Take Your Daughter to Work

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On Take Your Child To Work Day, Cognoscenti published my essay I Took My 11-Year-Old Daughter to Work… In Sudan. Great headline! I feel like it’s a template for an addendum to fortune cookies: “You will experience a wide range of emotions… in Sudan!” or “Measure your life by counting the precious moments… in Sudan!”

Behind the scenes writing notes: The winter I brought Mari to Sudan was 2016. Just the idea of bringing her affected my perceptions and I started writing about the (planned) trip in 2015. And after the trip, in an earlier draft of this piece, I was writing a lot more about me before I realized that she’s much more interesting.

Here’s some of the stuff I wrote before and after the events chronicled in the Cognoscenti piece.

It’s a long way from Boston to the remote village in Sudan where I work, so I had already been away from home for 24 hours when I checked in with my wife over the internet in Khartoum. When I asked how the kids were, she said, “Great! And Mari is telling everyone that she’s going with you to Sudan next year.”

###

That required a pause. We had talked about bringing the kids on a dig, and I had asked them before, but it was primarily speculative.

The truth is, I enjoy being in Sudan in part because I’m not with the kids. I’m the stay-at-home parent in my household so half my brain is filled with their schedules, their food preferences and them, them, them. I love them and this is the life I chose, but for 16 days this February (who’s counting?) I was childfree.

I could spend my time ignoring what was on the menu for dinner — instead, I’d just sit down when it was ready and eat. I would converse with adults and make allusions to things that happened before Obama was elected. I would watch R-rated movies on the plane (John Wick!) and swear more, and make new friends and … above all … not have to worry about the kids.

In 2004, when my son was just a year old, I spent three weeks in Syria on a dig. I flew from Boston through Europe to Damascus, took a bus to Hasake and then a local minivan service to the town of Tell Brak, then to the ancient mound where I found a rickety metal cot in an old canvas army tent. Jetlagged, I slept for four hours. At breakfast, my friends jokingly asked how I slept.

“Best sleep I ever had,” I told them honestly. It was the first time in 400 days that I wasn’t worriedly listening for sounds from my son’s crib.

The point is: archaeology is when I’m no longer “Dad.”

But my daughter wanted to come next year.

 ###

The thought of bringing a ten year old — she’ll be eleven next year — girl colored my perceptions of Sudan.

I looked around the Acropole Hotel, the most luxurious place I would stay in Sudan. The luxury comes from the flush toilets, the hot showers, the buffet style meals where I could trust the salad greens. There was wifi.

The dig site is in the village of El Kurru and the conditions there are a bit different. There is internet service, but it is delivered through cell towers and is heavily used and thus, incredibly slow, to the point where I have to make sure my email client is configured to “Basic HTML”, without any image ads, for the optimal (still snail-like) speed.

We rent a house from a man named Saadek. By all appearances, it’s a decent house for the village. The floors are concrete. The dig paid for him to install glass in the windows so that air-cooling evaporators could be installed.

The bathrooms were local when we arrived, meaning a concrete room with a shower head hanging from the ceiling and a porcelain basin set in the floor that functioned as both toilet and shower drain. As the dig invested money into the house, Saadek built new bathrooms with western style toilets.

Thinking of my daughter, I’m not sure what to tell her: “You can use these toilets that you are familiar with” or “Try squatting, it’s probably healthier and more sanitary.”

My daughter is not a particularly picky eater, but she’s not adventurous, either. The Sudanese food is good, often a stew of some sort, vegetables cooked with a little meat for flavor. Maybe a plate of raw vegetables like tomatoes or cucumbers, some hard boiled eggs and some bread.

No utensils. Like Ethiopian food, we tear off pieces of bread to use to scoop food off the communal plates.

Will I try to save some egg for her? Encourage her to reach for what she wants? Warn her about making messes?

And there’s the etiquette. Don’t shake with your left hand, don’t show the bottoms of your feet, don’t show your shoulders in public.

There’s the call to prayer, broadcast from nearby mosques before sunrise and throughout the day.

I think about all the new experiences she will have. In remembering my own experiences, things seemed to fit in a pattern of gradual initiation.

First, I worked in Turkey, a secular Islamic country. In Turkey the food was served with European place settings but the toilets were different and there was the call to prayer. Later I worked in Syria where social rules were more strict and men were essentially segregated from women. Plus the Arabic script was illegible to me, unlike the phonetic Roman alphabet of modern Turkish. And finally, I came to Sudan where they practice Sharia law, under an authoritarian government in the harsh Saharan environment.

For Mari, all those experiences: new language — visually and aurally — new foods served in new ways, new toilets and rules for interaction, based on religion and government restrictions; for Mari, all of those things would happen at once, and I wonder how she will deal with any or all of them.

Clearly, she was fine.

DSC_0123.JPGDSC_0055.JPG
From top: helping Abbey dig a grave, in a tomb with Rikke

 

POST-VISIT

As for me, there weren’t many negative repercussions. The main downside was just the extra effort that it takes to be responsible for another human being, that is, parenting. I spent more time with my daughter, taking walks or reading in our room together so I didn’t spend as much time socializing with my friends as I had in previous years.

The flipside to that, though, is that my dig friends got to see a different side of me, to see me as a parent. Most years, there is a fleeting recognition of family — “How’re the wife and kids?” — before we talk about the local food, problems with workmen, or what we’re going to eat first when we get back home. This season, some people made comments about my parenting style (my regular response to seeing my daughter in a tree is a bored “Don’t get yourself killed, please”) and they learned more about our home life by watching us interact. Not that I ever had a false front, but someone who never knew me as a parent, wouldn’t really know all of me (and of course, if they only knew me as a parent, the same is true).

Living with my daughter, my co-workers talked about issues that might not have come up otherwise. One friend, who was thrust into the role of “man of the family” when his father died, told me about taking his much younger sister to Turkey for her first trip overseas. A woman from Denmark explained that her school system has a one year boarding school option for 15-year-olds like her son, who are at the age when “friends are more important than their family” — and the parents are a bit tired of dealing with their teenager. Maybe these topics would have come up without my daughter on the dig; maybe they wouldn’t have.

Taking my daughter to work broadened her horizons in many ways, but what I didn’t expect is how much it taught me to see my own work, my co-workers and my own self, with a fresh perspective.

 

The contents of this post first appeared in my monthly email newsletter. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

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