I recall a scene in the play Aminata by Francis Imbuga in which a mother from a rural village, accompanied by her friends, visited her married son in the city. They found the son in the house alone.
The wife was away for a seminar, something the village folk found intriguing. A wife going away from home for business sounded quite odd, especially as the couple did not even have “enough” children!
This sounds all outdated today, a time when married women travel for work and business extensively.
However, a wife’s prolonged absence from her family is yet to register as a norm in our society.
Men have always migrated from rural areas to urban areas in search of income—what I later learned is called split migration.
Many a time, men have gone even abroad to study or work, leaving their wives and children at home. And for some reason, the women who are left with the children receive no sympathy from society.
In the rural areas, some years back, men would go and come back once or twice a year. The emotional needs of women never bothered society, which, to date, intensely monitors the woman’s social life while least bothered by the man’s social life wherever he is.
Society has taken long to accommodate the reversal of roles. A mother’s absence is assumed to spell automatic doom for the children, but not so with a father's.
I learned this after my wife left for the US for some assignment and left me minding the children.
The first pressure was my own mother. She would constantly ask me why my wife went, what she is doing in America, and when she is coming back.
A little concern is of course legitimate, but this was not little and it was tremendously shocking.
I lost count of the number of times my mother asked me what the children were eating. If she didn’t ask me, she would ask my brothers and sisters, and even friends.
It occurred to me that my wife’s absence was of so much concern, it was almost causing her depression, just like the mother in the above play who found her son “lonely” while the wife was attending a seminar.
This pressure would have been fine if it was confined to my mother. But it was not.
The first question from friends, in-laws, and anybody close to me, was “how are you coping with children without Mama Wambui.”
Whenever the children’s aunts visited, they would carry food, something they ordinarily did not do before my wife travelled.
The sympathy (and solidarity) shown to me for being left with the children was overwhelming but also a little puzzling. The fact that I cook food and wash dishes would take so many people by surprise but they would interpret it as suffering.
Yet, if it was the other way around; if I were the one who had gone to the US and left Jane with children, these chores would have been considered ‘normal’.
Why is men’s reputation as home managers so poor? I have been thinking about this for the last year Jane has been away.
Society has patronised men with a false sense of privilege to a point that domestic chores look like a punishment to fathers.
Let’s let women go abroad and travel for business, and don’t give men undue sympathy for taking care of their own children.