There’s something incredibly heart-breaking about watching your child’s form recede from your car’s rearview mirror as you leave them behind. The panic and anxiety that grips you is so strong, you physically have to force your foot to stay on the accelerator, to stop you from obeying your natural instinct to turn back.
The first time I experienced it, my baby girl was a four-month-old shrieking and wriggling bundle in my sister’s arms. Her cries were the soundtrack to my tears, as I cried my way from Cape Town to Gqeberha, where I was starting a new job.
Nine years later, it was my sister’s turn to shed tears behind her oversized sunglasses as she bid farewell to her “last born” at the airport. I, Babalwa, was finally going to be a full-time instead of the part-time ATM parent I’d been for nearly a decade. I was sure I’d ace this with little to no effort. After all, how difficult could it be to become a “cool mom” to my nearly 10-year-old daughter?
The shift to full-time mommy was nothing like the fantasy I’d created. Yes, there were sushi and ice cream dates. Yes, we cuddled on the couch and binge-watched the Powerpuff Girls and Shaun the Sheep. But we were no longer on the school holiday clock. Our relationship needed to reflect a full-time schedule.
All too soon, we were butting heads. There were tears and tantrums on both sides, moody silences that stretched on for days. I became a ball of stress and anxiety, and she a sullen passive-aggressive youngster. We were two souls cast out in an emotionally overwrought wilderness, with no rescue in sight. I think we were as close to hating each other at that time, as we’ll ever get.
Former newsreader and communications practitioner, Thobile Mncube, knows exactly how it feels to go from hero to villain in your child’s eyes. When her daughter was 10, she took her to live with her granny in KwaZulu-Natal while she pursued a thriving career in Joburg.
“After three years apart, I couldn’t take it anymore — I missed her! I felt our relationship had strengthened during the time we’d been apart. She was growing up and I didn’t want to miss another minute. I wanted to take back my power and groom her into a young lady who’d be able to face our changing society. Also, my mom was an older working woman, who didn’t really pay much attention to the-then emerging trends young kids were exposed to. I wanted to be able to monitor that too,” Thobile recalls.
Although they’d lived together before, the parental reboot felt like a first. She now had a headstrong teenager instead of an impressionable 10-year-old under her roof.
“We were both overwhelmed and it was nowhere near the fantasy we both expected,” she says.
“We fought a lot. She developed emotions, which I pegged down to teenage PMS. She wanted her own space, while I expected this mother/daughter duo all the time. She’d have bouts of anger that could last the whole day if things didn’t go her way, or if she didn’t get ‘what other kids had’ — fancy phones, going out with friends or having sleep-overs. She didn’t look forward to me coming home from work and later told me so,” Thobile adds.
- Being patient;
- Consciously setting aside quality time;
- A visitation timetable with the granny or relative who used to raise your child;
- Understanding that children can be withdrawn, stressed, depressed and develop feelings of low self-esteem;
- Having an open conversation at a level that a child will understand.
Educational psychologist, Phumelele Mkhize, is not surprised by the subsequent combative relationship children form with their biological parents.
“The mistake parents often make is to assume the child will automatically know what they expect in terms of behaviour and manners. They also overlook the child’s feelings, and the connections they’ve made from when they were young. Parents don’t understand children are creatures of habit, and should be treated as such,” Mkhize says.
Like Thobile, I also involved and discussed the transition with my daughter. It’s a bit of a shock to the system then, when Mkhize explains there might’ve been a “grieving” process that should’ve been acknowledged from my side.
“Parents often miss the grief and loss children experience, which are emotions similar to an adult break-up. The child may feel angry about being moved from what they’re used to. They may bargain with themselves about the good and the bad of moving to the new home. The child may also feel depressed by the changes. The last stage of grief they may feel is acceptance. They may feel left out from the already existing family unit or lifestyle they’ll be coming into,” Mkhize adds.
According to the Department of Social Services’s (DSS) chief director of communications Lumka Oliphant, children need “social, emotional and psychological preparation” to the new changes.
“All children need a sense of belonging and assistance in adjusting to the unfamiliar surroundings. The child must participate in every decision that affects him or her (depending on their age, maturity and stage of development) to ensure mutual understanding and cooperation in meeting each other’s expectation,” says Oliphant.
Failure to engage the child, could result in resistance and rebellion.
“When it comes to moving to new cities, parents need to be aware of educational gaps, language barriers, social class adjustment, traditional, religious and spiritual life, and nutrition,” Oliphant adds.
There’s a saying in isiXhosa that goes: “Inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili”, which loosely means, “Wisdom is learnt from the elders”.
READ MORE | How to deal with parental burnout
As someone who has walked the path before, Thobile has advice for 'new' parents.
“Don’t be your child’s friend first, before instilling that respect and acknowledgement that you are, first and foremost, their parent. Never buy your child’s love or affection by indulging their every whim. Most importantly, don’t ever feel guilty for having had them live away from you, and don’t let them make you feel like that either.
“Be there for them, listen to their stories and engage them on their personal lives so you are able to identify what might be bothering them. And do take time for yourself so they learn you are an adult individual, who needs to ‘live a little’ as well,” she encourages.
- That the child can easily adapt to the new change and has dealt with the loss of the old life.
- That your child will immediately be comfortable and open with you.
- That they will cut out all the memories and teachings they learned at their previous home. Encourage the continuation of the relationship rather than erasing it completely.
- That the child has not been exposed to social ills such as substance abuse or even domestic violence.
- That it’s okay to exclude them from family outings, even if they say they are fine with being left behind.
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