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.

Toni Morrison once wrestled with eloquently describing ‘Paradise’ credibly and effectively. Images of ‘Paradise’ tend to be ‘grand,’ she said, and ‘accessible, familiar, common, even trivial.’ Paradise, physical paradise, can denote ‘beauty, plenty, rest, exclusivity and eternity,’ noted Ms. Morrison. But how to reveal the complexities of paradise, as ‘a sane intelligent life itself,’ despite being ‘already perceived, already recognizable,’ was a vexing problem for Ms. Morrison. For some women, motherhood with all its hues, with all its beauty, with all its thorns and forms of exclusion, despite being recognizable, is paradise.

A glimpse of Toni Morrison’s essay on ‘Paradise.’

Motherhood is accessible, familiar, common, trivial and very recognizable. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic makes motherhood noticeable. According to a recent 2020 report by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in Foundation entitled Women in the Workplace, ‘working mothers are at extraordinary risk of being penalized during the pandemic. Everything mothers need to do right now to both work and care for their families makes motherhood much more noticeable.’ So much so that, ‘1 in 4 women are looking to quit or reduce work because of Covid-19.’ I can relate!

Coivd19 and Women in the Workplace 2020 report.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a request to reschedule a work-related meeting that occurred during homeschooling. I apologized for this because I didn’t feel others should have to readjust their schedules for my needs. I hoped that the request maybe considered, just a little, as I wanted to attend the meeting. It wasn’t. I was numb. Not because I didn’t expect this as I apologized ahead for the disruption with other people’s schedule but because for the first time, I realized that I can’t be both an ‘ideal worker’ and a ‘good mother,’ as described by sociologists. Both roles are incompatible. I have worked hard at being the ideal worker, doing my part to thrive in academia, completely devoted to my research, working long hours in some cases and rarely taking time away from work. I do my part with being a good mother. I sometimes bake or cut vegetables with my kids on the weekend for our occasional backyard family picnics. We go for walks or ice-cream runs at the local ice-cream shop. We pray, we sing, we dance or tell imaginary stories, anything to let them know that I prioritize their care. So when I read the report and the subsequent article about it on The Atlantic here, I was numb.

Our weekend picnics

I was numb because we may never fully understand how working mothers are coping during this pandemic. We may never fully understand how normal, everyday life with work and motherhood has been upended during this pandemic. We may never fully understand how rest is dwindling in currency these days for mothers or why many of us can’t sleep well at night despite working less. Our work and our mothering responsibilities are on full display and not as exclusive as before.

But the inattention to, the mutedness, or numbness to the plight of working mothers during this pandemic is repulsive. It will remain this way if working mothers do not start now to share our interior lives. Many of us are still struggling to cope and that is fair. But the only way to describe ‘Paradise’ according to Ms. Morrison is to ‘begin the story.’

So my story; I am a wife to an incredible essential health care worker and a mother to four children, one girl and three boys, with my last son born in the middle of the ongoing global pandemic. I am also a global health researcher. Motherhood is really important to me. We are living through a global pandemic that shows no sign of abating. Global health is important. But for now, at least for me, being a parent at this moment, is extremely important to me. I am also working four shifts: as a mother, a working mother, a teacher and a developmental specialist ( I will reflect on this later). My work shift, my academic productivity as a global health researcher will suffer during this pandemic. I accept this guilt. I am no longer numb to this guilt because I am focused on what really matters; My children, my family!

(p.s. I know my keeplists are supposed to be short, but writing this led to a longer essay for a full context that I will publish one day on my medium page).