When I drop in on her for this interview, 24-year-old Helen Cera is on the phone with someone. She is visibly agitated. After a few minutes of conversation during which she is pacing the room, she shouts, “You’re right. I am not your mother!” before hanging up.
“That was my younger brother,” she shares.
This is a snippet of everyday life for Cera. The defiance, frustration and anger are palpable – understandably so. Just two and a half years ago, Cera was a happy-go-lucky college student. Then her parents died within five months of each other and a lot of things changed.
She had no time to grieve. There was no one else for her to turn to either.
In just a few weeks, she went from worrying about saving money for pizza and passing her continuous assessment tests to a whole list of things that needed to be done ranging from putting dinner on the table for her two younger siblings, to finding time to attend PTA meetings.
She also had some re-arranging to do in her life starting with shelving the degree programme she was just starting to take a one-year diploma to enable her get into the job market faster.
“Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want my brothers to be anywhere else but here with me. But it has been very hard,” she says.
First, there was the initial shock of the responsibility which forced her to put her act together fast. She reckons that were their parents still alive, she would not be half as responsible as she is today.
This is a good thing. Being her siblings’ guardian has also meant her having to make a lot of difficult decisions. The two teenagers often rebel and threaten her bid to keep the family together.
“Sometimes I get angry and say or do things which I later regret” she says.
Catherine Mutisya, a child psychiatrist at The Nairobi Parenting Clinic, says that Cera has cause for worry. She also acknowledges that Cera’s situation is challenging.
“At 22, the mind is still developing and she might be ill-equipped to handle the emotions that come with parenting,” she explains.
In the frustration, Cera ends up bullying her siblings into doing what she wants. While her heart is in the right place, the damage she is causing runs deep.
While death is what often pushes the eldest sibling into the shoes of her parents, there doesn’t need to be death for this to happen. Sometimes parents are alive but for one reason or another, are unable to take up their roles. Joy Mbatha, 30, was barely in her teens when she started parenting her two younger siblings because their mother, a single parent, was an alcoholic. In retrospect, Joy observes that it is normal to sometimes resent the burden.
“I had to re-organise my life and give up a lot of things like friendships with my peers who just couldn’t understand why I needed to be home all evenings,” she shares.
The good thing about parenting is that children grow and Joy’s two siblings are now both functional adults. Not so much can be said about the relationship that she shares with the two of them. While she would like to be friends with her siblings, she has given up on that thought.
“I will always be a mother figure, not their friend,” she says.
This, according to Dr Mutisya is a pretty good outcome.
If things remain the same, it is likely that Cera and her siblings who are still a long way off from adulthood will struggle with depression and anxiety issues in adulthood.
“Because of the hurt that is happening now, they are likely to need therapy for reconciliation and healing,” says Dr Mutisya.
The good news is that there is still time for Cera and her siblings. To avert future emotional turmoil, Cera can reach out to adult relatives or friends for support and to lend the emotional maturity that she needs to deal with matters of parenting. On a personal level, Cera can change her parenting tactics.
She can stop trying to bully her siblings into doing things a certain way and start leading by example instead and pray that they will follow. This will rid of the resentment from her siblings and also her frustration which stems from trying to stay in control.