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That Time My Neighbour Abandoned Her Baby

I lived in the East African country of Rwanda for two years. It was my first stop on a five-year long (and counting) adventure living and traveling overseas. I had chosen Rwanda for rudimentary reasons: 1. Five months before moving to Africa I decided I wanted to move Africa. 2. I was offered a job in Rwanda. 3. Rwanda was in Africa.

I had many experiences in Kigali which challenged me to examine my worldview. I came to appreciate a “cash economy” for its insistence that you only buy stuff when you have actual currency in your wallet to pay for it. I learned to look at traditional marriage as a very practical, sensible way to sustain a culture. Whether brought together by intense romantic love or crippling loneliness or simple pragmatism, combining two incomes and two sets of extended family made for a sensible way to build a life that would extend beyond yourself.

Rwanda — well, if I am being honest — many of the countries on the African continent, also confirmed for me that pronatalism destroys the lives of women and children. The dictionary definition of pronatalism sounds so deceptively benign: “a belief that promotes the reproduction of sentient life.” How harmless is that? Life is a precious gift. It is a miracle to be born. A greater miracle still to be guided with care through an entire life that extends well beyond one’s birth. Why wouldn’t reproduction of sentient life be a good thing to promote?

And this is what my time in Africa revealed. The continent went well beyond simply “promoting” reproduction. It made reproduction of life the only way for a female person to claim womanhood. It was such a bizarre experience living in a part of the world that thought nothing of making the word ‘woman’ synonymous with the word ‘mother’ and thinking even less of the ramifications of this thinking on women who were not built for or interested in motherhood. I encountered more than a few women in Africa who seemed to feel the same way about children as I did: they were cute and funny, but not worth the time and energy necessary to keep them whole and healthy until they moved out of your house. Unlike me, however, these women actually had children. Sometimes, several of them.

I am not an economist. I have no stats to offer that show the correlation between extremely pronatalist countries and rampant poverty among women. I am not a social scientist. Or an anthropologist. I cannot cite hundreds of case studies of women who were ambivalent (at best) about motherhood yet took it on anyway because that’s just what every day, every moment of their lives had been constructed to tell them women do: become mothers.

All I have is the story of Masha.

To understand why I even know the intimate details of Masha’s abandonment of her child, you have to understand the make up of our compound. There were two houses enclosed behind the iron gate of Beatrice’s property. She rented the main house, which was too big and had too many rooms, to me and my housemate. The bottom portion of the main house had been turned into a small, two-bedroom apartment, which was where Masha lived with her toddler and a house girl who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old. The other house, which was slightly smaller and sat at the bottom of the steep incline I had to walk up everyday to get home, was rented by a young-ish couple with a school-aged child. The husband was the only person on the compound, besides Masha, who was Rwandan and spoke both Kinyarwanda and French while the rest of us got by with only English.

One day, Masha disappeared. It took about a week for us to notice. The baby was screeching at an ear piercing volume, which wasn’t unusual. I had observed this child for months from my perch on the balcony as she did the toddler stumble out of the house, wobbling on her chubby legs. Always screaming. Always brought back into the house and comforted by the house girl. Occasionally, by Masha. Both my housemate and I noticed how the screeches seemed to be nonstop now and we didn’t hear Masha’s voice responding to them in her curt French. When coming back and forth onto the compound, we were sure that we saw the house girl as regularly as we always had. But, no Masha. As the second week of fairly consistent screeching was approaching its end, my housemate and I decided to go to the couple at the bottom of the incline to see if they knew what was going on.

“She is away,” the husband told us. “She left the baby with the girl and I think the girl said she went to Uganda, but she was only supposed to be gone for a few days.” There was a rumour that one of her gentlemen callers had treated her to a luxury East African holiday spanning several countries. A beautiful girl with a figure that would make even the most confident woman a little spiteful, this seemed a believable enough explanation for Masha’s absence.

“Well, does her house girl know when she’s supposed to be back? Has Masha left enough money to feed them and pay the cash power? Will they have electricity much longer?” The husband at the bottom of the incline had no answers, but we all came to the logical conclusion that the answers to all my questions were probably no. I mean, this woman had vanished into thin air as if she were the mother of an eighteen year old who had just gotten her college acceptance letter in the mail. Surely, she just took whatever francs she had in her wallet and thew them on the table before hopping in the car headed to Lake Victoria.

My housemate was shocked. I was not.

There’s a term from 1990s Black American slang. Game recognizes game. From the moment Masha sauntered up to the top of the house to introduce herself, I spotted a woman whose heart was not warmed by children. A woman who tolerated them. A woman who preferred them in small doses. There was something in the way she bounced that baby on her hip as if she were just carrying a sack of potatoes up the incline that registered with me. It reminded me of when I came across small children who I thought were cute. I’d do a quick game of peek-a-boo and smile at their giggles. And then I’d go back to reading my book as they tried to get more funny faces out of me. My interest in the interaction rarely extended beyond this initial moment.

The first time Masha sat in our living room for an afternoon cup of tea, the baby was with her. The cute little dumpling was clean, clothed and well fed. She seemed happy and playful. She also seemed as if she were visiting these new foreigners with her auntie who had been asked to babysit at the last minute. Masha was not neglectful of the child as she crawled around our house. But she was not particularly nurturing or doting of her either.

My housemate would comment on how cute the baby was often. Each time, I would agree that the baby was oh so precious and adorable. I would watch Masha tote her around as if she were a brand new handbag and think to myself: It’s such a shame no one told this young woman that she didn’t have to have a baby. She could have done something else that interested her.

I didn’t think why did she have a baby in the first place if she wasn’t that into kids?

Six months before Masha abandoned her baby, I was sitting in the living room of the main house for the second time. My housemate and I had just brought Beatrice our security deposit and she had her house girl bring out tea and cookies to celebrate. As we chatted, Beatrice threw the two of us that expert Rwandan up-down — a level of judgmental side eye that can’t be truly understood unless experienced. Here we were, two women a long way out of our 20s who had no husbands and no children, yet were renting her gigantic home in the most expensive part of Kigali. Through her English-speaking son, she asked, “You have no husbands. No children. What happened to your life?” My housemate, a divorced woman who was childless by circumstance, chuckled uncomfortably and explained that she had put up with more than enough from her ex-husband before she filed for divorce and that their marriage, unfortunately, had not resulted in children. She got a little choked up on the “we never had kids” part. When it was my turn, I said marriage had never really interested me, though I could be talked into the right one and there was nothing that interested me less than loud ass children roaming around my house and touching stuff that didn’t belong to them.

Silence fell upon our pleasant afternoon tea. Beatrice’s up-down left my housemate and focused only on me. A brief conversation happened between her and her son, which seemed to be causing the son some distress. When he returned to speaking English, our conversation was suddenly about being prepared for the dry season and making sure the water tank was full.

Three months before Masha left her two-year-old with the seventeen year old house girl who was likely illiterate with no other employment opportunities, I was having a drink with an acquaintance who would soon become the only good Rwandan friend I would make in my two years in Kigali. She was mentioning how her recently married cousin had just announced her pregnancy to the family. “Well, dang,” I joked with my acquaintance. “She and the hubs didn’t waste no time on the procreation part, huh?” My acquaintance nonchalantly responded, “Oh, that’s just Rwanda. If you don’t get pregnant after the first year of marriage, people start talking. Asking questions. Wondering what’s wrong with you.”

I already knew why Masha had become a mother though she probably never really wanted to parent a child.

When I chatted with Nina Steele, she talked about being an African woman who bought into pronatalist conditioning, never questioning or challenging it. Having tried for several years to conceive, she eventually decided to accept that infertility issues would stand in the way of giving her husband a child. It was accepting this infertility instead of fighting against it that made her realize she didn’t even feel that strongly about motherhood. As a matter of fact, she was grateful that she would never experience it. She could enjoy the simple, yet fulfilling life she and her husband shared without the disruption in free time, expendable income and sleep that children brought. “I grew up in a very poor village in Ivory Coast and kept seeing these women have babies even though they couldn’t feed them. My own mother struggled with taking care of me and my siblings.” As an educated woman with an economically stable husband, Nina’s circumstances were obviously much more favorable than the women she watched struggle to raise children in her small village. However, the infertility in her marriage forced her to really reconcile with this expectation that she should want to have children. This was just good African values — marriage and motherhood. Though she had the financial means to raise children, was there any real desire to do so?

By the time Masha sauntered back onto the compound, the husband at the bottom of the incline had tracked down her relatives who had driven to Kigali and picked up the baby and house girl. I was not at home when she arrived, but I was told she came back with a really long story that painted her absence in a much more serious light than an extended vacay with Bae. Her child and house girl were back on the compound shortly after her return.

I forgot why Masha eventually moved out of the apartment at the bottom of the main house. She could have just found a better place in a more affordable neighbourhood. She could have moved back to Giseyni, which is where I was told her family had come from when they were told about their abandoned kin.

I have thought about her several times in the years that have passed since I left Kigali. It is very likely that she now has two children. It is more than possible that the birth of the second sentient life was celebrated with great gusto by every person in her life. I am sure the second child is clothed, clean and well fed. And much like the first, it is being parented by a woman who is indifferent at best to the demands of motherhood.

When Marriage Becomes God

This is not a take down of marriage. I am old enough to know that I know very little about almost everything. I am ill equipped to critique an institution that has sustained societies around the globe for generations. I am an expert at staying in my lane and minding my own business. Why some single women can’t envision an entire lifetime lived without a husband is not my lane. Questioning women who expend energy trying to salvage fractured marriages is not my business.

I will own up to this: I don’t get it. Marriage and why some would want it — crave it, even — yes, I completely get that. Building of wealth. Support while raising children. Commitment to more than just passionate, romantic love. Yeah, I dig why this would be a goal for folk. What confounds me are the assumptions about those of us who don’t crave the institution.

In one of the many online women’s groups I belong to, relationships were discussed. Someone commented on women who “allow” men to date them for years, never requiring — demanding — a wedding ring. The implication seemed to be these women devalued themselves. Were “allowing” men to waste their time. Most who replied to the post agreed that women (of a certain age) who did not end up with at least the possibility of a ring after a year or two of courtship were failing themselves. “Why would you continue to date with no goals for the relationship?”

I didn’t comment on the thread. It was far more informative to read all the perceptions of what made a 21st century partnership acceptable. And these perceptions seemed to have not evolved much from those born out of the 18th century. If a woman over the age of twenty-five enjoys the company of a male companion and they profess love for each other, then the escalator should arrive at marriage with expedience. The further away from thirty she was, the more it could be understood why she might be on a slow-moving escalator. However, if there were no eventual marriage and the couple did not both get off the escalator, then…this was a failure. And the bulk of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the wasted woman who had allowed herself to be in a loving, monogamous relationship for years with no “goals.”

For a surprisingly large number of women, there is nothing else that validates a relationship more than having paperwork done on it. The assumptions about a woman who ended up unmarried after more than three years in a relationship were absurd. First, it was assumed that the ringless woman wanted to be married, but was afraid to pressure the boyfriend and chase him away. It also seemed to be understood that long term courtships not leading to marriage were just 36 months of hook ups with the same dude. “It’s like they’re just having good sex and then when that’s no longer fun, they move on.” This comment made me chuckle. As is the case in many adult relationships, unmarried couples are intimate. And just like when a married couple decide to end their union and the sex stops, the unmarried couple who dissolve their relationship also stop having sex with each other. When they meet someone else they feel connected to, they start having sex again. How is this evidence of anything other than grown ups behaving like grown ups?

What I don’t get is the deification of marriage. I am confused about how in this, the century of our lord: the 21st, matrimony is still being held up as if it is Christ on the cross offering women salvation. I will show up to anybody’s wedding with a nice gift and my hand reaching for a champagne glass. I will congratulate bride and groom and with sincerity wish them well. However, I would do that for my homegirl who decides she is quitting her job and starting her own business. I would big up a co-worker who bought a house. If my homie stayed in her job and never opened her own business, I would see no reason to be concerned about where her career was going. If my co-worker remained in his rental apartment, I’d see that as just a lifestyle choice. Why is there such a high moral value placed on the lifestyle choice of marriage? Why is the acquisition of a spouse seen as some sort of a prize and to not win one is to signify a loss?

When I chatted with Tracy Adams about her decision to divorce her husband, she spoke about how many people placed the word only in front of the words three years when they found out she and her husband were splitting up. “Y’all giving up after only three years?,” they asked incredulously. The implication being that to make such a choice required more suffering and agonizing than she had already put in through those 36 months. See, this was not the same as the homegirl who started her own business, realized she was better meant for the stability of being an employee so closed the bakery and went back to her old job. This was not the same as the man who began saving for a down payment on his house, but after doing some investigating into the housing market decided it better to continue renting. Tracy’s decision to hand back her prize after only three years represented a moral failure. She didn’t simply try to live a choice, realize it was the wrong one and then correct the error.

As Tracy said on Unchained. Unbothered., there is an expectation that women value being chosen so badly that they continue to work doggedly at a marriage, even when their gut tells them the marriage is not right. Non stop emotional labor is a fair trade off to hold on to the living, breathing proof they had won.

But, Aren’t Women Natural Caregivers?

My good friend, Lorraine, had what I like to call a Come-to-Jesus moment. She came to the realization that the life she thought she wanted as recently as a decade ago would have made her miserable. Furthermore, she awakened to this truth: she wasn’t even hardwired for the life she’d thought she wanted.

“I think the universe did me a favor by keeping my soulmate away from me during my childbearing years. If I had to do this shit every day for YEARS, well, I would make my husband and our offspring miserable.”

Like many women, Lorraine is single and childless mostly by circumstance. At 48, she has found herself unmarried and without a child mostly because she never made much effort to acquire either. She would have preferred a husband (she thought) and if their marriage resulted in children, she would have enjoyed caring for said children (she thought.) On a recent trip home for the Christmas holiday, she became the primary caregiver for the old folks in her family. Elders who were not so frail that they needed full time help, but who took full advantage of having a younger, more able bodied daughter and niece to run errands, cook meals and negotiate the tedious details of doctors’ appointments, prescription refills and grocery shopping. Lorraine cared for the adults who had once cared for her, but she was clear that she did not enjoy it. She also found she did not naturally possess the skills (or patience) one would need to be a good caregiver.

Lorraine joked that she was “shook hard” by this epiphany. She didn’t find honor in managing the lives of family members she loved dearly? She didn’t take pride in serving as the caregiver? Found it the complete opposite of a joyful necessity? She thought about how she had imagined her adult life as a teenager and young woman. While she was not aching to be a wife and mother, she assumed that when she became both, she’d fall happily into the roles. That’s what women do, right? Sure, women have their moments of fatigue when taking care of their families, but overall, they relished in the role. Eventually came to see it as some sort of super power. I am the backbone of this family. I keep us together. Right?

On a recent episode of my podcast, I talked with Doreen Yomoah about this assumption. That women, by virtue of their gender, have some innate skill, which makes them the default option when a child needed to be nurtured or an older relative tended to. Doreen works for a research center that explores this persistent myth that women, in general, are genetically predisposed for the role of primary caregiver. Through her work, she sees how many of us are so bought into the messaging that it should be women who take care of children, husbands, and parents that we never question why women are so “good at” taking care of others. Is it because we possess this special gene that men lack or is it because from the time we are old enough to be aware of it, people are making us take care of others whether we want to or not?

Young girls get their training for caregiving at Thanksgiving when they find themselves alone in a room full of toddlers they did not give birth to. Hours before, these toddlers would have arrived with adults who were legally and morally responsible for them. However, the 12-year-old girl cousins happen to look up from the television to find babies crawling around them. Their aunts and uncles have gone off to some other part of the house to hang with each other and just assumed their offspring would be kept alive by these older children who had been blessed with the caregiving gene. Meanwhile, the 12- year-olds who were not blessed with this magical gene are outside playing football.

It is very telling that even in this, the year of our Lord: 2019, women who come to Lorraine’s conclusion are surprised when discovering this about themselves. I don’t like giving care and I don’t believe I am predisposed to it. As I said to Lorraine, “I’ve known I was not a caregiver since I was 12.” While I may seem more enlightened for having my Come-to-Jesus moment while still a girl, I instinctively knew that I could not vocalize my knowing feeling that being a primary caregiver would not suit me. That I would be opting out of the role as soon as I was allowed to.

Because it was clear to me as a girlchild with little control over my daily life, I would not be allowed to say no to what so many assumed was my duty. Children would be left in my care without my permission and a cursory, “I am just going to sit in the front room talking with your mama for a while. All you have to do is give him his bottle when he cries.” Helping my grandmother manage her house would become my Sunday responsibility before it would my older and more capable brother’s. I would be expected to be a free babysitter to my sister’s child well before anyone ever thought to ask my brothers if they could go over to her apartment and take the baby off her hands for a few hours.

Yes, it goes without saying that some women are blessed with this magical gene of caregiving. These women do find honor and joy in nurturing children and managing the lives of vulnerable family members. However, as Doreen said on Unchained. Unbothered., “Women are just socialized from the time we are born to be primary caregivers. We are not naturally better at it than men.”

I am not suggesting that women abandon their old folk and refuse to care for their children. What needs to happen is we start calling a thing a thing. Women still take on the lion’s share of caregiving because we exonerate men from the duty even when many of them are just as capable as we are. There is no caregiving gene. There is just training. Girls are drafted into the training even before they’ve reached puberty. Boys get to skip it, if they choose. Not surprisingly, they opt for football.

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