27 years ago I promised myself that I would write a book when I turned 50. I am 4 years late and not quite ready to write an entire book. Here I am though, sitting down with a pen and paper because my son-in-law asked me a question the day before he lawfully wedded my daughter. “What was it like, raising her?” I am tempted to laugh at him. Things had changed, and now it was up to him, and not me to deal with her. And he had asked for it. I pause however, to remember what it has been like, raising a girl child without her mother around to help.
I remember that day, 5 years ago, when my daughter graduated from University. I must have been the proudest father ever, and in most un-African fashion had publicly declared my pride, my love and my joy. She had been quite proud herself and very excited about this new beginning, so much so that she let me get away with calling her Princess in public, and telling everyone who didn’t care that she was my daughter and a university graduate, too. Then three days later, she came home bursting with joy because her internship with a prestigious company had turned into a real job complete with a 5 figure salary and fringe benefits. There I was, trying to be happy for her but I was in a panic.
My daughter has always been a confident and fiercely independent individual. I suppose much of it stems from the fact that we lost her mother to an aneurysm when she was only 3 months old. I might have married another woman to raise my child or alternatively sent her to my mother or some other female relation. I chose to be a lone parent and raise my daughter, in Nairobi. Any man raising a daughter with or without the child’s mother presence will attest to the fact that the job presents myriad joys alongside confounding challenges.
I tried from the very beginning to nurture the very best in my little girl. That with me not being the very best of men for the task. After losing my wife of only a year, then being handed a tiny helpless infant to love and raise, I was more than fiercely protective. If I’d had my way, I would have cocooned my child in cotton swabs inside an all harmproof safe until I was certain that all harm was eliminated in the world. It doesn’t work like that though, does it? The best I could do was prepare my child for the challenges that the world would throw at her.
That, has been an incredible journey of nappies, formula, doctor’s appointments almost missed, picture books, crayons used on walls, torn school books, missing school sweaters, tears, laughter, confusion, insight, more confusion, rebellion, lost tempers, pride joy, graduation gowns and finally the wedding gown. I am guessing that I still have a few fatherhood experiences to go through. Fatherhood like any life role goes through different phases, each with its own challenges and rewards.
When my daughter was an infant, I had to juggle being a father and a mother, with a career just starting out. My daughter was born 4 years after I had earned a Masters Degree in Financial Economics and 2 years after I came home from the UK to begin working with a government-run corporation. I had to work full time and pay a day time nurse to look after my daughter. Many were the days I showed up late at work with baby food on my shirt. Then in the evening I was rushing home to my child. I had no social life. I chose not to remarry for a while, but I seriously doubt that I would have had any luck finding myself a wife. Worse was the fact that my dedication to my child, a girl child at that earned more scorn than commendation from most people, including my own mother. She resented that I had gone against custom and denied her the chance to take over the mothering of my daughter. I tried really hard to compensate for that, by making sure my daughter went to my mother’s home on some long weekends. Then I ruined that closeness by not accepting my relatives help to find me a replacement wife.
Soon enough my little girl was ready to start school. I took the day off for her first day at Nursery school. I was the nervous one. She was so excited it was everything I could do to stop her from going to sleep the night before in her school uniform, right up to the socks and shoes. On the morning of her first school day, I went with her right into the school. As the teacher led her away to her new class, she waved at me with bright eyes that reminded me of her mother. I spent the rest of the day pacing my sitting room with a tight knot in my chest. Then when I went to pick her up, I could hardly stop my temper from exploding when she told me that some boy had pushed her so that she had fallen and grazed her knee. I might have committed murder too, if I hadn’t noticed that the little imp was displaying the Elastoplast as if it was a trophy.
Time sped by fast. One day I woke up and my little girl was gone. I seriously considered that the devil had stolen my child and come back in her image. She became argumentative, almost disrespectful. She defied me at every turn. She went into a phase where she preferred to keep me at a distance and rolled her eyes with exasperation when I asked questions. I was confused, helpless, and angry all the things a father cannot afford to be when his child is adolescent.
Fortunately for me, my older sister’s regard for me had changed to silent respect for my endeavors to be a good father. One Sunday afternoon she stopped by my house while I was watching a football match to distract myself from the fact that my 12 year old daughter had not yet returned from Sunday school. My sister and I had a very long discussion that begun with;
“Have you had the talk with Ciku?” she asked after discussing assorted relatives’ lives. I looked at her wide-eyed, knowing at the back of my mind just what she was referring to but not daring to think about it.
Of course, I knew that my daughter would reach adolescence and menarche. But I preferred to imagine that it would pass without my involvement. My sister pointed out that I had chosen to be a parent, and without her mother, my daughter needed me to educate, support her then set her free. Alternatively, the option which was easier for me, I could allow a trusted female to enlighten and support my daughter on the sensitive issues of development and sexuality.
With time, my daughter and I eased from uncomfortable awareness and incessant power struggles to some communication and occasional understanding, and then we lost that too.
I sent my daughter to boarding school because she passed her Primary school exams quite well. I felt that the experience would develop her individuality and sense of independence. It did, perhaps a little too much for my liking. When she came home for holidays we had fights about everything from her choice of friends and dressing to the TV shows she preferred to watch. I am not proud to admit that I started running. I spent extra time at work. I had started my own business by then. Then there was golf and nyama choma with friends and business associates on weekends. That way I had less time to notice my daughter’s independence. That hurt both of us. I worried. She resented my absence.
It took a lie for me to stop running. One Saturday, my daughter told me she was going to visit with a school friend. I knew the young lady in question and was even acquainted with the girl’s father through business. I didn’t see the need to pry further. Then I got the call in the middle of the night from the St. Mary’s Hospital, informing me that my daughter had been injured in a stampede at a restaurant club along Langata Road. I was scared and furious in terrifying alternates. My daughter when I finally found her had bruises, a stitch on the forehead and a slight concussion. Three kids died that night at the club.
As soon as I saw my daughter that night, I made the decision that I would defy everything that stood between us and a good honest relationship. I’d read all the books on fatherhood. Most of them gave ridiculous advice that definitely did not apply for a Kenyan setting or my situation. One thing I knew for sure was that if I failed in developing and maintaining a good relationship with my teenage daughter, I would also fail in preparing her for life, too.
I took my daughter home in the morning to begin a new phase of our life. I determined not to slack on the limits, boundaries and consequences for unacceptable behavior. I chose to sit through even the most uncomfortable conversation with my daughter. I sought to find out what she thought of the world and different issues, and to understand that she was her own person with preferences and opinions. Listening to her finally made her understand that I cared even when I did not agree with her. So then it was easier for her to understand that I had set limits and boundaries that I expected her to respect.
We went through a few more ups and downs. It wasn’t easy to keep communication open and honest at all times. There have been times when I have lost my temper or ignored her. The most natural reaction from her would be defiance or rebellion. So I have had to teach myself to listen and encourage discussion while maintaining my position as the authority figure. With time she grew to accept that I was the father and that this gave me the responsibility to set the rules in the family; but also that she was a member of the family and had the right to express her opinions.
My daughter sat and passed her KCSEs. I had all these dreams of her becoming a doctor or an engineer. She definitely qualified for both. She chose Business. Although I dreaded it, I also wanted her to study abroad. She chose to study in Kenya, and then perhaps pursue postgraduate studies abroad. I chose to support her.
My daughter earned her Bachelor’s degree, and a pretty good job. That day when she came home and told me about the job, I went into a panic, not because I did not approve of her endeavors, but because I was terrified of the day when my daughter would be so independent that she would have no use of her aging father. It sounded silly even to my own ears.
Over the next few years, we talked about everything she cared about. Her career. Politics. I never thought I would sire an individual who cares about the state of the country even more than I do. She talks about economic policies in such a way I have started dreaming of my daughter as a Minister of something someday. Then she brings up topics of mortgages and kids all in one breath. Is there a man, I would ask? I would get a sly look and, “Daddy, you have to promise not put him through hell.” But I did anyway. Any man worth my daughter had to be the best. I think he is. He has a whole lot to learn about my daughter and life in general, but he will do.
Letting go is perhaps the most difficult part of fatherhood. From the very beginning it has to be about loving your child and raising it to be capable, well-adjusted and independent, so that some day you can let it go. There is no fail-proof formula. When you are a father, you have three choices:
Run like the devil showed up and demanded for your soul.
Hang around and pretend you know all there is to being a father.
Get into the murk, make your mistakes and be the best kind of father you can possibly be.
So I walked down the aisle with my daughter on my arm. I have tears in my eyes but that’s just old age. I am giving her away to a man she loves. I guess I am gaining a son and still have a long way to with my fatherhood job. As I turn away to join my wife of four years, I think, I have a life to live, too.