Mantalk: The most valuable lessons I learned from my stepmom

The most valuable lessons I learned from my stepmom. Photo | Photosearch

What you need to know:

  • I grew up in a blended family—and to satiate your curiosity, yes, the juice has been worth the squeeze. 

  • My biological mother who bore me and weaned me 

  • My stepmother who loved me from hello

  • And my guardian, my aunt, who took me up as a teenager

Ain’t no hood, those who say things say, like motherhood. I should know; I am not a mother but I was raised by one. Actually, by three.

I grew up in a blended family—and to satiate your curiosity, yes, the juice has been worth the squeeze. My biological mother who bore me and weaned me (making me a winner (yeah, she also hates my jokes too)); my stepmother who loved me from hello; and my guardian, my aunt, who took me up as a teenager, and don’t let my forehead fool you, I was one of those teenagers. But today, I come here, hat in hand, to pay homage to my stepmom. Why? Because tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And because if not me, who? —or as my mother would say, ‘because I said so.’

Stepmoms have a bad rep in these streets; and while there are cases of genuine malice from some, there are also moments of authentic relationships with others. Quick crash course: You see, I am the product of a raunchy love affair—is this too much, too soon? —my father, the quintessential Luhya man had me outside of wedlock. I’m a love child. A virile man with dashing good looks (my father, not me) had me 29 years back, with a foxy mother who I not only love, but like; but I only stayed with her for about five years. I felt like an addendum that came at the beginning of her script. She had barely started going to Disco Matangas when I popped up in her life. Ergo I grew up with my stepmother—or as the cringy whitewashed phrase goes, the mother who stepped up—and I learned how different my experience is from others.

I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be a stepmother—but the statistics are damning. Six of every 10 Kenyan women are likely to be single mothers by the time they reach 45. Single-parent households are on the rise as divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation take root. Today, there is no typical mother. Research posits that about 30 percent of women in Kenya are giving birth before they are married. Not to make this about myself but as you can see, I am unique—just like everyone else.

Is it easier for a woman to raise children from different fathers in the same household or for a man to raise children from different mothers? What I do know is that living in a blended family could either be a goldmine or a landmine.

My stepmom is a woman of Biblical patience. I must have been a handful as a child, but my brothers were boss-level. Kwanza Johnnie. I imagine raising a child who wouldn’t talk to you as something that is not easy to do but she had no airs, no graces. She is the gentlest soul alive and that provided a blueprint of what I look for in someone’s daughter. What’s that? Yes, men do end up marrying their mothers. She is so soft she could get away with murder. Actually, she has. She killed my love for potatoes.

She has this long dry look, a look that holds your gaze, a look that contains a certain amount of pain. A certain amount? A lot. But if my stepmom was struggling, she didn’t make a meal out of it. I just saw the mask she painted on. The smooth mother, rather than the cracks. Cracks, however, deepen in time and the masks begin to slip. I always wonder about the dreams she had to give up to raise us. We are five brothers at home and three sisters, and these are just the normal ones. Of the seven of us (my brother sadly died); no one has a bad word to say about her.  How did I picture us all living together in that house? I didn’t.  While my mother ruled by the ballot, my stepmom ruled by the bullet. If she had you on her watch list it was over for you.

If the matter is anything that has weight and occupies space, then my stepmom’s words had weight and still occupy space. She spoke little, or I listened little, but now that I’m a grown man, I cover myself in this blanket of shame. Most families suffer from scarcity, I suffered from abundance—so this is how it feels to be God’s favourite? Distributing my love across three women, I only have one auricle left to decide betwixt someone’s daughter and Jesus who gets to occupy it (Thank God then for Article 81 of the constitution on two-thirds gender rule which ensures Jesus is nailed on for the spot).

This reminds me of how my stepmom would try to hook me up with some random girls; like Sister Grace from the choir. You need a woman who will sing when she is angry, she’d hum. I know they say extend grace, but this is not what they mean, Ma. Be careful what you ask for: like mothers everywhere, she’s insufferable that way. People everywhere run their mouths about the woes of their early childhood—and I am no exception.

Vituperation was not her only mode. She could praise. She could turn an elegant phrase and toss off a pithy bon mot. She was the dictionary definition of a Kenyan mother, with a “‘F&*# around and find out” mind-set’: veiled threats with a side of a compliment. “Lala tutakuachia shamba!” The thing is I was a rather slow child, and when the brain is lazy, it is the buttocks that suffer. She was a Spartan, so you don’t need me to wax lyrical on why red slippers are a trigger for me. 

Ma’s red sippers were so famed that even Bosco, the estate dog would stop whining and fall into line when she brandished them. I have asked—and I am asking—the government not to even jail petty thieves. Let them pass through the correctional services of Ma. Serikali may have mkono mrefu, but it surely needs a hand from her. The woman may be pushing half a century, but her right arm is like an appendage that just keeps getting stronger. Something about Lamarck’s theory. Actually, I didn't do it justice.

She’s taught me to be open to life: the great, the meh, the scandalous, the scary. She’s shown me, by example, exactly the kind of person I want to be—someone you can count on, someone you can trust—because that’s exactly how she is. That thing about values and ethics? Yeah, she’s big on that too. That when the chips are down you step up. You do the right thing. She’s always known what I yearn for, who I was, and what I want.  She’s taught me that it’s my job to find out what my children desire and long for. And then not give it all to them so that they have something to discuss with their therapist in 20 or 30 years’ time. Hehe.

God, like the devil, resides in the details, and the fine print reads thus: a stepmother never really belongs. My people have a saying: ‘Mama wa kambo si mama.’ A stepmom is an outsider; she doesn’t fit in just right. My father once gave me two pieces of advice: marry a nice girl who does not mind making ugali, and always be sure to look, and overlook.

In today's sea of Mother's Day saccharine, for years, I kept my emotional suitcases packed by the door—always looking but never overlooking that sometimes we choose our families—ready to leave this miasma of inter-webbed relationships.

Does anyone really ever want to be a stepmom? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe the question assumes we need special courage to mother a child we have never met but isn’t that true of all children? To be a parent is to answer the call of the void, to step into the unknown, it’s a hands-on, tongues-out experience.  

Even now as I have more empathy for my parents, from each I took, and from each I learned: My aunt gave me discipline, my mother gave me presence, and my stepmom gave me acceptance. It is that love that feeds the soul and allows us all to flourish. Now, I watch from afar as the grey hairs mushroom—and I know who helped to put them there—turning me into a witness of a courtship that ought to have faded with the mire of parenthood. This must be love, I think, the kind of love where TikTokers caption “If it’s not like this, I don’t want it.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.