Discover more from Donita Reason
If you let me, here's what I'll do
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February 19, 2017
At some point during my third trimester of pregnancy, I told my mother that I had arrived at a place of peace about that fact that, when I sat down on the toilet, I had no idea what might come out of me—liquid, solid, semi-solid, front end, back end, whatever, who knew. I was a bulging, leaky bag of flesh, and I had come to accept it.
Her response was to insist that Will and I buy one of those bidets toilet seats to replace our regular one, the kind that comes with a remote control so you can wash whichever end of your nether regions needs cleaning. She had purchased one for her bathroom a few years ago--and then, soon after, one for every toilet in her house. Sensing that this was not a purchase we were likely to make on our own (Will has a strict "no single-use appliance" rule), my mother went ahead and ordered one for us. We found it on our doorstop and, after a few days of insisting to each other how much we really didn't need it, Will installed it. By the end of the day, we wondered how we had ever lived without it.
Bidets like this are common throughout Asia, where I currently am. On our recent flight across the Pacific, the toilets in the All Nippon Airways bathrooms were outfitted with them. The other day in Tokyo, I took advantage of the "women's setting" on the bidet at small ramen restaurant and enjoyed not one, but two(!!!), supremely pleasant warm streams of water aimed at both my front and back doors. In the Philippines, where we spent the last two weeks with family, I was reacquainted with the slightly rusted, slender metal tubes peeking out of the toilets in my grandparents' house in Pampanga like little garden snakes, as well as the ubiquitous, more low-tech tabo, a tiny bucket with a long handle to help you do your washing (and, in some cases, assist with manual toilet flushing.) This time around, I noticed a handheld spray nozzle with its own holder affixed to the wall next to many toilets in homes, malls, and restaurants.
The nozzles are small things, but to me they are a constant reminder of how we all need a bit of help doing the mundane, essential tasks that make up so much of life--cleaning our asses, feeding our bodies, keeping each other safe, comforted, and alive. Holding ourselves together doesn't always require the direct assistance of another person, just perhaps some pressurized water that another person thoughtfully went through the trouble to make available to you.
Last summer, my friend Amelia did some great writing on care—mostly in the context of the tech industry that she works in, and how much technology strives to outsource it and refuses to acknowledge its workers needs for it. Through our devices and apps, we now have other people take care of basic needs such as making food, shopping for household items, getting around, etc. But her insights extend well beyond any particular field, into how we live. She articulated, clear-eyed and beautifully, so many hazy, nebulous ideas that had been floating around in my head for a long time, and led me to new ideas. I often worry about the inability of women (especially mothers) to ever be able to avoid thinking about care as part of our inherent duties or destiny even as, ironically, I often think of it as my life's most important work.
American society fundamentally devalues care, from the very beginning of life (see our paltry family/maternity/paternity leave policies), through youth (the cost of child care, day care, preschool, activities, summer camps), middle age (there's very little leave or support available for people like my former editor who, after a family health emergency, had to leave her job, upend her career, and move back to California to help take care of things), right up up to life's end, when we put aging relatives into someone else's care because we don't have the space, means, or patience to let them stay in their homes or live in ours.
Of course the primary reason we place so little value on care is because it is traditionally seen as "women's work." American women are dropping out of the workforce—and it has everything to do with care. According to a recent New York Times article about this trend, "women are still the primary caregivers—for children, aging parents and ailing relatives...Hardly any men who have dropped out [of the workforce] say it is because they are helping with children or other family members."
It's certainly different in the Philippines, where, on February 12, we celebrated my paternal grandmother Ima's 97th birthday. For the last few years, Ima has relied on two nurses who take shifts being with her 24/7, as she continues to work seven days a week overseeing the large, wholesale supermarket that she and my grandfather built from a tiny palengke stall where they began bartering imported goods like American cigarettes after WWII. Ima is still quite strong, with no significant health issues, but she is old, and her body continues to weaken and slow. She is a proud woman, supremely matriarchal, with a commanding presence. She's worked too hard and too long to put up with any of our stupidities. Her nurses, Nikki and Che, have become integral to nearly every physical aspect of her life. I was struck by how this woman who has slightly intimidated me with her toughness my entire life literally leans on and into them as she walks, clutching their hands with an unnerving vulnerability. She allows them to put eyedrops in her eyes, gently wipe her cheeks, tenderly brush her hair. Their constant presence is precisely what allows Ima to continue living her life, relatively uninterrupted, on her own terms. She lives alone in her house above the family business that she has lived in for so many years and, I suspect, will continue working at the supermarket until the moment she draws her last breath.
Our first few days in the Philippines were spent with some of my cousins from my mother's side of my family at an old beach house. About a dozen of us loaded up into a van, stopped at the supermarket to buy enough food for what felt like an army, then headed a couple of hours south of Manila to the province of Batangas. Among us was Ate Celia, a woman who has worked for my Tita Ginny for over 40 years, helping her cook, clean, and raise six children. I've loved Ate Celia since I was a little kid and have always been in awe of her physical strength and easy, loud, unselfconscious laugh. At the beach, where she helped us cook meals and clean, she set about becoming friends with Noli, playing hide-and-seek and finding, despite her limited English, songs to sing with her. Ate Celia arguably did much more than Noli's own grandfather, Will's father, who we brought with us for his first trip to the Philippines, when it came to taking care of her.
I'm not trying to dog on my father-in-law, but hands-on child care obviously isn't an interest of his. While his wife raised Will and his four siblings at home, he worked a steady stream of jobs that, along with a host of robust public assistance programs that have vanished or been steadily defunded by the government for decades, supported his family and allowed the kids to thrive. I am also not trying to romanticize Philippine society, where many households rely on the tireless, extremely low-wage work of maids, nannies, and drivers in order to function. There is an obvious class element that cannot be ignored, especially in a country with so much stark poverty. It's just that Filipino culture strikes me as fundamentally more honest—in terms of acknowledging our unrelenting need for care, our inability to do things alone, as well as the mere existence of inequality, poverty, and class.
In the United States, there's no narrative of success that includes spending a significant amount of time caring for others—or yourself. Few jobs offer the real flexibility that is needed to care for a sick kid, an ailing parent, a child with special needs, your own chronic or mental illness, or, let's be honest, your own self-care. To be successful, in a professional sense, is to not have a family or any care needs at all. Or to make that family —and the sloppy, vulnerable animal that we all ultimately are—invisible, always a shadow to our ambition and productivity. Needing care costs us valuable time and money, so we pretend it doesn't exist.
The other day, my cousin Peng posted a picture of her nanny, called a yaya in the Philippines, on Instagram with this caption: "Happy birthday Ate Kix! Thank you for taking care of my kids going on 10 years now. I'd be paralyzed without you." I don't know a single mother in the states who could write something like this, let alone share it so publicly without a hint of self-consciousness or shame.
Right now we are traveling through Japan with our friends Simone and John, who we consider to be family although no drop of blood connects us. They've been friends of Will's for many years, but from the moment I met them ten years ago (when I showed up drunk at the old Canterbury with a bag of Jack in the Box), we settled into an easy and immediate comfort. We are lucky to count their house in Berkeley, where they routinely churn out the most beautiful and enormous meals, as one of our other homes in this world. They seem to hold inviolable wells of generosity and self-possession and I have always been inspired by the way they care for people, especially each other. We continue to benefit from that care here—from John's ability to speak Japanese, which smoothes the edges of every interaction, to their willingness to help us with Noli, and the genuine joy they derive from being with her.
I know people say that you can't choose who you love, but I don't totally buy that. I think, just as often, that you choose to care for someone and something else follows—decency, empathy, affection, and yes, maybe love. I believe this is especially true for family and children, where care is an obligation that begins at birth, before love can even be reciprocated. That care is expected makes it no less important; in fact, that's the whole point.
Despite everything, I am hopeful that we can get to a point where our society values caring for each other, where we can implement real family support policies and a social safety net. We just have to choose to do it, to continue to fight for it.
When it comes to protest signs, which I've been making a few more of lately, I realize that I prefer the ones that stand for something—positive ones over negative ones, if you will. In my mind, protest is an inherently constructive thing, a way of showing what you stand for, not just what you are against, as well as another way of being together. For the smaller women's march Noli and I went to in December, I was struggling to figure out what to put on my sign, which I made from an old box of diapers and a bamboo stick that used to hold up one of my houseplants. When Will asked me, "Well, what matters to you?," I thought of a quote from the Chinese-American civil rights, Black Power, labor, feminist, and environmental activist Grace Lee Boggs, who spent her life organizing her community in Detroit:
"The only way we will survive is by taking care of each other."
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