My Son, the Game Changer

So much of who I am has been shaped by my kids, but the most profound changes I have made have been the result of my son’s presence in my life. Long before I even laid eyes on him, he began changing my soul’s trajectory, and as a result, my attitude is different, my outlook is different, the way I love others is different, and the way I love myself is different.

I suppose I can start this off at the space and time at which I found out I was expecting. Though I didn’t know he was a “he” yet, I viewed his message of incoming (that’s my made up term for positive pregnancy test) as a nod from God that we were doing right. My husband and I had been working through incredibly rough and painful obstacles in an effort to fight for our marriage. Though I won’t say this was the first time we’d done so, I will term it as the most real time. I had faith and high hopes, but I also had uncertainty. When we conceived quickly after reconciling, I took it as a sign that I was exactly where I needed to be – with him – and our relationship only seemed to flourish just as our new baby did.

But I also had to wrestle with some other, more personal issues upon conception. I had to start making some serious, more long-term decisions about just exactly what my life would be moving forward. I’ve referenced my Life Reset plenty of times on this blog, and that’s because it truly was one of the most defining moments of my thirties thus far. Like an artist in her own gallery, I took every painting down and scrutinized it to decide if it really represented my work. In this case, the gallery was a metaphor for my life, and the art was representation of the stuff my life was made of – social media accounts, a few close friends and family, an unnecessarily large circle of simple acquaintances that I was putting more effort into maintaining than I needed to, a foggy sense of self, and a disappointing relationship with anxiety. By the time I finished in my metaphorical gallery, it had almost no art left on the walls, representative of all the relationships I stopped making time for, the commitments I walked away from, the fluffy stuff in my life that I had been convinced I needed to care about that really didn’t matter at all – I threw it all in a dumpster. With more space on the walls of my life, I had a chance to start reinventing myself as an artist, and indeed, as a woman.

My aspirations are largely visionary; I cannot achieve something unless I am able to picture myself in the role realistically. As a woman in her early 30s expecting her second child, I had ideas for what I wanted to be, but I was not her. Hell, I’m STILL not her. I probably never will fully realize “dream wife and mom Antoinette,” but where I was before was really far off from what I am striving for, and I wanted to be closer. I wanted to resemble her more. For starters, I wanted to be stronger. I had claimed to be strong for quite some time now and it wasn’t an untrue statement. However, I knew I could do more. And do more I did as I sank into a valley of new medical impediments I had never faced before. Coupled with the other “fun” hoops pregnancy can throw you through, I was pretty much either in pain or nauseous or both from the moment I opened my eyes each morning, until I closed them again from exhaustion that evening. This happened consistently for the entirety of the pregnancy. Every day in pain. Every day sick. Sometimes both in the same day. I’d been sick before, but that was as a child when someone could take care of me. This time was different – this time there was no crutch or safe place to sit until I felt better. Life had to continue and I was still mom to a growing, walking, talking child while incubating another one. I was still a lead at work, and there were still projects to be done. I was still Antoinette, therefore had responsibilities that will not ever pause just because I have a sick day. I had to deal. That can take a mental toll after a while.

Outside of my physical ailments, I was eager, as well as forced, to confront my mental ailment of anxiety. I want to believe that I would’ve been proactive about making headway on this regardless of being pregnant or not, but I remember feeling on multiple occasions during my first trimester that I didn’t want to be home to a beautiful, growing baby and also house crippling thoughts in my brain. It seemed toxic. I didn’t want to be a slave to anxiety anymore – I was ready to gain the upper hand on it once and for all. I wanted my children to have a strong mom, in body, mind, and spirit. So I sought counseling and began studying meditation and hypnosis as a means for using my own soul’s power to meet the nastiness of my anxiety and reduce it to dust. It was not easy at first, but with practice, I got better.

I also began looking at my relationships with people critically, as relationships, boundaries, and trust have all been sources and triggers for my anxiety a lot in the past. I decided to ditch the relationships that I felt weren’t necessary anymore. It’s okay to have seasonal friends – some people are sent to us at just the right time to help us with what we’re going through, but not all of them are meant to stick around forever. I’ve learned this and accepted it, and through that have experienced healing from the wounds I had from past relationships broke up before I was ready or wanted them to. Trimming the landscape on my friendship front also meant I would no longer be letting anybody in who truly wasn’t worthy, thus protecting my family more. So many people who have claimed to value me and my friendship have in fact used my friendship and then very easily discarded me afterward. The difference now though is that 1) I no longer say a sentence like that sadly. I say it honestly and peacefully. 2) I am able to say that sentence peacefully because I am no longer tied to the validation of having a certain number of friends. Quantity is irrelevant, and while friends are nice to have, they should never shape who you are entirely.  3) While I do have friends and care for my family and those in my inner circle, my perspective now places much less weight on issues like those, favoring my faith and spirituality, my marriage, my children, and my personal development much, much more. Journeying to this peaceful place internally wasn’t easy either, but it was important that I reach this place before my son arrived so that I could teach him (and his sister, too) how to find it.

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Six days old

I dove deeper into my faith in order to become a more gracious, patient, focused, and honest person. The result has been better performance at work, a better relationship with my work, and a better regard for my work. In my personal life, my relationships with the people who mattered to me were given the much-needed TLC I was neglecting to give because I was so caught up in my digital self that I wasn’t giving much of my real self. I had to find my real self, dust her off, and start getting to know her again. I do not feel that I was walking around a liar – but I was much more a product of social engineering than I ever realized, and that wasn’t me.

(I’ll cover that topic in a different blog later)

It was important that I get clear on my own identity because that essence of me is being passed on to my children, and I want to do it justice. As a black girl with dark skin, I had to reacquaint myself with just exactly what makes me a unique person with value, outside of what the grand narrative may tell. I had to do this so that my own daughter will recognize the same of herself and love herself. I had to do this so that I’d be in a position to prepare both of my children, but especially my son, for the chaos that might follow them because of their skin tone. Racism isn’t going away, and when my babies come to me devastated because they’ve been greeted by it, I had to know how to respond. I had to be able to show them how to shine even in the face of negativity, which the world has in droves. That negativity doesn’t have to stop them, though. It’s only stopped me when I have allowed it to. I have seen many triumphs despite what others may have been hoping, plotting, or wickedly scheming up for me, and I want to be the kind of mom who gets her babies prepared for that. I knew I wanted to raise a smart, confident, self-loving black girl and an intelligent, savvy, self-loving black boy. I wanted them both to have the internal strength to topple mountains. But I knew couldn’t make them strong without being strong myself. It wouldn’t have been fair for me to expect them to be resilient against race-based criticism if I was not the same. I was almost there before, but I’m much closer now.

Becoming a mom to my son has forced me to grow stronger. Giving birth to him the way that I did was a symbolic crossing over for me from what I was to what I am now, and what better method of crossover than to have to muster mental and physical strength in order to triumph in a place where I had once failed? Even after the birth was over, I’ve successfully kept postpartum depression at bay, also with a med-free approach, which was another important personal choice I made for myself. Overall, I’m tackling much more and succeeding in the process and these are accomplishments that make the 2013 version of myself look quite watered down compared to who I’ve been in 2017. Maybe my son didn’t “make” me stronger, but he certainly prompted me to become so. He was my lighthouse in the midst of the perfect, dark storm. He IS my reason for not only wanting, but having to do better. He has forever altered the way I see and play the game (of life), and I am so grateful he is here.

Have the 1990s Caught Up with Us?

My country is in turmoil. We’ve lost our way somehow, reversing the very precedents that those before us worked tirelessly to establish, diminishing our souls by desensitizing our minds to death and our hearts to injustice. Mistrust abounds, hatred abounds, fear abounds. I didn’t picture it becoming this way back in 2006 after setting my sights on conquering the world with my newly earned bachelor’s degree. I wonder what led us here. I think back on my lifetime and search for evidence that gives way to the caricature of blacks that exists today. There’s one period of time that sticks out: the 1990s. Why? It was the only other time I could recall in my 32 years of life where this same caricature was brandished on movie screens and dealt with on daytime television shows marketed to teens.

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I enjoyed the movie Juice a lot for Shakur’s presence and the overall message. I wonder if now Juice is still shaping culture due to its themes and imagery. 

The 1990s saw black arts embrace things like ‘hood culture, violence, organized crime, and a mutual, angry mentality among blacks through music and film. I can remember films like Boyz N Tha Hood and Juice helping to fuel a stereotype that black men are notoriously more violent than males of other races. Much of the music and cinema created by or for black women showed black women doing it all – taking care of the home, the children, working, and often being left at a disadvantage at the hands of a black man who either disrespected their relationship by cheating or abusing her, or men who just wouldn’t keep their word. Independence and standing alone was the ideology that permeated black female culture in the 1990s. I can remember cranking the radio up when songs like “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing,” and “None of Your Business” by Salt-n-Pepa or “Creep,” came on the radio, and as a young black girl, celebrated that I was kind of being represented by anthems preaching about how black women are strong and powerful, women can sleep around if men can, and if you cheat on me, I will just go cheat on you and be happier because I’m sexy and irresistible.

Simultaneously, a third wave of feminism was sweeping through the United States in the 1990s, brandishing messages of sexual liberation for women, acknowledging non-white races of women, and, most significantly to me: challenging the traditional gender roles we had grown to accept in this country. You combine all these ingredients and shake them up in a bottle and the result of the 1990s on young black women, is that we came away from the decade believing we’d have to be our own rock and salvation, that black men had somehow abandoned us for our white counterparts, so we better just handle things on our own, and angst at the intangible – we couldn’t quite pinpoint why we were mad, but we were mad. Maybe it was that popular culture was scant on positive representations of us. Standards of beauty seemingly favored everything opposite of what we were. We knew we were getting paid less and being offered less and not treasured for our true value but rather for the caricature that had been drawn of us that each of us somehow had to pander to.

I wonder, though, if perhaps we’ve been deceived. Perhaps we were told we were ugly so that our pride wouldn’t get the best of us someday. Maybe we were pumped imagery of black families missing fathers so that we wouldn’t seek mates in black men, hence contributing to the stereotype black men were fighting that they don’t appreciate black women. Perhaps black women were revved up to be angry so that they – so that WE – could further socially alienate ourselves.

Regardless of the reasons behind what was 1990s black culture, one thing is apparent to me: the 1990s have caught up to us. The images we used to see in movies and in music videos have leapt out of the screen and serve as justification of our deaths in the name of self-defense. Blacks across the country are fed up – as they should be – but fed up doesn’t always look good on us. Police brutality is inexcusable, but we cannot fuel the brutality by acting in the same aggressive ways actors did on the big screen two decades ago. Black women believe black men are the enemy, but this isn’t true and black men need us right now. This isn’t a movie, or a pilot, or a hot single to drop on radio – this is real life where people are being killed for acting or being caught in ways of the 1990s.

I am not the first to point to this theory of the lasting effects of 90s culture on various races. However, my thoughts were directed in this manner after watching footage of Korryn Gaines’ traffic stop and subsequent standoff with the police at her home. You can watch for yourself: https://youtu.be/llnoIsAk66g

Her demeanor reminded me of a main character from Set it Off – short fuse, angry – but did she have a reason to be? If you choose to drive a vehicle without a plate, don’t you make yourself a target for being pulled over? Like I said, black people are fed up, but this isn’t the way to exercise that frustration. I do not find her heroic. I do not praise her decision to endanger her children over a power struggle with the police. I do not understand what led her to act this way. Her son has consumed this ideology with his mom and has now been damaged by having to witness his mother’s killing in his home (after a standoff with the police), suffering a wounded arm (he was shot, but not killed), and having to straighten out in his own mind at some point just exactly who the police are and what his place is in society.

But this is my country as of late. Police act on fear and brutalize people of color, no convictions are reported, and blacks across the nation from every class NOT JUST “THOSE IN THE GHETTOS” are slowly losing their minds on how to cope. Meanwhile, black people are fearful of the police and acting out because of it, our children are receiving mixed messages on what it means to be free in the land of the free, and mainstream media mixes and remixes headlines, commercials, and television show plotlines to keep the confusion going.

Dr. King would surely grimace at seeing us this way. And I don’t know what else to do besides write about it, comment on it, try to lend my voice to the productive, and do my best to live the values I speak on, but even that isn’t enough.

 

Splitting Hairs

About a month ago, a friend of mine shared a commercial by Dove’s hair care line that professed a message to all curly haired girls and women that they should proudly and happily embrace their curls. The video cites statistics that girls are seven times more likely to like their curly hair if those around them do, and that only four out of ten girls think their hair is beautiful. In the video, moms and other women don curly hairstyles and congregate with lots of curly haired young girls to celebrate that curly hair is beautiful and that they all love it. It’s a beautiful and uplifting message, and I’m glad that my daughter will be raised during a time when more women are preaching a message of loving themselves, especially their hair, in its natural state. I also cry every time I see that video, but not tears of joy…

During the time when I grew up, which was mostly during the 1990s and early 2000s, straight hair was all the rage. Women and girls spent ample time processing and flat ironing their hair to achieve the smooth, straight look. For black women in particular, the message about hair was that it should be tame and sleek, and straightening (“perming”), flat ironing, hot combing, or “weaving” were the popular methods for achieving this. My mom straightened her hair. She also straightened my hair at my request. Most black girls at my school had straight hair in elementary, middle, and high school.

It wasn’t until I entered college in 2002 that I started thinking about my hair’s potential outside of straightness. By this time, my mom had ditched straight styles and was rocking a full and healthy Afro, all while maintaining an upper management job and attending college. I did the “chop” and cut my straight hair off in an effort to stop chemically processing and wear my hair naturally. I don’t have many photos from that time, but here’s one:

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The day I initiated into Alpha Xi Delta. Photo cred goes to my big sis for this blast from the past.

The transition didn’t go well for me for a variety of reasons, most of which pointed back to the fact that I didn’t know how to properly care for my hair in its natural state. I also didn’t have the patience to really nurture my hair into something beautiful, so that style only lasted for about a year and I returned to my straightening (and frying) ways.

Six years later, fed up with expensive hair care treatments and routine visits to the salon, I walked into a wig shop and made a few purchases. For everyday trips to work and such I would wear a human hair wig. For special occasions I changed it up. I rocked wigs for almost three years straight, and all the while, my own “unfooled around with” hair grew back with a thick vengeance under my wig cap.

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Everyone loved my hair from our engagement pictures. Little. Did they. Know.

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From one of my last modeling gigs.

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I wore a partial weave on my wedding day.

One day after showering I looked in the mirror at my very curly, very thick hair and decided I would nail down a good hair stylist to help me return to my own hair again. I wasn’t sure how the return would look, whether natural curly or straight, but given my previous hair experiences I knew I wanted to make the decision with some guidance from a professional.

It was at this time that I met Amber, hair goddess and stylist extraordinaire, and she and I had an important conversation. I told her I was thinking of going natural and that I wanted some recommendations for upkeep. She applauded my decision and detailed the regimens for braiding, wrapping, and moisturizing in addition to scalp care and split end maintenance. All of these things are applicable to other hair textures too, but styling natural African American hair requires great care and patience. My face must’ve been talking for me in that moment, because Amber asked me if going natural was what I really wanted. I told her no. “Your blackness isn’t defined by you having natural hair,” she said to me. I sat in her chair and she gave me back the same straight hairstyle I was accustomed to, and she continued to care for my hair for the next four years until I moved from San Diego to Gainesville in August 2014.

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Mother’s Day 2010. That’s my mom’s Afro, in all its natural glory. 🙂

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Mother’s Day 2014. Three generations, three different hair textures.

Amber gave me permission to stick with what I liked and felt comfortable with, and I remained pretty okay in that until Dove debuted their commercial. My biracial daughter has springy curls, much like my biracial cousins do. Caring for her hair isn’t too hard for me since I’m somewhat familiar with it from experience and watching my aunt style my cousin Jade’s hair.

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Reppin’ the Giants (WINNING!). Baby Kennedy looks a lot like she did as a baby, complete with similar hair texture.

But in straightening my own hair, am I communicating a message of self-hate to my daughter? I love Kennedy’s hair. I think it’s lustrous and beautiful, and I want her to be proud of it. I want little girls everywhere with curls of all texture to be happy with their hair. I wish I could have been told a message like this when I was a child too, because maybe then I wouldn’t have had to grow up stressing over whether my hair looked right, and subjecting my image to such intense scrutiny because of what was growing on top of my head. Perhaps if a message like this had been popular in the 1990s, I’d have a thick coif of natural hair and not have to contemplate this problem. When I was younger, I viewed my natural hair as a curse. I don’t see it that way anymore. I chose the style I wear because it’s what’s easiest for me. The reason why hair is such a big deal for girls and women is because it’s such a defining feature of who we are. I choose to stick with something familiar when it comes to this feature for myself. I don’t hate my natural hair. I don’t hate my race. But I feel like that’s what Dove is communicating about my choice to straighten. I’m also not willing to go through another big chop and sport a near buzz cut all for the purpose of trying to meet a consistency that others say I should have.

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Curly coifed, smoothie drinkin’, toddler goodness. 🙂

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We’re smiling because we like cookies. And selfies.

So, in short, the Dove commercial makes me cry because it makes me feel like I’m a bad mother for straightening my curls but wanting my daughter to wear hers, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about in my quest to convince myself that I’m doing okay as a mother.

Happy New Year! Black-eyed peas anyone?

With ringing in 2015 in the same city as my mom, I got to indulge in a New Year’s Day tradition: black eyed peas for dinner.

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is said to bring happiness and prosperity for the coming year. My mother has prepared black-eyed peas every January 1st for as long as I can remember, but I thought I’d do some research on the history of the tradition and share the details here.

The superstition of eating black-eyed peas is typically associated with the south, and African Americans, but the tradition also has Jewish origins as black-eyed peas are often included as part of the spread for Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish Talmud didn’t originally include black-eyed peas in the list of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, but a mistake in translation resulted in their inclusion for the holiday among Sephardic Jews.

Black-eyed peas are typically prepared by simmering, and flavored with onions, garlic, leeks, ham hock or bacon. Some recipes include spicy profiles like cayenne and chili powder, and others remain savory with salt and cumin.

I can’t publish the recipe my mom uses for her black-eyed peas, as it’s a family secret, but here’s a picture of what my bowl looked like:

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Black-eyed peas over rice. Mama’s recipe. 🙂

As for why black-eyed peas are valued as a “lucky” food, there are a few reasons. Black-eyed peas plump up in size as they’re cooked, and when planted, black-eyed peas sprout easily in a garden. These two characteristics have been symbolically tied to growth, wealth, prosperity, and fertility, earning black-eyed peas a reputation for bringing good fortune to those who eat them. Outside of superstition, black-eyed peas do benefit the consumer through supercharging one’s diet with protein and fiber. They are low in fat and calories on their own, and simple simmering and seasoning will help them stay that way. If you’ve never tried them, or if they just don’t make their way to your plate very often, perhaps you should give black-eyed peas a try in 2015! I definitely scarfed down a bowl today to boost my chances of 2015 being a prosperous year. 🙂