In 2020, three days into lockdown, I became a parent. It happened with all the expected exhaustion and excitement. There is another cliché that you don’t read about or hear about. It is the nightmares of your child dying through some awful failure of your parenting: tumbling down the stairs after I trip, giving in to the desire to sleep or a car accident as a result of that same sleep exhaustion. So many car accidents and falls. I am lucky enough to belong to an open parenting community where I could share these dreams and receive honest understanding.
Postcard Memories or imprints: 11-years-old and other days between then and today
When I was often home alone, I would visit my parents’ closet. It was always bursting at the seams with languageless imaginings and barely worn clothes: the imaginings were mine— the clothes were my Daddy’s. My parents’ room and closet were neither sacred nor off limits but those moments I visited in the emptiness of our home were. I escaped in the oversized safety of my Dad’s dress shirts, wranglers suits and dress socks. “There is something distinctly masculine about dress socks,” I would think to myself. I could never find the equivalent thread count in the women’s section.
My uniform for the second half of prep school and high school consisted of a white blouse, skirt and a blue tie. I have replayed the memory of my father guiding my hands and carefully delivering instructions on tying a tie. He taught me different knots for different occasions, likely as a means of imparting knowledge, not that he expected me to use them.
When I was 11-years-old, I had a presentation at school on the French chemist Louis Pasteur. I decided I wanted to deliver this presentation character as Pasteur. I needed my father’s closet. I wore the only slightly masculine pair of Black jeans I owned and my Daddy lent a beige oxford shirt. I had worn it many times unbeknownst to him. I aced the presentation even fielding follow up questions in character. For me, there was something about this moment that felt deeply true to self. I finished the school day dressed as Pasteur, but existing as me. I only changed back into my uniform before pick up because that’s not a conversation you want to have with your Jamaican mother.
My mother and I are twins. We have the same tone of voice, the same face, teeth, laughter, hands,lips and feet. Jamaican people would say, “wi fayva”. My mother would buy matching outfits for us in different colours. We would sometimes wear these outfits together. Every Saturday, we would go to the hairdresser and then the supermarket. We wore khaki capris, v-neck t-shirts and matching sandals. I loved everything about being compared to my mother by strangers, the hair stylists, family friends.
“Watch dem. It’s like they are the same person.”
I was my mother’s daughter and my father’s daughter. Perhaps, this is expected of first born children. I often felt pulled in different directions, rarely finding the connecting anchor. Yet, I came to find that was neither of their daughters and it would define my relationship with myself and my body for much of my adult life. These imprints of my life kept coming at me like an avalanche as my child grew, forming perspectives on me and the world. These postcards of identity that would stir me in the middle of the night or find me when I most needed to be focused on what I was doing. These conversations that would make assumptions about the joy this birth must have brought into my little world. As I realised how quickly a child started to take shape of the world, the shape of my world was unravelling. Why these memories? Why this moment? What does young Teneile playing Daddy in their parents’ closet or Mommy in aisle two have to do with this moment?
There is another cliché, a more familiar one that maybe took an unfamiliar path for me. Becoming a parent is often the precursor to big life shifting decisions. Perhaps, this is the cliché of finding yourself at a crossroads. I was committing myself to walking alongside my child in parenting as I do in my work. I was creating a world where healing the generational traumas of my own childhood had to begin with me. And then came the nightmare. Or an undressing? I am 11-years-old again in my parents’ closet. There is crying; I can hear my baby crying.
I am running
and coming out,
through my first day of high school and my Daddy tying my tie.
I am falling to the soundtrack of betraying my body,
betraying the expectations,
betraying what should come next,
betraying the path well travelled
“Mama’s coming, Bubba”
I have fallen into my
Suicide note at 18 and 25
Into the closet
The sea…the Caribbean Sea
I can’t hear the crying anymore
Two weeks after that nightmare, I came out to my partner as Non-binary.
As a young person, I knew I wasn’t my parents’ daughter; I wore that pride acutely. The pride of being the first born and what it means for that not to be a son. I was equally aware that I wasn’t their son either. I connected with my father’s physicality, his style. I have my mother’s feet but I move with my father’s gait. When I was 6, 7, 8, 9 and beyond, not feeling like a girl, I didn’t have the language or the room to define myself. I was trapped between my parents or seeking an anchor to their visions of me; I was trapped inside my body, looking to my Mommy and Daddy hoping to find myself inside their being.
When my child starts to mimic me, to become visible to me as an influencer in their life, I try to name and understand what he sees. In these moments, they repeat every little motion exactly as I had previously enacted it. This coming out was my cliche, life shifting, post-parenting moment. It was sparked by my child but it has never been about my child or anyone else. It has always been about everyone else. When you find the courage to walk in the fullness of yourself at 37-years-old, it is a reminder of how deeply rooted society tries to control your existence. No one knows what it means to live inside your body but you. No one can and should ever tell you who you are and your life shouldn’t be to please anyone else, not even your parents.
I think back to that nightmare less and less these days but I came to change one detail as I know it to be true: the baby crying was me.