Alisha: Started out in a small town. Grew up with people who have the opportunity to matter. Bought a plane ticket. Traveled far. Saw another side to the narrative of privilege I’d been grazing on for nearly two decades. Discarded old stereotypes. Got less comfortable with easy answers. Accepted doubt as a sign of authenticity. Still questioning the validity of the actions. Still forging ahead.
Alisha lives in Ottawa, Canada with her partner and one-and-a-half-year old daughter – we’re a Kenyan-Canadian-Dutch family. She grew up near Toronto and at 19, moved to Montreal for her undergrad at McGill University. She spent most of her young(er) adult life studying, living and working in various countries, including Thailand, India, Canada, Kenya and several European Union countries. She is also co-author of Generation NGO, a collection of short stories written by young Canadians working overseas in the development industry. (Catch more of Alisha’s stories at mamaseyian.)
“NO!”. She’s one and a half and she already speaks her mind. (Well done, mama, you reached one of your parenting goals!) The word surfaced about 3 weeks ago. I was caught off guard. Humoured. A bit miffed too.
“NO??” I thought to myself. “What do you mean NO?”
And then I remembered being 5, and 10, and even 17 years old. I remember the reactions I’ve had when saying no to my parents, teachers and others. NO was met with resistance, rejection and punishment. A good girl should do as she is told.
Looking at my daughter, I shrugged off the past, quickly realizing that this is just a word she’s picked up at daycare. She’s experimenting with it, much like any other word she learns. She’s searching my face, looking for my reaction. Will I scurry to bring her the object she has just named, praising her and reinforcing her new word – like when she said umbrella, or pumpkin, or hat? Will I start to laugh, or clap, or give her a big hug?
I’ve hesitated for too long. She wanders off. Delayed reactions never impress her. The moment is lost.
There I was, left to ponder the fact that Seyian has said no. It’s a word I have trouble with. I hate it when my partner says “No, I can’t do to the dishes tonight. I’m tired”. Or when my boss says “No, you can’t leave early. I’ll need that report right away”. Or, when a friend says “Sorry.. no, but I can’t meet you for coffee tonight”. Probably, like most people, at times I even avoid making a request altogether, just to avoid hearing no. But in doing so, I’ve started to think about all the opportunity that is lost when I set myself up for nothing but yes in life. Without no, I wouldn’t have learned how to negotiate, or how to defend my position or values, or how to be true to myself and respect my own and others’ needs or interests.
Seyians’s Koko (my mum-in-law) arrived last week. It’s the first time she has met Seyian – she lives in Nairobi and we live in Ottawa. It was a sweet reunion after far too much time apart. The day after her arrival, Koko offered Seyian a piece of fruit and Seyian let out a firm “NO!”. Flustered, I explained it away, saying she probably wasn’t hungry. I felt a bit embarrassed, worried Koko would think that I spoil my daughter, or let her ‘talk back’ to me.
Instead, Koko laughed proudly. I was confused. She looked at me and said, “This girl. She’s empowered. Already! And she’s not even two. She already knows what she wants. This is good”. With six kids of her own and a life-long career teaching elementary school, and advocating access to school for young girls in remote areas of Kenya, Koko knows a thing or two about the importance of negotiation and defending one’s values. For her, no isn’t a bad word, it’s a necessary word.
I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I’ll also be happy when Seyian says, “NO”. Let’s face it, no isn’t always such a convenient answer for mammas like me who are on-the-move, squeezing far too many activities into each 24 hour cycle: wake up, eat, bring baby to daycare, cycle to work, rush to meet a thousand deadlines, cycle back to daycare, pick up the baby, go home, prepare dinner, go to the park, return home, bathe the baby, put the baby to bed, clean the kitchen, shower, stretch, pay bills or catch up on email, head to bed… It’s just easier if everyone is compliant. But that’s not really how I want my daughter to be. So perhaps it’s better if I start to laugh proudly like Koko and welcome the word no into the repertoire of words my daughter will surely need in order to make her place in this world.