In most cases after separation or divorce, women, are given primary custody of young children. That their fathers, unlike their neighbours’, don’t live with them always raises eyes brows among children. And as we have discovered, explaining to children the absence of a father is a big dilemma that many single mothers grapple with almost daily. In fact, it has been noted that a good number of women who are raising children by themselves have absolutely no clue how to explain the absentee fathers, and how they go about it, as it seems, can make for great comedy.
Kids beaten for asking who their father is
Take, for instance, the case of Julia*, a 27-year-old Nairobi-based business lady, who has no clue who her father is. Growing up, her mother used to beat her up whenever she asked about her father. “I got beaten several times for asking about my dad. By then, I didn’t know how sensitive the matter was to my mum. I used to wonder why, unlike our neighbours, my dad was never around. Unfortunately, whenever I asked, which I always did rather innocently, my mum would scold and slap me, accusing me of nagging her with stupid questions,” she says.
Julia recalls the day her mother knuckle-knocked her head hard before yelling, asking her to choose to stay with her or go to live with her father whom she had been incessantly asking about.
“Things got so bad at some point that she hit me on the head and threatened to kick me out of her house. With fury, she descended on me with knuckle knocks, yelling, ‘kama umeboeka na hapa, useme uende ukae naye uko (If you are bored here, you can as well go live with him),’” recalls Julia, adding that she (her mother) later, in passing, casually told her that her father died in a road accident. With time, Julia discovered how irritating the matter was to her mother and kept off completely.
Mums with no clue who sired their children
“After claiming that he died long ago, I stopped pestering her. I, however, suspect she just said that to keep me quiet. I am still curious to know him, dead or alive. Problem is I have no idea how to go about it because none of my relatives know him either,” says Julia, adding: “I was brought up by a foster dad, and luckily for me my siblings treat me well and we are close. I always suspect my mum had a nasty experience with my biological dad, and that’s why she wants nothing to do with him.”
It gets even crazier, with stories of mothers who completely refuse to reveal to children who their fathers are. Tales, too, have been told of children whose mothers casually scoff that they, too, don’t know who their fathers are when asked about their whereabouts. Crazy as it may sound, it could be true that such mothers have no idea who fathered their kids. Take the case of children who were born as a result of rape or promiscuity, for example.
“I know of a relative who had multiple partners when she was younger and she just can’t tell who the exact father to her first born child is. You can imagine if you are such a mother, how would you explain the absent father? That is why some resort to lies,” says Ken* adding that it is a catch-22 situation that some single mums find themselves in.
Commonly used lie: Your dad died
If what some single mothers we talked to say is anything to go by, then, indeed, explaining an absent father ranks very high among problematic issues such women go through. “What is a woman to do other than come up with a fake story to explain the absent dad to calm down a curious child? Personally, I lied to my child that her father is dead because I didn’t want him to start bothering me about making contact with him, when he already seemed disinterested in us,” says Janet*, a single mum.
A spot check we did among children raised by single mothers reveals hilarious lies peddled in explanation to absent fathers. We discovered that a good number of absent fathers have been blamed on some of the worst happenings in the world, both internationally and locally. You would be surprised by the number of curious children who have been told that their fathers disappeared with the missing Malaysian Airways plane, or died at the tragic Mtongwe Ferry accident in 1994, or was killed in the 2001 US Embassy bomb blast in Nairobi. Still, don’t be surprised when a few years to come, single mums start lying to their children that their fathers were killed by stray lions from Nairobi National Park. Others have been lied to that their fathers were run over by speeding miraa (khat) trucks.
Gertrude, a single mum, makes light of this weighty matter by joking that when her son starts asking about his father, she will tell him he was a KDF soldier who died trying to secure our country.
Shielding children from ‘useless’ fathers
“Why complicate the matter by explaining to a child about an irresponsible, drunkard deadbeat father? I will depict his father as a dead man, rather than leaving the matter open to speculation by explaining to him about the nasty separation we had,” she says. Faith*, a single mum, has no kind words for her ex-husband. Reluctant to share what necessitated her separation from him, she says her two daughters will never know their father because he is a “silly and useless man”.
“I have nothing to hide, he is a useless man. If a man doesn’t participate in upbringing children he sired, he can as well go to hell. What is the point of them knowing him?” wonders Faith. “Initially, my daughters were eager to know him. But I discouraged them, telling them he doesn’t like them at all because if he did he would be living with us,” hisses Faith. It, however, must be noted that, though very rare, there are some ‘nice’ single mothers who, despite their anger and bitterness after separation or divorce, work with a positive spin about absent fathers so as not to scandalise them or hurt their children.
Jackson*, for instance, says much as his mother and father don’t see eye to eye, she has never talked ill of him, at least not in their presence. “We have always had contact with our dad and when stuck, especially when I was in campus, we simply get in touch and he helps. We even visit his other family and they are cool with us,” says Jackson.
Never bash absentee dads
Experts warn that how women handle this delicate situation really matters. Susan Kamidi, a city-based counseling-psychologist warns on the danger of lying to children while explaining an absent parent. “Such kids need special attention because the absence of a father has far-reaching implications on their social well-being,” says Mrs Kamidi.
She urges single mothers never to lie and explains the dangers of doing so. “My advice to such mothers would be to tell the children the truth, without necessarily revealing too much, until they grow up. Lying, especially about death, can be counterproductive. Children can resent a mother who lies that a father died, when they eventually meet him and learn that he is actually nice guy who was always willing to participate in bringing them up, but was denied the opportunity,” advises Mrs Kamidi.
Kamidi further advises that another way of explaining it is by letting kids know that that theirs is not a negatively unique situation. “Let them know that there are many other families that live like them. Others have no mums, some live with uncles, aunts or grandparents and still turn out just okay,” concluded Kamidi, adding that mothers must be ready to answer this question several times because it’s not one that will be answered once and for all. “Single mothers must adapt themselves to answering this question because kids will always ask it at every stage in their life. They better be diplomatic each time they are at it,” she concludes.