Aruna Boodram (they/she) is a queer, gender expansive community organizer and legal worker from the Caribbean diaspora based in Toronto. She is an educator and facilitator that works in anti-oppression, abolition, decolonization, fertility, queer and trans family planning and other trainings. She is the autonomous-single (by choice) parent of Surya Amaris, a thriving and resilient baby Sagittarius. Aruna is also the advice columnist for Shameless Magazine, council member for the Children’s Peace Theatre in Toronto and a National Family Advisor for the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation.
Synopsis: It’s tough negotiating the highly technocratic spaces of a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital – let alone as the queer, autonomous-single parent of a micro-preemie. Aruna Boodram is part of the Caribbean diaspora living in so-called Canada. In this week’s conversation, we discuss the stress and uncertainty of caring for one’s baby in NICU, how the concept of abolition applies to parenting and how community organising can benefit from being family friendly and inter-generational. [Content warning: This episode contains conversations about medical trauma].
Read Aruna’s reflections on Medium about going into pre-term labour and getting a cervical cerclage. ***Trigger Warning: This post contains mention of child/infant loss, labour, birth, medical systems and interventions, burn out, body hate/blame, surgical procedures, loss, grief, family, ableism. Please just take care of yourself while reading. It may bring up things you don’t even know are there!”.
Children’s Peace Theatre in Toronto
Canadian Premature Babies Foundation
Music in this episode includes ‘Prevailing Truths’ by Ketsa, ‘Dark Water’ by Nul Tiel Records, ‘Nowhere to Be, Nothing to Do’ by HoliznaCC0 and ‘Webbed’ by REW<<<, used under a Creative Commons license from Free Music Archive
INTRO — Welcome back to Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza. Today, I’m talking to Aruna Boodram. Aruna is a queer, gender expansive community organiser and legal worker from the Caribbean diaspora, based in Toronto. They’re an educator and facilitator that works in anti-oppression, abolition, decolonisation, fertility and queer and trans family planning. Between writing advice columns for Shameless Magazine, or working as a National Family Adviser for the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation, Aruna’s the autonomous, single parent of Surya Amaris: a thriving and resilient baby Sagittarius. Now some of you might already be familiar with the idea of abolition, which means dismantling oppressive systems out in the world, as well as those that actually live within us—in our hearts and minds, as Naomi Murakau puts it. So, I was really keen to talk to Aruna about what it means to practice abolitionist parenting, and their own experiences of a collective approach to birth and child raising. Just a content warning that we’ll be hearing about examples of medical trauma in this episode.
RUTH DE SOUZA (host) — Aruna! Welcome to Birthing and Justice. It’s terrific to have you on this podcast. So, to get us started can you tell me: why do you care about birthing?
ARUNA BOODRAM (guest) — Well, I think it’s birthing that I care about, but I also… I think what’s really important to me is the concept of parenting, of having little people in our lives. However they come into your lives, whether that’s through birthing, through adoption, through community care, through like, you know, just being a part of a village with people, little people in your life. I think… I’ve always worked with young people and I think as a person who, you know, had a huge part in raising a lot of little people in my family and then in my community, it’s always been a really important piece around intergenerational learning and care. And I think that really has transcended now for myself as a parent, thinking about how, you know, and I chose to birth my daughter, but thinking about how I have chosen to become a parent, consensually—’cause you know, of course we all parent in different ways, sometimes un-consensually, especially in families. But that we… I think birthing for me has been like a very important part of a new community, a new way of knowing myself. And then also knowing and realising the ways in which I also didn’t realise how things were happening for people who have birthed babies, or have kids in their lives in like a different kind of way than I would have, that I had already experienced. So, birthing for me is a political act, it’s an act of resistance, of justice, of celebration. It can also be one of, like trauma and you know, and hard stuff. Like it’s not always a good thing for folks, especially people who birth and people who choose to birth, can speak to the varying ways that, you know, having little people come to be, can be very traumatic. And so for me, I think that, you know, birthing, you know, why I care about birthing is that I think it’s a process—a human process—and a process of being a actual, like, being on this planet, that requires care and attention. And I think it’s also something that’s really ignored. You know, I’ve done a lot of community organising in my life and there’s a huge gap when it comes to, you know, having families, having it be accessible to families, having those conversations about, you know, what we understand as feminised labour, and specifically labour and birthing processes that involve people of all genders. That’s always kind of missing when we talk about political education, when we talk about the different things that come up. So, I think it’s been something that I’ve noticed as now being a part of that community, that there’s been such huge gaps in other parts of my life. And trying to bridge those things together have been very important for me.
I love your answer so much because there’s so much to unpack there, and particularly around the kind of politics that that you’ve hinted at. And I’m just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about where you are, and what you’re doing at the moment in relation to birthing?
Mm-hmm! So, I guess the most recent thing that I do, or I have done around birthing, is doing classes and teaching classes for Two-Spirit (2S) LGBTQ, mostly, and centered around BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] always—that’s the work that I wanna do. But supporting different families in creating family: whether that’s through birth, whether that’s through adoption surrogacy, whether that’s through different ways of bringing little people into their lives. I teach classes, but really trying to support other people in imagining what creating a family could look like. Especially for BIPOC people, when we think about the ways in which, you know, colonisation and capitalism and all the awful things that we live under and in and consistently have to consider, you know, I think that there’s a lot of… the way that medical racism plays a part in how people access, you know, assisted reproduction, things like that. Those are… and the way that homophobia and transphobia operate and who can access these things and who can’t. I think that’s been a really important piece around the work that I’ve done and want to do. Especially, you know, as being a solo-by-choice, autonomous, queer, fat, brown parent. Yeah, so currently I’m teaching these classes, I’m a National Family Advisor for the Canadian Premature Babies Association, and I also have been working with the Toronto Birth Center to create monthly spaces for 2SLGBTQBIPOC families, where little folks who can read, or who wanna share things like show-and-tell… like last week we just had one where one of the kids showed-and-telled all of their animals that they had in their house [laughs]. So, it was BIPOC kids who are either queer or trans themselves, or have queer or trans parents. And then they’re paired with an adult who was part of the community, and everyone reads to each other. And so it’s like a group of folks who are coming together who want to kind of create a community around that. And that kind of really came out of like a big need that I saw… a gap that I was seeing in programming for families. You know, we have lots of like these things called EarlyON Centres, which are kind of centres where you can go and like do, you know, play groups and things like that. A lot of them are centred of course around like, you know, very colonial ways of, you know, they’re sing Old McDonald Had a Farm and then I have to have a conversation with my kid about like who Old McDonald is, and why he has that farm, and, you know, talking about land back and colonisation—and which is, you know, important, and we’re always gonna have to have those conversations, but I was imagining a space where, you know, we could have these conversations already built into, you know, the things that we’re sharing with each other. So, you know, luckily we have a lot of abolitionist parents and a lot of parents and communities who are trying to have different kinds of access for their kids, around different politics and more radical politics that are based in liberation and collective care and mutual aid. And so, the books and the things that we’re sharing with each other in this like one hour that we have monthly [laughs] is to kind of provide a space for parents and for kids to be able to, like have those conversations, through books. So just an example would be like the last one that we had, Jennifer Alicia Muren, who is this amazing Indigenous writer and poet, she read a whole book on powwows and it was just so beautiful! It was so beautiful. And the kids were just like watching and listening and having an opportunity to like learn from BIPOC-centered spaces is a game changer. So, all of that is what I’m doing right now [laughs] when it comes to birthing.
Oh my God! And can you just tell us exactly where you are in relation to doing this work? Like where in the world are you!?
Absolutely. Yeah, sorry, I totally forgot that part. [Ruth laughs] So I am based in what is known as, I guess, globally known as Toronto, Ontario, and what is… what I say in big quotes—quote, unquote— Canada. So, specifically I’m in the Eastern, east part of Toronto, close to Scarborough, I’m born and raised from Scarborough, but I’m from a Caribbean diaspora. So, Toronto is the territory of the Mississaugas of Credit First Nation, the Haudenosaunee. We are under Treaty 13 and specifically under the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Covenant Agreement, which is an agreement that, you know, if folks wanna look this up, it’s an agreement that kind of covers a lot of the areas around the Great Lakes and is still a treaty that in covenant, that is still in practice right now. And I specifically grew up, in Scarborough I grew up specifically close to a Iroquois trading village right on the Rouge River. So, I’m right by the Rouge River on the east side of the city. So that’s where I’m hailing from and where I’m speaking from today.
You know, there’s so many themes I wanna pick up on and I do wanna talk about your grandmother and intergenerational life a bit later on. But can you tell me a little bit about your family and how they came to be in Toronto? And you also mentioned that you’ve got an East African connection? And you might not know, but my family migrated from East Africa to New Zealand…
so I’m really interested in all those parts of you.
Yeah. I’m a very… so, you know, in the Caribbean, we also, we make, we just joke about the fact that everyone’s very mixed all the time. And what I love about being, you know, half Caribbean is that like I… and diasporically I grew up in the Caribbean community in Toronto. What I love about that is that we kind of take all the things about like, race and religion, ethnicity, and we kind of just really fuck it up. [Laughs] And so there’s no like, realness when it comes to… there’s no real authenticness, you know, in these really awful normative ways that I think racism and white supremacy require of a lot of people. And especially when people look at me, they think that I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a South Asian person’ when I very much do not identify as such. And so my mum actually is from Tanzania, she’s Gujarati from Tanzania. [Laughs] For those that are listening, Ruth is waving and very excited! [Laughs]
That’s where I was born and that’s where my parents were born, as well.
Oh, amazing. So, my mum is from Tanga, she’s born in Tanga, Tanzania. She is from a small community of the Bohra Muslim community there. They came to Canada when she was nine and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. So very much like, from like, she grew up very much part of this community here. My dad is from Trinidad. So, specifically from San Fernando, Trinidad and came here with many of his siblings when he was sixteen, also to Hamilton, Ontario—they met in Hamilton. And then that’s kind of where we’re from. I grew up specifically with my dad’s family because my mum’s family kind of disowned her, but also was like super bougie and intense and weird, and didn’t really connect with us very much. And also for, I think a lot of religious reasons and racism reasons, and anti-blackness, very much did not associate very long with my mum. Like I met my aunt, like when I was in my thirties. Even though she lived like down the street. [Laughs] So, and that’s okay. I think that I, I mean, I think there was… it was hard for us, me and my sisters. I have two younger siblings growing up and, you know, there’s a lot of resentment and like, ‘Why don’t they wanna hang out with us? Why don’t they wanna know us?’ But we are very proud Trinidadian diasporic kids. And we were raised that way because, as you mentioned, my grandmother who also helped raise me was my paternal grandmother—I feel like I’m gonna cry even talking about her—but she is like the… she was one of the major parts of becoming who I am today. And I think that’s also part of my birthing practice and story, is that, the way that I have learned to love people is because of and through my grandmother. Intergenerational work is so much… so important to how I understand the world, but also, I think also a really big part of how I was brought into that by Indigenous communities here. So, I will be eternally and always indebted to my grandmother obviously, but also to my elders who are Mi’kmaq, who are Cree, who are Ojibwe from, specifically from Ontario, from Toronto. And Kingston, Ontario where I went to school and they also raised me. [Laughs] So that to me, I think, when I think about my story around how I got to who I’ve become, like who my family is, my family is Caribbean and Trinidadian first, and then we are everything else after. [Laughs] And we are also, you know, I grew up working class, I was a restaurant kid, my parents ran a roti shop in Scarborough my whole life. And so I was very much, you know, a working class kid that worked a lot. I came out as queer when I was like nineteen, so I’ve been a part of the QTBIPOC community in Toronto for a long time too; that’s also a huge part of my family and who also helped raise me. Yeah!
Can you tell us a bit more about abolitionist parenting?
Like, so abolition itself is such a big term, right? So I’m sure, it’s become more popular in the last few years, which is awesome. So now I think post, you know, BLM [Black Lives Matter] and, you know, the concept of abolishing the police is… has really brought out a lot of things, especially in, you know, what’s happening in America right now—the conversations have become more popular around what abolition looks like, and anti-carceral in particular. And so, we could talk about what abolition means as a concept, as an idea—and that’s a really big thing; I don’t know if we even have time in this time podcast, so you can get into what that is. [Laughs] But if you don’t know what abolition is, and you’re listening to this, I would very much suggest to read some stuff by Angela Davis, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, by Miriame Kaba, Mia Mingus. These are all really great folks who do lots of really important organising right now, currently. Shira Hassan who are doing really important work around abolition and what that looks like in practice, not just “abolish police and prisons,” but also how we can kill the cop in your head. And so, what that means for me as a parent is huge, right? So, it… and anyone will tell you, anyone who has a baby or a child will tell you. [Laughs] It is… being a parent will take everything that you thought you were working on and explode it, like tenfold, over and over again, constantly for the rest of your life. And so, being an abolitionist is a great example, and a great practice to consistently really reevaluate the ways in which we understand parenting, as a society, right? So even little things like: if you don’t finish your food, you will not get dessert, right? That is like a really important example of like, how people use punitive values around behaviour. So as a parent who is an abolitionist, who is also trying to like figure out how to work around a world that, you know, requires my kid to like, act a certain way, and be a certain way, and perform a certain way that I have to prepare her for. And the same part of that, I have to also now think about how I’m going to also do that work for, with her. Right? And I think that’s part of the really hard part. And so I guess my answer for you is that I’m still figuring that out. [Laughs] I don’t really have an answer for what it is exactly to be an abolitionist parent, but I think that for me, living in joy, being responsible as a settler, being anti-capitalist as much as possible. So, like even just little things like not having an abundance of toys, right? Thinking about where things come from. Being grateful, like gratitude, mutual aid, like thinking about how to, like not only share your stuff, but like, why do we need this right now? And how can we support other people to have access to the things that we also have? My daughter is twenty months old, so she’s very little still. But an example of what I’ve been trying to do is like, also thinking about how, as she’s getting older and she’s getting into the… what they call the “terrible twos”—mostly it just means that, you know, they’re having a lot of feelings. [Laughs] And so, thinking about how, when those feelings—and you know, my partner and I talk about this all the time, ‘cause my partner has two children of their own, who are older—but thinking about how, you know, we don’t wanna… we have to think about: is this, am I getting mad right now with this kid because they’re not being convenient, right?
And what is the question of convenience? And what does convenience mean when we’re actually just like, ‘I wanna sit at this restaurant and, but my kid doesn’t wanna sit down.’ And what does that mean for us as parents who are both trying to—you know, like I parent on my own and they’re a single, a solo parent as well—but how do we do this in a way that also doesn’t be a punitive measure, right? So, thinking about how we’re gonna respond to what our children need, that doesn’t result in a punitive action constantly, right? So like, how can we actually just meet them where they’re at, as people, as people who deserve care and deserve like full autonomy, over their choices and over their bodies and themselves. And it’s mind blowing, right? As a person who didn’t have that growing up.
It’s healing work, but it’s also terrifying and traumatic. [Laughs] And so that’s part of also abolitionist parenting, right? Is like, really having to confront ourselves around the ways that we have normalised very punitive ways of being in the world, and convenient ways that make it okay for other people to tolerate us. And that’s white supremacy too, right? So like, I think that that’s also an exercise in my own being like, ‘Yes, my dark skinned, brown baby is going to scream on the floor right now at this bakery in O’Reilly, Ontario’—‘cause we were… I’m just thinking of a time up north where we went—’and it’s gonna have to be okay with you, white woman,’ who’s staring at her and shaking her head at me. You know, like, I don’t actually care what you think about her behaviour. I know that she needs to get this out of her body so that she can move on and figure out how to like, deal with her feelings, you know? And I’m gonna stand right beside her and support her through that. And that, I think, is also part of it, is like, is normalising the fact that we are in our bodies. And kids do that so great, and in such a great way, right? They’re amazing at that. And I think we have to really… in order to decolonise ourselves, we have to also think about how to welcome ourselves back in.
Absolutely. I was using the word jungly. Do you ever hear your family using the word jungly?
You know, and it’s kind of like, I’ve kind of pressed down my inner jungly, which is this sort of wild, feral creature, you know?
And I’m trying to get the jungly back, you know?
Yeah, so I love that. And I was kind of thinking, as you were talking about your training as well, so, you know, you’ve trained as a paralegal. You’ve done so much work, you know, you’ve done work around housing, prison abolition, Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity.
You’ve already talked about just now breaking down white supremacy and anti-black racism. And I’m just sort of wondering, you know, how you kind of juggle all these things together, you know, with the community organising and the history of being a paralegal, you know? How do you, you know, keep all these different balls in the air, or do you, or don’t you or…?
[Giggles] Well, I will say that parenting has forced me to slow down, and has made it really easy to say ‘no.’ I think that what I was doing before—so all those balls that you were talking about in the air—I feel like it was a part of my life where I really felt like organising had to happen by any means necessary. Like I felt so urgent that I had to do it. And of course it still is. Like there are people on the front lines right now that are literally like, fighting for the land with their life, you know? And, you know, we see that in BC [British Columbia] right now and in unceded, like, Coast Salish and north of that, and we know what’s happening and that’s really important stuff. And I think I’m… I haven’t done as much stuff now. It’s kind of transformed into thinking about how we can do things differently. I think what I was doing was stretching myself so thin that I couldn’t actually do very much of anything else. And when I decided I wanted to get pregnant, it was a very intentional choice; a very on purpose thing. I always say that Surya is, my daughter is the most intentional thing I’ve ever done with my entire life. And it’s because I, in order to be able to get my body and mind and spirit right; in order to welcome her into myself, literally [laughs] I needed to take a step back from the things that were like, taking away from me, and actually figure out how to bring joy into my like, actual body. Joy and love and care and nourishment was something that, you know, also I think was important for me, learning about, you know, taking naps as a, you know, active form of resistance and care, you know? Like obviously Audre Lorde tells us, you know, about care being really important for our… for the revolution. [Laughs] But, you know, I think that when you’re in organising spaces that are very capitalist-based—and also like, dude-based, like very man oriented and white supremacy, hetero-, very like, ‘Get things done or you’re not useful’ kind of thing—it takes away from like, the possibilities that can come from like, taking care of each other as like the most radical thing you could ever possibly fucking do!
You were saying earlier, you know, that these kind of organising spaces are not very conducive to families, you know?
And, can you say a bit more about that?
Yeah. Like how are you organising? How do you expect to like, keep things going, when you won’t like, you know, when you don’t actually wanna like, have a young person or a baby or a child like learning about these things? Like I just think about how many meetings I’ve been in where like, childcare’s not even a consideration, right? And so then like, people are like, ‘Oh, where’s that person that signed up for that thing? Oh, she had a baby? Cool, okay. Who else can take that on?’ You know, like there’s no, like care; people have to make room for kids and babies and different families, right?
Like, when you look at organising spaces, there’s a particular age range of people who are doing it, right? They’re like, usually it’s like post-student-movement organisers, for a few more years, until they hit like their mid-thirties. And then you have a few sprinklings of people who are in their forties and fifties, but like, those folks are tired and like, don’t have support on their end either, right? Like, they are dealing with like, all kinds of like, senior abuse and housing issues and like, literal like, health issues. Like they’re… from years of organising, right? Like, no one’s taking care of our elders? And then we’re not taking care of our families either. So it’s like, what are we doing, right? And who are we actually organising for? It’s a really big gap. Like, I just don’t really understand how you can look at the people around you. Like, just like, you know, when we think about it for like, race or like gender stuff, right? You look at everyone in the room. If everyone’s white, you probably have a problem. [Laughs] Like, you probably have an organising space that’s most likely an issue. If you look around the room and it’s mostly dudes, you also have an issue. When you look around a room and there’s like, no people who are actually like, you know, invested in this past, you know, being in school, like it’s not, you’re not… it’s not sustainable. I think when you have children and you have an opportunity to like, to raise up people in movements, the movement looks different. And we see this in the [United] States when, especially in community-based stuff, I feel like we don’t have the same kind of community-based organising in Toronto or Canada that I’ve seen anyways. And it’s different, you know, like people from, who are Indigenous folks, Indigenous kids who are raised in this by their parents who are like, were on front lines with their parents, like, you know, they have a very different experience of that. And then they come to the city and they’re like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing?’ You know, like, ‘Where’s your food at your meeting? Where’s your childcare? Where are your elders?’
Like, where is everything, where’s everyone, you know? And they’re like… and I think that there’s… we have a lot to learn. We have a lot of things that we could take that were from, and like learn from… we have to actually take like a thousand steps back because we’ve moved too fast, right? And organising looks a very particular way, but it actually doesn’t need to, and I would love to see more like, community-based, neighbourhood-based organising. Especially when you have like, you know, conservatives being voted in. Who’s voting them in in Toronto, specifically, is brown people, right? It’s like, it’s people of colour. They’re the ones, it’s like aunties and uncles who are like, no one’s really engaging with them because everyone’s engaging with the same people who think the same way as them, right? So it’s like, we have to extend how we understand possibility.
I’ve always thought we need to start with the people closest to us. So, you know…
I give my parents such a hard time.
And then, you know, my biggest reward is when I hear them talking to their peers.
And kind of, and it’s like, ‘Yes, my work is done!’ [Laughs]
But you’ve made an interesting kind of transition, you know, with your work, you and Surya have been involved in this Pampers for Preemies campaign with the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation. And I’m gonna put a link to it in the show notes as well. But as a queer, solo-slash-autonomous POC parent, can you tell us how having babies in NICU, you know, affects parents?
Yeah. So, I guess I’ll give a little background about Surya. So, Surya Amaris is my now twenty-month-old adjusted little monster. [Laughs] She… and I say adjusted because she has two ages. So, she was born sixteen weeks early at the very ripe age of twenty-four weeks gestation. So, folks who don’t know, usually quote, unquote “term pregnancy” is anywhere between thirty-eight to forty-one [weeks], I guess? I don’t know, you’d know more than me about that Ruth, ‘cause you know, I never made it that far! [Laughs] I joke now, but you know, it was terrifying. But yeah, so she came sixteen weeks early, she was born at one pound three ounces which is like, she was like literally the size of my palm. Like she was incredibly small. She somehow came out breathing. And for folks who also don’t know, usually twenty-eight weeks gestation is when the body is completely like, formed. Like they’re, you have all the pieces, you have all the parts, it’s all like, you know, it’s all good to go. So, she came out four weeks before that, and your lungs are kind of the last thing that really kind of comes together. And so yeah, so she ended up being born super early, but was doing great. And she spent, and I spent… so I lived with her in the NICU, which is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. And we spent three months there. So, she lived in her little Isolette incubator, and I slept on a bench beside her for three months. And we got discharged at thirty-eight weeks, so two weeks earlier than her due date. And she’s still like the… like I took her back to Sunnybrook last week for a follow-up appointment and they were like, so floored that, you know, she’s talking and she’s walking and she’s running and she’s super social and she’s living her best life. So, for, if there’s any micro-preemie parents out there listening, or parents who are currently in the NICU or potentially going through preterm labour stuff, I actually wrote an article on my experience with pre-term labour on medium.com. So I’ll send you that link. But the impacts [laughs], I don’t even understand how people go through the things that are possible. And I think that’s a whole other podcast onto its own, around having premature babies and feelings that come up. But you know, there’s the common ones that are around feeling like you failed your child, you went to preterm labour, they didn’t make it to the term that they were supposed to, are they gonna live? You know, watching your child being intubated is a level of evil I would never wish for anyone, [laughs] let alone, you know, watching her like, body be like, air-bagged because they, you know, she stopped breathing when she’s like less than two pounds. It’s a very traumatic and very intense experience. I was one of the lucky ones that had to actually, like… we had a pretty like, smooth NICU experience and she was very quick to like, get through things. But it’s… they always tell parents, when you go into the NICU that, you know, you are going through the ultimate rollercoaster. So one hour she’ll be fine, and then the next hour she’s like, isn’t breathing anymore. Or, she chokes on her milk or she’s like not… or she has neck or she has some kind of awful other terrifying thing that nobody knows about or, you know, she’s jaundiced or, you know, something. So there still is something. So they were like… I was literally on my toes for three months. I barely slept. I was always just terrified for the other shoe to drop. So, it’s something that a lot of folks don’t even talk about or think about. And so that’s why I’ve been also really adamant that it was really important for me to continue advocating for micro-preemies and for NICU parents and families, especially as a person who went through it alone. So I have a huge community; I was never like actually alone, but what I mean [by] alone is that I don’t have a co-parent. And so, I’m an autonomous parent; I’m raising Surya on purpose, intentionally alone. And it is really exhausting and awful, and luckily I had a very big, and still have a very big community of both bio- and chosen-family to be, not only just in my life, but in Surya’s life. But the impact of that is gonna be like, I mean, she, at the age of twenty months already has so much medical trauma. Even going to a hospital now or to the doctor’s office is terrifying for her. So, you know, we also can’t discount the levels of body memory and bodily impact that that has, even at such a young age for someone so little.
And of course, yeah, obviously I’m like literally, constantly living with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from that. I still, sometimes in the middle of the night, wake up to just go check if she’s breathing and she’s, she’s more than fine, you know? Like she’s, we are almost two years in [laughs] and I’m still terrified of losing her. So, she still has her heart condition. She has what’s called a PDA. So it’s a… she has a heart murmur and a PDA, so she still has a cardiac condition. Which also, you know, during COVID times is terrifying because as we were seeing with Delta, the Delta variant, is that it was impacting children’s hearts. And that was a very scary time. But luckily—knock on wood—she’s okay, so far. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s so much. [Laughs]
I’m just sort of wondering, you know, what you’re experiences with health professions were like?
It was a mix. It was a mix, and I will say that, you know, the staff at Sunnybrook, they really had no choice. I didn’t leave. [Laughs] So they had to put up with me. But the… there’s nothing, I don’t think there is… it takes a very special person to be a NICU nurse. A very, very special person, to say, I’m going to like, really, just really, like, love up these babies. But also like, save their life constantly, you know? And watch them struggle and sometimes die. When I was in the NICU, there were lots of code pinks, which means that a baby needs to be resuscitated. And it was the most terrifying thing when, just seeing the entire staff of a NICU just run. Yeah. And I am forever indebted, actually, to the nurses and to the neonatologists and to the respiratory therapists and the cleaning staff and the lactation consultant, everybody in that NICU. I think that they’re, again, it’s like a very special kind of people who wanna do that kind of work. But you know, especially as a queer person, I definitely… it was a lot of advocating for myself, and also advocating for Surya. You know, lots of folks didn’t really understand why I didn’t have a dad listed on anything. And they’d be like, ‘Oh, like where’s…,’ because I remember asking the lactation consultant at one point, being like, ‘Oh, so if I eat peanut butter, like what if this kid has an allergy? Like, how do we know? Or like…’ I didn’t understand anything about allergies at the time, it’s just like, literally a week into pumping. And she was like, well, you know, was the dad, like, what is the dad allergic to? And I’m like, ‘Well, there’s no dad. I used a donor, an anonymous donor, so we don’t know his allergies.’ And she refused to like, she just kept saying ‘dad.’
You know, just like little things like that, you know? And it really, that dehumanises queer people in spaces, right? That like, you’re really like, not respecting my choice and my actual family. And that I am this kid’s only, sole parent. So, things like that or like, you know, they just didn’t believe that I would stick around. I think they had like a pool of the nursing unit of like, how long I would last sleeping on that bench. [Laughs] And they told me about it after, but it was like, it was a… it was funny, but, you know, like I think that… and I was very privileged that I have a job that let me, like, you know, I mean, we are also really… we have a lot of financial social programs, like social assistance programs that I was able to apply for in order to be there. I was able to like, you know, leave my housing and rent my place out, you know? So, there’s like lots of things that… I have a huge community that really like, supported me with food and like, just taking care of me. So, I had a lot, I didn’t have a kid at home. There’s so many pieces of it that, you know, like allowed for me to be in that space. And, you know, something that the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation is really trying to push for, is not having… is having what they’re calling zero separation in the NICUs. And it’s because, especially with COVID there was a time in COVID where they weren’t allowing for parents to be in the NICU overnight, for example. A huge reason why—and I will always swear by this, and a neonatologist actually in the NICU at Sunnybrook agreed with me and named it as a very important part—but Kangaroo Care and Skin-to-Skin [SSC] contact with kids that fragile and that medically-fragile and that small is, the level of the continuity of care and the level of impact that that has for their wellness and their ability to thrive is like, out of this world! Like, you can’t get anything better than that. There’s no drug that is better than Kangaroo Care or Skin-to-Skin. And so, a huge part of like the zero separation conversation is that like, you need to have parents or caregivers or people who are willing to even just hold these babies. They need to be in there. They need to be there constantly and it needs to be supported. And what we don’t think about is like, okay, so does that mean like childcare for the other kid? Does that mean, supporting families with food, with housing, with financial aid? Like, what is stopping with… you know, with mental health support? You know, like some of these parents are so traumatised. I know a lot of parents who couldn’t be in the NICU for very long, you know, because it was actually just really hard for them to stay there. And that’s real too, you know, so like, how are we actually supporting families in being in these spaces and also taking… and that takes off the load, right? Also, from like nursing staff and from like medical professionals in that space. And how do we support families in advocating for their kids? You know, like the… I will… I think parents are always gonna be the kids’ best advocate and also the best, like nowhere, like they know their kid best, you know? But, yeah. I had a great experience though otherwise, but I think that there’s lots of… that’s only because I was there all the time. And also, because I was advocating constantly. I think that if I was a parent, you know, that didn’t speak English well or didn’t have access to the same kinds of like, education or advocacy skills, I think it would be very, very different. And I actually saw how different it was. You know, Indigenous families that were there were treated like shit, you know, they were… it assumed the worst about them. But at the same time, we’re like really trying to, you know, I think there’s levels at which they’re trying to be better, but those, you know, that racial bias and that insidious ways that bias integrates itself into medical racism is, you can’t… it’s institutional, right? It’s not actually… it’s just, you’re not gonna get it. The whole system is built this way; it’s designed that way. Policies and bylaws and rules and procedure practices are built that way, right? So, it’s hard to move away from that. And yes, individuals make the change for sure, but that’s why it’s like, so important to like actually look macro level. But also, midwives and doulas save lives. So, I just wanted to put that in there too. [Laughs]
Excellent. You’re saying all the right things. [Laughs] So where can listeners find more of your work? You mentioned the Medium piece. Is there anything else you wanna point us to?
So, I think the best way to get in contact with me or connect with me about, like, anything that I’ve talked about today would be, I guess my Instagram. So, on my Instagram, I have a Link Tree that has, like all the information about like, the 2SLGBTQBIPOC family space for… I run a monthly solo-parents peer support group, and then I’m also gonna be starting up my own psychotherapy practice in the next coming years. So that will be something that will also be available. So that’s something that can all be found, I guess, on my Instagram. So, it’s @azboodram on Instagram. And I can send you the link as well.
Thanks so much Aruna for this wide-ranging personal and political conversation—all the way across the ocean in Toronto. I loved hearing about your diasporic history, your experiences of intergenerational parenting, and your own attempts to try and parent differently through abolitionist and autonomous parenting. Thank you also for the reminder about the importance of bringing family and care into community organising spaces, and for the advocacy work you’re doing as a parent of a preemie.
Thank you for having me.
OUTRO — You can find more episodes, transcripts and links at ruthdesouza.com/podcast. I’ll put some links up so you can keep in touch with Aruna’s work and find out more about some of the things we’ve discussed. If you’ve got something out of this conversation, please subscribe to the show, leave a rating or review and tell a friend. Next time on Birthing and Justice…
NATALIE KON-YU (guest) — It shocked me, the level of medical mismanagement that I went through, and I experienced.
I’ll be speaking with Natalie Kon-yu, a writer, academic and editor whose books and collections look at feminism, female friendship, and the politics of pregnancy and parenting. Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza is written and hosted by me, and recorded at my home on the traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin Nations. Our fabulous sound design and mix is by Jon Tjhia, who’s our producer and editor. Artwork for the show comes from Atong Atem, with design by Ethan Tsang, and Raquel Solier composed our theme music. This podcast is supported by funding from the RMIT University Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowship Program. Thanks so much for listening, we’ll catch up again soon.
END NOTES — Audio transcript edited and designed by Abbra Kotlarczyk, 2022. Note: the purpose of this audio transcript is to provide a record and pathway towards accessing all Birthing and Justice conversations. Editorial decisions around the omission of certain words and non-verbal utterances have been made purely for stylistic purposes towards greater legibility, and do not infer a desired ethics of speech.