Caroline Otieno: The Leap From Baby Mama to Mama Bear
Travel writer and blogger Caroline Otieno shares her inspiring story as a first time mama in the diaspora and how her experiences turned into a mama bear.
I often look at my daughter and my heart bleeds for lost time. When watching past video clips of her dancing and singing, there is a part of me that wishes I could turn back the hands of time. I wish I was fully present from the get-go. She’s almost ten and I’ve only been fully here for the past few years.
Physically, I’ve been with her every single day of her life. I’m not counting the few times I spent away; rushed to hospital with a high fever and pneumonia, or a femur fracture, or that time I tore myself from Europe to bury my brother in Kenya after a grisly road accident, or the work conferences in South East Asia.
Right before her birth up until the first six months of her life, I dropped everything work-related, so I could fully attend to the little munchkin who suddenly appeared out of the blue and changed my status to ‘mum.’ I realise belatedly that I reeled in shock, disbelief and self-pity for far too long after I became pregnant, what with the boyfriend casually distancing himself and slipping into the shadows like an anonymous sperm donor.
After the pee test came back positive, the arguments and fighting began. It slowly dawned on him I had no plans to terminate.
Here I was 30+, first time pregnant, revered God and believed in the sanctity of life. I would never yank a foetus out of my uterus. Boyfriend said over and over that he didn’t want to be a father…at least not at the time, with his masters’ study going so well and admission into a highly coveted PhD program. It’s like, on one hand, he had fulfilled a dream peppered with bright revelations and gold flakes but on the other, was my steadily protruding belly, the garish nightmare he just couldn’t wake up from.
He ignored any intervention from mutual friends who wrapped me up in their embrace, fearful I would harm myself. My family was far off in Kenya, his scattered around the world; completely inaccessible to me.
His response to friends urging him to take responsibility, was a quiet “I will think about it..” I wondered for how long?
Anytime loud words formed in his mouth, it was to label me a nag, a dictator and ‘harsh like pepper.’ I was bewildered. What had happened to the sweet man I knew?
Call me naive, but I expected a different response. Up until then, he had seemed to have a knack for troubleshooting; he was intelligent, well-groomed, modelesque with the fine chocolate looks resembling a cross between a Somali and Rwandese man.
When the baby arrived, he held her briefly then once again slunk back into the shadows; too busy with schoolwork to answer calls, visit or even offer much-needed financial help to buy pampers, bottles and everything else a little baby would need. He softened a little when his country-mate made a suggestion.
Would his surname be on the birth certificate?
He was jovial when he dialled me up, with the request for his surname to be placed right before my surname on the birth certificate. I thought that was whack, and decided against it. What normally happens in the Netherlands is that the father of the child register his name formally, at the local city hall, have his fatherhood on record and be required by law to take responsibility for his child.
Trying to sneak in his name without any efforts to register at City hall, didn’t sit well with me. That plus the flashbacks I had, of me waddling alone to clinics for foetal ultra-sounds and prenatal care, all the while envious of love-struck couples waiting arm-in-arm for their turns, with the man running about to fetch water for his wife if she so much as sneezed.
I decided my daughter would carry names I had chosen and share my surname. I left the father’s name blank. By that simple act, I declared myself a single mum.
Boyfriend went bonkers and cut me out of his life. There was no debate about the relationship’s demise. As years rolled on, I raised my child in robotic fashion; always making sure she was fed, well dressed, had her vaccinations and joined playdates. Deep inside I grieved and was emotionally absent.
Time indeed heals wounds. Once my little girl joined school, she took time before she could talk. After many appointments with the speech therapist and the audiology department, she finally rattled off strings of words. The after-school activities I took her to, helped as well, she interacted with kids and caught on very fast.
Her father finally communicated when she was four. He wanted to visit. I felt jaded and in no mood for camaraderie. He had pushed me there through his callousness. He sent lovely emails filled with smileys and cuddly teddy bears, but my heart had grown cold.
Feeling nothing, I swiftly penned back an icy reply, in point format. In an email CC’d to my lawyer, I let him know that he could have arranged visitations with his daughter. However, it would have to be in a neutral place and not any of our homes. I added that he hadn’t contributed in any shape or form to the baby’s well-being and upkeep and that it was advisable he pursue the legal route, in attempts to see his child.
Since then, I haven’t heard from him.
I don’t talk much to my child about her father. When she asks questions, I answer them truthfully without hate. She knows that he’s from Sierra Leone and I plan to take her there someday in our gambols. She knows his full names and has seen photos of him. I let her know that it’s okay to trace him when she’s of the age of accountability. She can establish a relationship independently, he’s still her father.
Even though I had closed that chapter completely, unbeknownst to me, another chapter was opening up.
Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I quite agree motherhood includes a little bit of hollering. If you were hitherto mute, now you’re constantly talking. More than the huge love you feel for your own, you want to shepherd them into safe places. You shout warnings at your child constantly, “Put that down! Come! Don’t cross the road! Stop! Off to the naughty corner! Go to your room!”
Enter Mama bear.
Being a single mum in Europe is no walk in the park. It’s even more challenging if you are black.
Because I have hardly interacted with neighbours, never shared time together over slices of cake and hot coffee, merely exchanging pleasantries when we bump into each other, I notice the subliminal messages passed when our kids interact in school and in the neighbourhood.
Kids have picked on my own because her hair is a thick kinky black, and her skin the colour of caramel toffee.
They have made her feel less than. It has required heavy doses of affirmations on my part for her to arrive at that place of recognizing that whatever her colour, she’s unique and beautiful.
The lack of diversity or tolerance for others in the tiny village I live, often means standing up for my daughter and I. I am now the picture of the proverbial angry black woman. The one akin to a live wire, easily ignited and whose heat should be basked in from a distance.