I have got three bright sons, one barely 7 months old, the other 4 years of age, and my first, 6 years old. Like most mothers raising black boys in America, I fear always, like I am raising targets. No amount of my education, my gender or even class, can protect my sons from the harsh realities of a racial society that first sees the color of their skin. My situation is made more complex and complicated with my first son who is on the autism spectrum. To know him, is to know love. Fierce, unbounded love, that glows as bright as the moon on good days. On those days, days with no meltdowns or obsessive, compulsive behaviors, our son is pure delight, sweet, tender, and moist, like the red on velvet cakes. But on days were tears are all he knows, all he understands, all that makes sense to his brilliant brain, our son can easily become a target, with his behaviors misconstrued as though he was a neurotypical child. It’s for this reason that homeschooling still makes sense, even when schools are slowly reopening and his own siblings even returning back to school.

My 7 month old!

Now imagine homeschooling a special needs child, all while working at the same time in academia. On some days I am the worst of mothers, and the guilt of abandoning work, and homeschooling, probably makes me the worst of colleagues and parent. Nothing gets done. Not math, language, reading or even music for him, or my numerous emails or Zooms for yet another meeting in the middle of homeschooling. On other days, especially days where we break all the rules, make our own rules even, days where we confront our fear, face our insecurities, our brains many electric stimulations is pure delight.

Take this week and weekend. Not only did we play with snow, we also painted, made jewelry, had a movie night, all with a brand new kitchen, now in ruins, thanks to a busted frozen water pipes. The first trade off, I abandoned work and allowed my soul to play. We needed it. The second is that they are my boys and I will do anything to protect them. The third is that even in the middle of chaos, even when his brain or my own is overwhelmed during a pandemic that isn’t abating, I will still work to see our brilliance. And we are brilliant, just as we are.

Our many footprints playing in the snow!

I will do my part to listen to the tears streaming down our beautiful black faces on days when we have our own meltdowns. I will do my part to hug our shoulders a little longer, even in the middle of yet another cold, snowy, sleepy night. I will pray. Yes indeed, I will cast all my cares on to God and thank him as we return to church, where all our other-mothers, Sister Cheryl in particular, can continue that loving, and teaching only she knows how too. Our grandmama is now vaccinated and so the fears of the virus, fears of its strong grip, are slowly disappearing, though with new variants, spreading rampart and wide, homeschooling remains. But above all, I will show them love. A fierce maternal love. If the goal is to nurture them, help them preserve, with their feet soaked fully in their culture, then maternal love is critical. Maternal love is a necessary foundation upon which my sons can continue to thrive and become resilient to to face and subvert the racist world they live in. Maternal love is also a serious matter especially where black boys are concerned, especially when the odds against them are high. The multitude and forms of the tolls this pandemic takes is persistent, but we will persist. With our heads unbowed, and our hearts unbroken, even with this pandemic, for my black sons, our mothering love, will persist. Keep persisting.

‘Do you know who you are without what you do?’ These words were spoken often during my doctoral studies at Penn State University by my doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. To him, our research identities, often influenced the research we conducted. If all you see is what you do, he would go on to say, then your research will only center on what you do and nothing else. For you, attention or your research only makes sense when the focus is on what you do. So if all you see for example, about African countries are disease-ridden images, resource limited settings, he would also say, then your research will only focus on disease and despair and not the humanity or resilience of the populations. It’s for this reason, my advisor would ask, over and over again, ‘can you define who you are without describing what you do?’ Can you tell your story, your ambition, your goals, even your vision or passion for life, without making a reference to your credentials.

I learnt early on in my doctoral studies that I was drawn to the stories we tell and are told about the research we do. Granted, I was committed to addressing one health issue or the other. But what moved me more, what made me alert, what was most sterling to me, where the stories behind the health issues I explored. Stories for example, of young mothers who asked repeatedly why I was leaving a local clinic where I collected my dissertation data of child malaria diagnosis, after spending three months with them in the summer of 2009. My data collection was over and I needed to go make sense of the data I had in hand, I would say. But the mothers would asked, well our children are still sick, what happens now. It’s not like malaria has gone away. These conversations with different mothers over the course of my time at the clinic, would instill my first learning experience in global health. Our research, even our interventions, no matter how well-intentioned, never last.

My dissertation days.

Like many researchers, I went to the clinic, with all my ethical requirements in place, to collect data on how mothers manage their children’s diagnosis for malaria prior to arriving at a clinic. When data collection was over, the question still remained. Not only for the mothers I interacted with, but for the many others that never came to my study, never provided their data, never even knew I existed. Unfortunately, many researchers go into clinics and communities to pose questions of people who inhabit the clinics or communities without a commitment to sustaining attention to the issue, attention to the questions they set out to explore in the first place once data collection is over.

It is for this reason that I am drawn to questions (with public health for example) that never end. That and ‘until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt will only glorify the hunter’ ( a quote by Chinua Achebe). I am committed to laying bare the assumptions and meanings that underlie knowledge, the meanings behind the stories, even efforts to question the questions posed. Not because of what I do as a Professor in Global Health. But because silence, like those of the lions, silence in the face of health issues that are critical, will no longer protect us. Not when there is too much at stake. Our silence in turn ignores the true agency and voice of people. Our silence ignores their needs in any real or meaningful way. Our silence fosters only representations of disease and despair, and not their courage or even hope. Our silence limits the gaze and the gates through which we must enter to understanding health from their perspective. In short, our silence is the very reason why we still do not know who we are without what we do.

I am a storyteller, one I realize now, is very committed to becoming the lion for my generation of scholars. Telling stories, one health issue over time, is my attempt at opening hearts and minds to the experiences of others. It is what I do and stories are a serious matter for me. Storytelling can be a guide, building or expanding, transforming or informing, until we bring healing, understanding, even empathy to the plight of others. What now keeps me alert, what is forever sterling to me, are the stories behind the health issues, the stories committed to illustrating how to make health interventions last. Keep knowing who you are, one story at a time, until hearts and minds, are open and even committed to lasting.

I have been reading lately about stories. About the story of stories. About the importance of telling stories. Those you pass on and those you don’t. Those told about you, and those you tell. Those that provide opportunities to be and become the Other. Those that are our guide, those that direct us, for without them, we are blind. Storytelling is a ‘serious matter…far more important that anything else…as it conveys all our gains, all our failures, all we hold dear, and all we condemn,’ the Late Chinua Achebe once shared. Stories indeed are us.

Over the past couple of days, I have experienced a great deal of turmoil. I have watched as cold and snow from a frigid weather bust open my pipes. I have watched water gush down my ceiling. All while participating in an annual meeting at work and homeschooling my son. The full story of what we have been through these past few days have not been an easy one to tell. But I took a small stab at it, putting it on record, to illustrate the plight of motherhood and work, in instructive reality-based terms. The unchanging plight of women, those who work and those who tend, during this pandemic, remains my preoccupation. I contemplated writing an email to describe in detail my experience at home, but I where would I begin. What would I even say. To whom it may concern, there is water all over my house and I cannot attend your annual meeting going on right now. Ooh by the way, the meeting is also happening while my son is homeschooling too. Of course I didn’t send any email or even tell this story to anyone except on this blog. I suspect this is what many women experience on a daily basis. The conflicting roles of work and life. Often with no guide, we stumble through both, hoping for the best in the end.

My intent here, with this keeplist that has become a thing of joy for me, is to brilliantly capture these crucial moments. To speak with as much power as I can, about the many invisible lives of motherhood along the margins. The graphic depictions of my turmoil, the reconstruction of every event, even those as dire as broken pipes or water leaks, are my attempts at storytelling, with stories that I hope will guide us to better understand how women do this thing called motherhood and work. Every keep is a commitment to focusing on what matters. Each one is my attempt at expressing my reality with language that is as simple as it is as gentle for the conditions of women today. Each keep is my approach with sharing what lies beneath the surface. If stories are meant to be our guide, if they are supposed to speak directly to the underlying issues women face and continue to face on a daily basis, then I will continue to work to remind you to keep telling your stories. Keep finding your voice and speak from your reality, as eloquently as you can, about why your stories matter.

What would you do, if you had a water leak? In your home? On your ceiling or your brand-new kitchen, brand new cabinetry? Would you scream, yell, even curse, as you try to make sense of the endless outpouring of water, snow, ice, melting too quickly and bursting pipes? Or would you remain calm, remain level-headed, maintain a cool demeanor, even?

Today, I had a water leak in my home. Not the kind that is annoying, and goes away with a little brush or sweep or a couple of fans blowing the wetness away. But a catastrophic one. A brilliant warm waterfall, noted one of my kids. Brilliantly raining down in my kitchen, my basement, my living room, even my utility room. Everywhere was wet and the water damage was monumental, a big whole, catastrophic mess. I was also a mess.

So I screamed. I cried and screamed some more. Then called our great contractor. I knew he would have answers. He was on his way to another job, but said he would come over immediately. I asked where the water-pipes where so I could shut them off. He noted probably in the front of the house, but advised not to go outside as there was snow everywhere and frigid temperature. I let out a scream on the phone. I forgot he was on the other line. He said, he was on his way as fast as he could. He drove fast, in the middle of a snow-filled road for us. When, he arrived, he was calm. I was still a mess. He started to look through the damage, to assess the house, to look at the waterfall, all with a calmness that was breathtaking.

I tried to emulate him, but my insides were frantic. My head was pounding. There was water everywhere now, my new cabinetry, my brand-new island, my new wood floors. Our contractor was still calm. He kept on saying, don’t worry, we can get everything fixed. I was still a mess. He started to look around the house to figure out where the water damage was coming from, looking around for the source, frozen pipes, listening to the house, looking around for which pipes to shut down, and which cabinetry to pull apart to dry up, even drying up the floors, while assessing the house. Slowly, with every step he took, every inquiry he made, every assessment, my catastrophic mood, once inconsolable, started to emulate his demeanor, his cool, irrational calmness in the middle of my catastrophic mess. “We are alive after-all,” I said to him, and so long as there is life, we can get through this. I was surprised at myself after I mouthed these words to him. That and “thank you” for being there.

Much can be learned, without words, when you unpack other people’s empathy for situations that seem complex. Empathy provides an opportunity to be and to become the Other. To see and learn from their point of view. What began as a quest for understanding, an escape from the messy complexities of life, with every scream for a water leak I could not control, became a searing process of learning. It was also an opportunity and a reminder to discover or imagine anew, why other people’s point of view matters. They help you see life for what it entails, with clarity and understanding. Keep empathy. It matters when life gets messy, even with water leaks that can be fixed.

Have you ever tried to crawl? To place your hands on the ground, your knees as well, and slowly meander forward. Have you ever gone lower? This time, with placing your stomach, flatly on the ground and slowly meander forward. What if you placed an object afar? Then slowly, even effortless, meander forward, towards the object, or anything else desirable your eyes meet. For over a month, I have been watching my 7-month old son practice the art of crawling, floating forward free of the burden of walking. With his hands and feet, and his knees at times, not touching the ground, he crawls. With each movement at a time, each sense of direction, new knowledge of the limits and possibilities of self is acquired, secured, even kept. Every baby, almost invariably passes through this stage, from crawling to walking on their own terms, even without fear. Some would rather skip the stage and move straight to walking. My baby belongs to this category. Others enjoy the process of discovery as their body readily adapts to movement of their own making for the first time. But no matter the approach, crawling, like motherhood, takes time.

It’s in crawling that we see and learn about ourselves as mothers. Not the complaining self, but the self willing to meander, albeit slowly forward, effortlessly through this journey called motherhood. And what a journey, to learn how to crawl first, to pass through a phase, that requires you to bring your whole being, literally down, to the ground. Motherhood, like crawling, enlightens, opens doors, helps us make connections, with ourselves, within the spaces and the boundaries we find inside ourselves. It is also instructive, as with the directions we take, or the movements we make. How crawling, like motherhood, forces us to stretch, to reach and own every limit, every possibility, we make in a very personal way, interests me. That and the fact that even when we master crawling, the journey ahead has only begun. Babies like my son, who try to crawl with their knees not touching the ground, consistently fall to the ground with each attempt they make. My son is yet to learn how to fully crawl with his knees on the ground.

And it is always about the ground after all. It has always been there for my son to do and use as he pleases. The ground is always calling us, always insisting that we pay homage, to bring our whole being, to kiss it even. For it too has its own purpose. Even the ground, as naked as it may seem, has its own purpose. To learn or build knowledge necessary for moving, to crawl or adapt with every movement, to stretch and secure key resources, all while keeping, its limits or the possibilities in mind. An unblinking witness to our potential. But if we ignore the ground, a fall is certain. Something, my son is learning every day. Keep motherhood like crawling and the ground in mind.

My son is now learning to crawl with his knees now touching the ground.

Insights into life of working mothers and the pandemic are rare. Not the stories of coping well, but the pitched battle of silence and survival. When I come across these insights (see picture below), I feel seen. The past 11 months of the pandemic has been debilitating slowly. It has taken a lot to make sense of it all. That it shows no sign of abating is terrifying. That most people act like it’s gone, is equally disturbing. But when folks write about working moms, our primal state, then, for one brief moment, I feel seen. I also feel like screaming too.

As a working mom, I have 3 choices with the pandemic: first to ignore it and act as if it is only restricted to places I don’t visit or people I don’t interact with. But that would mean I remain in my own bubble, for what is motherhood or even work without people. For to even feed my household, I have to venture into spaces and interact with people whether at the grocery store or at a restaurant even for takeout. Second, I could be indifferent to the pandemic. It’s been 11 months and counting, so what difference would another day make. A whole lot. No one can act indifferent to the fact that everyday, close to 3000 people are dying from the pandemic. Multitudes more are becoming infected despite the availability of vaccines. It is all around us that no amount of ignorance or indifference will save me if I don’t do my part to stay safe. The third choice is my imagination and it’s possibilities are endless when writing is intentional. It’s where my hope resides, where my learning occurs and my memories are recollected and reassembled so that history would capture my multiple points of views, the impediments of work, family, productivity in the time of the pandemic. Insights on the pandemic’s effect are rare. History will ask questions one day. So it’s extremely important, at least to me, to try and write, even when tired, about the state of affairs for women with children who work during a pandemic.

It’s my hope with this list. The constant reminder I have to try not to diminish my reality or accept established realities of what it means to be a working mom these days. Every keep is my authentic way of remembering, not forgetting, the silence, the survival, all the hopes and all the impediments. It my way of doing the writing necessary building, adapting, securing, and ultimately keeping what matters so history will see us too. Keep basking in your writing, keep it. It matters.

Almost missed a day of writing. I reminded myself not to. Yet it almost happened. Writing is indeed a tough business. It takes dedication and time and I applaud all writers who do this everyday non stop. This post also is short and reminder to myself to keep writing. I realize that it is easy to become tired. It is also easy to let a day go by. But those who find a way to persevere, become the writers they want to be in the end. So keep writing even when tired.