My little one, 8 years old, often feels unheard. He’s a little person, half the size of others in the house. After explaining the horror of George Floyd’s murder, I tried to explain the reaction, the protests happening around the country. I asked him to remember a time where he felt unheard, which I know he feels often. He has few rights and privileges — he can’t cook, can’t watch TV without permission, gets pushed around physically and psychologically. We constantly talk over him.
I asked him what is his first reaction to that truth, the truth that he is not being heard, and he said to (try) say calmly for people to listen to his words. And when that doesn’t work? “I scream and yell,” he said. What about when that doesn’t work, when we still do not hear him? What does he do when that doesn’t work? It took him a moment, as he felt me out about where this is going, but then, “I want to throw things, to break stuff, to slam doors.” Sometimes, he does. I asked him why he does that. “Because I am so angry at not being heard, and maybe if I throw something or cause a whole lot of ruckus, you will listen.”
“What does mommy do in these moments?” You yell, you scream, and you tell me that I need to “get it together,” get in control of his emotions. I send him away until he can, until he comes whimpering back asking me if he can come back and be with the rest of us. But I don’t address his initial issue. I blame him for being upset.
Police officers keep killing black people — KEEP KILLING US — and we once said calmly to stop. We made ourselves respectable. We got college degrees, got ourselves elected to office. But they kept killing us. So we yelled and screamed, and we keep yelling and screaming to be heard. And then we aren’t being heard, still nothing is being done, they are still killing us, and so we have to take it to the next level. We need to burn the whole thing down. To be heard.
But then they claim that our reaction is our fault. The wronged, the victims, the oppressed, they blame us for being too emotional about being killed, blame us for damaging property. So-called white liberals condemn the destruction of property but never recognize that the property was built from our uncompensated labor. They say that they “support our cause” but in the same breath bemoan a broken window or a broken door more than us being murdered by the state. They claim that had we just been calm, had we just asked nicely, they would hear us, they would stop killing us. But we know the evidence points completely in the other direction.
They treat us, black people being hunted, like we are 8 year olds having a tantrum. And they will try to wait us out, punishing us until they hope we will come whimpering back, asking to be let back into a politic we have never been a part of. So there cannot be any letting up, no standing down. We are not children. This is the fire this time.
Yesterday, I watched a show where families were fostering and adopting children. There was a little baby, and my uterus ached.
My babies were babies so very long ago. My oldest is 14, a true man-child. My littlest is 8, moving out of the little kid stage, but still there. At 12 is my middle, my mini-me, who shares my face and inner-temperament.
She also shares/d my hair. She was born with very little hair. At 2, she was still struggling to grow a few strands. But at 3, her hair seemingly grew within an hour, so fast that I truly can remember a day where she had no hair, and then when she had a lot of hair, and I cannot remember any day in between.
We had a classic mother-daughter struggle over her hair. I never wanted to fight with my child over her black hair. I never wanted to hit her with a brush for moving too much. Never wanted her to cry because combing her hair hurt. Never wanted her to have the hot comb singe her neck and tops of her ears.
So when she was 4, I decided I wasn’t going to do any of those things. I also had another child and one on the way. I wasn’t going to fight about hair. So I did what I knew to do — I loc’d it.
My hair had been loc’d for 6 years by then. I started and maintained my own. I started her with small two strand twists and then combined those into larger locs. I was the only person to touch her hair from the time she was 4 until she was 8. Her hair grew. She was able to do whatever she wanted to do with it. Ponytails. Braids. As it grew, she could flip it, and put it into a bun, and go swimming without worrying about her hair.
As I get to know her better, I realize that our early struggle was never really about hair though. It was about independence. At three and now at 12, she has never liked being under anyone. You says left and she turns right because she’s not gonna take what you say for truth. She’s gonna figure her own way to get where she wants to go.
About 6 months ago, she said she wanted to cut her locs shorter. I delayed as long as possible, but then I let her do it. As in I picked up some scissors and cut it myself, shoulder length.
Jumping forward: this weekend, my child combed out her locs. Her hair is now a mass of beautifully free curls. She’s so happy, although she doesn’t know what to do with it. And it’s been so long for me, over 15 years, dealing with free natural black hair. So we will be learning together, as much as we can.
I actually had to leave this post alone for a few days. And now I’m sitting here crying on Mothers’ Day, after a day of bottomless mimosas, mourning.
Mourning my baby. Mourning her baby-ness. Mourning her breaking with me. Mourning that thing that made us alike.
This post is not going to have a tidy neat ending. My heart is a little broken.
I am a bad mother. I’m not checking homework. I’m not looking at Google Classroom. My kids play video games for 50% of the day. My little one was struggling in reading pre-corona and he’ll be struggling after.
I am a good mother. I make meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I make sure the bills are paid. I make sure that we have money to move next month. I buy a lot of fucking groceries. I’m getting our credit scores back on track. I play games and music and we laugh.
I am a sucky person. I haven’t donated groceries. I haven’t volunteered. I’m not on the front lines.
I am a good person. I’ve continued to pay my regular housekeeper. I’ve donated money. I tip my Instacart shopper 20% of my $300+ grocery shopping every time. I’ve stayed in my house.
I am a bad professor. I cancel class when I just. cannot. not. I stumble over my words, losing my thought process. One day I was managing my grocery delivery while listening to my students. I forget to record.
I am a good professor. I say hello to everyone I can see as they enter the room. I plan each class, reading and adapting for Zoom. I let my students know when I’m going to call on them so they can be prepared. I post my slides before class. I try to keep the energy up.
I worried about that when I started writing on here again. I worried about expressing this side of me, which is not a side but rather an essential part of who I am. I’ve struggled with bipolar depression all of my life. It’s always with me.
It’s with me as I prep for my classes, as I answer questions, as I hold office hours, as I get to the podium and face you every day. Some days it is with me but very much in the background, so much that I don’t notice it. Other times it’s a strong undercurrent, depression moving me in one direction when I need to be moving in the opposite direction.
This semester has been much of the latter.
But you’ve noticed my pain and my attempt to progress. You’ve emailed me to express your gratitude for how hard I’m trying. You send me zoom chats saying “thank you professor!” or “we can see how hard you’re trying” and “no worries professor”! You’ve rallied behind me when my internet is not working, when the screen keeps freezing, when I’m choppy and you cannot hear me, when I give you wrong information that I then need to correct.
I worry that relationship, where you are extending grace to me, is unprofessional. Many people do not share their personal life at work, and for very good reasons. Many people want to keep these things separate. Many people do not even consider their coworkers to be their friends, choosing to draw a bright line of relationship that coworkers can never cross. And our personal life can contradict our professional persona, the identity that we want to be judged as competent.
I want you to see me as competent at the job of teaching you law. I want you to see me as a source of expertise. I want you to see my scholarship as interesting and something you want to learn more about.
But I also want you to know that competence is not easy and without challenges. I want you to know that I’ve had to ask for disability accommodations to survive this thing called bipolar disorder. (If you want to learn more, send me an email.) I want you to know that even when we are high-performing, we can also be struggling just to get out of the bed in the morning, struggling to shower and brush our teeth, struggling to have the strength and the energy to pick up a casebook and be ready for cold-calling. I’m struggling too and I see you.
So, to my students: thank you for your grace. Thank you for your notes of good wishes. Thank you for allowing this blurring of professional and personal persona because you are accepting and encouraging of me being all of me when I cannot separate them because that is simply not my journey. Not only will you be fine attorneys. You have shown yourselves to be really good people.
(noun) forward or onward movement toward a destination.
(verb) move forward or onward in space or time.
When I’m depressed, I prefer the dark, the night. The sun has gone down, the noise of the world quiets a bit. I’m no longer alone. I’m surrounded by the sounds of my kids and husband. The house literally comes alive, filling the space of inertia that characterized my days.
The dark is like a weighted blanket. It anchors me. It calms the panic that has been building up all day, the quiet desperation, the feeling of floating uncontrollably, of not being able to guide the direction of my thoughts and emotions. The dark provides protection.
Most importantly, it also signifies one more day survived. It means that I made it, that I moved moment by moment, minute by minute, hour by hour and I survived. I’m not scared anymore of doing something that cannot be undone.
Yesterday, however, I woke up and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the light. I felt more grounded than I have in months, not floating. I could feel my feet on the earth, not hovering. I could squish my toes into the carpet next to my bed.
Maybe because my family is home in this time of COVID-19. The energy of the night is now the energy of the day. I’d imagined that this time of isolation was to be a nightmare, with 4 adult-sized people and one kid-sized person in the apartment 24-7, each with our own personalities and predilections, each with our own friends were we can be more of ourselves than in our prescribed home roles of mother and kids, husband and wife, sister and brother. All thrown together not of our choosing but because we have to be. I imagined I’d be waiting for night not only to feel grounded and weighted but to finally have some quiet and peace.
It hasn’t been that nightmare. Yes, we all are different, we all have preferences. We run awkwardly into each other in the kitchen and the living room, and my room is less of a fortress due to children who lack boundaries, who want mommy to be constantly available to ask a question of, to complain about a sibling to, to lament about not having what they want to eat in the pantry to, to show a silly video to, something that they’d know I’d enjoy. But we have also fell into a rhythm of comfort, where we are beginning to move seamlessly as we’ve learned each others typical movements and patterns, where we are better able to read the room. We can feel by instinct when it’s time to come together to play a card game and when it’s time to be apart. We move with each other, not against each other. We have an equilibrium.
In that space, I feel myself welcoming morning. I’m typically opening my eyes to see my husband working at the desk in the bedroom. I hear the little one watching TV with cartoons and silly videos. I hear my oldest son laughing at some video he’s watching where other people play video games, a phenomenon I still don’t quite understand. (But now that I think about it, it’s like watching other people cooking on TV. Not so strange.) My daughter is silent, sleeping in as she is wont to do, knowing I probably have another hour until I hear her too.
I’ve taken to going on long walks by myself, today being the fourth day in a row for that adventure. I’ll admit that my route is getting a little predictable, and to sustain, I’m going to need to find another path before I get too bored. But I rather than moment by moment, minute by minute, hour by hour, I am measuring the day one foot at a time: one foot, then the next, and repeat. Step step, step step. Moving. Progressing. Moving forward in time, in space.
In this time of crisis and depression and anxiety and panic and terror, where I’m still unable to concentrate on research and writing and allowing myself to be concerned with teaching and being at home only, something that might be little to someone else, one foot, and then the next, is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
I’m making progress. Toward a destination. Of living. Of surviving.
[Disclaimer, of sorts — I write for my own healing. Please don’t feel that you need help. I appreciate all of your support, I really really do. I just want to know that people are listening, and perhaps that I am giving voice to someone else who feels silent — that is enough for me.]
On a Zoom call with my entire faculty, my 7-year-old comes in and out of the shot. He’s a bit of a ham, so he’s waving and making faces and it sort pains me to make him leave because he’s so joyous. I playfully shoo him away, and the call continues. My colleagues send private messages saying how he amused them, added levity to their day.
In the call, we’re teaching each other and sharing tips about how to do remote learning over the platform so as to replicate what happens when we are physically in the classroom, surrounded not by tiny squares on a screen but real live bodies. In the classroom I can see my students’ expressions, I can see how their body language indicates whether they get what I’m saying or not. I can walk around the room, changing positions, getting closer to them when we we’re having a discussion so I’m in the flow of opinions and information, taking the opportunity to sit down to indicate that we are in the less formal space of class. That’s all lost now.
A few days later, I teach my first Zoom class and I’m disappointed. My internet kept going out because in my house of five people, everyone has two devices (computers and phones) which we all have a bad habit of double-screening and using both at once. Our TV is also an internet TV, and I personally have a habit of triple screening — watching CNN, checking Facebook, occasionally playing a game on my phone. I read somewhere that at home internet is like getting water from a garden hose, while at work internet is like getting water from a waterfall. So I’m having to restart with my students twice in a 75 minute class. And to make matters worse, I started teaching them something I had already taught in a prerecorded lecture. I left that class feeling despair, discouraged that I could actually make six more weeks of classes work.
Then I remember that my little one has worksheets to complete when I’m done with class. There are five different packets of work, language arts and math and science and social studies and another one I’m not quite sure how to categorize. He’s supposed to do approximately two pages in each packet daily. He knows that he’s supposed to do them and it’s not too much of a fight to do so, but I’m unsure as to whether I’m supposed to check them to make sure they are right or just let Jesus take the homeschooling wheel. The perfectionist in me wins out and I check and erase and make him do things over again because he’s just rushing through it — and who can blame him — and not giving his best effort. I remind him that TV and video games are on the line, because while I want the work done, I’m decidedly not running a home-based school. Every day around here will be like a weekend with the exception of doing the things the teacher sent home to do. Same for my middle-schoolers; do what you’re supposed to do and how you spend the rest of your time is up to you.
Through all of this, I want to remind myself that these are not normal times and one cannot expect to do things the normal way. One cannot expect to feel the normal way. I keep seeing folks push the adage, “it’s okay to not be okay.”
But I don’t think that’s true.
At work, we as professors are expected to provide our students the reassurance of routine. We are expected to, as best we can, recreate the physical classroom experience. I believe our students deserve for us to do our best to provide them with the education they paid for. We praise each other for doing so; folks are on Facebook and Twitter reporting how Zoom classes went well or better than expected. The implication is that the fact that the world has been turned upside down, around and to the left, the fact that we’re home with our own children who need to be fed and washed and kept entertained, the fact that we’re scared and anxious about being cooped up in our homes as well as danger of being outside of our homes, we are expected to do our teaching job as if those things were not true. It’s not okay to be not okay.
And while there are assurances from above that, for non-tenured folks on the tenure track, we are not expected to have our same rate of productiveness, I’m amazed that anyone is reading or writing anything. To be very honest — since my depression set in, the only writing I’m doing is on here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in text messages to my friends. My productivity hasn’t lessened, it’s completely stopped. It was only last night that I attempted to read a book for pleasure. Reading a book for my scholarship is outside of the bounds of what I can do. A mentor even sent me comments on a paper, indicating that they have been reading and writing and in a very thoughtful way. My friends in academia are reading and writing. I am not, I am falling behind. It’s not okay to not be okay.
At home, we as parents need to provide a sense of normalcy for our children. They are anxious and scared themselves, seeing how a global pandemic is spreading and killing people. They can sense the panic that requires them to be in their house, with no physical connection to their friends. My littlest one has taken to shutting himself up into a closet to watch Netflix. I’ve joked about it by saying we’re playing a game, but I suppose that he feels safer there than in the wide space of our home. My older two kids are trying to adjust to teachers’ expectations; in the case of my middle-schoolers, 12 different teachers combined. I have to join google classrooms and pull information out of my children like extracting wisdom teeth to ascertain just what the hell is going on school-wise. I am a pretty hands-off parent when it comes to my older two’s academics, only interjecting myself when measures of performance — grades — seem to be heading in a downward trajectory. I’m quite lucky that my kids are self-motivated, but in a time of upheaval, I can’t be sure what’s actually happening on that front. But I need to be. My children’s mental and academic health depends on it. It’s not okay to not be okay.
In all of my major roles, I need to be okay. I get that I don’t need to be 100%, but I’m feeling at less than 50%, and I’m pretty confident that counts as being not okay. I will keep pushing through on the immediates, the non-negotiables — teaching my classes as best I can, being a parent as best I can.
But I’m not okay. And that does not feel like it’s okay.