Most of our foremothers came as independent workers in systems of slavery and indentureship, and later on as free labour. Except for white and creole plantation elites and women whose lives were shaped by an early 20th century ideal of the woman as housewife, our history is not one of being dependent wives. Caribbean women have always worked.
Even thinking of my own mother who, since I was three, raised two children on her own, I look back now on the fact that she always worked. I wonder how she did it. An ambitious person, my mother worked in professions where she exercised a great deal of leadership. She moved countries to take up a new post, travelled across the region frequently as part of her job, and put in very long hours. Added to all of that, she always looked spectacular as she left the house, a trail of perfume following her impeccably matched figure.
In the midst of that, I hardly remember thinking as a child that she didn’t have time for me. Far from it, I remember her driving us to Princes Town to see my great grandmother, I remember her watching the plays I came up with as a child, I remember her sewing a huge doll for me one Christmas, and spending nights and weekends watching movies with me. I’m more aware of the negotiations on both fronts—work and family—that she was constantly managing. I wonder now how she coped, why she made some of the choices she did, what she thinks as she looks back now.
I think more about working mothers now that I am one. Here I am today, probably thinking about dilemmas that women might also have been thinking about 100 or 200 years ago or even just in my mother’s generation. I think about the time I spend at work and how to fulfil my ambitions. I am loathe to sacrifice time I should spend with Ziya, knowing it’s an important, precious and fleeting labour of love that is necessary to build her sense of self and our relationship.
I lie in bed sometimes wondering if we will be able to give her the best of everything she needs and make ends meet. I imagine myself in the future, hope I will make the right choices and wonder what will influence the decisions I end up making. I plan and plan whom I would like her to be, knowing that I both have to do my best and learn to let go.
Across generations, we rework the legacy of those who came on ships. I never leave the house looking as glamorous as my mother did, but I think I will also have learned from some of her successes and mistakes.
I wonder what Ziya will learn from me and how she will continue this story 37 years from today when she is a working woman, and possibly mother, herself. I think of how the story of Caribbean women who work and mother continues to be repeated and, when our visions become hard-won realities, potentially rewritten.