Being a Black Stay at Home Mum

My mother delivered her best sermons from the helm of her blue Nissan Micra. Her audience, captive physically if not emotionally, was unchallenging. Usually I was weary from a day negotiating playground politics; often I was preoccupied with oddly, philosophical anxieties, such as what if everything in the world were a figment of my imagination? Anyway, I knew the theme and had heard many other arrangements of the song – the vastness of my untapped potential; horror stories of immense failure, starring the tragic offspring of friends of friends and finally, inescapably, her closing line, her catchphrase - ‘You have to work ten times harder than anyone else.’ By harder she meant faster, smarter and with a bigger smile on my face. By ‘anyone else’ she meant white people.

Although I would roll my eyes and dismiss her as old fashioned (at the time something I regarded as a senseless crime) I believed her. I believed her before I even had a chance to understand what I was believing. I imagine it is what it would be like to be born into a religious household, to be told to have faith in something intangible. In some ways it was my mother’s religion – she believed it and she thought that if I believed, it could save me. My father tried to help; he had a sack full of stories that he would recount over lengthy Sunday dinners - the injustices he was subjected to as a young, black man in an unenlightened London. The girlfriend’s father that wouldn’t let him past the threshold and the over-zealous police officer that had taken him in as he made his way home from a party. He told these stories with a chuckle and shake of his head, they were both menacing and comforting - the Grimm’s fairy tales of my childhood.

Of course my life was not like that. I was born into a brand new integrated London, where I was more likely to receive abuse from the black boys on the bus than the sweet, old white man in the corner shop. Despite my mother’s insistence, I did not need to watch my back or bite my tongue. I did not need to work ten times harder, but I did. I did it in the way that children grow into their parents even when, especially when, they are actively trying not to. Even with her wild words, I trusted my mother just a little more than I trusted the sometimes overwhelming world and, seriously, I never went to any parties so what else was I supposed to do after Dawson’s Creek?

I wonder if it was the decision to heed her words that made me start to see evidence that they were warranted. Unprompted, Mr Mason my year ten teacher, pulled me aside to tell me that I had developed a terrible attitude. I was no longer listening; I was rude; I talked back. The tears sprang instantaneously to my eyes, as they did and still do when I am confronted. My behaviour had been no more egregious than any other hormone riddled teenager – did the colour of my skin make it seem amplified? My school careers advisor was dead inside and very possibly outside, I didn’t check for a pulse. She read my forms and listened to my dreams. I told her I wanted to be a psychologist.  I’d found it in a book, ‘1000 Careers and how to get them’. She suggested I look into nursing, a noble profession but not the one that called me. I thought about all the kind brown faces that had supported my father when he fell suddenly ill. Was nurse on the approved list for ‘jobs black people do’? Perhaps if I wanted something different, I’d have to work harder than anyone else.

Going to university wasn’t a decision, it was a fact. I didn’t even feel pressure because pressure would suggest other potential outcomes. A gap year was a near mythical concept entertained only by white children – I was practically kept under house arrest from the moment I left school until the first day of term. I had two years of fun. I drank violently coloured alcopops, made friends for life; met my future husband and a few guys that absolutely weren’t husband material. It wasn’t until my final year that fear gripped me; out from under the examining eye of my mother had I faltered? Had I forgotten the mantra? I spent my final year working and crying and working, determined not to be one of the tragic tales used to scare young, black girls in Nissan Micras. The day I received my scrappy but official degree was a day of singular emotion – relief.

I went on to work in social care. My parents were pleased enough. It was an easy job to explain with reliable hours and an all-important pension. My mother had moved on somewhat, I think she felt that her job was done and she needed more time to indoctrinate my siblings. I loved my job but I wasn’t overly ambitious. In my twenties it wasn’t really noticeable, we were all finding our feet, taking weird chances and drinking a little too heavily but as the years went by and my friends slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to change; to become serious, to embrace adulthood. At house parties people were no longer temping or travelling but senioring and managing and then one day the house parties just stopped. I was never overcome by ambition. The bit of my work that I liked was the care taking. As a child I had enjoyed mimicking a picture perfect home life. It was always mummies and daddies over doctors and nurses. It should not have been a surprise when the desire to have a baby jumped out from behind the shadows and slapped me round the face ten or twenty times.

My husband and I made plans. When the baby came I would stay at home, babies need someone at home we’d heard. After that we’d see what he or she needed and what we needed. It didn’t take me long, perhaps an hour after the drugs wore off, for me to see that what I needed was to be with my son and nowhere else.  The first year was relatively easy, a lot of women take a year. It was as my baby, stretched and morphed into toddlerdom that the discomfort started. It was a growing feeling of being an imposter. This position was for privileged, white woman, not girls with something to prove. We went to visit my grandmother – mother to eight, fools suffered zero. She asked me when I planned to go back to work and I dodged and weaved, implying a not so distant future with me behind a desk in it. She nodded briefly and said, ‘Good.’ Don’t grandmothers have a way of saying so much with so little? To me that good said, don’t disrespect me by sitting on the bum that I gave you, after all the work we’ve done.

At the toddler groups my uniqueness highlighted my betrayal. As mothers admired my son’s bouncing curls I felt like a traitor rather than a pioneer. In the duller moments of stay at home life I imagined an alternative realm where I was beating a path through the corporate jungle, an inspiration to young, black people. Whilst washing plastic cutlery I’d imagine myself recruiting a black girl with a relentless black mother, saying to her fondly, ‘you remind me of myself.’ In reality I was doing nothing to fight back against the beliefs that immigrants are unmotivated. Beliefs that may have been given a fresh coat of political correctness but still shone through in the crime stats and the media or as a hot topic for internet trolls.

My mother just wanted me to be happy but I know she would be happier if what made me happy was smashing through a glass ceiling, a glass ceiling made from reinforced glass. I cannot hide from my truth that I feel I am letting them down. My parents did not tag team shifts so that I can get enchiladas made before five.  My grandparents didn’t migrate from a warm, inviting island to a cold and hostile one so that I could pick up after a man, a white man at that. I choose to make things harder for every young, black girl today being told by an underinvested careers adviser that maybe she can’t. 

Being a black and female in a predominantly white society is a curiously awkward burden. It’s like holding a drink and a canape at a cocktail party. When the host comes to greet you do you take pains to balance both precariously or hold on to them steadfastly and refuse to accept a handshake? I can’t tell you the answer, I’m still working on it because all my life I’ve had to work ten times harder than anyone else.

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