Natural Blonde

for Husna and Karim

 

 

My boy is blonde.  He is two.  Always singing.  Fascinated by wheels.  Mischievous.  Wants a cat.  Hides by scrunching up both eyes tight.  Falls asleep with a train in each hand.  Loves the feel of sand on his toes and the squidge of butter.  But firstly, before any of that.  First and foremost, he is blonde.  

 

And I am not.

 

I grew up in the eighties, in a town in the north of England where “ethnic” was used as a one-size-fits-all noun.  The story goes that my parents arranged their first date over a shift in surgery: nurse, pass the scalpel, Tuesday at seven?   A date for which my dad was three hours late, since in Africa seven o’clock meant ten maybe eleven and he was still young and had all the time in the world.  I like to think it must’ve been a real heart.stopping.kapow!boom! love that tethers someone to a local lass and a hostile place for almost half a century.  But that would just be convenient storytelling.  There was more to their life than that.  

 

When our childhood days were flecked with casual racism, my family called it a sign of the times and found solace in each other. The blackest humour that takes us to the lightest of places.  We laughed at the irony of tanning salons in British National Party heartlands.  Perfected our comebacks, always after the event.  Giggled when our mum recounted her tale of how she’d been told to expect my sister’s skin tone to be “like coffee” but how was she to know what kind of coffee that meant… latte, a smooth mocha, straight up Nescafe? It didn’t matter that her story became exaggerated with each telling, not least because we know that lattes didn’t reach our hinterland until 2002. The transformation – for my parents, for me and my siblings – came in the simple act of weaving our own familial folklore, speaking about race and difference and celebrating the truth that skin colour played a central role in our lives.  In a tapestry whose soundtrack included insults spat by strangers, and monkey impressions in the school playground, our parents’ gentle legends were eternally welcome.

 

My skin grew thick. I moved to the big smoke, worked with asylum seekers, tried to learn Arabic and wrote my heart out.  

 

And then, years later, when I thought I had figured out my place in the world, I had a son and my son was blonde.  Three quarters British and one quarter North African, with pale eyes and the kind of platinum blonde curls that could double for Marilyn.  

 

Two years since we brought our baby home from the hospital, people still ask when his hair will darken and when his eyes will turn brown.  I’ve been asked if I’m sure he’s mine and told that if I was the dad there’d be demands for a paternity test.  Told by smiling strangers – and friends who should know better – that you wouldn’t think he had anything to do with me.  

 

Our physical presence requires a leap of the imagination that most people manage no problem.  Occasionally, though, I meet someone who so struggles to navigate the concept of different skin tones that they seem to halt, mid-jump and do a kind of floundering Wile E Coyote air dance while their brain tries to catch up.

 

Since the day my son was born, I’ve had to defend us.  Explain us.  Sometimes it feels like I’m written out of the equation.  When my partner introduces his son to a stranger or an acquaintance I’ve never met, and I show up later, I can see the cogs turning and I wait for the words.  “But… he’s so fair.”  Although I’m standing there next to my partner holding our baby, politely making small talk, I feel like they’re still waiting for the pretty white chick they’d expected to be mama.  Sometimes I feel like the fucking nanny.  And I feel the judgement on behalf of my partner – huh, did you know his girlfriend was black?

 

I see the same cogs that clank when people ask, “But where are you from originally?”  The same primitive neurological mechanism that we once watched implode as kids.  We were sitting on a packed train to London, when an eldery woman with a poodle on her lap applauded my mother for adopting “those poor brown babies”.  My brother almost snorted his chips out of his nose and we found somewhere else to sit.

 

These days, I find myself speaking the words that my mum spoke then, though more gently, still tentative, without her inimitable wryness or years of practice: “I distinctly remember giving birth.”  And I skulk away, my lifelong intruder disorder rearing its head again as I become acutely aware of being the only non-white person in the room, gently reminded that, to certain people, my son and I are a bit of a curveball.  I’ve considered bleaching my hair just  to mess things up a little.

 

I wish people would be direct.  I would love to have a conversation about the part of the Nile where my dad used to play and how my mum looked like Agnetha Fältskog from Abba, when she was my age.  I try to open dialogue, pull out my now-weary aren’t genes amazing line and look, no, look closer, past the skin colour, don’t you see all the similarities between his face and mine?  I am constantly explaining my relationship to my son in a way that my fair-skinned partner will never have to.

 

Last month, for the first time in years, my beautiful, gentle sister was called “Paki” by a teenage boy.  She was on her lunch break.  Leafy suburbs, birds in trees, unguarded.  I was proud of her for confronting the kid and we dissected the event over and over that evening, like in the old days: laughing first at the geographical innacuracy; troubled by his use of that archaic insult, which shouldn’t even be in a 15 year old’s vocabulary; alarmed and certain that the act was emboldened by the systematic normalisation of xenophobia during the Brexit campaign.

 

So why do I let it get under my skin?

 

Because I spent my formative years justifying the right to define my own identity.  Forcing people to recognise that I was not “black”, no matter how many times I was told to tick that box.  That mixed race isn’t “half-white” or “half-black”.  That there’s a reason why my face reddened in class reading the poem ‘Half-Caste’ at the age of twelve.  That mixed race doesn’t mean a dilution of anything.

 

When they say he’s so blonde, it’s in relation to me, the unspoken half of that thought being “but you’re so dark“, and suddenly it’s all about halves again.  It proves to me what I’ve spent my city-dwelling, head in books, small circle of trusted friends life denying – that people do see colour.  They see me as “black”.  Or as “Asian”.  Or as “foreign”.  And in that act of convenient categorisation they erase my family tree. They erase my courageous mum and my beautiful dad, the town I grew up in, what I do in my spare time, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear – and replace them with something more befitting a woman of my colour.  A longer hem-line, perhaps.  Spicy food.  An extended family.  Religion.  Otherness.

 

It strikes at the naturalness of my son, goes beyond curiosity.

And it negates the insults I’ve taken and transformed into kindness, the empathy I’ve spent years cultivating, everything I want to teach my son about being strong in a world that can catch you off guard as you stretch your legs on your lunch break.

 

It’s an extra dimension to the kaleidoscopic shift that comes with all motherhood, where the patterns and shapes of things that used to be second nature seem to reassemble themselves into new daily unrecognisable challenges.  A process that has rattled me to my core and forced me to sharpen my focus and blur out the rest, so that I’m ready to engage with the questions his childhood will bring.  My own story has equipped me for his.

 

I can’t wait for the day when our little boy has enough sass and can talk/ write/ sing through their ignorance.  Shed their skin and make it his own.  

 

And so we gave him an Arabic middle name and we’ll teach him why it matters and that one great grandad rode a horse across the Sahara and another built submarines and that one loved baklava and the other loved battenberg and both were kind and mischievous and always singing and that only one of them was blonde.

 

Find more of H.A’s writing at www.everyday.com/blog

 

Where the voice of the wind calls our wandering feet,

Through echoing forest and echoing street,

With lutes in our hands ever-singing we roam,

All men are our kindred, the world is our home.

Our lays are of cities whose lustre is shed,

The laughter and beauty of women long dead;

The sword of old battles, the crown of old kings,

And happy and simple and sorrowful things.

What hope shall we gather, what dreams shall we sow?

Where the wind calls our wandering footsteps we go.

No love bids us tarry, no joy bids us wait:

The voice of the wind is the voice of our fate.

Unresolved Resolutions

I am writing this bit while in a good mood, mostly because there is some lightbulb in the back of my mind that has popped back on just in time to gift me with an easy, hopeful day. Perhaps it was the three hour nap I took yesterday combined with an extra hour of sleeping in this morning (achieved via Curious George’s Christmas Special played in bed for two-year-old Elsa). To set the scene, (does anyone care about this or do I just read kinfolk too seriously?) there is pumpkin raspberry bread cooling on our teeny kitchen counter, rain falling outside in the backyard jungle, and Elsa and I are wearing matching grey sweaters. To qualify the scene: bread is from Trader Joe’s mix, there is definitely dog poop in said jungle, sweaters are generic H&M sweatshop, not knit by me. My going-on-six-months baby belly is just starting to get in the way of any chance I can sit comfortably, so I’m taking the time now to think about the past year before I don’t think about anything other than sleep ever again.
    I recently heard a park-mom, a very nice and intelligent one, say that she still needed to lose “about two-hundred pounds” after the birth of her now two-year old twins. Five would probably be more realistic, but I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions, being more of a lower-case new year celebration type. Autumn always feels more like the beginning of a new year to me than January does, and October tends to be my pensive, life-examining month. This being said, I make many little pacts between myself and I- or, when I’m feeling particularly changeable myself and my husband – throughout the year, pursuing or discarding changes in my habits and mind as the time flows. Many are neither realistic nor resolvable, but they nonetheless float through my mind and sometimes my conversations as though accomplishing these goals will bring peace to my family and the world. The more worthy ones might well help, others are probably less valuable. My prayer is that the worthy bits are what stick around through the next year. Here is a partial list – in no chronological order- from 2016.
Be less racist
Speak more gently
Be more empathetic towards people who do not live out their family relationships exactly like you do yours. (I.e. be less judgemental of husband’s family)
Never again watch TV during Elsa’s naps
Never let Elsa watch TV again
Go back in time and redo all the times you let Elsa watch TV.
Read more
      7a)   Sub-resolution: go to library more
      8) Sew all of Elsa’s clothes yourself
      9) Get rid of more plastic, go without or replace with natural fibers/ glass.
     10)  Meal plan regularly
     11) Find way to combine making lots of money with barely working so you can still be stay at home mom.
     12) Give up cow dairy
     13) Give up wheat
     14) Find motivation to make resolution to give up sugar
     15) Write and submit at least one essay per month- this will maintain writerly motivation and potentially result in resolving #11
     16) Let things go
     17) Be nicer to my mom
     18) Be nicer to my husband’s mom
     19) Get over fear of the phrase “avocado bread” so you can actually make homemade avocado bread.
      19 a) sub-resolution: post picture of avocado bread on Instagram. Feel good about self.
      19) b) sub-resolution: make Instagram account more aesthetically trendy with similar posts to the avocado bread, potentially resolving #11.
      20) Be more financially organized
      21) Spend less money
      22) Waste less time worrying about what other people are thinking about you.
     23) Start an etsy shop
     24) Remember to regularly take enormous doses of cod liver oil.
     25) Love one another.

Tween Parenting : Letting Them Tell Their Own Story

I’ve been a blogger now for almost ten years. Scary. I started when my eldest was two and now she is approaching thirteen, her sister close behind headed to eleven. When the girls were little, blogging was an avenue of creative exploration and written release. Motherhood was not an easy start with a colicky baby and nineteen months later another baby. I was suffocating under the weight of raising two under two. Blogging was my release, my escape, my respite from diapers and domesticity. In the beginning, I wrote specifically about motherhood but began to branch out into wider subjects. Motherhood became a side note to my writing. It informed it and it altered it sometimes, but I found myself outside of motherhood in the words of my blog. I shared my struggles not only as a mother, but as a human. One day when I slogging through potty training, I posted a picture of my daughter on the potty singing. I never actually posted it because something inside my body understood something I was slow to grasp. Did I have the right to post this picture of her? Yes, I was her mother but would she really want this picture out there in the world when she was eleven or thirty? Probably not. In that moment, it made me think about the difference of me growing up without social media and my kids who know exactly how to smile or pose for a picture because pictures are the way we document things. Listen, I’m not on any kind of high horse here. I post pictures of my kids all the time, however, I’ve learned to ask them before doing so. It is not my job to tell their stories, it is their job.

When my eldest daughter graduated elementary school, her gift was a phone. The first thing she asked for was Instagram. This daughter of mine has big dreams of being a photographer and like myself, gets lost in the magic of photos. I agreed. I quickly realized I handed over the power, pleasure, and pain of social media. My younger daughter, quickly asked for Instagram as well. It was not longer okay for me to put them out to the world, as they were telling their own story. When one of  my daughter’s painting was displayed at City Hall, it was not my job to celebrate that, as much as I wanted to, because she did not want that out there. She wasn’t embarrassed by any means, but just didn’t understand why everyone needed to know that. Rather than taking a picture of one painting, she decided to create a second Instagram account, dedicated solely to her art.

I’m not going to lie, this transition, like all of these tween transitions, is hard.  Letting go of control, whether something small or big, is difficult. Handing that control over to tweens is even harder. I’m always riding on blind faith and hope in the unseen. What is harder though, is to deny them the right to tell their own story. This stage of motherhood is about give and take. I’m giving them the opportunity to explore, fail, and succeed and they are taking it. They are not only taking it, but they are telling the world who they are and I could not be more proud of the intelligent, compassionate, driven, and creative souls they’ve become. The more I give, the more they show me that they can take whatever comes their way. Giving them independence and autonomy is a loud message that I trust them completely. I’m a firm believer if I let them test out their wings now, they’ll be ready to fly when the time comes.

Through Winter

sunday nights and you lock yourself in your bathroom. the bathroom that is half painted from it’s renovation months ago that you swear one of you will get around to one day. you lock the door and light two tea candles and turn the water temperature way up. not the luke warm water when your nine month old is splashing in the tub with you. her name means “from the woods” but it should be from the water because of the way she easily took to the tub. from the start in her baby tub you filled at the kitchen sink, she slid into the water and her body relaxed effortlessly.

the water is hot. burning almost. and the lights are off. the winters moon shining outside on the snow that has fallen. every school aged child wishing for the first snow day of the winter. and you get in the tub and your shoulders fall and the steam is rising off your legs and you notice you still haven’t painted your toenails. chipped paint the past two months.

in the water and you picture all of the germs washing off of your body. the snot. the croupy cough. the hot breath sticky with fever. the viruses that encompass your being because they need you. just the way you needed your parents the other night when your son woke up and couldn’t catch his breath from his coughing and your husband was night fishing, so you called your mom. you still need your mom. just like they need you. when your daughter tries to nurse but her nose is completely blocked and she falls asleep on you sitting up and you try not to move, even though your neck is cramping and you swear you won’t be able to function the next day because once again, no sleep, but you’ll do anything for her to get some sleep of her own.

four years of marriage and two babies later and it seems the lowest times and the most trying times of our relationship is when there is a prescription waiting to be picked up at the pharmacy. “who is going to pick up the prescription”. and the lysol wipes. and more vitamin c. and some kind of magic oil blend to diffuse through our little house so these little people can breathe through their noses.

winter- and gray and everyone says “it’s that time of year” and we’re exhausted and yet still full of love. this is the truest feeling, the realest of them all. the times of motherhood that aren’t discussed. the sitting on the couch with your husband and a sleeping baby on your lap and you look at him and say “I miss you” even when he is right there.

and after the four year old is asleep. and finally the baby is propped up in her crib. the two of you crawl under the covers and he curls against you and wraps his arms around you and your ankle presses against his calf and for a solid two hours you sleep soundly. just as you had before all those nights just the two of you. you still need him.  and he needs you too.  and the four of you will get through winter.