Many young women are questioning the whole idea of motherhood as necessary to a woman’s identity. They want to be able to make a choice and define themselves as they deem fit… Because of this work, they are impoverished, derided and punished as the weaker sex, and they are sometimes ignored in old age by the children they sacrificed the most for.
Sunday, May 9 is Mothers’ Day in America, the day we celebrate the unique role of women in bearing and rearing children. It is an acknowledgement of the great sacrifice of women, many of whom raise children against all odds. No song rivals Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother” at Nigerian-American parties. It gets everyone off their chairs because it strikes a deep chord in us. It is an ode to our mothers’ selflessness, caring and love. It is the work women have been doing for millennia, this renewal of society, the life-giving necessary work that humanity depends on to regenerate. In recent times, however, women’s attitude towards this work is changing. Some women do not have any desire to have children. Falling or low birth rates are being reported in the United States, Japan, Korea, Italy and even in China where the policy now allows couples to have more than one child. Women are not leaping at the opportunity. Many are content with just one child. A few women are advocating loudly for child-free lives, telling us they are happy and productive without children.
Anyone who chooses to be a mother knows it is a costly choice, but in many societies, women are forced to bear this burden alone, sacrificing time, talent, ambition, and the ability to earn good money, build, create, explore and imagine. Motherhood also skews the relationships between husbands and wives, giving more power and control to the husband because he becomes the main income earner, while his wife becomes a dependent, along with the children. It is a few men who do not exploit the power shift when this happens in marriages. While we all appreciate what our mothers do for us, the reality of what some of them face at the end of their lives does not reflect their loving and decades-long investment in their children and grandchildren..
I come from a culture where the assumption that sons would take care of their mothers in old age is a given. I saw this model in my own family as a young girl in Ekiti, which was as “traditional” as it could get. My two grandmothers were cared for this way, but the real story is that the caring was done by their daughters-in-law, because behind every son is a wife or wives who does the actual work of care-giving. My maternal grandmother, who lived to a ripe old age, was cared for by one dedicated and hardworking daughter-in-law, whose husband, my mother’s older brother, had died decades earlier. She was loyal and loving to my grandmother to the end, even though she was a widow in that household. My paternal grandmother was cared for by my mother and her co-wife. These neat patriarchal arrangements seemed to have worked well, except that even back then it was not perfect, once you factor in the human element, the humanity of the persons involved in these arrangements.
My paternal grandmother was a woman who knew her own mind and the value of dignity. As the story goes, she left her abusive marriage three days after she delivered her last and third child, to move into her parents’ home. That was in 1930s rural Ekiti. She lived in her parents’ home, in her natal quarter, with her brothers and sisters nearby, within a community in which she grew up. She thrived and prospered, and it was in that house I grew to know her, as her granddaughter. She talked to me, not like the pre-teen I was, but like the woman she hoped I would become. She emphasised the importance of financial independence, that my hand is the most important thing to me, the hand being a metaphor for hard work and self-reliance in Yorubaland. But women have always worked hard. What she meant was work that was not exploited by other people, especially husbands. Some in contemporary times would classify this rural woman as a feminist.
She was prosperous enough in her cocoa and palm kernel trade that she was able to assist my father financially while he was studying in the university. She lived in her natal house, even after my father had become a university-educated teacher in our town. We, as grandchildren, would visit her and enjoy tasty meals and the kind of talk elders engaged in, in those times. She talked to me about life, people, events, some of which probably went over my young head. She was a philosopher. At some point, my father learnt through the grapevine that his mother was planning to build a new house. Perhaps, it was a life-long desire of hers to build her own house, or she just wanted to live in a more modern house, I would never know.
My own mother, in the 21st Century, experienced something different as she aged… She did her duty by her children, sacrificing and enduring an extremely difficult marriage so that we could succeed….The assumption that my mother’s sons would care for her did not materialise because her daughters-in-laws are modern women who live in cities and juggle so many responsibilities, including caring for their own parents.
This news disturbed my father enough that he immediately requested her to move in with us. She did, bowing to patriarchy. Now, with the understanding of an adult, I can see that it was not a happy arrangement for her. She did so, so that her son could save face, so that no one could look down on him for not taking care of his mother. Her building her own house threatened his status in the community. She moved into our house, leaving behind the community and activities she really enjoyed. The new arrangement meant she could no longer trade, an activity which required buying and selling around the town, and plenty of social interactions. This activity sometimes involved carrying baskets on her head, as she shopped for products. That mode of commerce was now beneath the new status of her son, who was Western-educated and was becoming a leader in the town. It would be shameful to see his mother carrying baskets on her head around town.
She no longer lived near her own kin, a community of people she loved and who loved and respected her. Her family members still visited her but it was not like living near each other. She could not even cook her own meals, because her son’s wives were now supposed to cook for her, and they did. And she made me bear witness. She did not like their cooking. She invited me sometimes to taste the stew and pounded yam with my ten-year-old palate. She was not nitpicking. Young as I was, I could tell the difference. Her cooking, when she lived in her own house, was much better and tastier than the offerings in our house. She ate well when she was by herself. She did not count pennies because she did not have many mouths to feed, like in our house. She cooked whatever she liked and I, as a grandchild, visiting her, devoured her delicious food. My formerly contented grandmother became irritable and discontented, eventually falling ill and dying. I was thirteen. My father did his best, taking her to the best hospitals around but she succumbed to illness. This model of mother-care in old age was the best our system could offer then, with everyone playing their part. There was a consensus about who did what and it was workable because most family members lived near each other, and there was an established tradition.
My own mother, in the 21st Century, experienced something different as she aged. She had lived in the same town for most of her life. She did her duty by her children, sacrificing and enduring an extremely difficult marriage so that we could succeed. In contemporary times, though, success for children means migration away from home, from the town, city or country where their parents live. Most families experience this if their children are ambitious or adventurous. This also means that all the “traditional” structures and assumptions about who cares for mothers in old age are breaking down, or have broken down completely. The assumption that my mother’s sons would care for her did not materialise because her daughters-in-laws are modern women who live in cities and juggle so many responsibilities, including caring for their own parents.
The son who stepped in to care for her turned out to be a grifter, who charmed her and drained all the money from her account, a significant portion of which I sent to her so that she could be well taken off. He also sat on her rental property, collected the rents for years and spent it on himself, while reporting to me that he was keeping strict financial records. I visited home a year before my mother died and discovered her son had cleaned out all her money. This is not an uncommon experience for many Nigerian immigrants, as cheating and lying siblings at home their usurp parents’ assets, including the money repatriated by diaspora siblings. He did hire a woman to take of my mother, a loving and hardworking woman who did her job well, but when I visited I could see the severe loneliness that my mother was suffering. She was immobile because of osteoporosis, and all her children and grandchildren lived away from her. The house was quiet all the time.
Some neighbours and family members would occasionally dropped by, but unrelenting silence was the major condition of the house. I wondered quietly to myself if it had been worth it for her, sacrificing so much to raise four children, none of who was around at sunset to enliven her life. She did not really enjoy living with her children either, and she was not interested in living with me abroad because of her fear of winter and loneliness. Someone had told her that mothers visiting their children abroad are often left to themselves all day because their families go to work and school, and do not return until late. I also suspect her fear of flying was probably a factor.
During one visit, she said to me that she only wants to sit on the beach and eat a piece of chicken. That was her fantasy as she lay isolated in this sterile nursing home. Outraged, I called one of her sons but was only able to speak to his wife. American women do not have the obligations of taking care of their mothers-in-law in old age.
On this side of the Atlantic, I have also witnessed mother-care in the later stages. Aunt G was one of the kindest women I knew here in America. She cared deeply for her two sons, whom she raised almost single-handedly as a public school teacher after a divorce, six years after her marriage to their father was over. She was smart, graceful, elegant, and independent. She had a network of many siblings, nieces and nephews. Her sons are successful, one of them a high-achieving professional. She was very close to me and my husband. She traveled to attend our children’s music recitals, graduations, and birthdays, and she engaged them in elderly talk. We took her out to fabulous restaurants and museums whenever we visited her city. She was a community activist who, through her writing and community-organising, fought environmental racism. Her minority neighbourhood was being used as a dumping ground by the city. She wrote books to document the history of her family and town of origin. She was passionate about early literacy and the education of minority children. During the holidays, she baked scrumptious cakes and sent them to her loved ones. In my home, we never shared Aunt G’s cake with anyone. It was that delicious.
She lived independently in a townhouse she owned, when one day, she fell. It became impossible for her to live alone. Gradually, she ended up in a nursing home. My husband and I visited her there several times, and I saw how such a place could be regarded as God’s waiting room, a place designed for people to wait for death. Her loneliness was severe. The overworked and underpaid staff probably did their best, but their work even under the best conditions could not take care of the emotional and intellectual stimulation of their wards. What shocked me was the absence of her sons in her caregiving. Their active role could have made her final years happy.
During one visit, she said to me that she only wants to sit on the beach and eat a piece of chicken. That was her fantasy as she lay isolated in this sterile nursing home. Outraged, I called one of her sons but was only able to speak to his wife. American women do not have the obligations of taking care of their mothers-in-law in old age. That is not a part of their tradition. Her daughter-in-law told me men do not know how to take care of their parents in old age. In fact, she said in her own family, she was the one who had to drive ninety miles every week to see her old father in the nursing home, because her brothers who live in the same city with their father were not taking care of him. I looked at our dear Aunt G and wondered what the benefits of motherhood were for her when she needed them the most. Her sons eulogised her as a great mother during her funeral ceremony. Great for whom? What difference would it have made if she did not have any child? Perhaps she would have made different and better professional and financial choices in her youth.
Motherhood compromises women’s development and financial well-being. The strange twist is that women who did less “mothering” for their children and put more energy in developing themselves and making money seem to fare better in old age. They have the financial resources to live in fancier nursing homes, and adult children who might not have wanted the financial burden of taking care of aged parents, are incentivised to take a more active role because there are sufficient assets owned by their mother to do so. Many young women are questioning the whole idea of motherhood as necessary to a woman’s identity. They want to be able to make a choice and define themselves as they deem fit. For this, they are being shamed, or even called unnatural. What is shameful is the burden placed on women by society to care for children, parents, in-laws and husbands, while they are asked to sacrifice themselves to please everyone. Because of this work, they are impoverished, derided and punished as the weaker sex, and they are sometimes ignored in old age by the children they sacrificed the most for. One could see the logic of young women resisting motherhood.
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