They say art imitates real life.
During my recent maternity leave, I caught a promotional segment of a hit television show, “The Real Househelps of Kawangware”, where character Awiti is asking her employer for a pay rise as she wasn’t hired ‘to be a nurse’.
Unlike me, Awiti’s boss was seated, hand crutches at hand and bandaged foot propped on the table.
It was funny for my long-term live-in nanny, but I wondered if she actually saw her heavy input in keeping me sane during the first tough weeks and early months of the infamous fourth trimester.
Much as her job description was ‘baby first, always’ and we always manage whatever else needs doing between us and high-tech appliances, here I was, growing the family but grounded as I started a second journey towards healing and figuring out how to make sure no ball was dropped in having the house running.
It sounds easy in writing, but when you have had a sleepless night and yet need to be up for school drop-off, schedule several breast milk expressing sessions, keep up with a jealous toddler and dash off for cooking gas (because you are paranoid about the street gas vendor), somebody who can play for hours with the toddler but still have an adult conversation with you, easily put baby to sleep as you have a bath, supervises market runs and makes (and reminds you to eat) wholesome meals that wouldn’t unsettle baby is that buffer between a new mom and runaway anxiety or post-partum depression.
I have a spouse who works away, but I doubt if my story is too different for that single parent (allow me to say parent, in honour of the fantastic dads among us who are raising babies alone because of certain adversities, and for who, yes, post-partum anxiety or depression is also a very real threat), or any other couple who have to contend with our short paternity leave that leaves Mama to hold things down.
The true value of unpaid care work is an emerging discussion that needs to be sustained.
This is for the benefit of the millions, mostly girls and women who cannot seek paid employment or other economic or livelihood opportunities as they care for children, the aged, sick or sickly and differently abled relatives.
And with rural-urban migration, the need for two-income households and disintegration of the traditional extended family unit, heavy reliance on paid house and child care has provided an avenue for many young women, many of them former teen mothers and/or school dropouts or divorcees, to earn a living.
Often, though, many translate this ‘care’ they carry out at their end destination based on what they saw or grew up with, which was often offered without a second thought — and for free.
Thus, the game changer for many new moms in urban areas is when they end up with a househelp who is a mother herself and who, oftentimes well meaning, shares her own experiences and suggestions.
What we may be failing to do is to tap into these adopted family members as a resource to keep away post-partum anxiety and/or depression and, in the same breath, attempt to quantify the enormous emotional support they provide.
Next time you hear a househelp being described as a “necessary evil”, stop and think of what their presence has meant for you and your family.
You might discover that it was the difference between calm and chaos — and not just physical.
Ms Okello-Juma is a communications and policy officer, African Population and Health Research Center. [email protected]
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