Rose Muthoni* cuts the image of most women in their early thirties. Self-assured, well-dressed, seemingly happy with her accomplishments and well-settled in what must surely be a happy marriage.
The truth however, is that she is a troubled woman, hiding her hurt, disappointment, and anguish beneath a sunny smile and bubbly personality.
“If people could open up and tell you their stories, you would be shocked,” she begins, absent-mindedly twisting the gold wedding band she’s wearing.
Rose got married to the man of her dreams four years ago in a big colourful wedding. She was sure that he was the one for her because during the four years they courted, he was the perfect gentleman. Responsible, loving, faithful, but above all, he accepted her nine year old son, whom she had gotten while in college.
“I let him know that I had a son on our first date, and he did not seem to mind. He met my son Ricky* regularly, especially when he came to visit me at my house. They got along well,” Rose narrates.
When the couple tied the knot and started living together however, the image of the happy, close-knit family that Rose had had in mind vanished almost over-night.
“My husband started picking on my son almost immediately. If he dropped a piece of paper on the floor or walked bare feet, he would scold him as if he had done something very bad.”
This took Rose by surprise since she hadn’t seen this side of the man she had fallen in love with.
“Every day, for the last four years we’ve been married, not a day goes by without us fighting or arguing over my son. My husband does not see anything good or worthy of praise in anything my son does,” says Rose.
She narrates a recent incident when her 35 year old husband walked in on her son and their house help laughing in the kitchen. He was so incensed; he ordered them to “stop making noise immediately.” There was also another when he gave the young boy a tongue lashing for leaving an eraser on the dining table.
“When we’re having supper, he’s forbidden from fidgeting or talking until his finishes his food. He is also expected to sit straight through out, even though he struggles to reach the table because he’s still not tall enough,” Rose says.
She admits that the constant scolding has eroded the boy’s self-esteem, and he is no longer the happy boy he was.
“Whenever he hears my husband at the door, Ricky suddenly gets tense and starts to breathe fast. He fears him so much, and even at that young age, he knows that my husband doesn’t like him. This is what kills me,” Says Rose, who confesses that her husband’s attitude towards her son is what has prompted her to put off having a child with her husband.
She has raised this issue with her husband a couple of times, but he sees nothing wrong with how he treats Ricky, arguing that a child should be taught the virtues of discipline at a young age.
Interestingly, her husband faithfully pays Ricky’s school fees without a fuss and provides for all his other material needs, even though Rose has a well-paying job. He also helps him with his homework every day.
“I can pay my son’s school fees and give him everything else he needs, so this does not appease me. All I want is for him to love and accept my son because frankly, he will always live with me until he becomes an adult,” she says.
A while ago, she toyed with the idea of taking her son to boarding school but discarded the idea as soon as it cropped up.
“If I were to choose between him and my son, I would choose my son any day, but at the moment, I just don’t have the strength to choose. I keep hoping that he will wake up one day and love my son as if he were his.”
Rose’s case is not an isolated one. Children born out of wedlock do not always receive a warm reception from the men their mothers get married to.
“Getting a child out of wedlock is still a big issue and most children born outside marriage are still looked down on. It is only a handful of men who accept children that aren’t biologically there’s,” says Bernice Karanja, a mother of three.
Bernice’s story has a similar ring to Rose, although her first born daughter, who she had, when she got married, is grown up and living on her own.
“My husband did not hide the fact that he didn’t like my daughter. He made it clear from the beginning that she was my sole responsibility. While he paid school fees for the three children we have together, I would pay hers myself,” Bernice says.
She argues that it is this kind of rejection that forces some women to choose marriage over their children, who they send to live with their mothers or grandmothers.
But is this really the best solution for the child?
My mother chose marriage over me.
For close to 20 years, Alex Owori has known no other home besides his aunt’s place in Jericho, Nairobi. The 20 year old was abandoned by his mother in 1993 when he was about nine years old.
“She had been living with us, but suddenly, she moved to Kisumu to get married, leaving behind my younger sister, Claire Owori who’s 18, and I.”
His grandmother, Khaveri Owori, came for them and took them to Busia to live with her. But the stay was brief.
“She was struggling financially and in 1995, she took us to live with our aunt, but would often visit to check on us,” he adds.
Alex, who rarely communicates with his mother, says that she has two children with her husband.
“My aunt and grandmother have done their best to take care of us, and ensured that we have been brought up in a warm and loving environment, but it would have been good to also grow up with the love of a mother,” he says.
He also reckons that he would still be in school had his mother stuck around. As it is, he had to drop out of form one last year since his aunt was unable to pay for both his school fees and that of his sister, who is in form two.
“I don’t think I would abandon my child for anyone,” concludes Alex.
Why the rejection?
A child born out of wedlock is one of the most enduring threats to a marriage, explains Dr Ken Ouko, a Sociologist.
“The child is a constant reminder that his wife had already walked the intimate path with another man before they met. This makes him feel betrayed.”
Dr Ouko adds that questions will always arise regarding why this man should fulfill the responsibilities of another man.
According to Dr Mutie, also a sociologist, many men are likely to be more hesitant to accept the child if he is a boy.
He explains: “Boys are viewed as the heirs, and the ones to carry the family name. However, girls are expected to get married, and are therefore not a threat. In fact, they are an ‘asset’ since they attract bride wealth.”
Adds Dr Ouko: “Often, the man may find himself unconsciously treating his biological offspring with more preference, to the chagrin of the child his wife brought into the marriage. This usually generates sibling disdain and open rivalry or rebellion,” he explains, adding that this complexity is what motivates some women to leave their child behind.
He adds that Women who bear children out of wedlock are often victims of socially generated stigma and morally instigated condemnation.
“To run away from this social dilemma, they choose to leave the child under the foster care of the grandparents, a relative or a close friend.”
The sociologist observes that whenever marital conflict arises between a couple in such a situation, in the heat of harshly exchanged words, some hurtful things are often said about the illegitimate child.
There are some men who also demand that the woman leave the child behind. Dr Mutie warns that such men are likely to have other psychosocial problems and are likely to bring on board other demands.
“Before leaving a child behind in the rush for marriage, consider the child’s age and whether your relatives love him enough to take care of him,” he says.
Most importantly though, how do you relate with your child? Are you close? How much time do you spend together?
For instance, he says, a woman who left her child at home and went to work in the city and sees him once in a couple of months may have no qualms about leaving the child behind as she forges a new life with her new man.