Location: New York City, USA – Life in My Shoes with Cynthia Edorh discussing her Togolese-Canadian heritage, single parenting in New York, and the need for community connection.
Interview by Nicole Lutze
Shoutout: We’re proudly partnering with Birkenstock to bring you Life In My Shoes: A series of interviews with parents from all around the world.
I’m a 39-year-old photographer, sales executive, and single-Mum living in Brooklyn, though I grew up in Montreal, Canada. My mother is French-Canadian, and my Dad is from Togo in West Africa. My daughter Chloé is seven, and we have an eight-month-old Beagle puppy named Sunny.
I moved to New York after graduating from University in Montreal, where I majored in photography. I came for a one-year internship at Sony Music, working in their photo archive. I moved with two suitcases, and despite loving Montreal and having no desire to leave, I’ve been in New York for 20 years.
I’ve lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for 18 years and have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s a two-bedroom apartment in the top floor of a brownstone building. Over the years, there have been major changes in this home. I first moved in with a roommate, she later moved out and my boyfriend moved in. Then, we got married and had Chloé, and now it’s another new reality with just the two of us. I believe when you live somewhere that isn’t the place you grew up, you need a home base, and this apartment has been my stability.
Last March, right at the start of the pandemic, my Dad unexpectedly passed away. We have a car here, so I packed us up for a week, and we drove north. The only thing on my mind was to see my Dad that day. Then, so much changed in a week. We went from planning a funeral to being told we couldn’t have a service. Then things just escalated by the minute. The borders closed, schools closed, and everything went into lockdown. There was no reason for us to run back to New York, so we stayed at my Mum’s house. We played it one week at a time and ended up staying half a year. I worked remotely, Chloé did school, ballet and martial arts remotely. We rented a lake-house for a couple of weeks over summer, immersed ourselves in nature, and Chloé practised her French with her grandmother, her uncle and friends. Everyone had their own experience with the pandemic, but for us, it was time to reconnect with nature, a reset, a chance to pause and rethink our busy lives. .
I spent a lot of time taking photos as a kid. My father loved photography, and so did my maternal grandfather. I inherited all his cameras, and I loved the darkroom. My Dad gave me my first camera when I was six or seven, which I have now given to my daughter after discovering it in our family home in Canada last summer. The camera has gone full circle, which is beautiful.
My Dad didn’t have too many blood relatives in Canada but always had a huge community of friends that became his family. On weekends, my parents had big dinner parties, and lots of kids would come over. I am certain people are meant to live in a village setting not alone in their own apartments, community is important to me, as it was to my Dad. Chloé and I know and trust our chosen family: neighbours colleagues and friends, we’ve grown up with many of them over the last 18 years. Chloé has so many aunts and uncles who aren’t our blood relatives.
School is back now, but only three days a week, so community becomes important in a new way. We know another French family in the neighbourhood, Chloé goes to their home every Thursday and their daughter comes to our house each Friday. We are all finding new ways to be creative in this pandemic and help each other out.
Since returning to New York in September, we noticed community fridges had popped up in our neighbourhood. During the pandemic, food banks were overwhelmed and underfunded, and there wasn’t enough for everyone. There are also people who aren’t necessarily homeless; they’re just food insecure. They may have lost jobs, are waiting for unemployment benefits, or have a gap in their pay and can’t feed their children. So the fridges were established as a solution.
Every week, Chloé and I now buy extra fresh produce and drop it off in a fridge. We also give a few hours each month to help our friends manage the fridges, and pick up donations from grocery stores. It’s important Chloé understands how lucky we are to have all we need, and that inequalities in this country are real. I want Chloé to know life isn’t just about looking after your family; you need to care for your community as well. She takes the whole process seriously because she knows she’s helping other people. It’s great to see her and other kids involved.
I always wanted to be a Mum and see it as the biggest gift. As parents, we think we are teaching our children, but ultimately I learn so much from her every day. It feels like an honour to become a mother, though obviously, it’s a lot of work and a lifelong commitment; there’s never a break from it.
Initially, I had issues conceiving. We tried for a year and had multiple miscarriages, which was tough. One of the most surprising things about motherhood is how many people go through similar conception problems and loss, yet no one talks about it. At the time, you are completely in the dark, and I didn’t talk about it back then either. But I now know miscarriage is common, and I want to share my experience so other people know they’re not alone.
Healthcare in the US is a disaster, and I’m absolutely grateful to have an employer who provides good healthcare for employees families. When we returned to the US in September, Chloé started to have some symptoms and was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. It was such a hard time but it really drove home the need for healthcare reform. I would get upset because her treatments were repeatedly delayed until our healthcare confirmed if they would cover each type, but I simply cannot imagine being a parent with no healthcare coverage. How long would their child’s journey to wellness be if they couldn’t access care, treatment or medication?
My parents were complete opposites from heritage to personalities; it made my childhood very interesting. My Mum was a busy and dedicated Obstetrician and Gynecologist who worked a lot. My Dad was also very busy. He met my Mum in college when she was in medical school, and he was completing his MBA. They got married, had me, and made a family decision that he would work in medical administration to support my Mum and other local doctors. Because Canada has a publicly funded healthcare system, doctors earn fees on a per patient basis, which are then billed and reimbursed. Because they both had busy careers, my brother and I got to be independent early on.
My Mum was excellent at leading by example. She taught us discipline, rigour and independence by working hard andproviding for her family. That is something I am very aware of as a parent, children learn a lot more from actions than they ever will from words. I am also very hands-on and present with Chloe, even with a demanding career. She and I are so close; we talk about everything and go everywhere together.
My Dad was obsessed with education, and because the French ruled Togo while he was growing up, he wanted the French education system for his children as well. So my brother and I went to a French Lycee, about 30-minutes away from our home. I attended for ten years. The classes were all in French, and my family only spoke French at home. It was a fantastic school, and also wonderful because it provided diversity that was lacking in our home town. The students were from all over the world. Chloé also goes to a French school here in Brooklyn and we speak French together. Our language is a legacy I can give her, and something that I think is so important. Giving your child another language is a gift, and it also connects her with her family and our history.
Chloé is a very picky eater, but because of her recent diagnosis, food has become the centre of our world because the right foods can be healing for her. We’re learning so much right now and having to be creative. Like, Chloé won’t eat spinach, but iron is important for her recovery, so we juice it and turn it into a popsicle. She’s also involved in the preparation and cooking of her food, which helps get her excited.
When I was growing up, my Dad was really into cooking, and my brother went to culinary school, probably because of his influence. Dad taught us to make traditional Togolese stews, which was a great way of connecting us to Togo since we couldn’t travel back there regularly. His favourite stew had spinach, shrimp and tomato in it, and he always said I made it well. Chloé and I cook the same foods he taught me to make, and the traditions and memories of my family and culture live on.
When staying in Canada last year, we had formal sit down dinners as a family every night. Chloé enjoyed those because in New York, we’re busy and don’t always sit down together at night, but we’ve been continuing that tradition since returning.
As a kid, I have many memories of being creative with my friends. We would make up plays or ballet performances, and I spent time drawing, painting, and of course, taking photos. My mother loves to sew and taught me to hand sew, but I never progressed to using a sewing machine. My Dad was very creative in how he thought, how he lived his life, and believed in taking the path less travelled.
Chloé is also very creative, and I encourage it. Because many of our friends and extended family are artists, photographers and filmmakers, she’s always with me on a set or at a gallery opening, and we visit museums almost every weekend – even throughout the pandemic. And I think that’s part of living in New York. What’s the point of living in the city if you’re going to have a regular routine of working and coming home every night? I bring her everywhere.
She also started sewing classes and is already so good. It’s insane how much they can make in a two-hour class. She made a flower cushion this week and a handbag last week. In her spare time she is always drawing and creating. Just the other day she made Barbie clothes out of balloons.
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