I just listened to a 2020 interview with Blessing Timidi Digha who lost her children in a house fire while she was away working. Losing a child anyhow is bad enough but losing two at once? I remember reading about that incident when it happened, being broken by it. With time, it receded to the edges of my mind. However, I stumbled on the podcast with Ms Digha’s interview this week and played it. To hear this woman’s voice, her story was devastating. She recalled feeling that something was wrong at home, recalled calling home to ensure everything was fine; recalled being called later by her father who told her someone had died, and then an unknown person calling her to break the news that her children were dead, and it was her fault. Imagine a mother, far from home, hearing the worst news ever over the phone, from a malicious person— someone whose identity she still doesn’t know. This vile person told her that she deserved her fate because she was always “travelling.” They told her they hoped that she was now content that her children were dead. Tuifiakwa! Tufiakwa ad infinitum! What a wicked, disgusting, spiteful thing to say to a mother who just lost her babies, who heard about it from you, and whose crime was that she dared to have a productive life that kept her away from the children some of the time.
One doesn’t need to be a mother to know what a terrible thing it must be to lose a child. The point has been made many times by different people that the loss of a child is so intense, so out of the realm of our imagination that there is no (as yet) word to describe someone who loses a child. We have widow, widower, orphan but what do we label someone whose child predeceases them? Duke University Professor, Karla Holloway, has suggested “vilomah,” a Sanskrit word which means “against a natural order.” Parents shouldn’t bury their children. A parent who loses a child- a parent for whom the natural order of things has been upended- has been “vilomahed.” In some Naija cultures even, parents are forbidden from viewing the corpses of their children or attending their funerals. The ugliness of the woman who taunted Ms. Digha with her children’s death is on a different level but she’s hardly the first (or the only) one to think that mothering requires a total erasure of the mother’s individuality, a degree of unrealistic self-sacrifice that is rarely asked of or expected of men. Nollywood is full of movies extolling the virtues of those sort of “ideal” mothers and showing us what happens to “wayward” mothers who for whatever reason deviate from the ideal. Outside of Nollywood, there are people (and you likely know them or have heard them) who think that once you become a mother, your life as a productive member of society ends. In fact, your life as a full human being ceases. You’re not to want anything beyond just being a mother. Your dreams, your ambitions, your career: all must be heaped on a garbage pile and burnt. And you must take joy in the incineration of everything outside of your children. In fact, you must self-immolate. How dare you seek happiness outside of these precious ones you’ve been entrusted with? How dare you be an autonomous human being? How dare you want a career? Have hobbies? Pursue dreams? On top of that, you must spend every single minute of the day with your children to keep them safe because what else are you good for? And should anything happen, the blame ought to be piled squarely on your shoulders, and people like the one who called Ms Digha are willing and able to do that heavy lifting.
And yet we know that no matter how carefully we watch (over) our children, accidents happen. Accidents occur even when parents are (at) home and watching their children. Still, we judge mothers who refuse to be subsumed by their role as mothers. We judge those who choose not to be homemakers or who cannot afford to be (after all not every family can survive on one income). Ironically, the same group of people who blame women for working do not think it is problematic for women in rural areas, for example, to strap their babies to their backs and go work on the farm. The issue, it appears, is the “modern woman” working outside of the spaces they imagine she belongs.
As a society, we must do better. Motherhood isn’t imprisonment. A woman’s other dreams do not cease to exist simply because she has become a mother. A good mother is a happy mother. We must encourage our women, mothers, to pursue their dreams as far as they can. Their children will be grateful for it.
And as for those who are waiting for the opportunity to use a mother’s grief to taunt her, I do not wish you peace.