I grew up with three mothers, with my maternal grandmother as the matriarch of our household, my biological mother as the support and my aunt as a sister-mother. Growing up my grandmother was everyone’s support system (including her extended family and strangers), she had five biological kids but raised many others while working most of her adult life as a nurse. For as long as I can remember, she would forester parent (informally) kids and young adults, some of whom moved in and lived with us for a while throughout my childhood. We always joked (and still do) that my grandparents’ house is big enough to accommodate everyone because they never turned people away, there was always space and room for those who needed it (some of whom took advantage). This included raising her grandkids as her own, myself included. Like most family matriarchs, she was everyone's mother. To this day we all call(ed) her mama, including the people she took in. That's literally how I remember my childhood, it took me a while to realise that she was, in fact, my grandmother. She has always been and still is mama to all of us because she has, directly and indirectly, raised a few generations of young people. And I've noticed over the years that both my mother and aunt have also adopted her desire to literally take on young people who need somewhere to stay and belong while they figure their lives out.
Growing up, like many black kids in this country, I was raised by my grandmother while my mother completed her studies. My mother had me when she was 19 so my gran took on the responsibility of raising me as her youngest daughter. My grandmother was the mother I needed at the time (still though), she performed a functional and emotional role in my life. As a sickly child, she had to ensure that I go to the hospital or clinic instead of school when my allergies propped up. She took time off work to take me to the optometrist to get my first pair of glasses. She deprived herself to pay my way through school and I never lacked for anything. Her 'room dividers' were filled with books that included her readers digest subscriptions, so I discovered my eternal love for reading from the conform of the couches she used to cover with a plastic protector so we wouldn’t make them dirty. She encouraged my curiosity, made sure both my mind and body were nourished. We would go to church most Sundays to feed the spirit and mostly terrify us into doing ‘right’ to go to heaven, which honestly was the only way she knew how. As a nurse and eventually HIV counsellor, she would give us teenage kids 'the talk' around safe sex through anecdotes of what happens when you don't play it safe. As a teenager in high school, listening to what seemed like 'terrifying' encounters at the time with teenagers who had unsafe sex was enough to keep me away from dating, never mind anything more. It was literally like having my own love life (if you don't remember it, you're too young) coach at home.
For as long as I can remember she was in my corner, which I am sure has nothing to do with the fact that I was named after her. She saw and believed in my capacity to be great even when I didn’t see what she saw, it seemed like blind faith really. I remember as a child that even though I was a little afraid of her (she was very stern), I had this need to impress her. I wanted to live up to the person she already believed I could be. Her confidence in my abilities both paralyzed and inspired me, on the one hand, it encouraged me to work harder but on the other hand, I was terrified of failure because I didn’t want to let her down. As an unintended consequence, I felt burdened by it when I was young because I felt like there was not enough room for me to move around, but now I am grateful. My grandmother is also the woman who tried to teach me how to cook and clean because, despite her desire for me to reach financial independence, she still hoped to this day that I would one day be a wife and a mother who would need to look after a household.
And then there was my mother, she was young when she had me. She was a single parent who was still a child herself, nobody that young knew and or knows how to be a mother. She was still a teenager who also still needed her parent's emotional and financial support. She was almost at the end of her high school career when I was born, and eventually, she went off to college to continue her studies. She mothered for as long as she was around, and continued to do so in between college. It helped to have the support system she needed to be able to do what she needed to do. This was in the early 1990s when apartheid was supposedly ‘ending’ because Mandela had just been released, and there was excitement in the air about all the new opportunities that have suddenly opened-up to young black people. I didn’t have a lot of time with her growing up since she lived somewhere else, but things were good when she was around. I remember how my heart would break every time she had to leave again to go back to Pretoria, and I was resentful sometimes because I couldn’t understand why she had to leave. She did her best with very little as most young single mothers do after my biological father decided to take his leave from parenting because he wasn’t up to taking the responsibility. It was always challenging to try and navigate our relationship as mother and daughter because my grandmother had always filled the role. She was more like my older sister growing up, but I eventually lived with her as an adult. Thus at some point in my student life, I moved home to live with my parents in Soweto, and although short-lived, in those few years my parents got the chance to parent me for the first time. I used to make my mother pick me up and drop me off at meetings in awkward hours because I did some pet projects outside University. She and her younger sister used to get lost around the city while they drive to pick me up at meetings. Our relationship is in a good place even though I still call/refer to my grandmother as a mother as opposed to my actual mother, old habits die hard. I am like an old that's unable to learn new tricks, a creature of habit and all. Our relationship is work in progress like most mother-daughter relationships, she wants details on my dating life and wants to know if I am ever going to have kids. We disagree on things and agree on others, but now she has the opportunity to raise two young men into adulthood, aka my younger brothers.
And then there was my aunt, my mother’s fun-loving middle sister who’s young at heart and says inappropriate things. Those who know me know I have a strange scar on the right side of my arm that I’ve had since I was a child. I got the injury when I was left in the inexperienced hands of my aunt who was in her teens at the time, thus back before we had electricity we used generators and petrol lanterns for light in my grandmother’s house. Apparently (too young to remember) while my aunt wasn’t looking, I grabbed the lantern, it fell and burned my arm. So, subsequently, I’ve had this scar which has become a lot like a birthmark than a scar because I don’t remember ever not having it. Throughout my childhood, my aunt played a supportive motherly role alongside the other two women in my life. As a former pageant queen who still loves all things beautiful, her role was very different in my life. She used to fuss over the black spots on my face because I've always had terrible skin, and do my nails at her salon. When I was too old for my grandfather to enforce a complete head shave, my aunt would painfully braid my hair. She would take us with to buy high heels we didn't need and probably never wear.
She has always been the confident one with her own sense of style with her colourful hair and sexy dresses, was always unapologetic despite other people’s disapproval. She inspired my perception of hair and style. She wears whatever she wants inspite of my grandparent's horror and disapproval. To an extent, her earlier approaches to beauty were one of the few superficial glimpses I had to the notion of self-care and self-love. When I was in high school she would come pick me up from boarding school at the end of the semester, it was she that dropped me off at my first boarding house when I was 12. When my grandparents or my mother couldn’t come to a parent’s meeting at school, my aunt would fill that role.
The matriarchs in my life have had their own personal challenges, they are two generations of women who never belonged to themselves. We often romanticise their struggles as though given choice, they would have actively chosen to live as they do. Like many, they do and have done a lot with very little. They live within the confines of a system that has limited what they were able to become. Although the women in my life value and support my need for freedom and independence, they still strongly feel like I need to tick the boxes that were set by others in defining what it means to be a real black woman. They still believe I 'need' to at least have a child and consider marriage (undecided on both), despite their own struggles with both of these areas. As a third generation, my views on the world and the whole notion of 'real womanhood' are very different. I am neither in pursuit of being an unbreakable strong black woman nor am I a black woman who seeks to fit the mould of other people's expectations. But I also equally acknowledge that all three of them made me the feminist women that I am, my grandmother had a career she loved and that was inspiring to me. She invested in my education so I can someday reach financial independence, and subsequently, be the critical thinker that I am. I've watched my aunt unapologetically love herself even though her body changed drastically over the years, and wear whatever and be the person she wanted to be despite other people's disapproval. I have watched my mother not give up her education, despite the pressures society puts on mothers to sacrifice themselves once they have kids. They have allowed me to be my own person, even when we mostly disagree in terms of what that entails!