RIFT VALLEY INSTITUTE OF BUSINESS STUDIES COLLEGE.
Before she arrived, I commanded her a lemonade. She didn’t be long, she had said. I was sitting in a booth in front of the door. Karen. Care. Karen. The outside light was bright, shed like a starving flood through the door. Somewhere music streamed in. I sat down for company with her lemonade and saw her sweat rub the glass. I was thinking of nothing, looking around at time and life, as if I were a rock in a flush, wondering what kind of conversation I would have with the lemonade if it could speak. I was wondering what kind of conversations.
“Lemonade, how have you gone here?’ I would ask and sigh and tell,
“Life, man. Life, man. It gave me citrus.”
I failed to notice her arrival because she was wearing a blue t-shirt similar to some of the wait staff behind the counter. Suddenly she was standing over the table, smiling, standing knee-deep in some trendy camouflage gumboots. She was straight from a pet project, a small charming farmhouse she and her husband Tee – an architectural designer – built in the scraggy nether regions of Ngong. It was something that was planted as a curiosity, sprouted into a passion and then blossomed into a business. They called it Windy Mills Cottage because, well, it faces the windmills of Ngong. She had been there dusting and cleaning and arranging and readying the grounds for a new client. Playing house for a home that is open to others.
I hugged her and said, “I didn’t notice you. It’s because of your shirt, it resembles the wait staff’s shirts.” She laughed mirthlessly, settling before me. She removed her mask and folded it, placing it neatly at the end of the table. Then she placed her phone on top of it. Then followed her car keys on top of her phone. A scrupulous pile of order. She did all these with the same deliberate OCD-like precision with which Denzel folded his napkin and cutlery in the movie Equalizer. In stark contrast to her studious sense of order was my debris of intertwined earphone cords, mask and serviettes.
She proceeded to order those famous big Java samosas that defy logic. The ones that weigh 23kgs and have a sharp end that can be used as a bayonet. I bet that if you tried going through airport security with a Java samosa you’d be stopped.
“Sorry, you can’t get into the plane with this thing,” an airport security guard would say.
“Why? It’s a samosa!”
“It’s a weapon. It can be used to maim and hurt,” he would say, turning it over in his hand, “You can commandeer a plane with this thing. This is a weapon. Sorry.” Then he’d toss it in that ravenous bin that devours shampoos, nail cutters and scissors. I think they should actually rename them in the menu as Relief Food.
When said samosa was delivered to the table on a forklift she doused it in tabasco sauce as I stared, trying to make sense of the tattoos running along her left arm and her right wrist and the septum piercing hanging from her nose. “So,” she said, cutting into her samosa, “Where do you want me to start?”
“Start from the part where you said you wanted to get on a plane and run away from your children and your husband and never come back again,” I said.
She chuckled, slowly setting her fork on the plate, chewing thoughtfully.
“No, let me start by telling you about my children,” she said, “I never wanted children. Ask anybody in my high school, I wasn’t into the whole thing of getting married and having kids and playing mom. I knew from an early age that kids weren’t my jam. There was a time rumor had it that Chris Kirubi lived in a penthouse in his own building in town, remember that time?”
“That’s exactly the life I wanted growing up. I wanted to make lots of money and live in a penthouse in the middle of tao.”
But then she met Tee. Quiet Tee who loved drawing and yoga and things. This was before urbanites started going about with yoga mats hanging from their backs as a social proclamation. Tee was already doing “Hand Giraffe” and “Foot Penis,” poses. Somehow Tee disrupted things, started dating her then married her. The wedding caught all her friends off-guard, she says, because she was not a marriage crusader. Soon after, she discovered that a baby was growing in her. “I completely freaked out when I discovered I was pregnant when we were dating. I didn’t tell Tee. In fact I ghosted him for three months,” she said, “Then I quit my job and watched TV and ate throughout the whole pregnancy. Then the real hell started when I gave birth.”
First her nipples were constantly cracked and painful. They bled. On top of that she also had hemorrhoids. “I was in such pain I literally lived on laxatives for a whole year. My ass was cracked. I couldn’t go to the loo for number two. I had this very very painful vein in my ass. I couldn’t even sit or sleep. I’d sleep like this.” She slants to the side like a sinking ship. I tried to remember if I’ve ever interviewed anyone in my life who talked about a cracked nipple and a vein in their ass while casually eating a samosa and nothing came to mind. This is called career progression, in case you are wondering. It can only get better, I thought to myself.
Only for her it never got better. The baby cried constantly. She slept less and less. She was irritable and constantly tired and the baby didn’t care that her nipples were so painful, or that her ass was cracked, all he wanted was his meals. She also didn’t know what to do with him. She didn’t know what mothers did in most situations. “We can’t have any more babies,” she told Tee one day. “I can’t possibly do this again.” Two years later, after she had started a new job she discovered she was pregnant again. She was dismayed and angry with herself. How now? Wasn’t the first time hard enough? She bought a book titled, “What To Expect When Expecting,” by Heidi Murkoff and it was Murphy’s law: everything that could go wrong as described in the book, she experienced. She grew fat, she piled on 30kgs, three of those kilograms on her nose. “I once ran into a friend of mine at the Kenchic in Westlands and he said, ‘Mo, you look like a piglet.’” I was so mad. I wandered through the baby shop at the mall, furious.
Her second born was born at 3.7kgs. A dramatic child, she says. “He didn’t sleep, he cried all the time and I remember switching off and going on autopilot.” She said. When she went to the clinic to get the measles jab she was asked if she has considered any new contraceptives. “I told them that I hadn’t, seeing as I had been breastfeeding exclusively for nine months, there was no way I could get pregnant,” she said. “I mean, everybody knows that breastfeeding is the best contraceptive.” The next day I went to do medical tests for insurance and my pregnancy test came back positive. I started laughing. There was no way I could be pregnant. I was breastfeeding! I was hysterical. I was laughing so hard the nurses thought I had lost my mind. You must be f***ng joking, I kept telling them, laughing. They called Tee and told him, “Come pick your wife, we think she has gone crazy.’”
For the rest of the pregnancy she never attended one prenatal clinic. She was in denial, in a daze throughout, like someone walking down a big farm at night, eating and singing dirges. Nine months flew by in a blur of disbelief. The last night before she gave birth she was so big she couldn’t climb up the staircase to the bedroom so she slept downstairs, on her side, like an impaled great white whale washed ashore.
“At the hospital my water broke but the nurse thought I still had a few hours left to give birth,” she said. “I had dilated six centimeters. I was in the labour ward when I felt the baby pushing between my legs. Tee was there, I said, ‘Tee, I think the baby is coming.’” Tee blinked and went to call the nurse who said, no way, the baby won’t come out until a few hours later. “When Tee came back I was pushing and the baby’s head was out and after a few pushes the baby’s head hit the bed.” She laughed.
“No way.” I said. A bouncing baby, literally.
“I’m telling you! Tee held the baby in a leso as she started crying and the woman in the next bed, asked, “Is that a baby crying?” [No, it’s a goat], because she couldn’t believe I had a baby in the ward. When the nurse came with a delivery kit her jaw dropped when she saw Tee holding the baby. Then they started scurrying about,” She rolled her eyes,” cutting the placenta and things.”
When they got back home, she found their two sons sick and their Help threatening to quit. “I told her to pack her shit and leave,” she said, “I call Help’s bluff when they try to manipulate you. So there I was with a newborn and two unwell boys. I started it on a rough patch. I think that’s when things started taking a turn.” The tedium of motherhood set in in a rough way; lack of sleep again, crying baby, visitors who come to see the baby and expect to be fed, not caring if you haven’t slept a wink. I was grossed out by the act of breastfeeding. I was very unhappy. People think that if you have been a mother once it’s easier to be a mother again and again. It’s not! Every new baby sets you back, you start mothering afresh because every baby is a new experience. You are not allowed to say ‘I don’t know’ as a mother. People assume you just know. You are expected to take care of the baby but nobody is taking care of you. On social media I could see my friends changing jobs, travelling, showing off their bodies in bikinis, while I was exhausted and bitter at home, a baby constantly latched onto my painful breasts. I grew increasingly unhappy and resentful that motherhood had taken over my life, taken away everything I was. I was losing the person I knew. I’d go to work and come back home very late deliberately, avoiding having to mother, hating being reminded about what I had lost, what I had become.”
One day they were watching TV at night, sprawled on the couch. The babies were all tucked in. The house experiencing that strange interlude of silence that houses with children sometimes get. “Tee looked at me and asked, ‘Are you okay? You look sad. You have been sad lately’ I was sad. Of course I was sad. I had been sad a long time. I looked around at the toys strewn in the living room, what my life had been reduced to, a heap of plastic toys and domesticity, someone who cleaned up and breastfed and worried about what people ate and when they took a bath. Someone who gave and gave and kept giving. I asked him, Is this it? Is this what my life will be? Will I just be a mother? This is not me. He looked at me silently, and Tee is one of those chill guys. He then said, ‘Mo, I can’t make you happy, the children can’t make you happy. You can only find happiness within yourself.’ I was so mad. You are my husband, I thought, your job is to make me happy! How could he say that? But I mulled over this over a few days and I grudgingly admitted that he was right. I had to find my own happiness. So I started making plans to leave this life of motherhood and wifehood. I started applying for an Australian visa.”
She was going to move to Australia and join her girlfriend who had just moved there. She was going to go and start her own life because this life of raising children wasn’t hers. She wasn’t happy. She didn’t think she was particularly good at it. In Australia she wasn’t going to be a mother or a wife, she was going to be Mo, the girl she was before all the responsibilities came along. As the Visa application dragged on she stepped back from being a mother. She switched off. She didn’t know what the kids ate, when they showered, what clothes they wore. “Tee did everything. He went for school functions, he did homework, he managed the house while I plotted my escape.”
Then she started seeing a therapist who she told that she found no joy in motherhood, in raising children. “We choose to have sex with our spouses but children don’t choose to be born. We bring them here,” her therapist told her one day, “Unless you walk away you have to choose what kind of a mother you want to be. If you take away all of people’s expectations of motherhood, what kind of a mother would you like to be? If you choose to stay, what does that look like?”
“It then became very clear to me. I decided that I’d choose when and how much time I wanted to give motherhood.” She said as her half-eaten samosa was carted away. “I stopped stressing about what kind of a mother society expected me to be and became the mother I wanted to be. People work Monday to Friday and then leave Sunday for family days. That’s prescriptive and it was not for me. If you call me on a Sunday and say, can we meet for cocktails in the afternoon I will not think, ‘Oh today is Sunday I should be with my children,’ I will go for cocktails. I don’t do that conventional shit no more, Biko. But I will also decide to go off grid on certain weekends and spend time with kids. I am dedicated to raising my children in a way that most people might find eccentric but it’s my way. For example, I don’t feel that my children have to feed three meals a day. Who said? When I ask them, guys what do you want for dinner and they say cornflakes! Then we will have cornflakes. We don’t have mealtimes in our house. Except Sundays, we don’t sit at the conventional table for meals. We can eat from bed or from the couch or outside. You don’t want to shower twice a day? Don’t. Last year my son didn’t shave all year. I let him. Kids are people with opinions and feelings; express them. My second son dresses in my dresses in the house. I let him. He is creative, he’s expressing himself as a person, as I am allowed to express myself as a mother. My daughter at some point had taken to using the dog’s plate to eat her meals. I let her. She’s the sweetest girl. We don’t have a sleep routine in our house.I want to raise my children to be open minded and expressive. Because I have chosen how to operate as a mother, I have invariably given them the independence. Parenting was killing me because I was subscribing to ideals of what a mother should be. Now I’m not. I choose what I want first; what do I want for myself? Only when I have answered that question is when I give motherhood what I feel is enough, without letting it take from me. Because I don’t care what anybody thinks I should be as a mother, I have found freedom and I don’t feel like I’m losing myself because motherhood will make you lose yourself if you let it.”
“Did motherhood make you resentful?” I asked.
“Yeah. It did. I felt like it changed me. It took away who I was. I couldn’t recognise myself anymore, I couldn’t remember who I was before or what I wanted. Being a parent was killing me. But the irony was that what stopped me from fleeing from my children were my children. I love them. But I also wanted to be free. I wanted days to myself.” She finishes her lemonade. “As my children grow older now, they are 13,10 and 9 – they require less and less of me. I can’t remember the last time I woke up on a weekend morning to make them breakfast, they make their own breakfast. I now choose when and how much I give of myself to them and not feel guilty. I’m not the conventional mother, I don’t want to be the mother anyone thinks I should be. I want to be the mother I want to be.”
I got up and went to the bathroom. When I came back I said, “Tell me about these tattoos on your arms.”
On her left shoulder she has a big tattoo of a dreamcatcher to remind her of her dreams. There is another one of three feathers that represent her three children. “I’m not doing anything without my children, I’m not leaving them. They are my feathers.” Then there is a tattoo of butterflies which represent the three hardest years when she was struggling with motherhood. “You must know the process when the worm struggles to become a butterfly, it’s not an easy struggle but at the end the butterfly is such a beautiful end product,” On the other arm is a tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes and one of a mandala which she proceeds to explain to be about Buddhism and energy. “You receive the kind of energy you give.” Under her left wrist are three animals: a zebra, a panda and a bunny. “Each represents my children’s favourite animals.”
I’ve been telling everybody I meet about her to hear their opinion. Mothers especially. Some punch the air and say, ‘More power to her!” like it’s a fight for freedom while others sigh gently and ask sympathetically, “Is she seeing a therapist?”
She did. That and a life coach. They helped her out of the funk.