– Namupa Shivute
Over two years ago, I made the decision to work from home. The main reason was to liberate myself from the anti-black and anti-queer spaces of full-time employment. My top priorities were restoring my mental and spiritual health, getting plenty of rest and most excitedly spending more time with my wonderful children. What I did not expect is how this decision would considerably alter the way I view parenthood. Firstly, I was struck by just how unvalued home maintenance and childcare truly is. I have also come to grasp more how little agency I as a nonbinary person had when I made the choice to parent.
At the end of our Grade 12 year, my firstborn’s father and I were confronted with possible separation after school. We naively believed that a child was the solution to our teenage predicament. I was 19 years old at the time. Quite early on into the pregnancy, the father-to-be went ahead with his life and no longer had an interest in our infantile fantasy which was now a baby growing in my womb. By then, my mother had enrolled me for a degree at UNAM and so against my will, I found myself as a first-year student pregnant on campus while dealing with abandonment and rejection issues that I did not know how to process. I was still excited about the baby though, and looked forward to its arrival.
After the birth, my aunt gave me the devastating news that she would be taking my then 4 month-old baby to the village to be raised by my mother. Both adults were aware that I wanted to keep the child with me precisely because childhood years of separation from my own mother had put a seemingly insurmountable strain on our relationship. Still, my opinion, feelings and suggested alternative plans were not taken into consideration. I was actually expected to be grateful for this help. Two years later, the baby’s paternal grandmother suddenly took an interest and decided that my daughter should henceforth be raised in Angola with her family. It was only when I finally completed my degree that I was able to reclaim my baby who was by then already 4 years old. I had no real idea about parenting or what I was letting myself in for and desperately took the first available job to raise her. With the support of good friends and some help from my mother, we somehow managed to make it work.
Living through the daily struggles of single parenting, for the most part, I was content with having only one biological child. However, I was still navigating patriarchal realms and so 15 years later I again allowed myself to be bamboozled by the empty rhetoric of yet another cishet man with whom I shared a mutual desire for a child. Once again I found myself excited about pregnancy, believing that this time around I was more prepared and had someone to share the experience with. As it turned out though, the new father-to-be shared the desire to have children with multiple of his sexual partners, of whom at least one carried out a pregnancy at the same time that I did.
From start to finish, my second pregnancy was marred with emotional, mental and physical turmoil. Early on the doctor diagnosed me with a threatening miscarriage which kept my anxiety on high alert throughout the pregnancy. After surviving 9 months of more pain and depression than in my previous pregnancy, I got another scare on the day my son was born. I called my sister – who had requested to be my birthing partner – to take me to the Windhoek Central hospital to address unexpected but painless bleeding. After inspection, the medical staff advised me to go home and walk to induce labour. However, when I got home, I intuitively defied this order and rested instead. Arriving back at the hospital at the suggested time later in the day, I was almost immediately whisked away for an emergency C-section because what the doctor had not picked up when I had sought help earlier was that the bleeding was caused by Placenta Privia. This condition, that I had never heard of until then, required immediate operation or immense rest – as I had done – to save both the child and the child-bearer.
When I was finally discharged from the hospital, I was not at all prepared for the excruciating pain that followed a Caesarean. After a ridiculously short 3 months maternity period, I went back to work exhausted from attending to a newborn baby and a teenager while in pain and possibly suffering from undiagnosed postnatal trauma. I left my baby in the hands of a loving caretaker who took care of my son until he was 2 years old. Unfortunately, with the financial inconsistencies of freelancing, I could not keep her employed. A year later, my daughter would leave the house to begin her studies abroad. Completely alone with my son now, I was both excited and terrified at this new phase of parenting as my son was now also exactly the age that I had missed out on in my daughter’s life. So, I still had no real idea of how I was going to cope and was again mostly assisted in various ways by a community of friends and some of the women in my family.
At first, I attempted to work from home with my son present. I soon learned that that was nearly impossible unless he was asleep, allowing me to fully concentrate in a quiet house. On some nights I would just drop into bed exhausted from all the unpaid gendered work of cleaning, cooking, washing, attending tea parties with dolls, kissing bubus and reading good night stories – just some of the necessary tasks of running a household and raising a child with love. Knowing that I am adding value to my life by keeping my home clean and my child happy allows me to find worth in what I am doing even when I am not getting paid for it. However, having notably more work than I had ever had in formal employment, turned me into an advocate for paid gendered work. Childcare and home maintenance should not be free!
Payment for housework is something that has been proposed in some European countries as well as in India, and is already happening in socialist Venezuela. After all, if gendered work around the home was respected for at least its economic contribution to society and thought of as crucial labour (rather than “women’s work ”), state resources would be allocated differently, creating a situation where parenting would no longer deepen gendered inequalities. Instead, a constructed hierarchical gender binary is used to discriminate and oppress. Therefore, housework and childcare, mainly done by those socialized as girls and women, is unpaid. But it doesn’t end there. When those socialized as women do enter the formal work environment, they often also get paid less. Payment gaps repeatedly demonstrate how these environments favour those socialized as men.
To truly understand how gender discriminates and oppresses, one needs to take a look at Gender socialization and its function for whiteness. The gender binary and socialization around it is a white-supremacist social construct and tool that involves the grouping of people exclusively as either girls (women) or boys (men). This categorization is predominantly determined by primary sex characteristics and assigned to children at birth. It includes the cisheterosexist indoctrination of the acceptable behaviours and required expectations of these two polarized genders. Enforced through societal superstructures like education, religion and the law with the help of the media, the gender binary is further perpetuated by rewarding those who adhere to it while punishing those who do not or cannot conform. This accepted form of global brainwash erases and alienates people (e.g intersex and some trans and gender-nonconforming people) who do not fit into its rigid categories. While queerness is suppressed under capitalist oppression, those socialized as girls are also often shamed into parenthood. Afterwards, they are exposed to further shaming for being single parents by the very people who placed them into that position. Under patriarchal capitalism, gender confines every single one of us, adversely affecting black, queer, disabled, poor and incarcerated people as well as other oppressed groups, the most.
My first intention was therefore to homeschool my son to shelter him for as long as possible from these white cishetero-patriarchal standards taught and ingrained in our school systems. Up to 4 years of age, he was largely unaware of his or anyone’s assigned gender. At home, we mostly referred to people as people or by name rather than as gendered individuals. Outside gender restrictions, he is freer to experience his emotions and authentically express himself in various ways. To the dismay of shop tellers who intrusively enquire about which part of the binary he belongs to, he sometimes chooses toys that patriarchal capitalism assigns to girls. At home, he might be calling me to inspect bugs and spiders or he may transform into his current favourite cartoon character Santiago of the Seas, but he especially enjoys playing with the little girls in our neighbourhood who can’t get enough of his pink toys. In short, he is happy being a child and I am happy to let him be just that. However, to be able to actually make money while working from home, I eventually had to spend money and place him in a kindergarten – choosing the one with the most gender-neutral educational approach comparable. Unfortunately, now he does see gendered individuals and his earlier self-perception has shifted from being neither boy nor girl to tentatively describing himself as a boy as picked up within his new environment.
Under capitalist and patriarchal state exploitation, the police, teachers, church leaders, spouses, parents etc rob us daily of our bodily autonomy and sense of who we are. This has far-reaching detrimental consequences for those considered in the lower ranks of society, but even race and class privileged people like pop princess Britney Spears are abused within capitalist patriarchal states. In her recent conservatorship hearing, Britney traumatically reveals how her family, particularly her father, sadistically controlled her life through the conservatorship, forbidding her to get married, have more children, remove her involuntary IUD, amongst a series of other human rights abuses. In my case, even though the choice to become pregnant as a teenager was mine and the father’s, the fact that I was socialized as a girl also meant I had less agency over my body than him, which essentially allowed others – even those who thought they were acting in benevolent ways- to determine what would happen to me and my baby. Meanwhile, cishet men are given the freedom to abandon their children physically, emotionally and financially without any real repercussions from society at large.
Had my mind not been indoctrinated in my youth to regard the option to terminate a pregnancy as anything less than the responsible decision that would have been for me, I would have likely experienced less trauma than I endured while pregnant. However, access to elective reproductive care alone does not guarantee agency to those who do have children. Without holistic support, they would still be left to drown in the momentous task of child-rearing with little to no exit plan. Thus, to truly minimize harm for the affected people and to avoid perpetuating generational trauma, the call for access to safe and legal abortions must ideally be an anti-capitalist one. Society’s lack of emotional and financial support during my pregnancies and throughout parenting also reactivated and compounded the trauma that I still held from childhood. This made parenting, something I had naively looked forward to twice, often extremely difficult and at times, unbearable.
Chicago native Tricia Hersey, Nap Bishop of the Nap Ministry, has extensively studied the detrimental effects of mental, spiritual and physical exploitation on black people. Focused on black liberation, somatics, and healing cultural trauma, she based her studies on the history of slave labour in the South during the USA’s Jim Crow era, including speaking to people who suffered through it. The Nap Bishop equates “grind culture” to an extension of plantation labour that is meant to destroy the body and weaken the spirit. She likens our black bodies to “divine holding places of liberation” and describes how violent it is to continue aligning to extractive systems that tell us that our bodies do not belong to us and are merely tools for productivity and destruction. As someone who had chosen to honour rest over the illusion of security under formal employment, I deeply resonate with the Nap Bishop’s sermons reminding us that “Rest is Resistance”, encouraging us to connect to the ancestral realms and our imagination by entering the dream space more often and more deliberately.
Undoubtedly, a deeper understanding of myself as a nonbinary person, specifically how my queerness and blackness are interlocked with patriarchy and capitalism, would have widened my own dreams. My imagination would have been stretched beyond the limiting fairytales of pick-me princesses, presenting me with more possibilities for my future. Unfortunately, I could not perceive any options beyond the narrow and prescriptive lens of how love and labour are forced to function and be performed under the patriarchy. Yet, despite the many hardships I have faced being a single parent, one of the perks of raising my child alone is not being subject to someone who would enforce their own patriarchal norms. But even with the joys and magic of parenthood, and even under the best conditions, parenting can still be scary, frustrating, and lonely.
I do not have regrets about bearing these beautiful children. But I know now that had I known better then, I would have made different choices. I would probably, much like Egyptian-American queer feminist giant Mona Eltahawy have said “Fuck the patriarchy!” and chosen not to have kids. Not even if there were, what capitalism would consider, more favourable circumstances.