Surviving and thriving as a single mother in today’s world

Single mother

A single mother and her daughter cooking. In today’s modern African society, single parenting even from pre-marital unions, is not shunned as before.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Single motherhood is unplanned when it results through unintended pregnancy, rape, abandonment, separation, divorce, widowhood, and so on.
  • Single moms by choice may have had their child or children through consensual sex in which they lay bare their intention to the father-to-be or do so without his knowledge.

Today I wish to tackle single motherhood, an obviously onerous topic for a male scribe.

On Mashujaa Day, I tweeted: “I wish to commend two groups of Kenyans for their heroic every-day struggles in life. These are the youth of Kenya and single mothers...’’ One person whose mantra is ‘passion for progress’ responded: “You just wasted a great statement with the phrase ‘single mothers’.”

The Daily Nation of November 3, 2021 published a story about Winnie Wadera’s quest to find her absentee father who abandoned the family when she was four. In her maturity, she embarked on this mission despite the fact that her mother had been solely responsible for her upbringing. Her reasoning was: “Fathers play a key role in their child’s life… Living with a father in the same house shapes you, covers and protects you.” This is indeed so if the father is a responsible man.

There was a time President Uhuru Kenyatta outlawed the sale and consumption of sub-standard alcohol. While talking to a group of abstaining young men at Machinery market, one Sunday after church, one of them who was standing aloof remarked: “When I stopped drinking, I realised I had a wife and children.” It struck me that his wife had been, constructively, a single mother.

A single mother is the sole parent of her own or adopted progeny. She rears the child or children, doubling as both parents. Broadly speaking, single motherhood is unplanned when it results through unintended pregnancy, rape, abandonment, separation, divorce, widowhood, and so on. A woman finds herself the mother of scions without a live-in father.

Single motherhood can also be intentional. A woman who chooses not to have a husband or, is unable to find a man of her choice as her biological clock ticks, may decide to have her own child or children. This is single motherhood by choice.

Single moms by choice may have had their child or children through consensual sex in which they lay bare their intention to the father-to-be or do so without his knowledge (indeed he may be a total stranger). She can also conceive through sperm donation. A woman may become a single mother through adoption.

Ideally single mums by election may be more psychologically prepared to raise their young than those whose single motherhood is ‘accidental’.

Single mothers by choice

The 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, 2019 (KNBS) survey of 12,014,689 females between the reproductive ages of 15-49, discovered that of the 4,553,470 never married females, 1,137,785 or 25 percent were single mothers. Those widowed were 245,911, divorced 134,399 and separated 338,014. If we assume the majority of these last categories were also single mothers, then the percentage of single motherhood (between ages 15-49) escalates to 35.

In most traditional Kenyan cultures, having children outside marriage is scorned. Society, and particularly parents, relatives and community members, tend to question the moral character of the single mother in the above situation. She is routinely discriminated.

Among the Akamba of Kenya, an unmarried girl who becomes pregnant while living in her father’s compound is described as one who conceived ivu ya ikoni (a pregnancy while still in her mother’s kitchen), and not while at ‘her own kitchen’ in her husband’s home. Often such girls were married, if at all, in a polygamous union and at low bride price.

Even today, many African men will avoid marrying single mothers who become pregnant outside wedlock. They may feel there will always lurk a father in the shadows in potential competition with them or they will spend time and money raising somebody else’s child. In the West, however, single parenthood does not necessarily hinder re-marriage.

In today’s modern African (read also Kenyan) society, single parenting even from pre-marital unions, is not shunned as before. As single mothers by choice increase, and correspondingly those with means to raise their families single-handedly, society has gradually come to terms with the single mother phenomenon. Even religious institutions have established special single mothers’ ministries. Such non-judgemental acknowledgement is a boon to both mother and progeny.

In a 2017 study by Muthuri S K and others, the conclusion was reached that “urban residence, older age and poor economic status were associated with single motherhood over time”. Lack of access to sex education and appropriate youth friendly family planning advice exposes females between 15 and 29 to early sex, pregnancy and single motherhood. Under-employment and unemployment among single females of the same age cohort especially in urban areas and also today’s rural settings expose the young women to early sexual activity as men entice them with gifts.

From my observation and study, single motherhood, even when by choice, is not a bed of roses. One parent must fit the shoes of two. A single mother dreads ill health. Her work schedule must accommodate her single motherhood.

Burden of child’s rearing

The single mother must be ready to answer a bevy of awkward questions and ward off unsavoury salvos against her child. For example, children from two headed families will often ask their peers from single mom families: “Where is your father?” They have been socialised to believe a father should be a live-in parent.

A single mother must also deal with the search for a father or father figure by her child or children. This is complicated if one’s children are products of different fathers. Where single mothers deny their probing children knowledge of or interaction with a father within set rules, this can potentially disrupt the child’s emotional growth. Also, if a child is not interested in meeting a father, that sentiment should be respected. Further, it is cruel for a biological father to refuse to interact with a child who wants to meet and bond.

Ordinarily, a single mother bears the economic burden of a child’s rearing. However, legally the child’s needs should be met by both parents.

Article 53(1)(e) of the Kenyan Constitution provides that, “Every child has the right to parental care and protection, which include equal responsibility of the mother and father to provide for the child whether they are married to each other or not.”

Under the country’s law, no child is an illegitimate child even if borne outside marriage. Such a child has a right to inherit from either parent; the right to a name including the father’s name; non-discrimination; etc.

In traditional African society, children were raised by the community as opposed to merely their biological parents. Children of single mothers especially in the rural setting, are also brought up by the extended family, identified safe father figures and the community at large. Single mother networks have also provided alternative support systems. However, it is the prime responsibility of a single mother to create an enabling spiritual, moral and ethical environment for her young ones to thrive.

In conclusion, Mandy Hale metaphorically describes a single mother thus: “She has to have four arms, four legs, four eyes, two hearts, and double the love. There is nothing single about a single mom.” The single mother is undoubtedly the primary emotional and psychological pillar of her offspring.

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