‘It’s a blessing and an honour being a mother; you literally experience a miracle,’ says Yolanda Khula, 29. But, right now, this South African-born mother of two, who is pursuing a career in the arts, does not experience the joys or the sorrows of motherhood first-hand. She lives in California, alone. Khula found that trying to establish her career back home was tough. ‘After studying art, design and photography, I couldn’t get work,’ she says. ‘I was constantly told that I did not have enough experience.’ She faced the same obstacles to unemployment that many young people in South Africa do. So, when an opportunity arose abroad, her mother convinced her to take it, leaving her two boys back home. It has been tough for this young mother, who feels guilty for missing some of the most crucial moments in her sons’ lives. Important milestones, school functions, jokes, cuddles and kisses are just some of the things that she wishes she was around to experience with her two sons, Alupheli, 8, who she describes as a young gentleman and thinker, and Buntu, who at 5 is a ‘fiery young fellow’.
In South Africa it is not unusual to find households where children do not live with their biological parents. Children might live with one parent or with extended family members instead. It is more often fathers who are absent, according to a survey by the Institute of Race Relations: in South Africa 40 percent of children live with only their mother, 3 percent only with their fathers, and 23 percent with neither parent. South Africa’s historic culture of migrant labour, although consisting mainly of men, also saw a large number of women moving to urban areas to take up better economic opportunities to benefit their families back home. It’s generally more acceptable for men to leave their families and even to be lauded for their choices to do so for the ‘greater good (for example, to fight wars or take up a revolutionary cause).
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But mothers who choose not to live with their children are often judged harshly. When award-winning US writer Rahna Reiko Rizzuto divorced her husband, leaving her two sons, 5, and 3, with him in New York to become a ‘noncustodial mother’, she was fiercely criticised by strangers and friends alike. She was described as being ‘worse than Hitler’, among other cruel remarks posted by online commentators, while her ex-husband was portrayed as a saint. Nevertheless, as she told CNN in 2013, ‘our family evolved. It was not quick and easy, in fact, we groped … and stumbled, but I had the support of their father and my boys are now thriving. When we look at it, I realise that our family is not abhorrent or unnatural. It looks very much like many other families that have been through divorce, except in this case Mom is the one who lives down the street.’ South African production assistant Aviwe Matandela, 22, knows what it’s like to grow up without a mother.
‘I grew up with an aunt, not with my mom, because she had to work, and I know how that can be a struggle. I ended up being a loner and whenever someone hurt me, I would keep it to myself. Eventually all that pain built up on the inside and I had a hard time coping,’ she says. For her, being away from her own son, Zuko, is a challenge she is currently facing – something that does not get easier, even though she’s getting ahead in her career. Her choice to leave him was a dicult PHOTOGRAPH:S GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES, SUPPLIED Nkuli Mlangeni ELLE_Report Motherhood.indd 61 2015/02/02 11:36 AM @ELLEmagazineSA 62 one. Having fallen pregnant while at university, she was about to drop out, wanting to avoid putting her son through the same experience she’d had. Her mother, however, reasoned with her and oered to look after the boy while she pursued her studies. And so for a while, she lived at home and attended university every day. But she soon found the routine too strenuous. ‘I was travelling to my classes every day, trying to make it back home in time to spend time with my son. Most nights, even during exam time, I’d be up in the middle of the night changing nappies, feeding him, rocking him back to sleep and studying, all at the same time.
The following day I’d have to be up very early, sometimes having had only an hour of sleep, go to class, stay focused and still have enough strength to endure three-hour rehearsals after my classes and get home in time to tuck him into bed every night.’ She finally opted to leave her son back home in KwaZulu-Natal with her mother, so that she could finish her degree. While being away from her son has been emotionally hard, she realises that her sacrifice is for the benefit of his future too. For her, it’s important that when her son looks at his mother, he sees someone he believes in and respects, no matter how tough the circumstances now. ‘I think any long-distance mom would tell you this is the biggest challenge: being away from my child, not knowing when he’s crying, what he’s feeling, how he’s developing and what he needs.’ Having a support structure is something Nkuli Mlangeni, 32, credits as allowing her to follow her dreams. Hers comes in the form of her grandmother, her sisters, her nanny and a cousin – showing that it truly does take a village to raise a child. For Mlangeni, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came in the form of a scholarship to study in Switzerland. Throughout much of her working life her work had required her to travel to dierent places, so from an early age her daughter, Imitha (now 5) knew that she didn’t have ‘just one mother’.
And because of this, it was FOR HER, IT’S IMPORTANT THAT WHEN HER SON LOOKS AT HIS MOTHER, HE SEES SOMEONE HE BELIEVES IN AND RESPECTS REPORT never an issue that Mlangeni was not around. She says that she has a strong relationship with Imitha, one in which she sometimes plays the role of mother, other days she is a friend and sometimes a teacher. She has found that people at home are supportive of her lifestyle. ‘Most people in my community in South Africa are okay [with it] because it’s not the first time that a mother has to leave her kids behind to go and do something that will in the long run contribute to giving those kids a better life. But in Switzerland people always seem shocked when I tell them I left my child behind – it’s not so common here,’ she says. While the amount of time she can spend with Imitha varies, depending on school holidays and whether Mlangeni is doing project work in South Africa, she keeps in constant touch via Skype and a daily phone call. Being apart is hard, though, and she has had moments when she has wanted to quit and move back home. But she believes that, ‘at some point you have to let go of the idea that you can always protect your kid from the world.
I’ve learned that anything can happen, whether I’m with her in the same room or thousands of miles away, and so it’s important to let her be. You just do your best and hope for the best.’ ‘We still assign specific roles and even feelings to the dierent genders,’ says Wilma Calvert, a trained counsellor and community worker for Families South Africa (FAMSA), but she adds: ‘Society is changing, though. A generation ago, the working world was dierent. Now more women are being encouraged to enter the workplace – because economies are growing and a larger workforce is required.’ ‘I tell my boys that I’m working for us, for their future, for more opportunities for them,’ says Khula.
‘They want to come to America; they want to see the world. I am working hard to make all that accessible to them.’ These young women share a sense of agency and independence, something that many mothers did not have in the past. As society evolves and the notion of family hierarchy changes, it’s possible that these choices, freely made and informed, despite the personal cost, will gain recognition – and credit.
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