Our First Business Trip

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I have always seen myself as a working mother. Always. Not once in all my childhood did I ever imagine becoming one of those women lucky enough to leave the hassles and demands of a job behind, so I could focus on the hassles and demands of raising kids and running a household.

For me, this weekend took on a whole new working-mother dynamic, after I took a train up to Boston to attend a financial services conference. I’ll return early in the week, and the trip isn’t arduous. It amounts to a day and a half, all told. But that’s two mornings and two evenings when Hubby will be a single parent, effectively. He can manage meal, bath and play times well, but he’ll have his hands full trying to maintain the pixie-cute styling that I give Baby when I dress her and style her hair. I decided to minimize the guesswork by laying out her clothes for the two mornings I’ll be gone and labeling each outfit ‘Monday’ or ‘Tuesday’. They will do whatever floats their boat, I’m sure, but at least I did my part to make it easier on them.

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And then there is Baby’s hair. She started swim lessons a couple of weeks ago, and readers, I realized just how completely reckless and plain clueless other people can be with Black children’s hair. As if the incident with the office supplies wasn’t enough, we ran into another mishap after her first swim lesson. I trusted Hubby to change Baby after her swim lesson, spray her hair, brush it back and put in a simple headband or ponytail for the rest of the day. It didn’t work out. Somehow, her hair ended in THE BIGGEST afro I’ve ever seen on a child her size. Oh, don’t get it wrong: She loved it and rocked it. But when it came to taming that puff, I wished Hubby (and at least one of her teachers, all female) had taken more care.

This time I decided to canerow (you full-fledged Americans say ‘cornrow’) her hair as her protective style for several days. I did not have the time to put all of Baby’s hair in canerows. She did not have the patience to sit still for that process, either. So I just braided the top and sides, and styled the back with a chiny bump-out (or Bantu knot-out). I just pray Hubby follows my instructions on doing a conditioning rinse for Baby after her lesson, and I hope he can twist and secure Baby’s hair into chiny bumps the way I showed him.

So for two days I will be listening to sessions, conducting interviews and writing and emailing stories. It will be like riding a bicycle, because I’ve done all of that before. This time, though, I’ll be pedaling along on a tandem model with a kiddie sidecar. 

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I’m Not an Ice Queen—Honest!

Does anyone out there think that Black women sometimes come across as … very serious and hard to pin down to a pleasant casual conversation?  I think so. After a few encounters with several Black women in another department at my company, I think many of us project a ‘don’t come hither’ vibe unknowingly. It dampens pleasant mornings, hinders friendships from forming, and (since we’re blogging about relationships) dissuades eligible bachelors from other races and ethnic groups from getting their hopes up with us.

Here is what happened.

A few weeks ago, I went to the kitchen at my office to wash my coffee mug. Another woman, from accounts payable, I think, was there doing the same. I gave her a bright, brisk “hello,” and we had a nice casual conversation. I thought all was fine, until she explained that she was relieved I was being so friendly, because she previously thought I didn’t like her.

Here we go again, I thought. Some other thin-skinned character claims I’ve snubbed her. I heaved a big sigh, inwardly, and asked, “Why do you say that?” She explained that on a few occasions, she has tried to exchange pleasantries with me in the morning or what have you, but that I never responded. I didn’t think it was worth creating any animosity with this woman by asking her “Are you sure? Maybe you misread me.” Instead, I apologized if I came across as rude. Her whole demeanor changed. She started talking about my beautiful smile and all that. So we finished our ‘chores’ and went back to our separate departments.

Reader, this does not surprise me, because I am a very serious person at work. It takes more than a few months for me to start chatting people up and making acquaintances. Unless the other person and I have an instant rapport, I make polite conversation and dole out small bits of information about my personal life until I feel at ease about being more open. But to ignore a hello from someone, especially if that person said it loud enough for me to hear? Well, that’s highly unlikely. Only if someone has horrid and insufferable, or is closely related to someone like that, do I really keep my distance.

But then something else happened a few days later. I started getting warmer, brighter smiles from her colleagues whenever I passed them in the halls or what have you. On the Friday before Mother’s Day, one of them invited a friend to stage a costume jewelry sale in one of the lower conference rooms. I saw them as I was heading to the same kitchen to wash that same coffee mug. I went in, because the mood seemed really casual. As I was picking through the stuff, this other woman made the same claim, that she was relieved I was being so friendly and she previously thought I didn’t like her.

OK. Look. I don’t know who has been saying what about me in accounts payable, but this whole claim that I ‘don’t like them’ is a crock. And anyway, Paige Turner is not the office ice queen up in here. Why was I being tried for bitchcraft in their little court, especially after I’ve had several nice little exchanges with at least a couple other ladies in that same department? Couldn’t someone testify on my behalf before someone slammed down the gavel on me?

And then I started to calm down and think about what this says of Black women and our different relationships. The women who seemed to have me pegged as unfriendly all have Caribbean accents. Wouldn’t doubt if two of them are Jamaican. I think it is far, far easier to make friends with Americans than it is with Jamaicans, because in many cases our mothers admonished us to “mind who you keep company with.” And so we learned to go through school, work, the mall etc., being very discerning when choosing our friends and boyfriends (eventually husbands). When it came to the workplace, we were told to do a great job, get promoted, not to make fools of ourselves and to mind our own business. It took me a long time to get on friendly terms with a couple of other Jamaican women in the office, but that’s just the way it is. They were always absorbed in their work. I never thought I was less likable because a couple of editors were taking a while to learn my name.

Being a journalist also works against me. This is a demanding profession, with long hours and exacting standards. One is always pressed for creative story ideas, penetrating reporting, precision with any and all facts, smart analysis and firm deadlines. Sometimes, you get editors with volatile dispositions, which makes coming to work everyday unpleasant. The other journalists I see around the office are usually pre-occupied with deadlines throughout the day. Every now and then, I come across a woman who is especially prone to withdrawing into her own little world, becoming so lost in her thoughts that she will pass within inches of me without so much as looking in my direction or even being aware that I’m there. I’ve never been that extreme, but I will own up to coming across as serious and unapproachable. That was especially the case up until last November, for various reasons that I won’t talk about.

Let’s assume that thousands of other Black women have my temperament, and have kept office friendships at bay with their sharp, all-business expressions. How much more discouraging have we been toward guys who don’t necessarily know how to approach us, but might want to try?

Paradise Lost?

I love visiting my cousin Melinda, who is my aunt Mary’s daughter. Whenever I’m in her large, beautifully decorated home, in her upscale neighborhood, I come into contact with one or several of her many amazing and accomplished friends. It’s like being in the company of America’s black glitterati, with their advanced degrees, impressive jobs at Fortune 500 firms and connections to people who might rule the world one day. I’m sure they work so hard and face down so much in the way of office political b.s. that don’t feel so high and mighty, similar to how everyday millionaires accumulate wealth through diligent financial planning and by avoiding extravagant spending. Never mind the humility—another reason I like Melinda’s friends: they don’t name drop—her friends are the kind of people who often make me feel good about having to go into work everyday and, seemingly, work really hard and face down a lot of crap just to get noticed. If I can manage to keep abreast with them in conversation and have homes almost as nice as theirs, without trying to imitate the Joneses, I will feel like I’ve gotten somewhere.
So I took special interest in one of her friends, Angela, who is a Delta Sigma Theta soror. In everyday parlance, she’s ‘a Delta’. Angela started explaining that one of the higher-ranking black executives at her company got wind of the fact that she is a Delta, and because he is a member of the Delta’s unofficial brothering fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, he took notice of her. He shows a lot of professional interest in her, throwing projects her way, whether or not they fall into her domain. At one point, she sighed, seeming weary of the new workload. Secretly, I was jealous, because at least she had a well-connected comrade looking out for her best professional interests. I have one black woman who is a senior-level editor in my company, who I turn to for advice from time to time. But I do not think that is enough.

NetworkingWhen I was a college freshman or sophomore, I almost pledged Delta Sigma Theta, thinking it would be a great way to get more out of college life. I went to a couple of pre-rush meetings, met the young women who were supposed to be my ‘line sisters’, learned the Greek alphabet, memorized the list of founding sorors and even got a pledge name. But the $600-plus membership fee in the first year, stopped my progress cold. There was no way I could have coughed up that much money by the end of my pledge process,or justified doing so to my very pragmatic mother, a first-generation immigrant. Further, a family friend and mentor discouraged me from pledging. She worked in my college’s financial aid office (I was always grateful that I never needed to spend a lot of time in that place, with its bad yellowish lighting and utilitarian furniture), where I would visit her and talk about whatever was going on with me in my classes and among my peers. So I never pledged any black sororities. I cannot say that I bitterly regret skipping the pledging process, but there are times when I wonder whether I made a mistake. Like whenever I run into my old high school vice principal for instance. I’ve come across Ms. Lennox in a range situations, from Alvin Ailey performances to supermarket aisles, and for a while, she always seemed to be more advanced in her career than the last time I saw her. When we part, I begin to wonder whether I should have gone through with Delta sisterhood, because it might have brought me into closer contact with more high-profile professionals.

Maybe one day I’ll accumulate enough professional contacts to compensate for never having an undergraduate sorority membership. Or maybe it won’t matter at all, and I’ll figure out other ways to be perfectly satisfied with my life.