Apartheid so distorted normal human reactions among the Black population that parenting today cannot deliver the healthy relationships children need to grow up straight and true. Healing the wounds is critical, says Kelebogile Motswatswa
The unfortunate reality about Black existence in South Africa is that suffering is inhered in it, and this suffering has impacted the way most Black parents view their roles and responsibilities.
The shards of inequality, poverty, violence, and injustice have nestled in the backs of our parents; they lie on them every night and wake up every morning to toil for a system that has taken from them more than it has given, and it continues to demand more.
Whether one’s parent is a distinguished medical doctor or a vendor who sells the proverbial South African seven-colour meal at a corner in Sandton (one of Jo’burg’s richest suburbs), many of us can relate to the frustration of being told the following: “I fed you, educated you and there was a roof over your head; what more do you want from me?” We seem to want more than our parents deem it necessary to give.
I have had many conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about the difficult relationships we have with our parents. The intensity of the difficulties ranges from person to person; for some, the strain is manageable and for others, it calls for estrangement.
As one who is estranged from her parents, I think a lot about Black parenthood, especially in the context of South Africa, where apartheid infantilised and dehumanised our parents, and denied them access to opportunities that would enable them to fully explore and express their potential as human beings. Due to the fact apartheid forced upon our parents a life of suffering, they had to make it against violent and oppressive odds to provide for their families.
Lack of healthy relationships
In 1994, apartheid may have ended as a system of governance but even as South Africa ushered in a new democracy, Black parents stepped into the new dispensation with wounds and the belief that to be Black is to suffer, and that’s just how it is.
So, when doors that were hitherto closed opened, the focus was on sending their children to the schools they had little to no access to and ensuring the houses they built for their children were more than just shelter.
In their essay, ‘Parenting, Poverty and Young People in South Africa’, included in the South Africa Child Gauge 2015, produced by the University of Cape Town, researchers Catherine Ward, Tawanda Makusha, and Rachel Bray define parenting as “the caring interactions between close adult kin and young people.” In the essay, they note that “the practices, ideas and connections that comprise parenting evolve over time because they are dependent on the well-being of parents.”
Our parents worked hard to secure our education but did not invest the same amount of time and energy into building healthy relationships with us, which has had an impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of many Black adults in South Africa.
For our parents, parenting is about providing more than it is about nurturing; it’s a learned way of parenting and, as an insidious offshoot of Black trauma, it has been passed down from generation to generation.
It is from understanding the experiences of our parents that we often find ourselves saying “that’s just the way Black parents are”, when sharing stories about our complex and oft-turbulent relationships with them.
But here’s the thing, just because we get why our parents could not parent us in a way that we needed to develop into healthy, well-functioning adults, it does not change the fact that we needed it; neither does it invalidate our frustrations and desire for genuine connections with our mothers and fathers.
My problem with statements such as “all Black mothers and fathers are like that” is the fact that the conversation stops there and our emotional needs aren’t given the presence, acknowledgement and validation that they need.
Ineffective parenting in Black communities is normative and has a socio-political context, but this does not mean that it cannot be challenged, and it does not mean that we cannot demand more from our parents or address issues related to their parenting.
Black parenthood is political in so many complex ways; however, we are allowed to walk away from parents who are reluctant to sit with us and find a way forward together. Even though we can empathise with them, and understand the heaviness of the cognitive dissonance they experience when being asked to confront problems in their parenting, we don’t have to deal with the labour of constantly understanding but never being understood or seen ourselves.
I may no longer have a relationship with both my parents, but now that I know the effects that being wounded can have on one’s parenting abilities, I have a responsibility to go through the necessary healing process.
This is so crucial, especially in the context of South Africa wherein broken families abound. Many children who come from broken families are likely to be violent, engage in substance abuse and suffer from a mental illness. The burden for many black millennial parents is having to straddle healing their wounds while trying to parent in an effective manner.
But I am hopeful that the narrative of the ineffective black parent will change and that trauma will no longer be at the centre of Black parenting and Black existence as a whole.