As a young college girl, Mercy’s* dream was to meet a well-off man, probably in his 30s, settle down and start a family. Her dream was to raise two boys and a girl.
But that was not to be. As she pursued higher education, including a doctorate, her age began to catch up with her. Then she secured a well-paying job that enabled her to buy a home and a car. “These are the things that make women get married, right?” she poses.
Still, Mercy wanted to have children and devised a foolproof plan. She hooked up with a family man who just wanted to have a ‘good time’ without any strings attached. What the man did not know was that all Mercy wanted was getting pregnant.
“I gave birth to his child but he still has no idea that he made me pregnant. I am okay with the way things developed. Why buy a cow if all you want is milk?”
Joyce Mwai, a 34-year entrepreneur is a mother of a 10-year-old boy. She is single and does not plan to get married. Just like Mercy*, she proceeded to campus after high school and secured herself a well-paying job after which she invested on a fashion business.
As she was turning 23, she felt that she needed to get a child but the idea of getting married was not one she would welcome. Clear in her mind on what she wanted in terms of a family, she hooked up with a man she liked and whom she had dated, got pregnant and went on living single.
“I have always wanted to have children. Since I was growing up taking care of my nieces and nephews, I admired children and wished to have my own. However, I have always wanted to live as a single mother. I find the idea of getting married a bit off at the present times. It is like a crisis that nobody wants to admit and I suppose living single helps one evade some of those unforeseen tragedies we are witnessing everyday around the family space,” says Joyce.
“I never told the man that I was expecting his child. I guess that he was never interested and so when I told him I was expectant, he took off. Little did he know that getting a child is all I wanted, not support from him or anything like that. I am living a comfortable life and my son is getting the best life can offer. I live for him and I am happy,” Joyce remarks.
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Asked whether her parents ever get bothered as to why she hasn’t yet brought a man home, Joyce says she has made it clear to her family that she will not get married.
“I come from a well-up family and my parents always wondered if I had gotten the baby by accident and if that had made look at men differently. They thought I was physiologically traumatized, probably with a boyfriend having deserted me and left me with a child. However, I put it plain to them that I always wanted to be a single mother,” she notes.
On the other hand, Christine Mueni got a child with her boyfriend right after she had cleared high school. Being a banker, she had imaged he would provide for her and the baby and that they would grow together happy as a family. However, the boyfriend deserted her when her pregnancy was two months only to show up again when the son was 11 years. She never wanted to see him. Having received support from her family, she had moved on and decided never to get married.
“It is fine to have a boyfriend. I have been dating someone since my son turned five, that is after all the bitterness of being left in the cold. After I got stable, I decide that I would raise my son without the hustle of introducing him to another man who is not is father. The agreement between me and my current date is purely social and not material. It is not like I expect much from him. In fact, he is married and I respect everything about him and his wife. I never discuss that part of his life with him,” Christine responds.
Like the three, many men and women, especially the upwardly mobile and ‘empowered’, are choosing to become independent of each other and ditching the poster image of a family: father, mother and a couple of children living happily.
This family setup stemmed from yet another bigger family format, the extended family. This family had uncles, aunties, cousins, and grandparents living in close proximity, usually in the same compound, and giving a sense of bonding and life-long lessons to younger members of the family.
However, this family setup began to disintegrate as poverty levels in rural and peri-urban areas skyrocketed with younger members of the family moving out of home in search of better economic prospects and a hope of starting families of their own.
A 2020 report commissioned by the Goethe Institut on emerging trends in family structure says this trend led what it termed as the ‘commuting husband’ syndrome where the man works in the urban areas, occasionally visiting his family back in the ancestral home.
“This trend has given rise to the commuting husband syndrome consisting of a married man who migrates to the urban areas in search of economic opportunities, but who also wants to establish a stable nuclear family with ties to the extended family in his permanent rural residence,” stated the report.
However, some of the youths who did not find the much sought-after jobs became disillusioned and their hopes of setting up strong families of their own were dashed as well. Those that succeeded led less than ideal lives.
Today, spiraling divorce rates and separations leading to one-parent families, women giving birth out of wedlock and men unwilling, or unable to shoulder family responsibilities, have put the nuclear family on edge.
“It is becoming a crisis,” says Jane Njeri, a woman in her 30s and who got married recently. “Many women in my age bracket are no longer living by the traditional creed of being subservient to a man and handling domestic duties. Some want to live with a man but don’t want to cook for him, wash clothes, or even look after a child for long.”
According to Njeri, a married woman who has no intentions of fulfilling the set roles for a wife has no business being married.
“Look, men come from work exhausted and want some peace at home. If you as a woman cannot provide that peace, what are you in the marriage for?” she poses.
Njeri says there is a new crop of men and women who have become “undatable” and have made a conscious decision to remain single but have no problem being in casual sexual relationships.
Recently, the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey report revealed how a large percentage of Kenyan men and women find sexual satisfaction with partners outside of the marital arrangement.
“About one-third of women (33 percent) and nearly half (48 percent) of men have never been married. Fifty-five percent of women are either married or living together with a man as if married, while 46 percent of men are married or living together with a woman as if married,” stated the report that has been the subject of intense debate both in mainstream and social media circles.
The report also showed a steep decline in the fertility rate within the country with urban women having an average of 2.8 children from a high of 4.5 in 1989. The higher the social status, the report showed, the lower the likelihood of a woman getting pregnant in a family setup.
“The percentage of women who have ever been pregnant decreases from 21 percent among those in the lowest wealth quintile to 8 percent among those in the highest wealth quintile,” it stated.
According to opinion leaders, the current drive to empower the girl child has also been cited as a contributor to the impending death knell of the nuclear family.
A week ago, the Second Lady Dorcas Gachagua, in a meeting with religious leaders, declared her fight against the subjugation of the boy child. While the girls need extra care due to their vulnerability, their empowerment, she stated, should not be pursued at the expense of boys.
“Even God created male and female, not male alone,” she said. “When you lift one and leave the other, that is why the family is unstable. To get a stable family, we must bring up the boy child to the level where the girl is. The girl child is taken care of by society, but I ask, who will marry them?”
The disenfranchising of men has led them to form groups such as the much-touted ‘MGTOW’, or Men Going Their Own Way. Among their slogans are “Smart men don’t get married” or “Criticise her and she will destroy your career”.
While some in these men-only groups are married, they seem to find little satisfaction in their relationships, leading to further disintegration of the family unit.
Njeri says mushrooming of such groups is evidence of the broken relationships between men and women, where neither cedes ground in times of crisis.
“I have come across men in similar groupings who have made it clear that they will never go the family way due to what they perceive as female domination especially where she [the wife] either earns more or is more educated,” she says.
Benjamin Zulu, a life coach and counselling psychologist says men were given masculine energy which was intended for wars or the protection of the family.
When the same kind of energy is manifested by a woman, says Zulu, the man is confused since "this energy rarely yields but wields.” This, Zulu adds, has a detrimental effect on the nuclear family.
“Masculine energy is combative and competitive. There will always be war if you meet for lunch with a woman with such energy. A masculine woman will make the man tired while the home becomes inhospitable. The man is lectured for hours and has to look for a safety net elsewhere. A man in such a home may not divorce but detach, lay back and spend more time with the boys. He wants to lead but there is no space,” says Zulu.
Men, he says, have never questioned women’s capabilities but about “relationship where the man leads and the wife manages.” In contrast, Zulu says there are some women with feminine energy and who support the leader.
“She is like the queen, a nurturer and life giver. She genuinely loves the family despite the feminine energy. She earns well, has a voice and is in line with her energy,” he says.