Raising a daughter in the midst of South Africa’s rape crisis

I am pregnant. Which is, for the most part, wonderful and joyous news. Unfortunately, this has been an incredibly difficult pregnancy for me emotionally. Not just because this is an unplanned and largely unwanted pregnancy (although that is true). Not because I have been an emotional and hormonal basket case (also true). Not even because I am scared shitless that postnatal depression will rear its ugly head once more.

No, my greatest emotional trauma related to this pregnancy is that I am fairly sure that the baby I am carrying is a girl. This would be wonderful news for many parents, but not for me. Because I know what it is to be a girl and a woman in South Africa.

South Africa’s rape statistics are absolutely appalling. Interpol has named South Africa as the rape capital of the world. It has been reported that there are up to 3 600 rapes in South Africa every day. In a recent Medical Research Council study, more than 25% of the male respondents admitted to raping someone. In another, older study; the Medical Research Council stated that one third of girls in South Africa experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. Think about that – at least one third of us will experience a sexual assault before we are even adults.

Until recently I belonged to (an admittedly small) club of 5 women from all walks of life – different ages, races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations. We grew up in different parts of the country, in disparate communities. And yet 100% of the women in that club had experienced some form of sexual violence. This was not a group that had come together because of our shared experience of sexual violence, and yet every one of us knew what it was to be sexually assaulted at some point in our lives.  This is a common theme in my interactions with South African women.

We South African women may not speak about it much, except in the safe confines of closed groups and behind closed doors, but so so many of us are survivors. Not just of  sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, but of the daily struggle with fear. The trauma of being scared of what is waiting for us just around the corner. We travel through our lives with an awareness of what may happen to us. What probably will happen to us. What, in all likelihood, has already happened to us. And we overcome. We are brave.

I have overcome. I have been brave.

Until the doctor said, “It’s too early to tell for sure, but it looks like a girl” and my heart shriveled up in fear. Fear for what this girl-child will have to face. Because even if she is lucky enough to be one of those untouched by this widespread evil, I know that I will have to prepare her anyway.

As a mother, I know that I will have to teach her to walk with caution. Teach my precious innocent little girl to look over her shoulder. Teach her to deal with the inappropriate comments from men old enough to be her father and the man-handling that often accompanies it. Prepare her for the possibility that the boy/man she chooses to date may not be as nice a guy as he seems. That he may try to rape her on one of the dates that she innocently and eagerly prepares for.

I will have to give her the tools that became second nature to me: never take a drink unless it is sealed. Never leave your drink untended. Never let your date take you to a private location until you are certain of him. Even when you’re certain of him, remember your pepper spray. Do not trust too soon.

Essentially, I will need to teach her to walk in fear. To be paranoid. But it will also be my duty to make sure she doesn’t end up jaded and incapable of trust. Somehow, I will need to teach her to be cautious and know that there is danger, but convince her to be open to love. My job will be to maintain her innocence while destroying it. And I am terrified. Because I don’t know how to approach this parenting. I don’t know how to walk that razor thin line. I don’t know how to give her the knowledge of the awful thing that hides in so many of our closets, while I hope and pray to all that is holy that it won’t happen to her. While I battle my desire to not expose her to its ugliness.

I realise that my own experience of sexual assault may be the cause of my fear, but when I look at the statistics (and idiots like this), it is hard to believe that I am overreacting.

How do I do it? How do I parent a girl-child in a healthy and constructive way, that doesn’t teach her to fear her sexuality, while keeping her safe? How do I protect my little girl?

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Five Minute Friday, plus OMG, She’s Alive!

So it’s been a while… *crickets*

Life has been crazy, beautiful, amazing, scary and busy since the move to Cape Town. I promise to write a little more about that later.

For now, I am once again linking up with Gypsy Mama, Lisa-Jo Baker (who often makes me cry and always makes me think), for her Five Minute Friday prompt. The idea is that you write for five minutes without editing or worrying about what others will think. You just write what’s on your heart. This week’s prompt was Song. Here goes:

 

I sing the body electric. My body. This electric body.

Electric with dizziness and nausea. Electric with heat and cravings and the need to pee again and again and again. Electric with emotion.

Electric with new life.

A new song in my heart. This new almost person. This new adventure for a small family of ‘us’. Us becoming bigger. Us becoming more. As my body becomes bigger and more.

Like the beat of African drums the beat beat beat of a new heart. It is early days, the song is quiet still. But soon it will grow louder. The song swells as my body does, but the ‘us’ melody remains. The band is growing. As is the joy and the praise and the wonder.

Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard to be a mother

Sometimes my child is so badly behaved and demanding and selfish and I-don’t-care-that-you-have-needs that I want to run from the house screaming at the top of my voice. I want to run as far as I can, to place that is quiet like a Bjork song and empty like fog. Someplace just my own, where I rule the pink fluffy clouds and sunny skies and soft green grass. A place that stays tidy and neat as a pin; where the food cooks itself, the laundry is always washed (and ironed), the dishes are always done, and the bathrooms never need to be cleaned. A place where no-one needs juice or a muffin or to ask me a really important question Right Now.

A place where I get to hold and nurture the selfish child within.

Sometimes my child’s episodes of bad behaviour last for weeks – months, even – and I can’t help the feelings of surging anger and resentment. Feelings that fill me with guilt, but that I am powerless to stop. And eventually, even the guilt starts to foster resentment because no corner of my emotional landscape, or mind or space or life is mine alone.

It is all consumed by this little person who runs roughshod over my emotions and needs because he hasn’t yet learnt that the world doesn’t exist to do his bidding. And then I realise that that’s My fault. Because I am his teacher, his life coach, his purveyor of knowledge. And yet again I feel guilty and angry because despite my very best efforts I have failed. Failed to teach him to care for the feelings of others, failed to help him develop the independence to entertain himself, failed to raise a child that I can actually live with.

And live with him I must. Just like I must teach him. Teach him and guide him and tutor him and lead him and then teach him some more. Because if he doesn’t understand that it is unacceptable to throw a monumental tantrum because I won’t let him play a Wii game all afternoon, or drink a juice that consists of nothing but colorants and artificial flavours; it is my job to fix it.

And this is not a job I can quit. This is not a job I can give up on because it is too hard. This is not a job that I have any choice but to continue. Because the wake up, fetch, carry, work, entertain, wipe snotty nose, cook, clean, always-someone-else’s-agenda merry go round isn’t something I can walk away from. Even if I am bone weary about three leagues beyond the point of exhaustion. Even if today I feel that I just can’t win, that this is the one thing that I simply cannot do, that this is all too much and I Just Can’t Breathe. I must carry on and push through and nurture and remember that he’s just a child and doesn’t understand and smile while I’m at it.

I guess that’s what it means to be responsible. What it means to be a mother.

Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard.

“Light tomorrow with today!” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Another Five Minute Friday.

Prompt: Light

When we first decided to move to Cape Town, people warned me about the weather. About how cold and wet and dank and miserable winter in the Mother City can be. So of course we decided to move just in time for winter. Well, it’s not quite winter yet. More like autumn. But the wet weather has certainly started.

In fact, there have been quite a few days of wet, wintry, windy (ye Gods, the wind!) weather. Dark mornings saturated with cold and drizzle.

And yet all I feel is light. It’s like bright, beautiful, yellow, early-morning sun shining into my consciousness.

Light. Weightless. Like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.

Light, lit from within, a fire and passion for life – for love – rekindled.

Because for the first time in many years, I feel safe. And welcome. And like I am a part of something greater than myself – a community.

No matter that it hasn’t been easy to make a move of this magnitude. No matter that I miss my friends and family every day. No matter that I’m realising how much I loved the house I left behind, and how hard it is to rent.

Because even though this is hard – so hard – and should threaten to drop me into the subterranean darkness of all-too-familiar depression, I still feel so much lighter than I did in Joburg. In every possible way.  And I can feel a change in our family. Somehow, we have more time. For each other, for ourselves, for those around us.

I would hate to be one of the naysayers to leave a city and then spout negativity about it, especially since I think that Joburg still has something going for it.

So all I will say is this: I think they call it the Mother City for a reason, because I already feel nurtured here. It’s like the soft beach soil that clings to my son’s feet holds some nutrient that I didn’t know that we needed or were missing until we got here.  So as I find the strength to slough off the skin of jadedness, insularity and distrust that I managed to acquire in almost 15 years in the City of Gold, I welcome the new (old) me.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

Bravery in the absence of fear isn’t really bravery at all

“Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.”
― George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones

A Five Minute Friday prompt from The Gypsy Mama that I finally feel brave enough to post. I did write this on a Friday, though. In 5 minutes.

For those that don’t know what the Five Minute Friday prompt is, here’s what Gypsy Mama Lisa-Jo says about it: “Around here we write for five minutes flat on Fridays. We finger paint with words. We try to remember what it was like to just write without worrying if it’s just right or not. Write for 5 minutes flat – no editing, no over thinking, no backtracking.”

 The prompt: BRAVE

Right now, I need to be braver than I’ve needed to be for a long time.

I’m just made a cross country move with my family, to a city in which I have never lived and only know a very few people. I’m scared. And because I was the one who pushed for this move, I feel as though I have to be brave for my husband and son. That’s really hard when you want to burst into tears at inopportune moments, at the thought of leaving your friends and family behind.

You see, I’ve never been very good at making friends. I’m shy and find it so super hard to put myself out there. And I’m chronically insecure, so even if I do manage to put myself out there and meet new people, I assume that they’re just being nice or polite and that they don’t Really want to be my friend.

And once I have made friends, it would seem that I’m not particularly good at keeping them. I’m selfish and self-absorbed and prone to depression which makes me withdraw from the world because I don’t want anyone to see me weak. And because I’m so disorganised I’m often unintentionally thoughtless and forget people’s birthdays and anniversaries and kids birthdays and first days of school and all the other stuff you’re supposed to remember. And when I don’t know what the right thing to say is, I don’t say anything at all. Because I don’t want to upset my friends even more or make them think of stuff that makes them unhappy, and this makes it seem like I don’t care when someone is going through a hard time and needs my support. I’m also not very perceptive, so if my friend’s need a shoulder to cry on they need to be pretty explicit and tell me so. Apparently, I’m a pretty shit friend, as has recently been pointed out to me in all its grisly and painful detail.

And this makes me even more afraid, because if this is how the people who have known me for a decade feel, how the hell am I going to make and keep New friends in a new city?!

The legacy of women, as illustrated by the handmade revolution and my personal revelation

I come from a family of women who are really talented crafters. My grandmother was an amazing professional dressmaker for most of her life (making everything from wedding and matric dance dresses, to teen Goth gear). My mom has always produced the most incredible knitted creations and – having tried almost every craft out there (if you want proof, just look at her craft supplies) – is known for the diversity of craft skills. My aunt has always been a truly gifted quilter and textile artist. My entire life has been spent around needlework, crafts and handmade goods – from candle-wicking to quilling, from quilting to crochet, from beading to pottery. Like the Jane Austen novels I love, the women of my youth always had some sort of stitch work project on the go.

The women that helped to shape who I am spent a lot of time making beautiful things and, while they made, they shared. They shared their time, their skills, their stories, and themselves. My mom, aunt and gran used to attend craft courses together. Sometimes, one of them would go on a course and come home to teach the others her newly-acquired skills. In hindsight, I recognise that this is probably because we weren’t rich and those courses were likely too expensive for all of them to attend. Yet that never stopped them. One of my most distinct memories is of sitting around the dining room table with the women in my family; hand painting vases and quilling decorations for my sister’s wedding. I can’t tell you what happened to those decorations, but I could describe in great detail the warm light that night and the soft hum of women’s voices interspersed with cackles of laughter. I have a similar memory from years later: of sitting with the same group of women, in the now-married sister’s home, working on various decoupage projects. (Mine wasn’t very good)

This constant activity provided a wonderful environment in which to grow up. I hold dear many memories of the comforting hum of a sewing machine and the steady click of knitting needles. It was an environment in which women supported and loved each other – one in which the everyday grind of work and parenting was put aside, along with family politics and all the other things that seem to work to keep sisters, mothers, daughters and women apart. The nurturing support that the women in my family provide to each other is one of the greatest reasons that I miss my mother, sister, aunt and gran so very much.

As a child, being surrounded by so much creativity never really struck me as unusual. But I realise now how lucky I was to be exposed to so much skill and talent. Watching these wonderful women spend time together as they worked on projects both individual and communal is probably the direct cause of my love affair with all things handmade and my obsession with the artisanal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until very recently that I tapped into my own desire to craft and express myself creatively. So while teaching myself to knit and sew has given me great joy, I’ve also felt a great deal of sadness as I missed the women who should have been here to teach me. I have felt a keen sense of longing for the older generation of women from whence I come. Perhaps it is because I miss them and yearn for their presence so much, that I have become so fixated on possessing one of the heirloom items that they have produced – a quilt for my marriage bed. Fabulous hand-knitted jersey’s for my young son.

And yet, I don’t own a single item created by one of the incredible women who helped shape who I am. This has really bothered me for the longest time. In fact, it’s become a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But tonight I had an epiphany as I sat browsing $500 dollar quilts on Etsy – seriously and unrealistically considering saving my pennies so that I could buy one (even though I know that the women of my family could produce much better work). As beautiful as the hand-made products are, as much work and time and craftsmanship as they demonstrate, it is the love that they signify that makes them so important to me. It is the sense of family and continuity that they demonstrate that makes me so desperate to own one.

So I won’t save up for months to buy a quilt on Etsy. Because, even though I so often feel disconnected from the sense of belonging and continuity that one feels when one’s family lives on the same continent, I do have that love. It just happens to be love sent from afar. It shows in my love of all things craft-related, in my burgeoning creativity, in my never-consciously learned knowledge of selvedge and fabric grain.

But most of all it lies in those tender memories of watching my mother perfect the art of the colonial knot (a candle-wicking stitch), of knowing that she loved me enough to search every fabric store in Durban to find the perfect fabric for the perfect matric dance dress, of countless dress fittings as my gran went on to make that perfect dress (which I still own), of time spent watching my aunt sew while we shared a cup of tea and I begged (ok, manipulated) her to give me chocolate. And of evenings spent surrounded by women – mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, sisters and cousins – quilling wedding decorations over a cup of coffee. The true legacy of the women in my family lies in those memories and not in anything made by human hands.

Catholicism is bad for your knees

I have horrible knees. Really, really horrible knees. They’re fat, and flat (who has flat knees!?), and strangely misshapen. They’re pale, and pasty, and the skin is a strange texture. I blame bad genes and years of Catholicism.

These knees have not seen the light of day (or night) for a long, long time. And yet today, for the first time in 20 years, I am wearing a dress that allows them to be visible. To see and be seen by the world at large.

Why? Because I am making a concerted effort to do what makes me happy and not care about what other people think. To make peace with myself and the way I look. That, and the fact that I went shopping on one of my rare brave days and decided to buy the totally cute 60s inspired shift that I loved – even though I would ordinarily have left it behind because of the ‘knees on show’ issue.

So now I sit in my office too nervous to walk to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee lest people start pointing and laughing, or sneering and whispering behind their hands, or gasping and…. You get the idea. Because on an emotional level I totally believe that it could happen, even though my brain tells me that no-one cares about my knees.

I know that I should be/get over this. I am no longer a child and being filled with all of this teen-like angst and insecurity is no longer excusable. I should be doing mature and cathartic shit, like writing letters to 14 year old Me. Telling her that the insecurity that consumes her will pass. That she will outgrow it and find a deep level of acceptance, appreciation for her body and endless pools of self-esteem to draw on.

But that isn’t true because sometimes (read: often) I feel just like 14 year old Me, trapped in 32 year old Me’s body.

Today is one of those days.

But at least I’m trying, and putting the knees of horror on display. That’s progress, isn’t it? I may even work up the courage to get a cup of coffee later.

*Edited to add: I have been struck by a new wave of confidence and am thinking:

F*ck Flattering. Wear what makes you happy.

Let’s see how long it lasts…