Moms behind bars: what it means to be a mother in eshowe correctional center

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Thoughts on Motherhood

In your culture, when is a woman ready to be a mother? I posed this question to the women during our first session on motherhood. “When a man has paid lobola (the bride price) and when they are married,” one woman answered. Many of the inmates agreed that women are ready to be mothers when they are married. Another woman spoke of the traditions within Zulu culture that prepare a woman to become a mother. She described the symbolic rite of passage where a woman is granted a key that 'unlocks' her passage to maturity and allows her to marry and have children. Only one woman presented a more practical understanding of motherhood, “When you've given birth to a child, that's when you're ready to be a mother.” It is fascinating that these women put so much significance on marriage in relation to motherhood given that most of them were unmarried and had little or no relationship with the father of their children. It hints that perhaps they realize that they were not ready to become mothers when they gave birth to their children.

Later in that same session, the women talked about what makes a good mother. They touched on traits like the ability to love and discipline a child, but more commonly they emphasized the importance of “taking care of your child’s needs.” The consensus seemed to be that a good mother was one who could properly care for her child and provide financial support. One woman said, “A good mother is one who can make sure her child has enough food so he doesn't go to someone else asking them to take care of him.” Similarly, they agreed, “a bad mother is one who discards of her child.” They also spoke about the importance of being a mother. One woman said that it is important to be a mother because it fills a necessary role in the community. She said that every homestead needs a mother figure to give it standing and prestige. Other women agreed that it is good to be a mother because it allows you to show others what it means to be responsible and take care of another human being. They all said that one of the good things about being a mother is “loving your child.” I asked them how important their children are to them. They all said their children were very important. Some put the importance of their children on a continuum with the rest of their family members, saying their children were just as important as or more important than their own mothers. Most adamantly said that they did not want to have any more children, despite their insistence that their children were the most important part of their lives. Two of the women even said they were taking steps to ensure that it would be biologically impossible for them to have any more children. Only one of the women said she did want to have another child. She said that she has always mothered at a distance, often leaving her two children in the care of other family members, and she wants the opportunity to raise a child on her own. She seemed to want a chance to get motherhood right, to raise a child in an ideal way. These discussions again show that the women had a perception of motherhood their mind that did not match their experiences of mothering. They spoke about one of the cornerstones of motherhood as providing financial responsibility for one's child, but they themselves were unable to provide for their children and had to become “bad mothers” by essentially abandoning their children.

Although the women did not themselves voice an understanding of the disjuncture between their ideas of motherhood and their experiences, they did speak of how they wanted to change as a mother when they left prison. “I realize it is more useful to be close to my children. I spent too much time in town, too much time stealing, when I should have been with my child.” Many of the women in the group echoed this sentiment; they all want to spend more time with their children once they are released and felt guilty that they did not take advantage of the time they had with their children prior to incarceration. This sentiment indicates that the women see themselves as having partially failed as mothers because they neglected their children in the past and now want to make up for it. One woman said she wanted to spend more time with elderly people after her release so she could ask them for advice about how to be a better mother.

Through our conversations about motherhood, it became clear that these women see themselves as partially lacking in terms of being a mother. They have an image in their mind of a “good” mother and their lived experiences do not match up to that ideal. None of the women actually said that she thought she had failed as a mother or said she felt she was a bad mother, but they all discussed feeling guilty because they were not able to care for their children and had taken them for granted in the past. It was clear that incarceration had not changed their ideals of motherhood and they had not created a new sense of what it meant to be a mother while in prison. The disjuncture between their ideas of motherhood and their experiences meant that the women felt guilty and inadequate, hardly an outlook conducive to promote healthy mother-child relationships.

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