A Family Affair

For all the talk about husbands and children, and the occasional grandparent or two on CocoaMamas, we don’t very often communicate about our extended family networks. I often brag that in my house growing up there was always an aunt, play cousin or godmom around to chew the fat with. Lately, my network is getting somewhat smaller. I still agree by the general spirit however that, “it takes a village, to raise a child.” Tonight, I was reminded of the constant role that my siblings (two brothers and one sister) play in the shaping and development of my new family’s future. Are CocoaMamas (at large) still resourced and supported by their “old” families?

In my paternal side’s “heyday,” we use to gather for family sing-a-longs; mainly we would sing spirituals, peppered with a Stevie Wonder or Bill Withers balad here and there. My children, regrettably, will never share in those memories. However, my family has continued its artistic impulses, working collaboratively on film and digital music projects. My daughter (1.5 years) proudly joined us tonight for a “business” pow-wow. She moderated the meeting, all loud and boisterous on the other end of my brother’s speaker phone.

I am grateful to have a ton of friends, female friends in particular, that have nutured their relationship with me over the years to the point where I have no doubt that we will always be cool. It is trickier for family sometimes though. You have to come up with common interests and be equally invested in maintaining traditions to keep relationships going. Isn’t it funny how with friends you embrace new experiences; a “girl’s trip” to this exotic location or a new movie? However, with family you tend to only sign yourself up for the “same old, same old.”

What are you doing to keep your relationship with your siblings going, and most importantly, how are you modeling the role of family for your children?

whose tubes are these?

While still in the hospital, after I gave birth to my second child, I had the fleeting thought that maybe I should have my tubes tied. I approached the subject with my doctor and she didn’t give my semi-request a second thought. “In order for me to have done that for you at 27,” she said, “you would have had to have asked a LONG time ago!” By a long time ago, I suppose she meant eight or nine months. She did the right thing, because although I talked big stuff about not wanting any more children, I completely planned, and currently cannot imagine my life without, my third, and final, child.

This last time around, I was adamant the entire pregnancy. My doctor got to the point where she just recited my request for me on her way into the room during regular visits. As it happened however, she was on vacation when I went into labor three weeks early. I ended up with a very frank, satirical, smug surgeon. It didn’t bother me just how dry and tired he clearly was, because I was in “third baby mode.” I was quite certain that I was an old pro at this point and all would be well. Somewhere after the epidural it occurred to me however that I had forgotten to bring up the tubal ligation. I stared up at my c-section team in a panic and blurted out the big news. My first response came from my surgeon, who I later affectionately likened to Larry David. He told me, “well you know this is a Catholic Hospital and they adopt policies which are generally against that procedure.” I was immediately flippant, if the Catholics wanted to frown on me for giving birth to only three kids they could go right ahead. Sorry, but the epidural had set in by that point and I was about as frank as he was after that.

The one-two punch was concluded by the only black female attendant in the room. She blurted out that, “because I was on Medicaid I would not be covered for that procedure.” Now I was certain I must have been on drugs. Thankfully, Larry David checked her and told her I had Aetna and I didn’t have to black out on her real quick before my baby was born.

It was finally settled, not only would my insurance cover it, my regular OB had it written in my chart that I was serious about tying those knots and it was taken care of. It left me wondering though, how is it that birth control is still left in the hands of others in today’s fouth-wave-feminist age? How much voice do we really have in the “control” of our bodies and birthing plans? Particularly when it would be far less painful if our male partners put forth the effort!  I wonder if the Catholics would sneer at that snip as well?

@work mom

In the midst of what will probably always be the most “successful” year of my life, I faced  completely debilitating “defeats.” After recently having been offered two challenging responsibilities at my job, English Department Chair and Founding Director of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Film Program, I fell ill in the first and second trimester of my pregnancy. I was out for a total of five weeks only; however, it was the hardest five weeks of my life. I could not eat, was confined to my couch, I vomited nearly non-stop and lost thirty pounds. My home-I.V. would repeatedly fall out my arm, followed by a visit from a nurse, who would fight to find another vein, and the cycle would repeat ad nauseam.

After having been promised by our school administration that the newly appointed Academic Dean would provide coverage for teachers, the lazy, pompous Dean refused to “roll up his sleeves and get dirty with the rest of the staff.” After a few weeks of my students arriving to my class and sitting there, when they came at all, I was replaced, as an English teacher, by a Georgetown undergraduate, and my chair position was granted to a new hire with no experience. They also hired a male teacher to “co-teach” my Film classes with me for the rest of the year. I was told, on my sick-bed, that due to the “indefinite” nature of my leave, and the fact that I had been relieved of 50% of my teaching duties, I would be reduced to “part-time” staff, with 50% pay. Fortunately for me I was aware of my rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Once I threatened them with that knowledge they sung a different tune about my pay, and informed me that they were giving me a “break” for the rest of the year by allowing me to feel worthless and unappreciated at work, while paying me my regular salary.

When I decided to have my youngest child, my husband and I had a brief and one-sided (self-serving on my part) “conversation.” He was certain that he wanted to have another child, I was willing to compromise on this part, but we had to have the baby immediately because I spent my entire twenties “having babies” and though many would argue that “I didn’t miss a beat,” I silently dealt with some form of professional/academic sacrifice/discrimination with each pregnancy. Most often it manifested in some adult superior refusing to allow me to progress to my full potential because they felt I would be incapable of performing because I was a mom.

I am secretly afraid for all of my many single, childless, professional girlfriends who I am quite certain will one day be the target of discrimination at their jobs when they decide to have children. I am also grateful, particularly after what happened with my youngest child, that I had my children when I did, while I was still in school, first in undergrad and then while pursuing my Ph.D., because if I was knee deep in a tenure track job I am almost certain I would have cause for concern.

By the end of that school year, I had a beautiful baby girl, my Ph.D., a new job as a postdoc at an Ivy League institution (I started filling out job applications after the first threatening conversation) and my sanity. I still miss my students at Duke Ellington dearly and regret that I allowed anyone to throw me “off track.” My pride is also still hurt. Women face unfair discrimination as a result of choosing motherhood all the time. Male teachers (and Ph.D. students) advance, despite having children, completely unscathed.

i know i’m not supposed to talk about this but . . .

it used to be a really hot topic. even without picking up glamour magazines with “sex secrets” and “statistics” women, and in particular i mean my girl’s and I, used to talk about “it.” i’m afraid that because i’m married now (and have been for the last three years) and because i am 30 and because i’m a scholar (and because that means i’m only supposed to write about “Serious” topics), and because i have three kids and the majority of my friends are still single (even though that use to mean that we could talk about it), i may never get this out again . . .

i miss sex. it’s not that i don’t have it anymore but i really do think it’s true what they say about marriage and kids, once you do both, you just don’t do “it” that much anymore. i hate to sound like one of my kids but boooo whoooooo. this is so unlike me.

this won’t be a long one ladies, because somewhere in the rational part of my mind I am well aware that Internet publishing about my personal sex life is probably academic career suicide. However, I really wish I had some answers for how married CocoaMamas get “it” done?

Move Out

It’s amazing what we will do for our children.

In the summer of 2009 it took my husband and I (as well as my kids who came along for wayyyyyyyy tooooo many hot car rides) months to find the “perfect apartment.” We refused to pay over $1500, were determined to have at least a three-bedroom and there was another particular requirement we HAD to fulfill.

We moved into a mansion in Manayunk. It was huge and for as much fun as we had declaring a theatre room and computer lab, we were up to our arms in sweat, dust and sweat trying to make our mansion more than just big. We filled holes (o.k. so maybe my husband filled holes), laid tile, painted, spackled, and painted some more) and now, a mere 11 mos. later, we have moved out.

The “perfect” school that I refused to settle on was a perfect disappointment and we have moved solely to put Mekhi in the number one school in the city. I am subletting a colleagues place in what is arguably the most sought after “hot box” (around the school) this side of the mason dixon.

I have gotten my hopes up before though and until I see for myself, I refuse to believe the hype.

Dear Hot Box,

We meet again. I did not miss your roaches or other creepy crawlers 😦 I also did not miss your frat boys! However, my friend, I received a costly but dynamite education here. I pray you will be equally kind to my son (and I appreciate that it’s free this time).

I pray to you and whatever deity or merciful benefactors that have birthed you that this move is not for nothing.


All Moved Out

The Architecture of Violence

Sharine, just like my father, was our great-grandmother’s child, one of the select few that was raised in the care of the family’s matriarch. My mother would explain, “Sharine has lost anyone who ever really cared about her,” my great-grandmother, my cousin Nancy (a beautiful person who we literally watched disappear as Diabetes ripped one extremity after another from her), and my Aunt Cat, one of the sisters. This is not exactly true however, because I have explicit memories of my cousin Varee, Sharine’s sister, adulterized by the sudden role of surrogate mother while still in her teens. There have been others, family friends, as well who have “taken her in.” Sharine’s biological mother, my cousin Annette, has sufferred from drug addiction for decades.

Yesterday, I met Sharine’s only daughter. Her eyes were closed, her lips were formed in a smile, her hair was “all over her head,” and she was lying on a stretcher in Anderson’s Funeral Sevice in New Brunswick, where she was brought, mysteriously, from an Essex County morgue. Although we know that Sharine’s daughter Dalaysia Marie Rhymer was raped and murdered in her home, and we know that her injuries included broken ribs, a fractured skull and a lacerated liver, and we know that she was taken too soon, we have no idea how she ended up at Anderson’s, like my grandmother and my great-grandmother, who are buried just a few minutes away.

On Seamen Street last night I told my Uncle Benny that my grandmother willed Dalaysia home and he corrected that, “while that was all well and good” we needed to find out who aided in that move on this side of the sky. Sharine, Annette and Sharine’s boyfriend are all currently under investigation by New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services for child abuse. With a family as fractured as her’s/our’s we just do not know the “whole story.” Newark police have arrested Oquan Blake, the boyfriend, and charged him with felony murder, aggravated assault and several counts of aggravated sexual assualt. The last thing Sharine remembers about that day is arriving home to find Oquan dousing seven-month-old Dalaysia in the shower and then swabbing her vagina and anus with Q-Tips, trying to figure out where the blood was coming from.

On Seamen Street you are suppossed to swing back and forth between two houses, one right across the street from the other. The first was my great-grandmother’s and is now one of the sisters. It is a four-story converted multi-family house that in its “heydey” was filled with kin and food and song. The second originally belonged to another one of the sisters and is currently owned by her daughter, a way to keep an eye on “Mother,” I suppose. Sharine and I spent the hour before arriving at Anderson’s in both of these family landmarks.

My one Aunt never pulls any punches. As she put it yesterday, “I know this is not what you want to hear, But! . . . The “But” included every related thing from “you need Jesus” to “you are a Queen.” I learned later that evening that this sister was the fighter growing up, and that she had everybody’s back and that’s why you got to walk on over there across the street. There are so many secrets, the most well guarded one is that my great-grandmother’s house has become so empty and I fear that my Aunt there is so alone. She told Sharine that she has been hanging with all the wrong people and rhetorically asked, “why don’t you ever come visit me?”

Dalaysia, frighteningly, has never met any of this family. She didn’t make it to her first family picnic, and no one, at the last picnic, even knew Sharine was pregnant. We will all see her, for the first time, in a communion dress, in her casket, at the viewing Friday morning.

Two days ago I found Sharine in Newark. When she answered the phone I asked her where she was and if she felt safe there. Once she assured me that she did I told her to stay there because I was coming to see her. When I got to her that night, followed soon thereafter by my cousin, we asked her if there was anything she “wasn’t telling us,” told her that because of the news media, criminal justice and DYFS “attention,” “all this stuff was going to come out anyway.” In hindsight, I doubt that this statement is even true. There is plenty of shit that gets “swept under the rug” in these cases. Sharine, like anyone else, may have been entitled to her secrets.

I asked if her boyfriend was abusive to her, told her that I would not judge her, even told her that I had been involved in an abusive relationship before. What I did not tell her was that my son’s father raped me. That I knew exactly what it was like to be 21, a single parent, in an abusive relationship with a man who drank, and used drugs and “didn’t have a pot to piss in.” I just showed up, pretending to be “family” alone.

Pre-teen Bean

When my niece, who we affectionately call Sydni Bean, was born, I released all the built up anticipation and excitement of being a first-time Auntie by writing on my high-school classroom board, “I’M AN AUNT,” along with all of her vital statistics in perfect bubble-letters. It has been nearly 13 years since then and I am still in awe of her beauty and brilliance. She is perfectly cool, much more like me, than she realizes. She has all of her mother’s intellect, and her father’s bravado, but she gets her unwavering sensitivity from me.

This past Thanksgiving as her father was projecting images of all the kids onto my  livingroom wall he came across a picture that she said she didn’t want shown. She said, “I don’t like that picture, it looks like I have an afro.” So I ask, “like that would be the worst thing in the world?”  And she piped back, “yeah, it would!” I think I would have been able to more effectively articulate the “Black is Beautiful!” discourse that I know I have in me, if I wasn’t hurt personally as I stood there, with my afro, poised to affirm my niece’s beauty. Hurt, not as much by her desire to disassociate herself with the fro, as I was by the smile I also noticed on my husband’s face when she said it. It would have been funny to me too I guess, if I wasn’t so “sensitive.” (That being said I have also had a heart-to-heart with my husband where he admitted he likes my hair “straight-er.”)

My family, like many black families, has some ugly hair politics. I too, am to blame. I have not consistently worn my hair natural and I think it is because I fall in and out of love with my natural hair. I do not love my hair in either state, truthfully, and I’m also just not a hair person, but when I periodically “loved my hair,” it was either in a permed, short, precision cut, or in a perfectly unruly head of natural twists. Go figure?

Recently, my niece has expressed a desire to her mother to wear her hair natural. (She has never had a perm, but by natural she just means curly, not flat-ironed) She also, cut it in a bob. My sister sent out the pictures, and asked the troops (my mom, me, her other aunts, etc.) to be affirming. My mom responded by stating something like, “where is the flat-iron?” 😦 which I now understand she believes was only because she presumed when my sister said a “bob” that she meant a straight-bob. I saw the first pic and said it was cute . . .

though I secretly could not understand why it looked so overproducted and wet. 😦

I saw the second pic, and i FELL IN LOVE . . .

I thought it was not possible for it to be any cutter and immediately responded by sending her other pics of women with fros and was so stinking delighted that i had someone else on the fro team. 🙂 Then i got the pics from a Bar Mitzvah she attended post-poof . . .

and I’m like what happened??????!!!!!!!?????????

I know that being a pre-teen is hard, cause let’s face it, it’s just not our best moment as women. But isn’t it supposed to be easier when we get older? Aren’t we supposed to “know better,” and love ourselves more?

Tanji is a wife and mother of three. She has two boys and one girl. She lives in Philadelphia, her favorite chocolate city. She is an educator and her first “baby” is now a Howard University graduate and a Cocoa Mama.

Record Bearers

Black women are often the family historians. I have learned this especially with the tradition of  taking, receiving and archiving photographs in black families. When I asked my husband this morning if he wanted me to track his genealogy as well, he replied, “I am not really one for history.” I never thought I was either. My penchant for “History” usually dates back to 1979, both the year of my birth and the birth of commercial hip-hop (though I am a “soul” child at heart). However, this morning I have been doing some digging, and . . . well, I may just fill out my census form after all.

On ancestry.com I found my great, great, great-grandmother, Pleasant McFatter. She was, as of the 1900 Census, a 62-year-old resident of Spring Hill Township, NC. She had 12 children, including my great, great-grandmother, Mary McFatter, who was herself a single-parent of 6. Pleasant was a washwoman and Mary a day-laborer (Though they had both been out of work for 2-3 of the last six months.) Neither woman could read nor write. The widowed Pleasant rented her home, where her daughter and four grandchildren resided, including Henry, my great-grandfather.

I have never, until today, known this history, or any history of my paternal side, back any further then my great-grandfather’s generation, and even his name was unknown to me. My great-grandmother Lou, who my father knew well, was Henry’s wife. Once she told my father that she fled from North Carolina to New York after having murdered my great-grandfather because he was abusive to her. I did find Henry McFatter’s death record and he died at the curiously young age of 29, though no record of the cause of death was noted.

Part “fact” and part “legend” these histories become the makeup of who we are, though they are often so distant and silenced in the present . . .

Tanji is a wife and mother of three. She has two boys and one girl. She lives in Philadelphia, her favorite chocolate city. She is an educator and her first “baby” is now a Howard University graduate and a Cocoa Mama.