Globally, it is said that one-quarter to one-third of all families are headed by single mothers. Over time, there has been increasing numbers of single mothers in Kenya and an array of factors, including irresponsible fathers and irreconcilable marital problems as well as the ticking biological clock, are all said to have played a role in this trend. But is there any cause to worry about raising children without their fathers? ESTHER KIRAGU, ESTHER AKELLO and LILY RONOH delve into the issue.

According to the US Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single parent families in 2014, single mothers headed 80 per cent of them. It is also said that today, one in four children under the age of 18 in the US, is being raised without a father. Closer home, the statistics are equally alarming. A pan-African study carried out in 2013 by two Canadian sociologists showed that Kenya has one of the highest levels of children born out of wedlock in the continent. Undeniably, single motherhood is now becoming the new norm.

But even as this trend becomes popular, sociologists are raising the red flag that this phenomenon could have a deep impact on society. Studies in other parts of the world have shown that a significant number of children brought up in single parent families have lower life prospects than their peers brought up in two-parent families.

Single motherhood is an issue that many hold strong and divergent opinions about, so much so that it is almost difficult to have sober discussions about it without rubbing people the wrong way. But this is a conversation we must have, as the issues around it touch on the larger society more than on an individual. Not talking about single motherhood is not an option as family is a core social institution that occupies a central place in the lives of men, women, and children.

Experiences of different single mothers

Yvonne Njoki

Thirty-three-year-old Yvonne Njoki, a financial advisor, was working as a pharmacist at a flower farm in Naivasha, when one of her colleagues appeared to show keen interest in her. An orphan and with no one to turn to, Yvonne found solace in the arms of her colleague, never mind that he was married.

“I lost my mother in 2002 to cancer. She was a single mother and when she died, my younger brother was around four years old. Often, I was a loner and felt empty most of the times and so when my colleague showed interest on me, I threw caution to the wind and got intimate with him,” recalls Yvonne. “I knew my position. There was no talk of marriage or anything, just two consenting adults having fun,” she adds.

She admits that Naivasha had a fun ambience and it was easy to be caught up in the heat of the moment. After work, she and her colleagues would lazily hang around town having fun while washing down the day’s fatigue. And it was all fun and games until she fell pregnant. She broke the news to her colleague, news that he received with indifference and a promise to take care of the baby. And he did, but only for a while. Yvonne would go on to lose her job when the company was restructuring. Meanwhile, her colleague had started growing cold feet.

“Being out of a job and with no one to look up to, I got accommodation from my aunt who lived in Naivasha and I survived on the little savings I had. I eventually gave birth and my aunt and grandmother came to my aid,” she recalls.

With the father of the baby out of the picture, Yvonne was at the mercy of her relatives. When her son turned one-and-half-years old, he was diagnosed with umbilical hernia and needed correction urgently.  She called her son’s father and he sent Ksh 3,000, which was a far cry from what was needed. A few years later, her son fell sick again and when she called him to ask for assistance, he promised that he would send money but that remained just that – a promise.

“It was at that moment that I decided I would take care of my baby alone,” she reminisces of her turning point.

Does she regret? Yvonne admits that the only thing she regrets is going out with a married man. She is wary that age is catching up with her and also yearns to hold a little baby, probably a girl, in her arms again. This notwithstanding, Yvonne is not keen on getting married but wouldn’t mind if she finds a man who would love her son as much as he loves her.

And she has a bone to pick with married women. “I deal with families in my line of work and most of the time I work with both the husband and the wife. When some wives gets to know I am a single mother, they suddenly get cold with me and become very protective of their husbands. Hence I must say that many married women look down on single mothers,” she says, and clarifies that she does not face discrimination at her workplace because of her status.

Yvonne is cognisant that soon, her six-year-old son will start asking hard questions and while she does not know what she will tell him, she is comfortable with how things are at the moment. But that does not mean that her son does not have a man to look up to. Yvonne’s cousin has stepped in to ensure that her son has a role model.

“My son insisted that we write my cousin’s name as his father’s on his school diary,” says Yvonne.

Being a single mother means that the buck stops with her and she works extra hard so as to provide for her son. Even with the odds against her, she is grateful that she has a very supportive grandmother and aunt who may take care of her son if anything happens to her. And she has a word of advice to young women: “Leave married men alone. They will never leave their family for you!”

Jane

Jane* (not her real name so as to protect her identity due to the sensitivity of the matter), 29, is a human resource manager who is also a single mother. Her script is different from Yvonne’s. Jane met her husband-to-be while she was in campus. She instantly fell in love with him the moment she laid her eyes on him and she knew, or so she thought, that the feelings were mutual. A few years later, the two would tie the knot in a lavish ceremony at the up market Kitsuru Gardens before friends and family. And they all toasted to a happy-ever-after. When reciting her vows, Jane understood only too well the meaning of the words: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health…”

“My husband suffers from a chronic disease, muscular dystrophy, that has left him disabled. Before we got married, I knew there was a possibility that we may never have children and being disabled, I was ready to take care of him. Something that I had done during our courtship days,” she explains.

But cracks would emerge in their marriage before they could even celebrate their first wedding anniversary. There was pressure from her in-laws to relocate from Nairobi to their rural home so that they could keep an eye on their son something that Jane was not ready to do. She had a relatively well-paying job and could manage to take care of her family, granted her husband was not working and there was little chance that he would take up a job in the future given his physical limitations.

“My husband comes from a well off family. Many people did not understand that I truly loved him and they thought I was there for the money. My father-in-law would pay for our house rent and I took care of everything else including our medical cover,” she says.

To add salt to the injury, rumours started flying around that the baby she was carrying was not her husband’s since they believed that someone with muscular dystrophy could not sire a baby.

“God is my witness, I have never cheated on my husband and I have never even thought of doing so. It’s been almost three years since he left, but I have never slept with another man because, legally, I am still his wife. I cannot say the same for him,” Jane explains.

Her in-laws piled pressure on them to move and all this while, she stood her ground. And while she wanted to protect her marriage from outside influence, there was little she could do as her husband had already ceded ground and was looking for an exit plan. She received her bundle of joy in 2013 but it seemed her husband was not as enthusiastic about the baby as she was. One morning that same year, he told her that he was going to visit his parents. And that was the last she saw of him.

Her father-in-law stopped paying rent and she had to relocate to a cheaper house so that she could manage. For two-and-a-half-years, Jane has been taking care of her daughter single-handedly and she claims that her daughter’s father has never called to inquire on how his daughter is doing. Apparently, she says, her husband has moved on. The only time she heard from her husband was sometime this year when he sent a letter requesting her to give him full custody of the child if she wanted him to take care of the baby. Accompanying this message was a request to return his items, which included a fridge, beds, microwave and a car that his parents had given them to facilitate his movement.

“I was shocked that he had the audacity to ask back the items that his daughter uses.  And yes, I plan to give him back everything. And just so he knows, I can never trade my daughter for money. We are doing just fine by the grace of God,” Jane asserts adding that what hurts her most is that she lost her brother in a road accident while he was going to pick her husband, then a fiancé, from hospital after his therapy.

Jane says she gets by through the grace of God and even after she lost her job sometime in 2014, God was faithful enough to see her through even granting her another job just when she was about to throw in the towel. She admits there is no chance of them getting back together as the damage has already been done.

But she has her fears. “My daughter will be starting her schooling in January next year. What will I tell the teachers and anyone who asks about her father. Also, I pity her being chided by other pupils because they can’t see her father in the picture. I know she will be at pains to explain to them. It also hurts me to see other children playing with their fathers, and I can also see it in her eyes that she wonders why she has only one parent,” explains Jane, her voice breaking off as she mulls over the unknown future.

Any chance of her finding love again? Jane concludes by saying she is done with men, giving credence to the saying: “Once beaten, twice shy.”

Effects of absentee fathers…

As a popular saying goes: “Any man can father a child but it takes a real man to be a father.” Despite the circumstances resulting to single motherhood, it is worth noting that the effects of an absentee father are enormous. Experts say that lack of fathers in families is likely to lead to poverty, drug abuse, educational, health, emotional and behavioural problems as well as likelihood to engage in criminal behaviour compared to children who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.

According to Liz Akinyi Khaemba of Transformative Learning, a clinical psychologist and learning specialist, “A lot of the negative impact of an absentee father is on the child rather than the mother. A child needs both the masculine and feminine side to grow and develop holistically. For instance, boys may be effeminate, may not want to socialise with other male children, often preferring female company. They may also not rough play, a trait usually learnt from a male figure. They may also cry easily and may have image and identity problems.”

It is often said that single mothers tend to cuddle their children a lot especially boys who are given a free rein to idle. Ironically, girls of single mothers are often raised under stricter conditions. Somehow, it is inculcated in them from an early age that girls have a hard time and thus need to take care of themselves and even take on female responsibilities such as cleaning.

Liz asserts that children learn by modelling what the adults in their immediate environment are doing. And so if they do not have a father figure to model, then the future relationships of children brought up by single mothers with their spouses can be disastrous.

“Boys who grow with mothers and female friends end up expecting girlfriends and wives to take the role their mother played, which is the caregiver and nurturing role. They don’t know how to take the provider and protector role because they never had the opportunity to witness that. If the female partner was raised in a two-parent family and saw her father doing these things, then it feels like she got a raw deal, although the man is not really at fault as he had no one to mirror,” Liz explains.

In this day and age of female empowerment, girls raised by single mothers may suffer because being raised by a strong woman, who took care of the household, they are likely to emulate their mother by emasculating the man and his role is lost, relegating him to a mere sperm donor.

Liz says, “It is also easy for such girls to say they do not need any man when their partner becomes annoying because of what they witnessed in their family of origin. The role of a man in a girl’s life is that of bringing out the woman inside her. When a man cuddles his daughter, he teaches her how to be sensitive, how to be accepting of intimacy and how to be nurtured. She also learns to trust her environment knowing that there is someone in charge.”

Women ought to be careful what they say about men when hurt especially around their children, as these can trickle over into their future relationships, creating a self-fulfilling prophechy using generalised statements such as men cannot be trusted and all men cheat. In essence, they become prejudiced and it would take a lot of time and effort to correct the damage.

The balancing act…

It is always advisable for single parents to ensure there is a balance in a child’s life by exposing them to the parent of the opposite sex or male relatives and friends. Women may struggle to get other partners when they already have children. This is because the male child has an important standing within the traditional African culture.

“There are usually conflicts when it comes to issues of inheritance and dowry,” Liz warns and advises such issues can be solved through proper communication.

In her new book, Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men (Rodale Books), a US Research psychologist, Peggy Drexler, demonstrates through nearly a decade of research that boys who are raised in single-mother homes are just as likely to develop into happy, healthy adults as boys raised in households with both a mother and a father. Drexler argues that how a family acts and not the way it’s made up, is what determines whether children succeed or fail. She says that a good female parent will help to develop her son’s full potential as long as she values his manliness and encourages his growth, independence, and sense of adventure.

At the end of the day, no matter the circumstances under which single mothers find themselves in, it is worth dealing with the pain and even finding closure in order to have a healthy life not only for yourself, but also to enable you raise your children properly.

“My advice to all single mothers is that before they get into another relationship, they should first forgive themselves and their ex-partners so that they do not carry forward any baggage into a new relationship. Be honest with your new partner from the onset and find an amicable mechanism to deal with your former partner regarding their children in case of unresolved issues so that it does not become toxic to your new relationship.” Liz explains.

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Published in November 2015