Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, published by MFBooks Joburg. RRP: R240. Available at all good bookstores.
A mothering feminist’s life
A celebration, meditation and roll call
During a panel with four feminist writers, moderator Mohale Mashigo, Yewande Omotoso and Nnedi Okorafor, at the 2016 Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Kabura Nganga asked “how do you/we cultivate feminist joy?”
I answered that we do so through cultivating feminist community, but I felt the inadequacy of my answer. This essay is another meditation on Kabura’s invitation.
One day, she called to check on me as she often did, while I had just returned from maternity leave and she found me on the brink of tears from exhaustion and exasperation. I was still learning how to bring the different parts of me together with the most recent transformation, and work was proving particularly difficult. I did not regret choosing to be a mother. I had made the decision with my eyes wide open and adored the baby I held to my breast as I spoke to Elaine on the phone. Not only had I chosen to be a mother consciously, this time, where I had known myself incapable, another time, but I had decided that I would try my best to be the best parent I could be: self-reflexive, attentive, and with a full life of my own.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was this insistence on having their own lives even as they never let me doubt for a minute how essential I was to them, how adored and treasured I was. At thirty-four, I also knew that parenting was a landmine. As much gratitude as I had for how I was raised, at different times in my life I had resented my parents for choices they had made without which I would not have the life they gave me. I knew that this was not something I would be perfect at, that every decision made with love and even the best of intentions could nonetheless erupt into a volcano of arguments between my children and me.
This is what I held in my heart and head as I cried into the phone, but none of this had led to my tears. The source of my exasperation lay elsewhere. I told her about the unreasonable expectations at work that I would be able to do the same amount of work at home that I had done before I had a baby, and my feelings of betrayal because my partner had failed to officially take paternity leave. Although he alternated nights with me, doing night feeds and staying up with our baby so I could sleep, he had suddenly taken to mentioning taking paternity leave later as though it was some writing time. I felt betrayed because we both did work on gender that sought to transform the world, and so, even as he acted out this politics in our home with our baby, I was upset that he had chosen not to make that political step at work. I had known of men colleagues who routinely ridiculed the idea of paternity leave. It cut so deep that my partner had not taken paternity leave, that this decision became the second step in my eventual decision to leave him: the second betrayal we would never be able to come back from.
Elaine listened, as we tried to make sense of what it all meant. We spoke of recognition and the way in which child-rearing is where it can all fall apart even in relationships between people who have lived with feminist principles so long they have become second nature. We had long talked about the ways in which the academy is hostile to women. Indeed, some of our intellectual work directly fought this. And so, she, who knew what it was to pride herself in her work in the academy, and to constantly negotiate the difficulty of being a Blackwoman in the South African academy, was able to hold these different parts of me in conversation. She knew how to listen so that the appropriate analysis could be inserted and magnified in one place, or when it was time for a scandalous joke that made me scream so hard in laughter I startled and woke my sleeping baby, and when to just rage with me. She also knew when to rein me in as I slid kilometres down that slippery slope.
I was telling her about standing in front of a large class, self conscious of the breast milk I had spilt on my shirt after expressing in my office earlier, as my breasts started to swell up like balloons again, threatening to leak right there as I introduced John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to my Visual Culture first years. I had rushed from a previous two-hour lecture and did not have time to express again.
When this stupid system was designed, they were not thinking breastfeeding professors could be a thing, I ranted. Making sure she was not interrupting, she yanked me off that slope. Sometimes when I am in Faculty or committee meetings, some of the shit that gets said makes me so mad I wish I had breast milk. It would be messy and they would be horrified, but I would certainly be much happier if I could just whip out a milky breast and just spray them with it. It would also make the point more effectively than the arguments we have to make again and again against the racist patriarchy.
This was only part joke. Elaine understood deeply the complicated relationships our bodies brought up as women, as Blackwomen, as African feminists. She was in remission from the cancer that would return, a cancer I told her I believed was not just was making her sick. She understood what I meant, and later as my workplace and the incessant demands that I take on more, and more and more made me sick in a different way, she reminded me that the places we work can make us sick. We talked often of ways to replenish our spirits so that we can be healthier for longer.
We spent a few minutes on the breast-milk-in-university meetings fantasy, and I still chuckle to myself when I think of the craziness and the sheer joy of it as a possibility. On a later date, I did chase my pre-teen nephews around my mother’s house shooting white liquid from my nipple when they were irritating me once. It gave me untold pleasure to move my irritation to laughter and their horror. My mother’s delighted laughter rang through the house as I did so. I imagine it would be even more rewarding to spray colleagues when they mouth offensive diatribe parading as civilised critique.
On Elaine’s last visit home, I did not realise it was her goodbye trip as we sat at a restaurant in Pretoria, half teasing her daughter, Jessica, about how I had changed her nappy once, marvelling at Miles, her son, now a young man, and talking about how good she looked. I knew the cancer was back. I did not want to know that she would not kick it into remission again.
As I read her cancer diaries, I rooted for her, and refused the flickering recognition that she was leaving. I have lost so many loved ones to cancer that I had to pretend really hard that what I was seeing meant something else. Her beautiful body had transported her across desert and sea, across hurt and forgiveness, and now, her generous, dangerous body had turned on her. But she wrote and made sense of it until the end.
Elaine taught me how to hold the strange bits of me together as though this was my design. Conversation slipped easily between parenting to sex to frivolity to high theory. With Elaine, feminism was sisterhood, brilliance, courage and laughter. It was also the place where our grown up selves and our little girl selves kissed and cavorted.
She wrote an essay on the difficulties and embattlement of being a feminist who had conceded to the lobola process. She participated and thought her way through it. It had been harder than she had anticipated, and I was amazed that she owned up to it, even though feminists are renowned for our big mouths, our disrespect for norms and conventional wisdom. I understood that there were feminists who liked to pretend it was easy to fight with your family all the time. Lobola was a topic that had come up regularly in conversation with my friends from the time we entered an age, in our twenties, where marriage was something to consider. Some friends had simply gone through with it, with differing levels of patience and discomfort. Some had fought it again and again, sometimes winning and other times losing. When I read Danai’s piece, I was dazed. I read it again and again, marvelling at her candour. I knew these would be a source of harsh judgement, that some would find her feminism wanting as a result. I did not. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be inside a marriage while constantly reflecting on the demands of performing all of these things that buy you space to build a different kind of life with your love. I found her honesty breath-taking.
I had read several pieces by her when I met her for the first time, a meeting to which she brought her baby. I realised she had driven across town in the heat, had parked at the furthest possible point because not only was parking a scarcity, but this outpost was reserved for graduate students. She had then manoeuvred herself up a hill, heavy laptop on shoulder, bouncing baby in a pram around pathways that were not designed for all she needed to bring. She spoke with absolute clarity as if she had not just climbed a hill and I marvelled at how calm she was, how collected her thoughts and how determined she was to get through the project we discussed – three anomalies in the academy who would not apologise for our presence.
Two of us in that room – a man and a woman – dedicated to feminist parenting tried to play with her baby, used as we were to parenting while working, as a way to signal something like care to her. It was not that she needed it, but more perhaps that we needed to give this unspoken signal of our care and recognition.
Later, as our friendship grew stronger until she was my sister, I watched her effortlessly juggle multiple arts with a level of expertise that I am still dazzled watching. I did not know you could be a feminist genius of the academy who cooks meals that belong in designer cookbooks, knows how to decorate like a designer and write poetry like a sage. And sometimes, because my friend will fight an injustice so hard and speak up for any maligned and brutalised, I sometimes have to hold her back to remind her that she needs to leave some energy for herself.
And with her, I have sometimes marathon-laughed so hard that we both collapsed from exhaustion. We have shared shock and disappointment at the limits of heterosexual co-parenting, and managed our upset children’s voices on the other side of the phone as we sat in international airports on different continents. And I always admire that candour that struck me in my first encounter with her work. She is never without her truthfulness and integrity, even when I do not want to know what is wrong with what I have just done. It is a friendship that knows when the moment requires loyalty and when appraisal is required.
She is also one of my child’s many safe places. I watch as our children – who long ago, with no prompting from us adopted each other as siblings – grow deeper into a love relationship with each other. I love eavesdropping with her as they finish each other’s sentences and have the kinds of strange conversations that small children seem too young for. My squeamishness is a long running joke among many of my friends, whereas Danai has such an advanced and integrated sense of self that she is almost impossible to gross out. The two of them are the only children who, having each once vomited all over me, made me worry rather than sending me on my own squeamish fit.
Danai teaches me that feminism demands that we live with an open heart, and that the rewards of feminist choice are infinite: as serious as defying secrecy and as joyful as jumping into puddles.
As I sat in my gynaecologist and obstetrician’s reception area, I could not have been more physically uncomfortable. It was my final check up in a pregnancy that had gone very well but for my high weight gain brought about mainly by my out of character desire for endless carbohydrates. They call it cravings. Pregnancy at thirty-four was immersion in renegotiating relationships with my body. It was sometimes like an introduction to the workings of a body unlike mine, as to be expected. There are many humorous tales on trying to move in a way I had learnt to take for granted over three or two decades only to realise my body could not oblige. As my partner sat next to me chatting away as we waited for our appointment, and the friendly receptionist announced that my appointment would be cancelled since another patient had gone into labour, I was not sure how to feel. The appointment was routine, but I would have liked the assurance that we were on track.
When Caroline, Achieng’s birth partner, and a mutual friend came out to announce that it was Achieng who had gone into labour, I remember feeling slightly alarmed for her and happy she had taken my slot.
Years later I never tire of reminding her of her timing. You decided to go into labour at the very hour I was supposed to see Dr Malepule Mseleku for the last time before my own labour. Achieng’s sense of time is meticulous, so I like to joke that she had timed this deliberately too.
Our sons, born exactly four weeks apart, at the hands of the same obstetrics whizz, played together before they could construct sentences. And as we watched them grow, we slowly and carefully built a friendship of our own. We have been growing into mothering together from the very beginning, tentatively, playfully, reassuring each other and admitting senses of inadequacy that do not come easily to us highly accomplished professionals with PhDs who knew, before parenting, how to pack up our lives to live in countries whose languages we did not speak prior to arrival.
Sometimes, I call her up with a minor crisis almost in tears from rage or dramatic pain, and she can tell whether to take it seriously or to just laugh at me until I am laughing at myself with her.
It does not occur to her to hold back how many times her son tells her she is not such fun and he wishes I had birthed him. I know he does not mean it no matter how many times he says it. He adores his mother. It does not occur to her to mind that he fantasises about another mother. Not only does she laugh it off, she changes from telling him to deal with his tough luck to giving him permission to move to my house. And although she feared it, she let me take our sons across the country on a beach holiday she was not invited to. My heart melted as she admitted that she could not imagine letting anyone else take him away in this way.
On my longest trip away from home since my son was born, she picks him up for days at a time. He tells me he only sort of misses me. I know it has everything to do with how she takes care of him; that she knows his every facial expression, every eccentricity.
I know that nine years later our sons’ play dates are unpredictable. Sometimes, they need a little distance from each other. At other times, it is as if they cannot breathe enough of each other’s air.
When I thank her again and again, she brushes it off, as if two strong-willed children are the easiest thing in the world to manage. And I remember the look of recognition on her face as I told her I was leaving him to take up a visiting professorship on another continent for a month. As single parents, every decision is tempered with what effect this will have on your child. I have seen her squeeze several continents into a seven-day trip, determined to do her work, but also mindful of the needs of a small child – hers.
She has seen me arrive, jetlagged from a trip via two continents with annoying layovers, only to realise that I was required to cheer on the side-lines at my son’s athletics day.
As feminists raising boys, we are determined to live our lives in ways that make the most sense. They need to grow up knowing the value of a full life for all genders, to take it as norm, to understand that love and work are human endeavours that are chosen and negotiated every day. Mothering is a site of contradictions, and neither one of us is interested in being superwoman. However, the lines between responsible parenting and the self-sacrifice that our dominant culture expects from women, on the one hand, and the one between belonging to yourself and harming your child through inattentiveness, on the other, are sometimes marked on sandy not rocky shores. Each wave blurs them further.
This is a friendship that brings untold joy, in which no conversation subject is taboo, not even the most embarrassing attempts at finding love, the strangest betrayals or most outrageous workplace violence. Sometimes when I hear people describe the personality of the late great Maya Angelou: her fierceness, her absolute refusal to be associated with anything she could not claim in the bright light of day, this unshakeable commitment to belong to herself, her grace and generosity, it is Achieng I hear them describe. Achieng is not just another mother to my child, and friend to every part of my spirit. Achieng teaches me that feminism is about knowing when to let go and when to receive.
I remember the day we started becoming friends, a few weeks after our twenty-first birthdays, although I could never have predicted how indispensable his friendship would become to me and remain more than two decades later. He is my son’s favourite uncle, which is funny, considering how he felt about children once.
In our twenties, when I was not going to have children and he shared the same choice, we would often list reasons why our lives would be better off without parenting. He did not quite like children, he would say, although he does take them seriously when they are around. I quite like children, I would add, I just don’t particularly want them to stay and mess all my things up.
I am much too selfish in my taste and wanderlust to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate children. One does not birth children unless you can raise them properly. Well, people do this all the time, but we are not those people.
Some of our friends found our choices to opt out of parenting strange given how close we both were to our respective parents. It was with slight trepidation that I made a phone call across the country to tell him I was pregnant. I knew that friendships changed when children were introduced, and that some friends failed to find each other again. This was not a friendship I wanted to ever live without. When another of his closest friends also announced her pregnancy, she and I decided to worry together.
But nothing anyone imagined could have prepared Thoko or I for the centrality of Angelo to our children’s lives. His generosity to them knows no bounds, and they understand his rules. My son is often taken aback when we remind him that we were friends before he was even an idea.
He knew me so well that when he called me one day from his new job in Pietermaritzburg, he could tell I was overwhelmed. My partner and I had agreed that he needed time to finish a multiyear project whose ending had been postponed, and that to do so he needed the physical distance. I imagined I could cope. But, as the project’s end proved elusive and his return again postponed, I regretted that decision. More than this, I resented the repeated absences that rendered me a single parent when I had consciously decided against just such a position.
And so, as Angelo called, I mentioned some of this as we discussed family, work, laughed, critiqued and teased each other as we had been doing for half our lives. He teased me about being an old woman, a recurrent joke, since he was born exactly three weeks after me. He was gentle in commenting on my fatigue, and angry at my parenting alone.
That weekend, and several times that year, he flew to Johannesburg for weekends during which I was so happy to see him I cried. He was furious with my then partner who had chosen just then to flail when faced with parenting our baby, and loving to me, his friend, whom he had never seen so out of sorts, and whisperer to my son who thinks he can do no wrong. I imagined myself in a relationship with a man who valued the feminist principles and values we both claimed. But here was a reality that increasingly led to a series of betrayals of who we had said we were. To be clear, I do not think the betrayal was only to me. It was a betrayal to what we had said we would build in a life together, the third one our partnership would never recover from.
My friend stepped into this, in the very spirit of who he had always been. Given the size of academic salaries, his visits to co parent with me were as emotionally noble as they were materially generous. To negotiate the morass that is South African academia for a Black person all week, and then choose not rest for the weekend, but to fly across the country to be at the side of someone he loves is not something we are all capable of. The difference it made, and the meaning it holds for me makes me cry to this day.
He has an unmatched ability to treat both my son and me as though we each are his primary interest even as we all sit in the same room. He does not always tell me what I want to hear, but he is always on my side. Nearly a decade later, I watch how our children cannot imagine life without him.
Over more than half our lives now, Angelo teaches me that feminism is not just talk, and the stuff of our academic research and the engine of our creative writing. He teaches me that feminism is love and work every day, that sometimes, feminist love’s beauty and life-changing power is so profound that it still makes me weep nearly a decade later.
She is the only person I have ever stalked into friendship. As I lay on my bed reading one of the many publications I read each month in those days, turning the pages of a very popular Black women’s magazine, I read a short interview with her about her work in a feminist technology organisation. The work itself sounded fascinating, and this long before I would think about the gendering of technology. She also spoke quite candidly about being a feminist in the world and a desire this identity produced that she was struggling to meet.
She craved a community of Black feminists in South Africa. In later years, it seemed typically her to declare this desire in a magazine that, like many women’s magazines, has such a conflicted relationship with feminism. Never one to temper herself or mute her voice, this was a space as good as any.
When I read this interview in my sixteenth-floor Westdene, Bloemfontein flat, I belonged to such a community. It was a mobile community of Black feminists mostly in academia, publishing and the heritage industry that we had formed, transformed and nurtured. Started through specific meetings in a room to address various levels of invisibilisation as Blackwomen in the academy, as we grew and moved, it had now taken on a virtual presence as well.
Having read the interview over the weekend, I resolved to reach out to her. And so it was that the following Monday, before I went to class, I sent off an email to her inviting her to join my community. A few months later, I was delighted to see we were on the same programme for the same feminist workshop in the Western Cape. It was a fantastic workshop and the beginning of a beautiful, transformative friendship.
It is a friendship that does what all of the best kinds of friendship achieve. It requires work and is forgiving of the times when we do not put in the work the friendship deserves. We were young women brimming with confidence, taking, as she likes to say “like ducks to water” to a world and country rapidly changing. We were brave in the face of challenges and opportunities that would have been unimaginable in the country we grew up in as Blackgirls, a country that was morphing dramatically into something we could not yet fully grasp.
As we transformed our lives, and ourselves, we have also had to grapple with who we were when faced with ageing parents. A curious inversion happens when parents’ fragility starts to temper their previous full autonomous and independent lives. We are both very much our parents’ daughters in personality, in eccentricity and in political inclination.
Another friend, older by a decade, once confessed to the enormous guilt she feels at how much she resents her parents for getting old. We sat and tried to make sense of it, none of us fully grasping it. I realise now that some of the resentment comes from being faced with our own future maturing and our parents’ mortality.
And so, when first I, then she, lost a parent each to cancer, it made us re-examine everything we had ever taken for granted about ourselves, family and decisions to parent. The death of a beloved parent with whom you have had a lifelong close relationship changes you forever. It is as if we were learning to walk again.
And to hold as part of that mourning the inability of the surviving parent to cope with that loss is dizzying. But we continue to learn to walk anew, accepting, for instance, that my father and Gail’s mother will never hold our son.
In the many years of our friendship, we have road-tripped, and have literally driven through a cloud together. I have called her in the middle of the night and cried “please come get me”, and she has rocked up with her Harvard tracksuit over her pyjamas a few minutes later and scooped me up.
Sometimes she has nurtured me, and other times she has lectured me. And she never believes any of my romantic relationship plans. When thrice I decided – and then decided against – marriage, she confessed to having looked at the prospective spouses and stopped short of saying out loud “poor sod, you really believe this will happen”. It is very frustrating that she is always right about these plans. But friendship sometimes means you know people better than they know themselves. She understands my ambivalence at a deeper level than I can grasp.
As if all of this is not enough, once a week for the better part of a decade, she picks our son up in the afternoon, plays with, feeds and mothers him, tucks him in, lets him run into her bed when he has nightmares. And, having fed and watered him, she drops him off at school in the morning.
When she moved to a new house, which she extensively renovated, my son came home elated from discussing plans for his new room and bathroom there. She has created such substantial room for him in her life that it makes sense that he speaks of her as his second mother. And, even when she is really naar with me, her commitment to him is unwavering. For a single mother, the gift of time is rarest, most treasured of all.
I have seen the strain on the faces and hearts of single parent friends who do not have this reprieve and know without a doubt that without it, I could not be the parent I am for the six other nights and mornings. Gail teaches me that feminism is principled, generous and non-negotiable. She teaches me that feminist friendship is unsurpassed.
She dislikes talking on the phone. Do you know how strange it is to be an opinionated, loud-mouthed feminist who is a delight in conversation but who does not like talking on the phone? But so what if it is strange?
We met through Gail many years ago on one of my trips from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg during which I partly stayed with Gail. I could see why they were close, how they finished each other’s sentences, and relished in the loving beauty of a friendship between women who did not even think to compete with each other.
A few years later, after I had moved to Gauteng, I arrived at her house with another friend, Pumeza, to meet Xoliswa’s new baby. And, I will never forget what Xoliswa said, as I held her baby, because it freed me more than anything I have ever heard said about mothering.
My baby has a life, and will have a bigger life. I have a life. We are building our life together. She is not my life and I am not hers. I have a great life that I have worked quite hard to design just as it is. I have no intention of giving it up. It’s a relationship of love and nurturing and guidance and responsibility and yes, there will be sacrifice, as there should be. But I will not sacrifice myself to motherhood. It would be a horrible thing to do to myself, and an injustice to my child.
And, as I listened to her, I realised for the first time why mothering had been a choice I had opted out of. I adore my mother who has always had her own professional life, so that I could take that for granted. Part of the memory of being her child has also been her insistence that as her children, we were her whole life. Sometimes it would be expressed as the declaration that she lives for her children. I remember as a fiercely independent child, and young woman, how confusing this sentiment was to me.
I learnt that mothering done well requires living for your children, and I did not understand what that meant. Now I recognise that it means the same thing I mean when I tell my children that they are my heart. However, because my mother’s words were not spoken in a vacuum, but into a world that socialises us to think about mothering as the culmination of a woman’s achievement, I could not imagine that mothering could feel free.
As I listened to Xoliswa then, with her baby there, seeing that this desire to belong to herself had not been snuffed out by childbirth was a delight to behold. She was the same person. It was possible to belong to yourself and be committed to parenting well. She felt certain that she would never sacrifice herself. I had always known that I would be incapable of self-sacrificing and still parenting well. And in a few sentences, she had freed me.
She has freed me many times over the years. There have been times when I have arrived at her house for a few hours with my child and we both end up leaving two days later. I have never seen a film of hers I was not blown away by, not just because of how she returns to women’s and girls’ lives, but also the choices she makes aesthetically and ideologically about how to represent them. In her films, her subjects always have interpretative authority.
Recently I was informed by the woman who takes care of my child, who has been my employee since my son was two months old, that for many years and without my knowledge, Xoliswa calls when I am on a trip to check if they need anything. She calls to make sure my son wants for nothing. And, on the trip I almost did not take because I was not sure my nine-year-old and I could survive a month without each other, she took him for a weekend and kept him for a week. When I talked to him that week, he told me he only sort of missed me.
Xoliswa always tells me the truth, even when it means we will fight. She is startlingly honest about her own mistakes, faults and failures. I have had to teach her to keep a little more of herself for herself because her generosity can also be her biggest weakness. She knows her own mind and unapologetically pursues her dreams, but not at any cost. She truly believes the Universe is generous but she has “no fucking time” for misogynists and other fascists.
It would take a year to list all the things she teaches me. And her daughter has the same spirit, so she challenges and stretches us both. Xoliswa is a feminist who belongs to herself, a wonder to love.
And so it is that mothering is something I take enormous pride and pleasure in. It is a decision I am pleased to have made, all the hard work and unpredictability notwithstanding. I would not have made it this far without these feminists who hold my hand, hold my heart, and help me think myself into and out of situations. They save my life by making it possible in its messy, thorny, adventurous and joyful range.
Finally, when I say feminism has saved my life more times than I can imagine, I mean my own, and I mean the love, friendship, brains and community of the feminists in my life too. This is what feminism is.