(written for Glitz Magazine's 'Perspectives from across the Atlantic'...unpublished)
To Have or Not to Have Your Big Fat African Family
In many cultures, especially those of Africa, the number of children a man has and the size of his family is his wealth and also shows his manly prowess, especially if he has very strong sons and beautiful daughters. In Islam, Moslems are allowed to marry as many wives as they can afford and many religions encourage their followers to multiply and fill the earth. Many who migrate to the United States come here in hopes of starting a new ‘American’ family or strive to achieve the American dream with their family, be it nuclear or extended.
Starting or relocating a family can be a very difficult bittersweet choice. This brings us to another category of Nigerian immigrants who are keen on having as many American citizens a kids and giving their teenage children better education than is provided back home. A saying goes, ‘Children are insurance for old age,’ let me just put it like this, ‘Nicon Cares’, and by that I mean invest in a good life insurance and retirement plan because if you plan to live in America, there are no guarantees that your children/insurance plan will readily be at your financial beck and call as it is in Nigeria for many.
After turning 24 in March, I’ve realized getting older isn’t the hardest trauma a woman has to deal with in life; a mother, aunts and a grandmother constantly nagging about how they’re not getting any younger and would like to pour some Pears Baby Powder on their neck is probably more traumatic (Igbo folks out there can feel me on this). Although that’s a rather colorful anecdote, I have heard several stories and seen enough Nigerian movies that deal with this issue to come to the conclusion that this menacing desire for our parents to have grand-children has become an obstruction to the realization of our many other goals and desires. As young people of the X and Y generation we must put our foot down and resist the pressure to succumb to the perplexing nightmares filled with baby’s coos.
When I was young and foolish, or so I was told, I joked about wanting to have only 2 children. After seeing so many young women go through motherhood without family or friends for support, I am dead serious about that now. Other reasons for this are I absolutely dread having a bulging gut for that long, being fat and children can be downright mean, stupid and annoying. I’ll save that gist for another article. If my spouse and parents insist on more children, I’ve decided on adopting furry children i.e. miniature dogs: a Chihuahua and a Yorkshire terrier who I plan to name Chi-Chi and Eze. Seriously ya’ll, it is that deep and now I hear my mother saying, “Tufia!”
Bringing up children is the most important job anyone can undertake and it isn’t a task to be taken lightly as the choice to become a parent is a huge responsibility that can make or break another or several lives. Putting things into perspective, consider being young, perhaps naïve, in a new society and being very pregnant. You have neither your mother nor ‘big aunt’ to help you walk the ropes of motherhood and pretty much have to learn on your own by trial or error. Add to that the fact that you still have to get your education, and for many that means a Master’s degree and a Phd, as well as hold down 2 jobs or work long shifts to make ends meet. These are just a few of the many obstacles that migrant new parents have to face when starting their family in the U.S.
Pregnancy, as we all know, is considered the most difficult stage in the process of starting a family and I haven’t even started talking of the bouts of morning sickness, the backaches and the eventual pains of labor. Maybe I wasn’t observant back in Nigeria, but while women of other races glow and look their best during this stage, my African sisters here in America look like they’ve carried the Cross of Calvary through Hurricane Isabel, and that alone has been very discouraging for me. Sometimes I wonder what they would look like if they had to pound yam and fetch water from the stream everyday. By the way, I hear that such strenuous activities actually help the cervix dilate for easier delivery and that I find very questionable. Pregnancy is also difficult because of the emotional and sometimes social stress it puts on the womenfolk. Many pregnant Nigerian women go through that because they may not be under the constant and watchful eyes of a dear relative, like her mother or aunt, particularly after the child has been born. This is why a number of people seek to bring their mothers over to America, so that they can help with raising their children.
Having made several observations on the issue of having and raising a family, I have come to the conclusion that although America is ideal, it isn’t the best place to realize that dream of a Big Fat African Family. I see many African families with as many as 5 to 6 school-age children and one more in the ‘oven’ and I begin to calculate how much money goes in towards daycare, extracurricular activities, or how expensive their weekly groceries are. It would be a different case if one or both of the parents had well-paying jobs and a big bank account. However, not many are this fortunate and it may make no difference how rich these folks are because they still have to pay for college if their kids don’t get a merit or athletics based scholarship. This is where it’s going to hurt more, especially if the parents were not wise enough to start a college fund for their kids when they were still in diapers. In my opinion, and I am sure some would agree, one would be better off just having kids here in the States, ship them off to their grandparents or relatives in Nigeria under the well conceived pretext of ‘learning their culture’ and bring them back to attend high school in time to qualify for college scholarships. That might be a drastic measure but it could be the key to the problem of many kids not knowing their culture and identity. Another choice, which has become a trend, or should I say phenomenon, is to give birth to your babies in America, that way they are citizens and all that would stand between them and living in the US is a ticket, regardless of when such a choice is made. People who opt for this option need to do their research properly as the rules are changing with regards to allowing pregnant women procure visas to the U.S.
Raising a family full of pre-teens and teenagers is probably a better deal and a lot more fun. A good example of this would be my friend’s family, The Alabis, who moved to the US in 1997. This is a Christian family of 7 children, the eldest is about 23 and the youngest is about 9 or 10. There used to be a dog, but the mutt was too Nigerian for their neighbors, i.e. aggressive and always barking at people, so they had to kill it. Anytime I visit the Alabis for one holiday or the other, their home is so reminiscent of being in Nigeria. Everybody has their own chores and cooking schedule if applicable. Mrs. Alabi only cooks stews and soups on mostly Sundays and sometimes she throws in some fried rice depending on the kind of weekend it was. The bigger kids do the grocery shopping, drive their siblings around and pretty much help regulate the other kids. For nearly a year or two they hosted 3 of their teenage cousins who relocated from Nigeria, putting the number at 10 and when I tell you that was a Big Fat Family, you best believe it. The boys were always clowning and the girls were always gisting and it was always so loud and noisy with folks laughing at dry jokes and juicy gossip. Sometimes I wondered how their mom slept through all the noise and was never cranky. The Alabis were and are so much fun to be around that when I was still roasting in the dorms, the Alabi home was the joint, in fact, I would rather stay back in Chapel Hill on a holiday just to spend it with them, than to go back to my boring home city of Charlotte. Mr. Alabi is a successful business man who lives and works in Nigeria and visits at least four times a year while his wife is registered nurse in the US who is in a high income bracket. Their children are very smart, two have already graduated from college while two remain, all on some sort of merit-based scholarship. Now imagine‘Papa Bom-Boy’ (security guard/factory worker) or ‘Mama Ejima’(house wife/ twin babies manufacturer) and the 10 children they’ve had in only 6 years of marriage, still searching for a female or a male child as the case may be. I don’t need to tell you how difficult and possibly miserable life will be for them as they try to achieve the American dream.
These days when so many in their early to mid-twenties are jumping the broom and getting married, or thinking about it, it’s important to know ahead of time what kind of family you plan to have, especially if you foresee a future living in America. Think of raising a family as a second career you know you can’t afford to fail, just as you would in a professional field. With that in mind, perhaps the choices of what kind of family you wish to have and how or where you wish to raise them would be made with little difficulty and a better life-management plan.