’t help but laugh as well. In the middle of a pandemic, I asked. She noted it was what she wanted and she is so happy now to have done it. I couldn’t help but be happy for her as well. It may seem trivial, but life is to short to not choose what makes you happy even if it’s an implant. She choose her own happiness and I support it 100%. Deep friendships are a necessary condition for happiness. Choose friends that make you laugh. Their happiness and yours is a necessity.

So also and according to David Buss, is reducing any distress you maybe experiencing, managing any competitive mechanisms you encounter and best of all, fulfilling whatever your heart desires. Fulfilling desires brings deep joy. And desires could be anything from attaining a health lifestyle especially with eating fresh fruits or helping your children master homeschooling in the middle of a pandemic or helping your friends and families or even feeling the confidence to succeed or fail with things that foster your growth. Success at satisfying whatever desires you may have brings deep happiness.

For me, seeing my baby finally poop after 3 days of no poop, is happiness to me. Listening to my 6 year old read a book with lots of word from the beginning to the end, is happiness to me. Watching my 3 year describe what he is thankful for especially ice-creams and lollipops, is happiness to me. Seeing my 8year old daughter blossom with everything she touches, and how she leads her brothers to be a better version of themselves, is happiness to me. Listening to my husband share a story of a 92 year old woman with stroke, who nearly 20hours after the stroke, came to his operating bed, and was still able to go home yesterday thanks to a successful removal of a blood clot in her brain and in the middle of a pandemic no less, is happiness to me. Every stroke averted and from his lens is pure happiness to me. For myself, making sense of writing, a long held desire, on a daily basis, one keep at a time, is happiness to me. Writing is happiness to me. Like my son’s shirt states, choose happiness. Happiness is all around you. However you define it, whatever way you prefer, choose to keep it in mind. It’s a keep worth spreading. Fill your lives with it.

Choose happiness!

My husband leaves for work early and returns home late. He barely sees daylight given his work. On rare occasions when he is home, he notices changes here and there. Like on Thursday, he was home. He noticed how dark it got by 5pm and didn’t like it. Like him, I loathe this time of the year. My mood is sour, my weight unstable, my energy depleted and I long for light, plenty day light. I also explained there is a name for this and it is called seasonal affect disorder. It is also why my posts these past days have been irregular. Everything these days are. From the multitasking with work and homeschooling, to still being a new mom, everything is out of order. I told myself this week, stay alert, take risks, build character, even makeup stories with your kids. All of this was focused on helping me to find joy in an irregular time of the year during a pandemic that really shows no sign of stopping. Finding joy matters.

For me, it’s the smile on my children’s face when the wake up every morning. Their good morning signals the start of something good every day. Another day, another joy. It’s in my baby’s big brown eyes, and his big joyful smile that pierce my soul every day. Another day, another joy. Then it’s in the prayers and songs we sing and say to each other. Like God alone knows the plans he has for you. Another day, another joy. Then it’s figuring out what to do for homeschooling each day, what to make up from the day before or what is on track. Another day, another joy. Then it’s stolen moments for myself, just to reflect or mediate on me and what makes me thrive. Another day, another joy. Then it’s my husband’s day at work, especially days with successful opening of a vessel so blood flows to the brain. Another day, another joy. Then it’s it’s for the people around me that allow me to figure all the irregular days at home well. Like mama and Tochi and even Ucheoma for taking mama to her doctors appointment while I figured out homeschooling or Tochi with all her never ending help with kindergarten while I figure out 1st and 3rd grade. Another day, another joy. This time of the year can be a difficult one. Living through a pandemic doesn’t help either. But try as you may to find joy for yourself. Not in big things, but in little things and people that matter. Keep finding joy, for you and those around you. It matters. You matter. Joy matters.

My joyful 4month old baby.

Nestled towards the end of the book ‘Tar Baby’ by Toni Morrison is a little story about soldier ants. It’s an unforgettable story too. Anyone who has read the book will recall the story with a smile. Not a half smile, but one that comes from the depth of ones soul. A soulful smile. It’s also a masterclass story on the significance of the ‘invisible ink.’ Morrison described the ‘invisible ink’ as ‘what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden until the right reader discovers it.’ The right reader, she noted, is the one attuned to the ‘invisible ink.’ Motherhood for all its hopes, all its triumphs, even its seductive silence in some cases and its luring survival in other cases is like an ‘invisible ink.’

Like an ‘invisible ink,’ motherhood is not for everyone, not for those who admire what it means, but for those who become emotionally or intellectually involved in what it entails. Take this morning alone, not only did I have to take care of my 3 year old who woke up in the middle of the night three times, vomiting and choking in his sleep, my 4 month old baby was crying also wanting to be breastfed. I changed my son’s clothes, changed his sheets three times in the middle of the night, all tired and with sleepy eyes. After putting him to sleep, I took care of the crying baby until he fell asleep. Then I slept. For about an hour. My baby woke up crying, wanting to be breastfeed again. Motherhood completely invades your being like an invisible ink. Many love to share the beautiful, perfect stories of motherhood and there are plenty, many of them fit for movies. But the gaps, the deliberate gaps or stories we withhold, stories hidden, stories not told, like the early morning sessions with our children, are most divine. And when told by the right mothers, produces aspects of our lives that are living and worthy of praises.

Toni Morrison summons her readers well in invisible ink with writing that is destabilizing, reorienting, forcing her readers to write her books and not merely read the texts. I am on journey to do the same. Let me close with some words from a ‘keep’ I wrote last month to illustrate this. ‘My son cries. For no reason. He cries. He also laughs too. For no reason, he laughs.’

Not only did I teach my virtual class today, but I also took my 4 month old to his doctor’s appointment. The day started like every other Tuesday, with a packed work schedule, homeschooling 3 kids, and my son’s afternoon appointment all on my mind. Why, then, one wonders, are working mothers experiencing what can only be described as burnout, as parental stress is high, demands from the family spill over to other spheres of life, while the global pandemic continues to exacerbate? We are in a mess, you know, with no end in sight for the next 70 days until new leadership is sworn in next year. I’m am honestly exhausted, although the recent Pfizer news of a vaccine that is 90% effective gives me hope. But we still have to get out of this mess and only our individual systems of support will save us for the rest of 2020 and beyond.

At our 4 month appointment.

Merriam-Webster defines support as the ability ‘to endure bravely or quietly, or to bear.’ These days, we must do all we can to provide sufficient strength for mothers to endure what is unbearable, to keep going despite their undertaking, despite the demands of work and life. That’s what happened for me today. Despite being exhausted, despite feeling tired and not able to function after teaching and my son’s appointment, during yet another meeting after rushing home from the appointment, one of my colleagues volunteered to take up duties that I could not endure quietly anymore. The support was necessary, appreciated, and I was grateful.

At our 4 month appointment.

It was a reminder that if we don’t acknowledge all forms of support working mothers need or get, whether big or small, if we don’t give them the help to endure bravely or bear quietly all the stressors they face at this moment in history, then we will support ourselves and the things we will endure and the things we will bear will destabilize all that you know about how mothers thrive, or how they cope with work and motherhood. Support would be liberating however; support would allow more dialogues, more listening, knowing that how mothers cope maybe useful, may enhance knowledge on the bravery, the strength of being mothers who work or the endurance of workplaces with mother. It is for this reason I say, keeping uplifting working mothers, if not for anything, but so we all listen and learn how to endure bravely in a chaotic world.

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.

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.

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 almost didn’t write today’s post. Honestly, today’s workload was intense. Not only did I teach my grantwriting course to doctoral students, I had to sit with my six year old son for his reading, physical education, religion and developmental skills. By the end of the day, we were both tired. But still, I write. I write because I am on a journey to becoming the writer I know that I am born to become. This journey has been filed with obstacles, professional and personal ones, but still I write. I write to showcase my interior life. Work is hard. Being a working mother is very hard. But motherhood, with all is ups and downs is a gift that I am totally grateful to have, despite all the ups and downs. So I write, even though I am tired. I write even though I just finished homeschooling and some work-related meeting.

Homeschooling was tough today as my six year old cried and cried because he was tired. I write because we somehow continued work after he told his teacher the reason for his tears. He was crying because he missed his dad who was at work. I write because he did his coloring, 2 pictures on religion focused on the fifth commandment. I thought he didn’t stay within the lines. I reminded him to stay within the lines. He tried his best. His teacher mentioned his coloring has improved. So I write because small victories with homeschooling, like improved coloring of a six year old brightened my day. I also write because he also finished his reading assignments on his journey practice workbox, despite so many prompts to complete it.

Today’s religion assignment.

I write to share also that I made dinner in between the breaks we had during homeschooling, in between breastfeeding and two crying boys who wanted all my attention. I made jollof rice with baked salmon and chicken for dinner tonite. I write because although it’s only 3:50 pm, I really taught a 2 hour class this morning to doctoral students and somehow managed to cook dinner, calm a crying baby, console 2 crying boys all while completing homeschooling materials for today. I write, because even now, even though I am tired and sitting on my bed, with my 2 month old nestled on my lap and breastfeeding, my laptop is still open. I write some thoughts, my thoughts, written down as I wait for the next appointment with my student. I write because I enjoy speaking with students, especially those new to the field of public health like today’s student, who wants to end up in the field of public health disaster preparedness. What better field to end up in given the ongoing pandemic and the failure to prepare or contain it despite being one of the richest country on earth. I write because she made me smile, public health students and their genuine love for the public’s health are remarkable. Today was tough. But I write because my story, every thorn, every rosy smiles deserves to be told. Life as a working mother is hard. But I write so you get a glimpse of my life. For all working mothers, in the middle of this pandemic, keep writing your stories.

The reason I write.