Few of a woman’s life stages are as mythologised as pregnancy. According to the fairy tale, you and he have rampant birth-control-free sex for 3 months, you pee on a stick and – cue the tears of joy – you’re pregnant! Then 9 months of marital harmony and expectant excitement ensue...
Most of us have long since stopped believing in fairy tales. What if, for example, your pregnancy was an accident? You’re not in a stable relationship with the baby’s father? Or even if you are, it turns out babydaddy is not charmed at the prospect of becoming a parent?
These moms share their stories with us.
"I regret the absence of a father figure"
Kungeka (35), the mother of 11-year-old twins Bahle and Bathandwa, was living with her long-term boyfriend – and on the pill! – when she discovered she was expecting her boys. She says her boyfriend was “excited at first but became more and more unenthusiastic as the months wore on,” until eventually, sensing a lack of support, Kungeka moved back to her parental home.
After the birth of the children, her ex stopped contacting her, and she was “too immersed in the business of looking after twins to chase after him.” Contact between the children and their father was sporadic until his unfortunate and untimely death in 2005.
Kungeka says she regrets the absence of a father figure for her boys as they now head towards puberty. While she thinks "they feel envy towards other children who have fathers,” she appreciates that family members to some extent fulfil the role of male role model.
She stresses that she spends a lot of effort trying to raise boys who can cook and do housework and take responsibility for themselves, in order to try to break this cycle of male irresponsibility.
"I'm glad he's not in our life"
Ameera (23), mother of Zaran (14 months), echoes this sentiment. She says she feels keenly the challenge to raise a boy who will become a good man – citing a lamentable absence of good role models for Zaran.
“Much as it would be nice, most kids don’t have fathers in South Africa," she says. "Being a single mother is actually the norm."
Ameera was friends with her son’s father for years before they slept together one alcohol-fuelled night. Ameera took a morning-after pill, but discovered she was pregnant anyway. Her ex-friend’s reaction shocked her. “He was just, like, ‘I never want to see you again.’
He wanted me to have an abortion and now blames me for having had my baby. He doesn’t feel he needs to be involved because he feels it was ‘my choice’ to have my son – even though the choice happened a long time ago when we slept together. He even questioned whether he was the father.”
In a more naive time, says Ameera, she imagined the could raise the baby together as friends. But that wasn’t to be, and she has made peace with the fact (even though she says, “It’s hard when you go to the hospital and everyone else is with a partner”) and relied on her “wonderful and supportive” family as her main source of support.
These days Ameera has almost no contact with the father of her baby. In fact, she says, “Now that I see what he’s really like, I’m glad he’s not in our life. A lot of women whose partners have left should actually be grateful for that.”
Because of Zaran’s age, Ameera has not yet encountered difficult questions yet. “I have no idea what to say if my son asks me about who his dad is,” she confesses. “If he’s not around, I will explain – and he’ll see at school – that not everyone has a mommy and a daddy.”
Ameera doubts if Zaran could suffer from feelings of abandonment because his father has never been a presence in his life, so she reasons there’s nothing for him to miss. However, she acknowledges, “I need to be careful who I bring into his life now.”
"There are no half-measures"
Catherine* (33) mother of 3-year-old Faye*, also became pregnant with a man she describes as a “long-term booty call” after practising the withdrawal method of birth control. Like Ameera’s baby’s father, he also suggested she had an abortion, which she rejected outright. “I wanted to have a baby by the time I was 30 and I didn’t want to wait too long.”
Hence, she gave her lover the option to remain anonymous and never become involved in her baby’s life. “I said there were no half measures, if you wanted to be a dad it came with all the responsibilities of sharing child care. The other option was not to be involved at all. He chose that option."
Neither Ameera nor Catherine is concerned that the bonding between them and their unborn babies was affected by the drama playing itself out between during their pregnancies. Catherine feels that the emotional turmoil affected her instead: “What hurt was the slap in the face that someone could just wash his hands of us like that. So I’ve started seeing a psychologist.”
Inevitably, as children become older, they start to ask questions about their history. “When Faye asks if she has a daddy, I answer that we’re still looking for him,” Catherine recounts. “By this I mean that the person who is meant to be her daddy is out there somewhere. I have told her that there is also a (biological) father who helped me make her, and I stress that he left me, not her. I don’t try to put unnecessary information into her head, but she knows she is allowed to ask anything and I will answer.”
Additionally, Catherine has started putting "more effort into trying to find somebody new”.
"He made a big sacrifice for me"
As these brave women demonstrate, it is possible to throw an absent babydaddy out with the scummy bathwater of a failed relationship. But even a planned pregnancy can make the father-to-be jittery. Mariaan* (35) recounts how she and her partner of 3 years had not been using contraception for years. Because they were struggling to fall pregnant, it was a shock to them both when she did.
But for Andrew*, who has grown-up children from a previous marriage, it was more “bad” shock than “good” shock. “He didn’t speak about the pregnancy for a whole month. It was horrible.”
But, says Mariaan, Andrew always knew that having a baby was non-negotiable for her, just as she always knew he was less keen. “It was a huge issue in our relationship – one we even broke up about once – but he never said no outright.” Mariaan admits, “I know he made a big sacrifice for me – I pushed him all the time. So I can’t be too upset with him for not being as excited as I am.”
Before she fell pregnant, there were times that she did feel resentful towards Andrew: “I thought, it’s so normal to want a child, so why should I feel guilty about wanting that? But now I try to be calm and rational.”
Mariaan feels Andrew is slowly coming around to the idea of being a father again. “You don’t want somebody to stay around just because you are pregnant but I know we have a strong relationship. I also know he’s a good dad because of what he’s like with his other kids.”
So, that guy you share your life with? Remember that he can’t even speak while there’s soccer on TV, and now you want him to imagine what life will be like when baby makes 3? Add a hormonal pregnant woman into the mix and it’s a flop-proof recipe for conflict.
If he’s battling demons of his own, try to love him, forgive him and accept his inner turmoil as much as you can – and then have the video ready to capture the evidence of his crocodile tears the day your baby is born.
*Names have been changed.
Page 2: A reluctant dad speaks out
Page 3: Why dads run and how to cope
A reluctant dad speaks
One “accidental” father opens up about his experience of fatherhood. Sensitive to his children’s feelings, he has opted to remain anonymous.
You didn’t want kids. How did you end up becoming a father after all?
Accidentally! 80% of previous relationships ended because of my obsession with not having children. I ensured it came up early in any relationship.
How did you feel when you discovered your partner was pregnant?
Devastated! I was the lowest I have ever been, in a very dark place.
Was leaving an option for you?
My day would oscillate between, “Come on, it can’t be that bad” to “Run as far away as you can, change your cell number, cover your tracks!" So yes, leaving was a definite option for me, but some force kept me there, I can't explain it still today.
I think my low self-esteem contributed to my desire not to have kids, but ironically my ability to relatively easily convince myself that my life has far less worth than the kids' and, as such, I'm duty bound to give the children a clean chance, was probably a major reason for me staying.
I nearly decided to leave the planet – I had realised that being a father is not a geographical thing, if I was in a weather station in Antarctica, I would still be a father to two children. There is an overriding obligation in being a father, I believe, so my decision was either to take my own life and disappear off the planet or to participate. I participated, which I think was undoubtedly the best decision for the kids and for me.
What did you want your partner to do?
I begged her to abort. She decided against it as she already felt a connection with the baby. You cannot tell a woman what to do with her body nor can we men understand what goes on during pregnancy. I had to respect her decision. So the mission was to now deal with the reality that my worst nightmare had come true.
Why did you not want to have children?
Genetics, life experiences, my mental make-up, the world, the country, the sacrifices required, finance... I just saw very little upside when compared to what I wanted to do in life and how I was equipped to take this new responsibility on.
What made you stay and be a dad?
As much as it wasn’t my decision to have children and force them to live, it was even less their decision. As difficult as the way forward was going to be, my guilt would've been harder to bear knowing these two beings weren’t getting all the tools possible to help them through their lives. I couldn’t explain why I was so emotional at their birth, still can’t explain it.
Are your reasons for not wanting kids still valid?
My answer will seem contradictory. I love my kids, I am a very active participant – partly out of obligation, but also partly out of desire to be involved. I have been told that I participate more than dads who wanted kids and that people can see I am crazy about my kids. I don’t see it as as much of a burden as I used to and I derive a lot of pleasure from bonding with them.
I am also on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant meds and going to therapy, so this helps me to cope and be the best I can for them. It’s amazing how kids rely on your being there and I can now understand how kids with two active parents must have an advantage over those who don’t.
Still, if I could take my life back to pre-kids, I would in a second. So I don’t wish them away, I love them, but I still long for the days when I was free! Apparently it gets easier as they get older: what a sad way to live, having been thrown the most difficult challenge you possibly can in your life and living the rest of your days grateful that it’s getting easier!
How has your life changed since having kids?
Nothing can be done or decided without taking the kids into consideration. I am 10kg heavier and the most unfit I have ever been in my life. Yes, I now have experiences that I would never have had without them, which are awesome. “Hi Daddy” when you walk in the door, wrestling with them, seeing them sleep or run– these are great things and they help me understand why so many people do buy into the parenthood thing. It feeds you in a way only experiencing it can make you understand.
Is my life better? Busier, fuller, more stressful, more worries, fatter, yes. Better? You decide!
If you knew then what you know now, would you still be against having kids?
I think you should decide to have kids early in life so you can live for that eventuality: get the partying done, achieve at work, set your sporting or hobby goals, save, and so on. That way you are more ready to let go of your old life and embrace the new.
My kids are awesome and I am committed to them so that they get the most out of their lives and, importantly, grow up enjoying their stay and not living like their dad, who is a self-confessed cynic.
But to be honest, if given the choice again I would maybe have ensured I was better prepared... But the answer at this stage is a definite “No”, I would not have kids. I know my life could be a lot worse, but the struggle is in the letting go of previous dreams and embracing new ones. It’s a work in progress.
This is all possibly just the growing pains required for me to “grow” and develop, who knows, in a year or two, I may just take that wand and break it with a smile of contentment. I am in a better place than I was last month and will be in a better place next month. It’s a journey and the children will probably receive more credit than blame at the end of it, I hope.
Page 1: 4 moms tell their stories
Page 3: Why dads run and how to cope
Why dads run and how to cope
Johannesburg-based counselling psychologist Dr Robyn Rosin says that family and friends can provide invaluable support to a woman experiencing pregnancy alone. “Fathers usually run because they are petrified,” she says. “If the father of the baby has left, find support from other sources who love and care about you,” she advises.
“If there’s really nobody on your side, that’s when one can expect to see a traumatic response.” In that case, seek counselling immediately – a good therapist should be able to refer you to a support group for single moms or women experiencing pregnancy alone.
And it doesn’t have to be all bad. “There’s a strong possibility that being ‘abandoned’ by the baby’s father actually enhances the mother’s connection with her unborn baby, because she knows she is now the only parent. She may feel rejection and abandonment for herself but realises the buck stops with her now as far as her baby is concerned.”
Dr Rosin cautions, though, that your response to your baby depends on how you deal with the trauma of denied expectations. If you’re depressed, she says, “bonding will be affected. Seek help immediately if this applies to you.”
Dr Rosin says it’s vital for fathers to be given an opportunity to voice their – entirely natural – fears. “Don’t shut your partner down. Remember that during pregnancy and afterwards, mothers are often foregrounded. So try to open up communication on both sides,” she advises. “And remember that women have natural maternal instincts, but fathers don’t necessarily experience this until after the child is born, when their protective urge kicks in.”
If your relationship is taking strain because of issues such as these, Dr Rosin strongly urges you to seek counselling immediately. "Don’t wait until the birth of the baby.”
She stresses that fathers-to-be often have feelings of inadequacy, wondering how exactly they will contribute to the wellbeing of the little person they helped to make. Mothers-to-be then worry if their partner is feeling animosity towards the baby, and about whether and how he will interact with the baby.
If your partner is not sharing in your pregnancy delight, “the issue needs to be worked on together and the father’s fears need to be taken into account," she says. "Together, you can try to plan strategies of how you might cope once the baby is born.”
And once that happy day dawns, jokes Dr Rosin, “most fathers become instantly besotted with their babies. Then you struggle with parenting itself, but at least the fear of what it’s going to be like dissipates!”
Page 1: 4 moms tell their stories
Page 2: A reluctant dad speaks out