Embrace: Telling the stories of motherhood in South Africa

Embrace is a national movement for connected, supported and celebrated motherhood. We want to see every new mother embraced and flourishing from the start of her motherhood journey, understanding that an empowered and embraced mother raises a thriving child.

31 stories in 31 days. That was where we began this conversation. In an effort to reclaim the public space of Women’s Month, littered as it is with pink-hued marketing ploys, we decided to find 31 women doing the always extraordinary and often mundane work of motherhood. We are mothers ourselves and we know all too well the pot of emotion, responsibility, guilt, joy, mundanity that is motherhood. We know that while it looks like it comes naturally to women, mothering is a constant learning, unlearning and relearning; a constant compromise between the person you thought you were and the person you have to become. So we knew we would find the stories, and we knew that the stories would resonate with mothers around the country.

When we began planning this campaign, we had a picture of the kinds of stories we wanted to find. We were looking for stories that are often on the margins. We were also looking to disrupt assumptions, for example, by telling the story of a teenage mom who is focused and is raising her child successfully, without state assistance.  Some wise people in our network pointed out that by doing this, we were reducing participants to only some parts of their motherhood journeys.  We would be narrowly framing stories that were not ours to frame.

So we ditched our expectations, and we sought out existing circles of women and asked if we could bring them together for an honest conversation about motherhood. We found these circles in workplaces, leisure groups, support groups and other existing women-centred spaces. In each instance, the groups consisted of women who had established relationships and relative ease with one another and who felt comfortable discussing some difficult topics with each other.

Within the stories, you will see the many faces and phases of motherhood in South Africa. You will see women sharing the spectrum of their experiences, and, through their stories, fulfilling our collective yearning for connection with and support from other mothers.

Fatherhood and co-parenting

One of the biggest themes emerging from the circles was the importance of co-parents. Often, the presence of a partner or a supportive family member stuck out for women as being especially important in the first few days of motherhood. Where fathers were present and engaged, women gave them special mention. Cindy said:

So for me, the kindest person in my motherhood journey has been my husband. And I feel like he has been there since day one. He understands when I say “I need space; can you hold him for me?” And he volunteers to do things that I think that other men wouldn’t necessarily want to do like wash nappies with poo. And yeah, it was also just like in terms of during the birthing process, it is like he was… I feel like it was like a real hero just like playing a supportive role. When I was in pain like you know he would just follow what I said like: touch here, massage here, leave that, take this … diligently. Yeah, so I feel like he has really been the kindest this person, a person you know who understands and just like a great partner to be with on this journey.

In instances where fathers were not present, this had a major impact on women’s parenting journeys. The absence of fathers was very much experienced as an obstacle, and overcoming this obstacle required the support of family.

Motherhood and Identity

In one circle, Mildred spoke of the importance of developing and maintaining an identity outside of one’s children. If mothers live only for their children, this can cause significant damage to the mother-child relationship. In order to carve out space for themselves apart from their children, mothers need the support of co-parents. Co-parents are either the fathers or family members who are equally invested and engaged in the raising of their children. This is opposed to other family members who provide more ‘general’ support. Whilst the support of other family members helps, being able to hand over the care of children to co-parents is seen as the best option. Nwabisa’s mother filled this role in her family. She says:

I will always remember my mother because she played a big role in my life. My child is in a safe home because of my mother. My child has a way of speaking because of my mother’s teachings. She never turned her back on me, she supported me when I was pregnant and when the father of my child didn’t play a role of being a father to his son, he ran away and left me with a baby. I cried each and every day but I went back to my mother and she took my baby and raised him and sent me back to school to study.

Today I am a pre-school teacher and I have my level 5 because of her. She told me to give her my child and she would raise him so that I could go back to school and study. I’ve got a career now. I’m a teacher. I want to have my degree so that I could go teach in a primary school. She was the best for me.

Shared parenting allows mothers the space to develop an identity outside of their motherhood, which ultimately enhances their motherhood and their children’s lives.

Inxeba – the mother wound

Mildred spoke of how her own mother did not have anyone to share the parenting load with. As a result, her mother’s entire identity was wrapped up in her motherhood, something Mildred believes damaged the mother-daughter relationship. Mildred says, “Mothers… they can love us so much that they squeeze the life out of you”.

Because of her experience with her mother, she is very aware of carrying what she calls inxeba – the mother wound. That wound and the fraught space between her and her mother from which the wound comes informs how she mothers her daughter. She says:

Motherhood is 50% for me. She needs to know I am part of her, but not all of her.

Living in this way allows for her daughter to discover who she is, without relying on or leaning too heavily on her mother’s understanding of and expectations for her identity.

Intergenerational trauma

Many of the mothers we met spoke similarly about what it is like to carry their mothers’ trauma, and trying to avoid passing on this trauma to their children. In some cases, this means taking direct action against abusive family members. One mother told us about how she made sure that a family member who sexually abused her daughter was arrested. This was of particular importance because when she was abused as a child by a relative, no one in her family believed her or took any action against the perpetrator. After she found out about what happened to her daughter, she said to herself, “it stops with me”.

There’s always a story behind the stereotype…

When we set out to listen to and document stories, we wanted to find the depth and breadth that mothers are often denied in the popular imagination. In our piece introducing this campaign, we wrote:

Mothers cannot be reduced to ample bosoms and aprons and smiles. We are SO much more than that. The future would (literally) cease to exist without us, and yet so many of our issues are silenced. Our voices are silenced. We are expected to ‘die to self’ for our children, and then they are expected to thrive. ‘Dead’ women don’t raise children.

How backwards. How strange.

In the same breath, so much of this journey is wonderful and transformative. We are refined by our motherhood. The best of us is not destroyed in the fire of raising our children. No, we have lessons to share. We have value to add (in the workplace, in our communities, in places of power and decision-making). We may be tired, but we’re also resilient. We have wisdom the world would be a fool to ignore.

The stories we heard uncover that wisdom and challenge the one-dimensional stories of motherhood. For example, teen mothers are often denigrated in popular imagination. In South Africa, the myth that young women from working class and poor communities see pregnancy as a way to access state support (child grants) persists. Through this campaign, we met mothers who challenge that. Nomonde spoke of balancing school with the duties of new motherhood:

I took care of my child at the time in such a way that when it was break time, once that bell rings for break, I would run home quickly to go and breastfeed my child and go back to school again and then I would continue with my studies and then every time when there was break time, I would make sure that I breastfeed.

In every case, women and teenagers who became mothers demonstrated deep love and care for their children. The narrative around the ‘blesser’ phenomenon – that is, the idea that young women get involved with older men for financial reasons – was also challenged. These relationships were often sparked by the attention and care young women received from older men. One mother told us that the first person who ever told her that he loved her was her much older, abusive partner.  She entered into and stayed in the relationship because of the validation and recognition she received from him, even after he became abusive.

…and stereotypes are dangerous

Where women were treated as stereotypes, they received little to no support and assistance from family and from the societal institutions to whom they turned. Thando told us:

Most of the people in our community, they say “girls who have a child in an early age they’re loose” like we don’t love ourselves, we love boys, that’s why we just throw ourselves at boys. Actually, it’s not true because we love ourselves and we do take care of [our babies] but the thing is, we don’t have much access in clinics to [get] prevention. In our clinics, the nurses are not [very] friendly, they’re too likely to judge too much and privacy actually – we don’t have that privacy.

So most of the time they’ll say “you’re loose and you don’t know what you want for your life.” They’re too judgemental actually.

Thando intimates that because of the judgement young women face within communities, they are too afraid to seek out birth control. They feel they will be labelled and stereotyped, rather than informed and treated. The assumption that teen mothers are unaware of the magnitude of parental responsibility also informs how their families treat them. We held a circle with a group of teen mothers, most of whom told us that their children’s primary caregivers were their relatives. The family members took over primary care of the children, but this was not necessarily done to help out while the mothers attend school or go to work. In many cases, the mothers did not have primary custody of their children, nor did they have jobs or studies to keep them occupied. Says Zandi:

What makes one lonely as a parent sometimes, is being alone, not having a family. I am a mother without a family, I stay alone at home.

The single narrative about teen mothers is pervasive enough that it affects the level of personal support these mothers receive. Their real lived experienced remain largely unseen, and they are disempowered as parents by everyone from the system to their own families.

What now?

The poet Mary Oliver asks us “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And we are approaching the end of the process of convening storytelling circles, we are asking ourselves what we do with the wild and precious lives of mothers in South Africa. The Type A personality in me wishes I could end this with a neat set of policy recommendations and timelines. But that would be too simplistic and wouldn’t acknowledge the diversity within the stories.  It would also be an abandonment of the biggest lesson we’ve learnt – what it really means to work without guarantees and allow a process to be person-centred and led:

Working without guarantees is thus becoming aware of the vulnerabilities and blind spots of one’s power and representational systems. It is accepting failure, or put positively, seeing failure as success. The implication for development is that we need to learn to be open, not just, in the short-term, to the limits of our knowledge systems, but also to the long-term logic of our profession: enabling the subaltern while working ourselves out of our jobs.[i]

Instead of reaching for guarantees, we respond to the call that came up time and again in conversations with mothers: support. As I write this, the team, which, for now, consists of two of us, is preparing to return to the spaces of the circles, and offer our resources and our elevated platform to make it easier for mothers to reach out to one another.

A few days ago, I read a piece on postpartum doulas, women who offer specialised support to new mothers during the first weeks after birth. We all need one, it proclaims. This is hardly news to anyone who has experienced those first few weeks of motherhood.  Embrace is now wondering how we can make that happen. How can we open up the mechanisms of support for mothers at every stage so that the story is about how we can all serve as doulas.

Starting from the words of the women we have met, we will return to circle spaces to develop – with our networks – tools we can all access to support mothers.

We hope to see you in those spaces, those special rooms of our own.

To read all the stories, visit the Embrace site here.


[i] Kapoor, I. 2004. Hyper-self-reflexive development? Spivak on representing the Third World ‘Other’. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 627–647.

See below some pictures of the story circles.

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