Mothering from a world away

On my recent trip to Kenya, I was away from my family for 17 days. I missed my son’s final cross country ski meet, his first ACT test, my daughter’s game winning soccer goal. I made infrequent contact with my family via text and even more infrequent phone calls due to the constraints of long work days in Africa and the time change. I didn’t have a chance to buy chocolate or cards for Valentine’s Day before I left. Overall, I was feeling the mother guilt big time in my first week away. It hadn’t helped that many of my friends and co-workers had congratulated me on my upcoming trip in the weeks before I left, quickly followed by “I could never leave my kids/husband/boyfriend for that long” statement. And then I met Joyce near the end of my first week . After hearing her story, the remainder of my stay was much less guilt ridden and I was able to appreciate my time away from home to recharge my mission focus.

Joyce (on left) and newly cooked mandazi

Joyce (on left) and newly cooked mandazi

Joyce is a professor of community development at a university in Nairobi. On weekends and holidays, she returns to western Kenya (a 7 hour drive) to help her husband operate a bed and breakfast. We were able to share their company one night as we visited a local hospital that is being considered for a future cervical cancer screening program. After preparing our dinner, she was gracious enough to share her family story with us. She had married in her early 20’s and graduated from college in Nairobi. She was working in community development for the government when she was offered the opportunity to study in Canada and receive her Master’s degree, which would allow her to teach at the college level when she returned. A wonderful opportunity with one major drawback – her husband and 2 young daughters (ages 3 and 5) would not be allowed to accompany her. Her husband was very supportive and urged her to take advantage of the opportunity. He had a good job and household help in Africa is plentiful and inexpensive. She would be gone for 3 years and only able to return home twice. This was before the internet age and cell phones, so communication was a brief phone call once a week. She changed her mind daily, but in the end decided that the future life of her family would benefit from her improved job status. Her daughters are now in their late 20’s and she has a great relationship with both of them. After returning to Kenya, she had 2 more children. She continues to teach at the university, traveling frequently thruout Africa to work on community development projects in other countries. She loves her work and feels that the additional education offered her many opportunities that she wouldn’t have been considered for otherwise.

Many of the immigrant patients from Africa that I see in my office have often had to leave behind immediate family, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to move to America. It is not infrequent that these woman are pregnant with a new baby, while their older children remain in Africa with an older relative, waiting for the funds and paperwork to be able to be reunited with their parent. Other African woman move to America, secure a good job that is able to support their immediate family here while sending funds back to Africa to support nieces/nephews. This is often an expected obligation, not a choice, from their families who remain in Africa.

In the end, my family functioned just fine while I was gone and I felt more guilt than they felt loss. Could I leave for 3 months or a year? I am grateful that I do not need to make this decision because I don’t know the answer.

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