Learning to Matter Equally

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a link to an essay on feminist parenting by the excellent Chimamanda Ngozi Aditchie (1). The piece impressed me so much that we had it sent out as reading to the Setaweet mailing list and it came up on the next discussion of the Setaweet Circle which coincidentally focused on the topic of \’Being a Mother and a Feminist.\’ A writer leaves her mark on the mind of her reader when she strikes a nerve, when a certain combination of words hit a chord that chimes long after. I keep thinking of a phrase from that essay, addressed by Aditchie to her friend who had recently become a mother and had asked Aditchie for advice on raising a strong daughter. Aditchie states, \”The first is your premise, the solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop.\”

I haven\’t parented like I matter equally. I have given my five-year old daughter, and my three-year old son, everything I have. I think nothing of going to the Pediatrician twice a week to get every cough checked out but my own asthma would some times flare and clear, unattended. I still carry my son on my hip because he likes it even though my back never healed from bringing him into the world and I often ache afterwards. If we eat out, I will order what they like and finish that off as I hate to waste food. Until recently, I could have counted on one hand the number of nights I slept through the night since my son was born.

I choose to design my days around their schedules and truly enjoy the time I spend with my kids so I don\’t understand it when other people speak of my \’sacrifice\’.  I parent the way I have always meant to, with full intention. There have been drawbacks from particularly the first phase where I was a stay-at-home mom but it was a special period in my life and given the choice, I would do it again. In fact, I would be with my kids full-time without the distraction of the PhD research and dissertation that hung over my head like a threat for most of my kids\’ babyhoods. I am happy when I am with my children, and the contentment I feel as I tuck them into bed bathed and loved, and their days recounted is one I simply cannot find from work or friendships or even Setaweet. Mothering has completed my life. Therefore, me loving my children the way I do does not for me translate to not mattering. Where Aditchie\’s statement pricked is in the consideration of the life decisions I have made, in order to be able to take care of my kids. There I have not mattered equally. There, I think often of the word \’sacrifice.\’

I understand there is a price for everything. You want to send your kids to a good school, you may have to spend most of your waking hours at a job you hate, with Facebook as your only respite. You want to own your own house someday, so you leave your toddler with a nanny when you go to work, and you have to convince yourself every day that you\’re doing the right thing. You forego love to keep the peace of your family. You scrape and save to give your siblings a chance. Women sacrifice every day.

Ethiopian mothers in particular seem hardwired to sacrifice. Of all the homeless people in Addis Ababa, those constant reminders of our collective shame of an apathetic society, nine out of ten are mothers with small children. We are not surprised when to see barefoot mothers holding in their arms small children wearing shoes, and if we notice a mother feeding all the leftovers she receives to her children, keeping little or nothing to herself, we would barely raise an eyebrow in surprise. After all, the very essence of mothering is loving more than oneself. As the Bizunesh Bekele emotional tribute to her mother who raised her alone reminds us, \’Enat tiwodalech lijuan/Keraswa asbelita.\’

But how much is too much? At which point do we say we as women, as mothers, have stopped mattering equally? At which stage do we demand that we start to?

Living as I do in Ethiopia where the clash between modern and so-called traditional values is a constant minefield, it has taken me years to navigate the notion of mattering equally. Everyday, I see mothers do whatever they have to do, pay unthinkable prices to keep their children together, with food in their bellies and a roof over their heads. So I thought that my small sacrifice diminished before their big ones. If they can do so much, surely, I with all my privilege can do what little is expected of me. I can keep my mouth shut one more day, ignore another slight, brave another dismissal. I can breathe away that derisive tone in a voice, know better than to get into an argument, stay clear of minefields. Do whatever I have to do to keep my integrity intact so that I am not bitter for myself, or my kids. Have enough love for myself to not let this define who I am. Develop a skin so thick that when my son expects me to cry, I can\’t remember how to.

For a long time, I honestly thought this was what it would take. My kids are wonderful and I want to give them a good fighting chance in life. I often think of searching my way to freedom but if that means less for them, what kind of a mother would that make me?

A brave one, apparently, if Aditchie\’s understanding of feminist mothering is to be adopted. If I mattered equally, I would drop the sacrifice, smaller than most, but a sacrifice nevertheless, entirely. I wouldn\’t be able to give my kids the best of everything, particularly where material goods are concerned, but I would be able to give them the best ME. They will definitely travel less than they do now, and they will have to do with fewer toys. They will have more questions than other kids, and they may be more vulnerable. But their mother would be there every day to help them navigate life, to love them as much as I always have, and I imagine, to play with them with more energy. Trying to rationalize what still feels like a selfish decision to me, I sometimes tell myself that maybe one day, my kids will look back on my move, understand it, and be inspired to walk away from the battles they can\’t win in their own lives.

However, this trade off is still only half the prescription that Aditchie would give me, if she ever heard my sorry tale of feminist mothering. Let me spell it out. I matter equally, therefore, I will stop participating in my own destruction. My kids will have less, and may in the future be affected by my choices. However, I am half the equation of this mothering project, and this one will be for me. Because I matter equally.

1) http://www.okayafrica.com/in-brief/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-feminist-manifesto/