Sorry For Not Being A Girl, Mom

A reflection on single parenthood

Let’s get personal. I have all the evidence in the world to convince whosoever wishes to judge that my mother, if given the superpowers, would have converted me into a daughter – a Sinovuyo, Moleboheng or simply Candies.

I saw it in how she treated me, the things she told me, the tasks she assigned to me, the trust, the friendship, the gossip, everything characterising a mother-daughter bond.

When she looked at me it’s as if to reconstruct me into a female piece of art that she’d stroll in the nearby bushes with in a trace of where she and her then lover, my father, used to scare birds away with giggles, conversations and who knows what else.

It’s possible she wanted to tell me about her first kiss, about the feeling of having your heart escaping from the confines of your chest into a man’s refuge in a suggestion that it’s better placed in his care than yours.

But in a blink that’d be rapidly succeeded by a remark loaded with a nostalgic undertone, Nobelungu (her name) would admire my resemblance of my father, citing my big, often downcast, eyes, a pantsula flare (then), a passion for soccer, the love for books, stubbornness (but I’m sure she meant a sense of reason) and attentive brains.

“Ngwana ke enwa o tshwana le ntatae hleng,” she’d exclaim. Everything I did, including my good grades in school, produced this kind of reaction – ngwana ke enwa o tshwana le ntatae hleng!

Nobelungu always found a way to smuggle a memory or two about my father in everything I did. I remember a debate we once had about the pronunciation of the word “although” somewhere in 2004, at the end of which she spared no word to link my ‘stubbornness’ to that of my father.

Nobelungu supporting one of her sisters at a church graduation

Nobelungu supporting one of her sisters at a church graduation

Well, of course she was correct in her pronunciation, but wrong in her analysis of me being stubborn. But it’s understandable. A daughter wouldn’t be that questioning.

This reminder of the man who brought her into motherhood, prematurely I must add, seems to have annulled her other thoughts of remaking me into a daughter she’d share everything with. Instead, she accepted me as I was, but still kept me as close as a mother keeps her daughter and my brother as distant as a son tends to be. Two birds were thus beaten with the same stone. The more time she spent talking to me, she found closure on the wounds she never allowed anyone but her God to know about.

I’m not in the traditional business of truncated family histories, but a bit of background will do. My mother gave birth to her first boy child, Maitse, on 4 September 1989. She was doing Standard 9 (Grade 11) at the time, the highest grade she ever reached. In 1991, the second child, a boy, came into being, fathered by the same man who’d paid lobola for her.

But the wave of evil, capacitated by complex family politics and conniving relatives, tormented their marriage. In the early 90s her husband went to Gauteng and has since never returned. He found new love and started a new family as if to wipe his past marital slate clean of any reproductions and responsibilities.

Nobelungu then became a single mother, without matric, without a skill. By luck, in 1994 I’m told she found her first job at a Chinese clothing factory where she had since been working. At that time we were staying with her grandparents in a brick house that had over 10 members. Family politics prevailed again and she moved out, erected a shack nearby an abandoned sports ground where we miserably stayed until 2001 when her stepfather, to whom her late mother was married, passed away and left his fairly big house vacant.

Okay, enough now.

The point is that as the sole breadwinner she needed a helper, a girl child to cook, clean and wash clothes. So I grew to be the helper. I learnt to cook whatever we could afford – chicken heads and feet, beans, eggs, and such other things. I became very useful to her, compared to my walking-about brother. Perhaps this is where the bond began. And as I grew much more reliable, the list of responsibilities was upgraded.

Since the ‘new’ house we moved into in 2001 was fairly big, I helped with cleaning it and collecting firewood from the nearby mountains for cooking and warming, especially in winter, so that she could waskom herself in a warm kitchen, while I prepared lunch for her. My role became even more meaningful to her as her other half-sister got married.

I woke up with her in the morning to help as much as I could. At times when she’s late she left everything on the floor (and I mean everything). I had to clean up. As she ran to the taxi taking them to work, she would shout a lot of instructions against the early morning breeze in a telegram way. “Ke thole o dubile hle ngwanaka.” She wanted me to make dough for dumplings or makwenya (fatcakes). “O late parcela yane.” I had to go borrow money from a neighbour.

I knew about every man who wanted a relationship with my single mother. Two of them happened to own shops in the village and my mother and I strategised on how to get free goods from them, using their own attraction to the yellow bone that was her. I was always with her and so if I didn’t approve of a man with ambitions, I’d refuse to make space for them to talk privately. Due to my trouble with asthma, she felt an even greater need to keep me close. No one could care for me better, she thought. No one could understand.

In all this, where was my brother? He was responsible for things like fencing, gardening and fetching water. He was playing, fighting, hanging out with friends, only coming back home when hungry. He was the real son.

And I was converted. It appears I was the only one who discerned the emptiness that comes with being a single mother to boy children only.

Every woman has a dream of sharing wisdom with her daughter about menstruation, boys, growing nipples, fashion, motherhood. My mother was denied that opportunity to groom a future wife and mother to someone, but she did (I doubt intentionally) deposit high expectations in me of what an ideal woman looks like.

In the same measure of regret that I have when it comes to growing up without a male figure in the family, I share her unexpressed frustrations and grief over a husband she never really had, and a girl child she so many times clandestinely prayed to God she so much wanted to have.

Today I know more about life, thanks to her. I’m glad that even though she accepted the impossibility of having a daughter, she passed on the knowledge anyway. I’m humbled that she didn’t seek to have more children until a daughter pitches up, but improvised on the gifts she had. Although there’s clearly a fatherhood vacuum in me, I know how a woman must be treated. Or rather, how she must not be treated.

I know that my future wife must never experience any of the pains my mother endured.

I pray her character doesn’t compete with the imperfections of my future wife and that everything she was doesn’t make me intolerant of anything my future wife will not be.

Though it’s not of my own making, I apologise to my mother for looking like my father and not being a girl. And I wish to applaud her for getting the pronunciation of “although” right, while, equally, I’d like to clarify that I wasn’t stubborn but curious, something she planted in me through reading and storytelling.

These two points will be top of the agenda when we’re finally reunited in Heaven.

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