10 days without my baby in South Africa: en route to freedom?

Ten days without my 8 month old baby… all because I was invited to one of my best friends’ wedding in South Africa.

It caused me months of stress and a huge amount of guilt. 

Each time I told another mother:

-”I am off to South Africa for a wedding and I am leaving my daughter with my mother for 10 days.” 

Each time I would receive in return:

Gasp. .. weird throat noises… and then the “compliment”:

-”Wow, you are so courageous. I wouldn’t be able to do that.” 

The worst judgement I received was from my own mother who was Frenchly blunt and straight-up told me:

-”How could you. ” It was not even a question, just a straightforward condemnation. 

I agonized about it for months. 

When the departure was imminent, my mother arrived two days prior from France to get to know the thrilling village of Abcoude (a tiny town 10 minutes away from Amsterdam), our house, and to see where the supermarkets and my daughter’s nursery were.

My mother is the typical French sixty plus something divorcee aristocrat lady. She is tall, super slim with endless legs, and her hair is always impeccably blow dried. She paints her nails in red and she is so in love- please say that with the French accent because she is really so in love. 

48 hours of her presence with her constant suggestions of how to do it better; her perpetual analysis on how I am like this and not like that;  her endless baby-talk conversations; and her caring interrogations of why I had taken to smoking again in the last two days, had a surprising impact on me: it made me want to take this flight… as soon as possible! 

And then there I was, on the plane with my partner, off to enjoy some adult time together. 

How I imagined freedom without my baby  

We landed in Cape Town, leaving the winter to the Northern Hemisphere so we could enjoy December south of the equator. I was excited just to be with my partner. When we thought about it, we had not had any “just the two of us” alone time for over a year and half now – I count my pregnancy as already being the three of us. 

I was really looking forward to one thing that every mother of a baby and toddler can relate to, which is to simply head out the door. To grab my purse and head out the door. And not having to think of the extra bottle, food, milk powder, toys, blankets, clothes, wipes, diapers, pacifiers, stroller, and of course the baby. 

Indeed, once you become a mother, one does not simply step out of the house. We need to check if we have everything; that nothing has been forgotten. And my partner and I always seem to forget something.

So I was ready to seize this moment of freedom by opening the door and going for a stroll; I was ready to enjoy this pure sentiment of lightness.  But… We were in South Africa…One does not simply head out the door to go for a stroll. 

My giant step of freedom was abruptly cut short.

Freedom cannot exist without a sense of safety

All my life I have lived in big cities where walking down the streets, be it day or night, was not a call for murder or rape. And I cannot rid myself of a stubborn ethnocentrism on this specific subject of safety; my normality is the only way to go:  Freedom cannot exist without a sense of safety.

I am going to be honest, I could not handle the constant South African Damocles sword above my head. I was impressed by all the signs stuck on the middle classes houses “armed response”, and the signs indicating ‘hijacking hot spots” on the highways. They even have a chart reflecting when the peak days for hijacking are! For the interested, weekends are “low season” because that’s when the syndicates take their orders…  it is a fun fact, but at the same time rather chilling. 

Well, the culture of fear in South Africa is not a myth, but a daily reality. If you read contemporary South African authors like Brink, Coetzee or Behr, a heart of violence beats in the core of their books. They depict the brutality of living on these lands with such simplicity that we instantly understand it as their normality. All come to the conclusion that as humans, we all seek freedom through the lightness of being. Alas violence is such a constant threat there that you cannot protect yourself from it – not even in your own home. 

Coetzee in his book “Disgrace” narrates with finesse how one could look for some peacefulness, believe that one could possibly derive a life of connection with their environment. Yet the violence saturating this soil will inevitably sniff you out and invite itself into your home.

Behr in his book, “The Smell of Apples” describes a la perfection how viciousness lives in the house, lives within the person you trust the most, admire the most. There is no possible lightness even for children. 

And Brink in his numerous books on apartheid reports how you are never safe anywhere you go… because of the burden of your skin color.

These books all describe such a level of cruelty that you could be tempted to ask, where is the humanity? 

During that time, my mother was emailing me

While I was reading these books during my discovery of South Africa, I was in daily contact with my mother to find out how my daughter was doing. 

The first two days I was away, I listened to her on the phone, prattling on about how my daughter was so very happy without me. 

But like really happy. And she did not need me.

On the third day, I phoned her and she replied that my daughter’s hair had grown already so much! 

Yes, of course, in three days… 

The fourth and fifth days, I was done talking to her on the phone, so I was emailing her. My dear genitor enthusiastically wrote me back how much my daughter had already changed, to the extent that I would not recognize her. 

Obviously,  thanks to my mother, my daughter was now already reading and as a good Frenchie was getting angry at the UK’s politics regarding Brexit and wondering if she should be furious at Corbyn or Johnson or at Farage. (Obviously the answer is Cameron. But she is only 8 months, so I wont be too harsh on her.) 

The sixth and seven days, I was taught to believe that I had missed a milestone: the growth of the first tooth of my daughter .

It has been a month since that email, my daughter still has no teeth… 

The eighth and ninth days, I wrote to her, and tersely read the response. 

I couldn’t handle her answers anymore.

And on the tenth day, I called my mother because our plane had been cancelled…  

We were staying an extra day in Cape Town, an extra day away from our daughter, an extra day far from Abcoude, a city so wild that it has but two churches: one Protestant and one Catholic. 

I felt stuck; imprisoned on the other side of the world.

Why is freedom an essential question?  

I wanted to go home. I had had an amazing time with my partner. It was fantastic to discover South Africa, even though I did not feel comfortable. Actually, I adored the experience of being confronted by a diametrically opposite set of societal rules. 

This is a country that is historically captivating in its complexity, boasts a richness in literature, and showed me laconically how easy it is for one to slip into ethnocentrism. I had to come to terms with a cruel revelation regarding myself while I was roaming these lands as a guest: it seems I am not as open-minded as I thought!

It is not because I, “vive la France”, did not feel free in these lands that I could not feel a sense of freedom in South Africa. Saffies feel it each time they look at the splendor of their landscape. Within one breath, one glimpse of the spectacular scenery, and they know that it is the attachment to their lands that creates this freedom in them. 

I am fascinated by the question of freedom because it is the most human question we can ask ourselves – besides why do we exist.

Religion, law, politics – everything that regulates our societies come from this essential question of freedom. And that is why South Africa is unique in the wold. It is a land that constantly exposes you to this question of freedom.

I am convinced that as long as we ask ourselves if freedom exists and which shape we can find it taking, we will always keep a certain sense of humanity close to our hearts. After all, as one of the most humanist human beings of all did say :

 “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Mandela

However, to my humble mind “to respect and enhance the freedom of others” you do need safety. 

Unfortunately, South Africa has still a long way to go.

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One thought on “10 days without my baby in South Africa: en route to freedom?

  1. Your depictions of life in South Africa, your parenting skills and, in particular, your mother, are extraordinary! You write brilliantly Val. I enjoyed your story very much and I look forward to more!

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