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Motherhood

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.

 

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