My Personal Choices From My Previous Life Lived in America Have Come to Haunt Me in South Africa

*Note: This is not a lament, nor am I disparaging my host country. These are simply musings based on my observations.

Today as I sat in the lobby of the local branch of Standard Bank and found my senses assaulted by the glare of LED lights that bounced off the newly waxed floors, I felt a small wave of nostalgia wash over my feet. (Not enough to engulf me completely, you understand. I do enjoy this new life on semi-permanent vacation.) I was reminiscing over the days when I worked in a corporate environment just like this one: One that required me to slip into pinstriped trousers, a conservative blouse and side- part my permed hair before scooping it into a ponytail. In those moments, I missed looking and feeling important. I missed office chatter. But above all, I missed my check.

The only thing I love more than living in semi-permanent vacation mode is a fat, direct deposited check.

The husband and I were there to add my name as a co-signer to this new house account. In the past and with a job at which I spent 40 hours a week, I was a regular contributor to that account. And then with the birth of each additional child, each needing more attention at home and daycare costs depleting the entirety of my earnings, I volunteered to sacrifice my 8-5, my 401K, my health insurance and in-depth analyses of America’s Next Top Model with my co-workers in order to stay at home with the kids. That’s how I joined the ranks of the SAHM’s in 2008. Being in the bank in a different country brought all of those memories of that decision into focus for some reason.

Let me not fib. The recollection wasn’t “for some reason”. It was for a very specific one. As I was being added to the account, it was incumbent upon a very sweet account manager to ask me a series of questions in order to determine my eligibility.

Do you have proof of address? (I didn’t, because my husband’s name is on the lease of the house we’re renting, not mine.)

What is your occupation? (Self-employed, I said confidently.)

In what industry? (Literature. I’m an author.)

For how long? (Since 2009.)

And what is your monthly income? (*Crickets…* I’m racking my brains to provide this woman with an answer, but all I keep seeing is the big fat $0.00 in royalties because I’ve sold NO books this month. And the crickets just keep on chirping…)

It is at this point that my husband snaps me out of my deer-in-the-headlights trance and informs the Sweet Account Manager that my monthly income is the same as his: $x,000. I make a wise crack about what’s his being mine and we all laugh. The uncomfortable moment seems to have passed, but it hasn’t. All I can think about is how I’ve failed the cause of women everywhere because not only have I earned no money this month, but I CAN’T earn an income here because I am an immigrant/expat on a volunteer visitor’s visa. A host of historical wrongs smack me in the face, unbidden and unwelcome.

I was reminded of the indignities women in the early part this century have had to battle; limits put on them based exclusively on their gender and marital status. The moment harkened back to the Depression Era when the dependency of marriage was taking shape, as societal attitudes about women working outside of the home were so negative that it affected federal policy. (Section 213 of the 1932 Federal Economy Act prohibited more than one family member from working for the government, barring many married women from federal employment.) Sitting there with my husband benevolently giving me access to HIS money in what is frankly HIS account, I was reminded of the horror stories I’d heard about married women being unable to open up lines of credit without their husbands approval, and single women precluded entirely. I thought about immigrants, both legal and undocumented who all have the very human instinct (and need) to earn a living in order to provide for their families….or damn it…just keep themselves occupied during the week, and all the laws that prohibit them from maximizing their (and my, now that I’ve joined their ranks) potential.

None of this internal struggle was my husband’s fault. We discussed the implications of becoming a one-income home and I’d made the choice voluntarily. It’s just that when you’re covered in smashed bananas, watching Yo Gaba Gaba(!) in 2009, you don’t see yourself in a newly built bank tussling with these emotions in 2016. I didn’t realize how much I was affected until I was interviewed by a PhD doing an analysis of non-conformist Ghanaian feminists later on this evening.

I was explaining that if I were forced to categorize myself, I’d call myself a “womanist”, rather than a “feminist”. My issues with white, liberal feminism a la Patricia Arquette are well documented. The Good Doctor seemed rather miffed that I would not call myself a feminist until she assured me that she was not. Out of nowhere, she hit me with:

“Do you work?”

The question sucked the air out of me. Again, it was as if my absence from the traditional workforce diminished my value. A value that’s intrinsically tied to a paycheck or summons to meetings in Prague or TedEx Talks or whatever activities women/feminists of “worth” engage in.

I muttered that I cannot work because I’ve just relocated to South Africa.

“I can’t even sweep the street for pay.”

“Oh. So you’ll just have to be a stay at home mom for a bit,” she said. She took the tone of someone who’d just discovered pond scum on her lover’s scrotum and advised him to wash it off. “Well, since you’ll have plenty of time on your hands, there are some Black feminists works you should read. I’ll send them to you.”

I resisted the urge to cackle at the notion that I’ll have – or will ever have – “plenty of time” because I’m a SAHM. I opted to thank her instead.

At the end of the day, I recoil at my present reality because I KNOW how tough it is for women who have been out of the workforce to re-enter after a certain period of time. It is assumed their skills have atrophied and therefore make more of a charity case than valuable contributor to any corporation’s cause. I’ve seen their resumes rejected and have in turn been instructed to reject their resumes by my recruiting manager(s). I’ve seen them come in and struggle with opening an Excel document after being given a shot a position. I’ve seen them escorted off the premises because they’ve oversold themselves in the interview and it has become apparent after 2 days that “this isn’t going to work out”. What becomes of these once promising lives…women who can’t open lines of credit or bank accounts or Microsoft based programs because their earning potential is no greater than $25.00 a month selling homemade hair gel or books about trapping things in baskets for that matter?

 

You tell me.

 

I peddle books on Amazon and StoreFoundry.com

  • Malaka, you’ve got a banging blog. Have you ever thought to monetize it other than through selling your own products? I am sure that as prolific a blogger as you are, your traffic could bring in a pretty penny. Just sharing a thought. (And of course you wouldn’t need any work authorizations to do that! :-))

    • 😂😂😂 No, I wouldn’t! I would put ads up, but as a reader I despise them. They are always in the way and ruin my experience when I visit other sites. But I must confess, it may be the only option for monetization.

      Thank you for caring!

  • I could relate to every line you wrote. I was a stay at home for the 9 yrs of my marriage and after the divorce, could not find a decent job beyond teaching and have been stuck at the bottom of the pay scale for the last 9 yrs.

    I think you missed on very important element in your commentary.
    Your choice to opt out of the workforce was due to your position as a mother.

    Being a feminist, and a mother means that you do not have the luxury of thinking about only what is right for you as a woman, but also what your children need.

    Often being a mother, contradicts everything that a feminist is.
    Motherhood requires a great deal of selflessness and dependency, while being a feminist means looking out for number one with no apologies.

    You are a mother my dear…

    And you are living the reality of millions of mothers all over the world.
    The price we pay for child care is our very identity and financial security.

    • Hmmm. Come closer so that I whisper a secret. *I have identified as a feminist. It’s a title that has been imputed on me.* I think this is what made the interviewer take such a hostile tone towards me initially. We settled into an amicable groove later in the convo though.

      But yeah! Motherhood flies in direct opposition of what it means to be/exist as a feminist. And it’s unfortunate that you can’t be both-and because of the way our structures are set up. It’s engineered to make you fail. Your reproductive years dovetail with the years that your career begins to take off: 28-35, just when you’re on track for seniority and advancement. It’s a scam!

      Also I want to say how sorry I am for not fighting harder for mothers attempting to re-enter the workforce at a decent salary. I was no CEO, but I could have stood up against this practice. All recruiters can and should. No one should be penalized for raising a family.

  • No matter what I think you made the right choice. Motherhood comes with certain sacrifices. And for me one of them is to be in a job where I can have time and flexibility for the kids but at a salary and position that is far below where my colleagues and mates are now. 🙂

    It is not easy at but I console myself that a fast paced job might not be for me after all. And that flexibility has now given me the opportunity to become an author. 🙂

    Malaka, parenting or motherhood is a calling, a ministry, and if it means us sacrificing for the kids, to that extent, so be it. You did right and great.

    But yes, I see your point too. It is not easy for women out there who may want to go back into the corporate world after such a long break. It seems all avenues have been shut in their face. And that for me is the irony and yes tragedy of it all.

    • And we are all blessed by your decision as well! 🙂 Because of this, Ghana can boast its FIRST book of Haiku poetry. (This is your cue to shamelessly promote your work with links if you so wish.)

  • Safirexx

    Malaka, seriously, people have been escorted off the premises for being former SAHMs????? I’m in shock here. Say it ain’t so.

    • For not being able to complete their tasks, indirectly because they were SAHMs.

  • AM

    Listen and listen good. Your role as a stay at home mom does NOT in any way shape or form diminish your role or rather contribution to society! Stop devaluing your role! My mother was a SAHM for a long time and I LOVED every single moment. Came home to already cooked meals, dropped me to the library when I wanted to improve my hengrish, she had time to counsel me, her role as stay at home mom/wife was so diverse it also encompassed the roles of a preacher, a teacher, doctor, nurse. If somebody else feels you ain’t doing shid, that’s on them not you! Your husband is not complaining, your kids are not complaining. It ain’t none but your business. Drown the noise of societal expectations and live your life my lady. Women that work and run their homes are not any more important than you. You hear me.

    • I saw your comment and it reminded me of my own childhood. My mother was a SAHM until I was 10 years old and then worked outside the home for the rest of my childhood. I can clearly say that the quality of my life was much, much better in many ways when she was a SAHM (though I have to admit that she was much happier when she worked outside the home). Just wanted to support your point on the value brought to families by SAHMs.

    • Ei, ei, ei AM! I beggeth thee eh! I don’t want you to release your hengrish on me here. (You’re a fool, and I love you. LOL!) Instinctively, I KNOW SAHM moms provide valuable contributions to their kids and their communities, but you have to admit that it get difficult to recognize those accomplishments when we live in a capitalistic society where your human value is intrinsically tied to a pay check. Like, “Sure, you are a SAHM who can make cucumber sandwiches shaped like lily pads for your kids…BUT did/can you turn that into a multi-billion dollar grossing company? No? Then please go have a seat.”

      It’s the same pressure we all get, isn’t it? No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, everyone wants to know why you didn’t make choices that will turn you into the next Oprah or Bill Gates or even Kanye Kardashian sef.

  • I have always felt that a true feminist is one who embraces all versions of womanhood.
    Including all the permutations that reality presents.
    When women lose their edge because they have spent years watching Dora the Explorer, they need support to reenter the work force.
    The role of true feminist i have always believed, is to
    A. Stand up for your self
    B. Stand up for other women less privileged

    • Everyone has their own definition of what feminism is which is why it makes it such an interesting study! (Except for when clueless folk equate it to “man hating”. Man hating for what???) I absolutely agree with you: We have a responsibility to bear one another up, and once shored up, do the same for the next woman.

  • It will be a nice start when workaholic women don’t snub stay-at-home-mum or vice versa.
    When childless or unmarried women are not made to feel like they are incomplete.
    or divorced women are treated like they have a contagious disease!
    When women stand together, emotionally, physically and sometimes financially…the sky is literately the limit.

    • Preeeeeeeaaaaaaccchhh!!!!