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Pose: The Best Family Drama on TV

I suppose I should start with the truth: I come from a fractured family. Though still in communication with every member of my immediate family, months can go by when I have not talked to any of them. My mother, my sister and definitely not my brothers.

I noticed my family’s distance as early as elementary school. I grew up well aware that while other kids in my class would probably spend at least one weekend over the summer at a family reunion or cook out in a humid park somewhere, I really could not recall any memories of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together under a matriarch’s roof - the whole extended family reenacting its own version of the final scene in Soul Food. Neither my mother nor father seemed to have deep connections with family members beyond their own parents. In some ways, that disconnect has continued among their own children.

Perhaps this is why I can’t find words accurate enough to describe my connection to Pose, FX’s groundbreaking series about 1980s Ball culture in New York City. I was enthralled from the first episode when Blanca stalks through Washington Square Park looking for someone to co-opt as her own. As her family. She finds a young Damon sleeping on a bench because his own fractured family threw him away with an ease that baffles me. Their conversation is casual yet poignant. Blanca tells Damon she has seen how well he dances when he practices during the day. She tells him she, a woman who has just been given a reason to live after being informed she would soon die, is starting her own house and she wants it to be more than just a collection of trans women competing for their next Ball trophy. “I want it to be a real family where we all look out for each other.”

Her house becomes just that. She not only commits herself to taking care of Damon emotionally and financially, she extends her care to Pray Tell, father figure to pretty much every character on the show, and a number of impulsive young adults who have no one else to offer them a warm bed and even warmer heart when the world clearly states: “Your life means nothing to me.”
Pose is a tribute to chosen family. And it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about the beauty in such a simple premise.

My family would never throw me away the way Damon’s family did. I can’t imagine my mother kicking me, a teenaged child, out of her house for any reason. And if she did lose her mind enough to do it, my own mind can’t process my father not coming to my suddenly ill mother’s home to collect me and my belongings. I can’t think of any reason why my siblings would tell their children I am dead when I am living and breathing a train ride away.

Though I can’t relate to the specific fracture in Damon’s and Blanca’s biological families, I can understand the longing to create a family of their own choosing. A family that understands them and accepts them in a way their bio families can’t. It goes without saying that none of the characters on Pose want to have to choose their family. In their quiet moments, they are candid about how much the rejection of their families still cut them to the core. They long for the connection they have with their chosen family to be mirrored with the bio family members who have tossed them aside. Blanca, particularly, deals with an incredible amount of emotional abuse from her siblings just to attend the funeral of her mother, whose only tool for dealing with a son who knew he was really a daughter was to banish her child from her life.

For those of us who have come to rely more on our chosen family than our bio one, Pose is the ultimate testament to family being much broader, much bigger than just the people with whom you share DNA and a house. In one season, The Evangelistas comforted one of their own as she repeatedly got her heart broken by a white man so white he could have been on a box of oatmeal, showed up to an HIV ward to stare their future in the face because their chosen father needed them to, demanded a prominent dance institute give their frightened son and brother another chance to audition for an opportunity that would save his life, and held each other accountable for looking out for a vulnerable family member when they had valid reasons not to bother.

I can’t remember the last time the big or small screen has offered such a heart breaking, exquisite portrayal of family. Yes, each episode Billy Porter delivers superb extraness, holding nothing back as he allows us a peek into a world we never knew existed. And the costumes and Ball scenes are themselves worthy of their own show. However, if Pose is to be praised for nothing else, I say we should be up on our feet, clapping like deranged seals because it graciously provides us the prototype for and a comprehensive definition of family.

Let’s Treat Mothers Like The Mortals They Are…

A conversation that went real deep real quick prompted me to air the recent episode of my podcast. I spotted a young woman I had met through a mutual friend in a cafe and went over to say hello. She had just come from visiting her mother who lived in the area and wanted to grab something to eat before she got back on the subway to go to her own place.

I don’t think she meant to share so much with a casual acquaintance she had just met a few days before at a friend’s birthday party. But, I was soon to learn that most of the conversations she had with her mother left her emotionally wrecked and she often escaped them having not bothered to eat whatever meal her mother had prepared or even stay longer to spend time with her father. I noticed she seemed shook within minutes of my “Hey, Girl. Nice to see you again.”

In short, this woman is destroyed each and every time she leaves her mother’s presence. The mother criticizes, judges and berates the young woman who has managed to reach her late twenties without securing a job that her parents can brag to their friends about, a husband that they can brag to their friends about or even a life as a single, middle class lady that the mother would feel justified all the money she and her husband had spent to send their only child to the United States to study at an elite university.

As she apologized for unloading her frustrations on someone with whom she had just become acquainted, I assured her that she was not burdening me. That I, like many adult children, have a complex relationship with my mother, too. This is normal. However, the more this young woman shared snippets of her interactions with her mother, the more I realized what she was describing was an abusive relationship with a manipulative bully.

“Maybe you should stop doing this to yourself and not communicate with her anymore,” I suggested. I was not surprised by her response.

“I can’t just stop talking to my mother.”

When I asked her why she could not stop allowing herself to be bullied by a woman who seemed to spend a great amount of their time together making her feel like crap, she supplied another unsurprising retort: “Well, she’s my mother…”

On the show, Gail Howell talks about how long she held on to the same ideal. I cannot just stop talking to my mother. I owe her my life. Though she is now making that life unlivable, I owe her my silent submission. By the time Gail found the courage to sever her and her mother’s relationship, she had spent thirty-seven years believing that she was obligated to deal with an incredible amount of emotional abuse and casual disregard because it was meted out by the woman she called mom.

I have often said the way we’ve created a special deity category for women who choose motherhood does more harm than good. It harms the children of the women who use the role as an all-access pass to treat the human beings they have birthed cavalierly. It also harms the women themselves as it takes away the very necessary accountability all humans must face when they allow their lesser selves to lead when engaging with humans who have been trained to believe a deity figure is above reproach.

Over the years, I’ve talked to women whose mothers have charged major purchases to their credit cards without their permission, repeatedly criticized them for decisions that it was their right to make and burdened them with “You need to do this for me right now because I want it done right now.” They all just let these things go, citing, “She’s my mother” as the reason why behaviors that would warrant a polite read at the very least should just be endured silently. The woman whose credit was nearly ruined by her mother took on a few extra shifts at work so she could pay off the debt her mother had created and never bothered to tell her about.

We joke about it all the time. “Girl, my mama be tripping, but ya know…that’s just how mamas are.” And around this time of year there is no shortage of posts touting “my mama is god on earth and I will fall at her feet until the day she dies” running all up and down the timelines of many women who want to initiate a conversation with their mothers about that cruel thing she did or those harsh words she said or repeated cruel things she does or harsh words she says that continue to hurt. Some of these women just want to say, “What you did was not cool.” Yet, so much of the culture surrounding mother worship makes it blasphemous for a child of any age to even make this, the most benign of complaints, against the woman who chose to raise her.

Yes, mothers choose a difficult job. The key word in this sentence is choose. I applaud anyone who chooses a path that is fraught with challenge because they feel it will give their life meaning and focus. However, the choice to mother should not be awarded such adulation that it becomes impossible to even fathom a woman’s child holding that woman accountable for poor treatment the same way she would demand accountability from a boyfriend who had treated her with similar disregard.

We do not need to demonize mothers just to remove the deity-like worship many cultures award them. They don’t have to be stripped of well-deserved applause and appreciation for their sacrifices in order to create a culture where their children are encouraged to reject them and their abuse in the same way they are taught to reject anyone whose actions repeatedly wound them. I propose we make mothers human. And afford them the same expectations for how they treat us as we do with others. How about we treat them as neither deities nor demons? Just mere mortals who made a conscious choice to mother. Mortals, regardless of lifestyle choices, are held up to the same expectations in how they treat others. Mothers deserve to be held to the same standard as the rest of us.

I Wrote a Book. Now, I Have To Go Outside.

As a woman of a certain age, I am pretty confident that not only do I know who I am, but I own who I am. The good, the bad and the indifferent. Though I’ve written about my personal choices for the enlightenment of others for years, I own I am a deeply private person who chooses with intention to whom I will expose myself. Though I make myself available to love, I own I am most content when left alone. Though I have fed my insatiable wanderlust with a collection of passport stamps and privileged opportunities all over the world, I own that I value the comfort of a steady income and a stable sister circle of black women who accept my type of crazy. Like any gemini, I am layer on top of layer. And for decades, I have peeled back each, ending up here: at peace and in love with the woman who I began becoming somewhere in my late teens.

I thought I knew me.

Then I wrote a book.

To be clear: writing the book is not what brought me to the epiphany that there were still more layers to unravel. Writing the book came pretty easy. It felt so much like breathing that I had a decent first draft in under a year.

It has only been these last few months leading up to publication that it has occurred to me I underestimated how much I do not enjoy inauthentic interactions. How much social media feels like one massive inauthentic interaction, even when you are being your authentic self.

I do not like to expose myself unless I can control who sees me. Unless I get to craft how they see me.

Because it is 2019 and I am a new author, social media interactions seem to be a requirement if I want anyone other than my mama and homegirls to buy my book (and my mama expects a free copy). I have been playing around on Facebook for about a decade. I became acquainted with Instagram and Twitter through my messing around with Facebook, but had only really given them cursory attention until my publicity manager made me cozy up more to these tedious little sites. I never thought of these platforms as tools for anything other than…well, playing around whenever I felt like going outside.

This is what I discovered when I was told “Use social media way more than you already do.” I am an inside kid. I have always been an inside kid. I was not one of those adventurers who eagerly awaited the day in summer camp when we went hiking or camping or some other such outdoorsy activity that was meant to challenge city kids to go beyond their comfort zones. I relished arts and crafts day when campers stayed inside in an air conditioned facility and expressed themselves on their own time and in their own space unless they felt inclined to invite in others. Apparently, these outdoorsy activities must happen on and off line a lot if I am ever to become known enough to get an email from Toni Morrison inviting me to her house for lunch.

What promoting this book has taught me is though a gregarious extrovert, I am not a person who likes to be seen. I wrote a book. In that book, I showed you Keturah. I said, “Hey, here I go with some thoughts and tings. Okay, bye.” I truly do not understand why people would now want me to show more of myself in order to get to know the woman who wrote the book. She. Is. In. The. Book. I get little satisfaction from showing more, actually. I will do it (on my own terms) because I know it is necessary. However, there is a significant part of me that finds it counterintuitive. Such exposure does not come naturally to me.

Shortly after going outside online, people started inviting me outside in real life, too. “Can you moderate a panel on women’s day?” “Can I ask you a few questions about traveling abroad, being unmarried, etc.?” “We want to feature you in this storytelling series.” It was these opportunities to promote myself that forced me to see it wasn’t just social media I found exhausting. It was being seen. It was being asked questions I didn’t particularly want to answer. It was being outside. Period.

At 44, I am forced to own: I have an intense need to control every aspect of my life. I wrote a book. I told people what I wanted to tell them in that book. And now, these people want me to tell them other stuff? But, why? I said what I said. Now, I’d like to take my many strips of colorful twine and construct my friendship bracelet quietly over here in the corner, please. Just come get me when it’s snack time.

I suppose I should be happy that there are still parts of me I don’t know know. This means I won’t run out of self improvement goals any time soon. I should also be grateful for the invitations to play outside. This must mean people like what I have to say when I get up on my soapbox. They must enjoy what is seen when I choose to show myself.

I have decided not to wait for the day when I will enjoy this process myself. Because I doubt that day will ever come. What I will do is own that it requires me to stretch myself in ways that I wouldn’t have had to had I not written this book.

Thursday, the camp counselor says we are going to some place far away and will do something called hiking and then practice pitching a tent or some such. I have chosen not to fake like I’m sick Wednesday afternoon. I will get on the bus Thursday morning. That is all I can promise to do.

Don’t Go. You’ll Die! (Traveling Solo While Female)

My first solo trip was to Atlanta. I was recently out of college and already dissatisfied with the unfulfilled promises of adulthood my teenaged self had dreamt up with vigor as I lived in my head throughout middle and high school. I had a job that was so inconsequential I struggle now to remember where exactly I worked and what I was doing. I had heard that Atlanta was some sort of Black Promised Land and had never left New Orleans long enough to fully appreciate that I was from and currently residing in the actual Black (Cultural) Promised Land so…

I woke up one morning and announced, “I’m going to Atlanta.”

I did not expect the commentary that followed. “You going all the way to Atlanta…by yourself?” It was the emphasis on the all the way that caught my attention first. To reach Atlanta from New Orleans, all one had to do was get on I-95 and then roughly eight hours later get off I-95, right? It took the second or third raised eyebrow for me to even hear the by yourself part. My mom and dad, of course, were supposed to be concerned about me getting in my car by myself and driving all the way to the neighbouring state of Georgia. I was their youngest child. A girlchild at that. Though level headed and responsible, I leaned toward impulsiveness sometimes. So, the imagined trouble I could find myself in was a reasonable response from my parents.

However, the by yourself from the mouths of friends and close acquaintances surprised me. I was asked if I worried about being bored or lonely for those seventy-two hours I would spend in the city. I was told that I should consider waiting until at least one other person could come along. “Safety in numbers,” a couple of friends said. Rapists, kidnappers and women beaters could be lurking anywhere within those 400 miles and that was not even to mention the men who were out to get me once I actually arrived in the city of Atlanta itself. “Don’t tell anyone you are alone,” a friend advised as I stuffed some clothes into a duffle bag. “Be safe,” I was told as I drove off. “What are you doing now? All by yourself?,” was a recurring question in the emails I opened once I got to the youth hostel where I would stay and logged on to let everyone know I had not been kidnapped since they last saw me.

In the twenty years since I returned from Atlanta, unimpressed and unmolested, I have traveled alone both domestically and internationally so many times I have to now force myself to at least make effort to include other people before simply booking a flight. Though not from friends who’ve known me since the Atlanta trip, I still get the by yourself question often enough that it makes me wonder why a woman traveling alone seems odd. Given it is the year 2019, and though violence against women is a very real concern in many parts of the world, one would assume that a female adult visiting a new locale without the accessory of husband, child or wing woman is not such an abnormality.

“Several times when I’ve checked into a hotel the staff were super concerned,” Ambra, a western woman currently living in China, said. “Like I’m there to kill myself or because I am depressed just because I’m by myself.” She went on to tell the story of a staff member coming out to the pool once just to see if she really were okay. Another time, (mostly) female employees chatted her up at breakfast, voicing well intended concern that she might be alone for some other reason than she wanted to be alone.

Natavia, an American expat currently living in China, had her announcement of an international move met with stories of sex trafficking throughout Asia. “They kept saying ‘Don’t Go!’ and asking me if I knew anyone here and when I said no, they’d come up with even crazier stuff.” Though the anxieties of her loved ones did make Natavia hesitant, she had a cousin who had solo traveled extensively and lived overseas alone. The cousin was curt. “Ignore them. Move to China.”

We know everyone means well when they ask us if we are sure we want to journey to a foreign destination alone. And we are also well aware that the dangers they imagine for us are not that far from the realm of possibility. However, those dangers are not that far from the realm of possibility when we travel to and from work in the same city where we’ve lived all our lives. Rapists rape in New Orleans during the day and night. Women take meticulous care not to get themselves raped from the time their parents find the courage to send them out the house without adult supervision until they inhale their last breathe. Kidnappers operate from the same playbook all over the world and there seems to be no fool-proof plan not to get yourself kidnapped when a professional kidnapper has decided he will — today and at this moment — kidnap. When people have asked me if I were afraid of getting trafficked or drugged or disappeared when I’ve traveled to India or Senegal or South Africa or Malaysia, I’ve always chuckled and said, “Well, if I’ve managed not to have any of those things happen to me here, then I’ll just keep that same energy in this other place. Maybe, I’ll get the same result.”

Even greater than concern for the female solo traveler’s safety is bewilderment about why she would choose to be alone on a travel adventure in the first place. After dozens of by yourself inquiries, I started to hear what people were really saying. And it was not tied just to imagined scenes of me being violated and thrown into a ditch. The visions of me touring city monuments alone. A quick flash of me eating the local cuisine alone in a restaurant filled with people. Taking pictures in front of famous landmarks. No one standing next to me. My friends and loved ones were not as forthcoming about their uneasiness regarding my aloneness. Sometimes I’d be asked if I ever got bored and lonely. When I’d respond that these emotions did occur and I just felt them the way I felt all the others until they passed, I’d be met with curious stares and silence.

“Truth is, I don’t ever feel alone unless I want to.” Latasha, who is originally from Cleveland, but has lived in three different countries since moving overseas, plans her solo trips to give her the option of interacting with others if she chooses. She loves talking with the locals in the countries she visits and her singleness makes that easier to do. She is often viewed as easier to approach because there is no one there distracting her from friendly banter with a stranger. When Latasha travels by herself, she notices a marked difference in how many impromptu conversations people initiate with her. “I also always try to stay in airbnbs, homestays or with friends of friends,” Latasha explains. This gives her the option of friendly human interaction if she’s had a day of solitary sightseeing or people watching.

For some of us, solo is our preferred method of travel. And why wouldn’t it be? You get to set your own schedule. Change it at a moment’s whim. You end up going to countries that truly intrigue you and not just places that are chosen because of compromise. You are beholden to no one’s budget but your own. No one’s accommodation idiosyncrasies. If you are a budget traveler who never spends more than $30 a night on an airbnb, then you can have your basic room with sporadic hot water. If you are unapologetically bourgie, then an American chain hotel will welcome you into its arms with thick, fluffy mattresses and 24-hour room service.

Aliki, a single British traveler, packed a bag and left London to tour Southeast Asia when she was only 19 years old. She went to Thailand and followed that up with Vietnam before checking out Cambodia and Laos. She was alone in each country and was not a part of a university study abroad or any similar program. “I still go on holidays with friends, family or my boyfriend,” she says, “but the majority of my travel is done alone.” Like the many single women I meet who travel by themselves more so than not, Aliki is not surprised that women who are fiercely independent in their daily lives would fully embrace navigating foreign destinations without a companion.

Between Ambra, Natavia, Latasha, Aliki and I, we have seen over half of the world. We have done so without any attempts being made on our lives. No sexual assaults to report. (Though we have had our share of inappropriate propositions from oddly confident men who took the L when told no and simply went away.) We’ve had no traumatic “close calls” that left us hesitant to take on the world alone again.

We have all traveled much farther than Atlanta. Much farther than North America.

And we are all still alive.

The Penis Doesn’t Have Limitless Power

I have featured black women who identify as polyamorous three times on my podcast. I was prompted to pursue the stories of the non-monogamous because as a woman who was coming to accept that happily- ever-after marital bliss didn’t appeal to me, I was curious about how other women formed partnerships that were not necessarily defined by getting on an escalator with one nice man as you both cruised to the floor that housed the chapel and shared mortgage payments. I was certain my ideal love structure did not involve multiple partners, but had a feeling that these women who had the courage to claim the love structure that best suited them could offer valuable insight into how I and other women could create the romantic lives we wanted instead of the one we were supposed to want.

Evita, Olivia and Shira did help me unburden myself from the shoulds that black women are expected to carry on our shoulders as we shape shift to fit what the dominant culture and our community dictate is the best way for us to be in the world. However, what was even more invaluable were the messages I got from listeners after each woman shared her journey to ethical non-monogamy. A common message in my inbox was: “I thought I was the only one! I used to think something was wrong with me!” When I engaged in further conversation with these women who thanked me for letting them know they were not alone, there was another trend that was all too familiar. It was the tendency to be advised on how they could be cured of their allergic reactions to monogamy.

“You just haven’t met the right man yet.”

Woman after woman relayed having intimate discussions with sisterfriends and aunties about how suffocating it felt to commit themselves to only one penis, no matter how kind and loving that penis was to them. How they noticed that they were at their happiest when they were not trying to be in one relationship at a time, restricting themselves to just one emotional connection with one man until, for whatever reason, that relationship ended and they got on the next escalator with the next nice man. The sisterfriends listened and chuckled. The aunties nodded their heads, a non-verbal agreement that they, too, weren’t so sure they were committed to the fantasy of what they should want, either. It didn’t take long for the chuckle and the head nod to turn into admonishments that they should be more mature and patient and just believe that the right man was out there. “I hear what you’re saying,” they’d be told. “But, you just haven’t met the right man yet.”

This advice to hold off on making proclamations about what best suits you until you have fallen in love with the “right” man. It fascinates me as the thinking behind it is both illogical and condescending. The women who were messaging me were well over the age of consent. They were not in their teens, twenties or even thirties. They were not nursing their first broken heart, bitter at how painful love gone awry could be. They had tried loving the way they should love for years and came to realize that what they wanted made them happier than what they were told they should want. Yet, it was assumed that this knowledge of themselves was incomplete. It had not been sufficiently tested by an encounter with the magical penis that would cause them to redraw the conclusion they had come to after a lifetime of loving.

Why put so much pressure on the penis? It is expected to transform so many women who have so many desires they are not supposed to have. For the woman drawn to other women, the “right” penis is expected to lure her back to heteronormativity. For the woman who is only mildly tolerant of small children, the magic wand that is the male penis is expected to convince her that she should give motherhood a chance. For the single woman who relishes solitude and autonomy, one encounter with the right penis is supposed to send her into a fit of matrimonial frenzy, all of a sudden consumed with thoughts of diamond rings and white dresses. Is the penis really capable of all of this, though? Maybe the penis is just one little organ that provides women with momentary pleasure and the man to whom it is attached a mere mortal with no power to change the desires of the woman who loves him.

I can understand why so many men and women would believe that the peen is all powerful. I have participated in some questionable shenanigans on account of the peen. I have caught flights across continents to be closer to the peen. I have left angry, tear-filled voicemail messages trying to get myself unquit by the peen. I have even told half truths and outright lies in order to appease the peen. So, yes, for a straight lady, the penis can be quite convincing. It doesn’t take long for a happy hour table full of peen-appreciative ladies to swap stories of the many times they have compromised themselves behind some earth-shattering peen.

But, the power of the peen has its limits. To tell us straight girls that its power supercedes our own knowledge of ourselves is bold. And irritating. “I mean, I was sitting up there saying to her I have finally realized what makes me happy and she was telling me that I could not possibly know what I was talking about because I had not loved enough of the right men.” One of my listeners who had decided to “come out” as non-monogamous to a friend was the most clear on what this you-have-not-met-the-right-man retort really says to women. It asserts that your mind is not your own. Your decisions regarding your body are not your’s to make. You cannot claim what is best for your body and your life in the absence of a male partner. If you have had numerous male partners and still reached this conclusion about your life and your body, then you have not sufficiently tested your hypothesis about what truly makes you happy. “Just one more man,” this line of thinking says. “Yes, you have used your own intuition and life experiences to deduce that monogamy is not your ministry, but have you considered this other penis possibly waiting for you somewhere in the future?” Those of us who make choices exclusively on what we know is best for us are weary of this reasoning that reduces us to children who need permission to make the most rudimentary decisions.

Let’s allow the peen the right to have its one job. It does that job well. We do not need to burden it with tasks beyond its pay grade and level of expertise.

That Time My Neighbour Abandoned Her Baby

I lived in the East African country of Rwanda for two years. It was my first stop on a five-year long (and counting) adventure living and traveling overseas. I had chosen Rwanda for rudimentary reasons: 1. Five months before moving to Africa I decided I wanted to move Africa. 2. I was offered a job in Rwanda. 3. Rwanda was in Africa.

I had many experiences in Kigali which challenged me to examine my worldview. I came to appreciate a “cash economy” for its insistence that you only buy stuff when you have actual currency in your wallet to pay for it. I learned to look at traditional marriage as a very practical, sensible way to sustain a culture. Whether brought together by intense romantic love or crippling loneliness or simple pragmatism, combining two incomes and two sets of extended family made for a sensible way to build a life that would extend beyond yourself.

Rwanda — well, if I am being honest — many of the countries on the African continent, also confirmed for me that pronatalism destroys the lives of women and children. The dictionary definition of pronatalism sounds so deceptively benign: “a belief that promotes the reproduction of sentient life.” How harmless is that? Life is a precious gift. It is a miracle to be born. A greater miracle still to be guided with care through an entire life that extends well beyond one’s birth. Why wouldn’t reproduction of sentient life be a good thing to promote?

And this is what my time in Africa revealed. The continent went well beyond simply “promoting” reproduction. It made reproduction of life the only way for a female person to claim womanhood. It was such a bizarre experience living in a part of the world that thought nothing of making the word ‘woman’ synonymous with the word ‘mother’ and thinking even less of the ramifications of this thinking on women who were not built for or interested in motherhood. I encountered more than a few women in Africa who seemed to feel the same way about children as I did: they were cute and funny, but not worth the time and energy necessary to keep them whole and healthy until they moved out of your house. Unlike me, however, these women actually had children. Sometimes, several of them.

I am not an economist. I have no stats to offer that show the correlation between extremely pronatalist countries and rampant poverty among women. I am not a social scientist. Or an anthropologist. I cannot cite hundreds of case studies of women who were ambivalent (at best) about motherhood yet took it on anyway because that’s just what every day, every moment of their lives had been constructed to tell them women do: become mothers.

All I have is the story of Masha.

To understand why I even know the intimate details of Masha’s abandonment of her child, you have to understand the make up of our compound. There were two houses enclosed behind the iron gate of Beatrice’s property. She rented the main house, which was too big and had too many rooms, to me and my housemate. The bottom portion of the main house had been turned into a small, two-bedroom apartment, which was where Masha lived with her toddler and a house girl who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old. The other house, which was slightly smaller and sat at the bottom of the steep incline I had to walk up everyday to get home, was rented by a young-ish couple with a school-aged child. The husband was the only person on the compound, besides Masha, who was Rwandan and spoke both Kinyarwanda and French while the rest of us got by with only English.

One day, Masha disappeared. It took about a week for us to notice. The baby was screeching at an ear piercing volume, which wasn’t unusual. I had observed this child for months from my perch on the balcony as she did the toddler stumble out of the house, wobbling on her chubby legs. Always screaming. Always brought back into the house and comforted by the house girl. Occasionally, by Masha. Both my housemate and I noticed how the screeches seemed to be nonstop now and we didn’t hear Masha’s voice responding to them in her curt French. When coming back and forth onto the compound, we were sure that we saw the house girl as regularly as we always had. But, no Masha. As the second week of fairly consistent screeching was approaching its end, my housemate and I decided to go to the couple at the bottom of the incline to see if they knew what was going on.

“She is away,” the husband told us. “She left the baby with the girl and I think the girl said she went to Uganda, but she was only supposed to be gone for a few days.” There was a rumour that one of her gentlemen callers had treated her to a luxury East African holiday spanning several countries. A beautiful girl with a figure that would make even the most confident woman a little spiteful, this seemed a believable enough explanation for Masha’s absence.

“Well, does her house girl know when she’s supposed to be back? Has Masha left enough money to feed them and pay the cash power? Will they have electricity much longer?” The husband at the bottom of the incline had no answers, but we all came to the logical conclusion that the answers to all my questions were probably no. I mean, this woman had vanished into thin air as if she were the mother of an eighteen year old who had just gotten her college acceptance letter in the mail. Surely, she just took whatever francs she had in her wallet and thew them on the table before hopping in the car headed to Lake Victoria.

My housemate was shocked. I was not.

There’s a term from 1990s Black American slang. Game recognizes game. From the moment Masha sauntered up to the top of the house to introduce herself, I spotted a woman whose heart was not warmed by children. A woman who tolerated them. A woman who preferred them in small doses. There was something in the way she bounced that baby on her hip as if she were just carrying a sack of potatoes up the incline that registered with me. It reminded me of when I came across small children who I thought were cute. I’d do a quick game of peek-a-boo and smile at their giggles. And then I’d go back to reading my book as they tried to get more funny faces out of me. My interest in the interaction rarely extended beyond this initial moment.

The first time Masha sat in our living room for an afternoon cup of tea, the baby was with her. The cute little dumpling was clean, clothed and well fed. She seemed happy and playful. She also seemed as if she were visiting these new foreigners with her auntie who had been asked to babysit at the last minute. Masha was not neglectful of the child as she crawled around our house. But she was not particularly nurturing or doting of her either.

My housemate would comment on how cute the baby was often. Each time, I would agree that the baby was oh so precious and adorable. I would watch Masha tote her around as if she were a brand new handbag and think to myself: It’s such a shame no one told this young woman that she didn’t have to have a baby. She could have done something else that interested her.

I didn’t think why did she have a baby in the first place if she wasn’t that into kids?

Six months before Masha abandoned her baby, I was sitting in the living room of the main house for the second time. My housemate and I had just brought Beatrice our security deposit and she had her house girl bring out tea and cookies to celebrate. As we chatted, Beatrice threw the two of us that expert Rwandan up-down — a level of judgmental side eye that can’t be truly understood unless experienced. Here we were, two women a long way out of our 20s who had no husbands and no children, yet were renting her gigantic home in the most expensive part of Kigali. Through her English-speaking son, she asked, “You have no husbands. No children. What happened to your life?” My housemate, a divorced woman who was childless by circumstance, chuckled uncomfortably and explained that she had put up with more than enough from her ex-husband before she filed for divorce and that their marriage, unfortunately, had not resulted in children. She got a little choked up on the “we never had kids” part. When it was my turn, I said marriage had never really interested me, though I could be talked into the right one and there was nothing that interested me less than loud ass children roaming around my house and touching stuff that didn’t belong to them.

Silence fell upon our pleasant afternoon tea. Beatrice’s up-down left my housemate and focused only on me. A brief conversation happened between her and her son, which seemed to be causing the son some distress. When he returned to speaking English, our conversation was suddenly about being prepared for the dry season and making sure the water tank was full.

Three months before Masha left her two-year-old with the seventeen year old house girl who was likely illiterate with no other employment opportunities, I was having a drink with an acquaintance who would soon become the only good Rwandan friend I would make in my two years in Kigali. She was mentioning how her recently married cousin had just announced her pregnancy to the family. “Well, dang,” I joked with my acquaintance. “She and the hubs didn’t waste no time on the procreation part, huh?” My acquaintance nonchalantly responded, “Oh, that’s just Rwanda. If you don’t get pregnant after the first year of marriage, people start talking. Asking questions. Wondering what’s wrong with you.”

I already knew why Masha had become a mother though she probably never really wanted to parent a child.

When I chatted with Nina Steele, she talked about being an African woman who bought into pronatalist conditioning, never questioning or challenging it. Having tried for several years to conceive, she eventually decided to accept that infertility issues would stand in the way of giving her husband a child. It was accepting this infertility instead of fighting against it that made her realize she didn’t even feel that strongly about motherhood. As a matter of fact, she was grateful that she would never experience it. She could enjoy the simple, yet fulfilling life she and her husband shared without the disruption in free time, expendable income and sleep that children brought. “I grew up in a very poor village in Ivory Coast and kept seeing these women have babies even though they couldn’t feed them. My own mother struggled with taking care of me and my siblings.” As an educated woman with an economically stable husband, Nina’s circumstances were obviously much more favorable than the women she watched struggle to raise children in her small village. However, the infertility in her marriage forced her to really reconcile with this expectation that she should want to have children. This was just good African values — marriage and motherhood. Though she had the financial means to raise children, was there any real desire to do so?

By the time Masha sauntered back onto the compound, the husband at the bottom of the incline had tracked down her relatives who had driven to Kigali and picked up the baby and house girl. I was not at home when she arrived, but I was told she came back with a really long story that painted her absence in a much more serious light than an extended vacay with Bae. Her child and house girl were back on the compound shortly after her return.

I forgot why Masha eventually moved out of the apartment at the bottom of the main house. She could have just found a better place in a more affordable neighbourhood. She could have moved back to Giseyni, which is where I was told her family had come from when they were told about their abandoned kin.

I have thought about her several times in the years that have passed since I left Kigali. It is very likely that she now has two children. It is more than possible that the birth of the second sentient life was celebrated with great gusto by every person in her life. I am sure the second child is clothed, clean and well fed. And much like the first, it is being parented by a woman who is indifferent at best to the demands of motherhood.

When Marriage Becomes God

This is not a take down of marriage. I am old enough to know that I know very little about almost everything. I am ill equipped to critique an institution that has sustained societies around the globe for generations. I am an expert at staying in my lane and minding my own business. Why some single women can’t envision an entire lifetime lived without a husband is not my lane. Questioning women who expend energy trying to salvage fractured marriages is not my business.

I will own up to this: I don’t get it. Marriage and why some would want it — crave it, even — yes, I completely get that. Building of wealth. Support while raising children. Commitment to more than just passionate, romantic love. Yeah, I dig why this would be a goal for folk. What confounds me are the assumptions about those of us who don’t crave the institution.

In one of the many online women’s groups I belong to, relationships were discussed. Someone commented on women who “allow” men to date them for years, never requiring — demanding — a wedding ring. The implication seemed to be these women devalued themselves. Were “allowing” men to waste their time. Most who replied to the post agreed that women (of a certain age) who did not end up with at least the possibility of a ring after a year or two of courtship were failing themselves. “Why would you continue to date with no goals for the relationship?”

I didn’t comment on the thread. It was far more informative to read all the perceptions of what made a 21st century partnership acceptable. And these perceptions seemed to have not evolved much from those born out of the 18th century. If a woman over the age of twenty-five enjoys the company of a male companion and they profess love for each other, then the escalator should arrive at marriage with expedience. The further away from thirty she was, the more it could be understood why she might be on a slow-moving escalator. However, if there were no eventual marriage and the couple did not both get off the escalator, then…this was a failure. And the bulk of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the wasted woman who had allowed herself to be in a loving, monogamous relationship for years with no “goals.”

For a surprisingly large number of women, there is nothing else that validates a relationship more than having paperwork done on it. The assumptions about a woman who ended up unmarried after more than three years in a relationship were absurd. First, it was assumed that the ringless woman wanted to be married, but was afraid to pressure the boyfriend and chase him away. It also seemed to be understood that long term courtships not leading to marriage were just 36 months of hook ups with the same dude. “It’s like they’re just having good sex and then when that’s no longer fun, they move on.” This comment made me chuckle. As is the case in many adult relationships, unmarried couples are intimate. And just like when a married couple decide to end their union and the sex stops, the unmarried couple who dissolve their relationship also stop having sex with each other. When they meet someone else they feel connected to, they start having sex again. How is this evidence of anything other than grown ups behaving like grown ups?

What I don’t get is the deification of marriage. I am confused about how in this, the century of our lord: the 21st, matrimony is still being held up as if it is Christ on the cross offering women salvation. I will show up to anybody’s wedding with a nice gift and my hand reaching for a champagne glass. I will congratulate bride and groom and with sincerity wish them well. However, I would do that for my homegirl who decides she is quitting her job and starting her own business. I would big up a co-worker who bought a house. If my homie stayed in her job and never opened her own business, I would see no reason to be concerned about where her career was going. If my co-worker remained in his rental apartment, I’d see that as just a lifestyle choice. Why is there such a high moral value placed on the lifestyle choice of marriage? Why is the acquisition of a spouse seen as some sort of a prize and to not win one is to signify a loss?

When I chatted with Tracy Adams about her decision to divorce her husband, she spoke about how many people placed the word only in front of the words three years when they found out she and her husband were splitting up. “Y’all giving up after only three years?,” they asked incredulously. The implication being that to make such a choice required more suffering and agonizing than she had already put in through those 36 months. See, this was not the same as the homegirl who started her own business, realized she was better meant for the stability of being an employee so closed the bakery and went back to her old job. This was not the same as the man who began saving for a down payment on his house, but after doing some investigating into the housing market decided it better to continue renting. Tracy’s decision to hand back her prize after only three years represented a moral failure. She didn’t simply try to live a choice, realize it was the wrong one and then correct the error.

As Tracy said on Unchained. Unbothered., there is an expectation that women value being chosen so badly that they continue to work doggedly at a marriage, even when their gut tells them the marriage is not right. Non stop emotional labor is a fair trade off to hold on to the living, breathing proof they had won.

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