By: George Gathigi*
Before I became a father, I remember hearing about how much ‘babies change your life.” Well, no big news there, I always thought, there has to be an obvious change when you get a baby; given that parents are required to assume the obligation of nurturing a new member of society.
It’s been four months since I joined the parenting league, and I can tell a story or two about a changed life. My daughter Tirah has truly changed my life. It’s not just about sleepless nights; she has become the orbit around which a lot in my life revolves. In a big way, I have learnt, the baby is capable of helping parents to make sense of the complex world around them. I have become more self-aware of different issues—from identity, family relationships, socialization and norms, gender roles, and social justice; all reflected in the process of anticipation and hope of succeeding at bringing up a child.
Fatherhood realities are varied. For me, the experience started the moment we learned we were expecting. There was the process of identifying a doctor. We visited several until we found one we were comfortable with. This hunting process truly caused me to consider my own privilege and question my civic responsibilities as a Kenyan. It is really easier for some of us who can afford medical care even without an insurance cover. It’s not the same for many women (and their families by extension) whose only chance are the ‘free’ government facilities that came into effect with new Kenyan government that won March 2013 elections. Free in this case is not always good; I have worked on many maternal health projects in Kenya, which have revealed to me the sad realities about lack of basic maternal care.
The experience during the antenatal visits was also revealing. Because of my presence, “this must be the first child”, was a phrase we kept on hearing. Apparently, men are more likely to be involved in their first baby, with the participation declining in subsequent births. I still hope to make it to the antenatal sessions if I am blessed with another child. Even if this doesn’t happen, I will still be an improvement from my elder brothers in Kenya who I doubt have ever attended any of their babies’ pre-natal visits. But this is not just about me. Recent findings from studies on fatherhood mainly in the West have noted that across the years, men have become better in playing more active roles in fatherhood. This is a good thing.
As first-time parents, every minute is a moment to learn. And thanks to the information age, there are countless sources with good materials that prepare one from day one. Daily updates on the progress of the baby are available. One interesting advice my wife found early was that speaking to the unborn baby from early days helps to build connection. So, she has made it a habit to remind me to have a conversation with the baby every morning. But no matter how much you read nothing beats experience.
After Tirah’s birth, we tried hard to follow doctor’s exclusive breast-feeding advice. It turned out after two months the baby was not having enough. A hungry baby cries a lot. But we just couldn’t connect. It was stomach pains, we thought. It took a visit to my mother’s house for us to understand the problem. One look at the baby and my mother was fuming. “This baby is not being fed!” Her advice was the baby needed solid food right away. Yet this goes against the doctor’s advice. Immediately after the visit, we went back to the doctor who recommended infant formula. It’s hard to reconcile the two schools of thoughts – the doctor’s science and my mother’s knowledge borne out of many years of experience raising many kids of her own and a handful of grandchildren. If there’s anything like the truth on this, I’d say it lies somewhere in between.
Culture is another important aspect that reveals itself through the baby. We learned about the gender of our baby early though we decided to largely keep it a secret. Naming the baby can be a big issue–or none. Coming from two different cultures with varying degrees of significance when it comes to naming, the choice was to merge the two perspectives or to just go with one. Gikuyu culture, which I ascribe to, is very paternalistic and names carry so much significance. My wife’s culture, of the Ngoni from Southern Tanzania, is liberal with naming. In fact, a baby gets their first name and assumes the rest from the father. Yet among the Gikuyu, it is the middle name that carries the weight. The paternal side takes the preference in naming with the first children of either gender, named after the father or mother.
Our daughter’s name is Tirah Nyathira. Nyathira is my mother’s “would have been name.” In reality, my mother goes by the name Njoki, which in Gikuyu translates to “The one who makes the return.” My grandmother’s kid who had been born by the name Nyathira in the family had died. So my mother was given the same name to signify the second coming. Although my mother doesn’t use the name Nyathira, it remains her name.
In the world we live, Nyathira is perceived to be a ‘long’ name and so we sought to find a nickname. Coined from Nyathira, we settled on Tirah and later learned that Tirah is also a Hebrew name meaning “Woman Warrior”. When Nyathira was born, we decided that Tirah be part of her official name. But names for me are more than mere symbols. To some extent, the naming of my daughter became part of my own ‘politics of names’. It indeed has a compensatory role, and therefore, some form of selfishness on my side. Having lived in the US for a number of years, one common annoyance I encountered was to justify why my name is ‘George’, which is ‘unAfrican’. “What is your real name” was a common refrain when I said my name is George. I have contemplated dropping the first name but decided it will be too tedious to clear the trail in all documentation. I don’t know whether my daughter will be judged to be carrying a foreign name, whether she will like her names or not. As parents though, we feel comfortable with her names—and hope she will too.
Fatherhood has also brought other issues of inequalities and privilege. Having a live-in ‘house help’ (I consistently struggle to find a name that I feel is appropriate) has been difficult to grapple with. It is easy to afford it because it’s an integral part of exploitation, yet the amount of work and hours she has to put are enormous. She is a wonderful young woman cares for the child exceptionally well. She has a two-year old daughter, which is why she has to work. Even though I can swear we treat her well, I can’t help feeling that in some way, we could be as well exploiting her. Yet these are not questions that come up among Kenyans since inequalities have been packaged as ‘fair exchange’. Except that it is not!
I constantly find myself thinking about my daughter as a grown up woman. I think about the environment she will grow up in. Is it likely to remain an environment that still has its fair proportion of violence against children and women? I think about her interaction with ethnic identity and nationalism, two concepts that are constantly put in oppositional frame even when they should not be. I’ve seen arguments that we should do away with ethnic identities and embrace ‘Kenyanness’. But I find national identity as both imagined and reductionist. It is blind to history.
I am also language enthusiast; I wish for her to speak the language of her (my) fore-parents which I can bequeath to her together with our family history. But that is half of it for she descends from the Ngoni Warriors of South Tanzania too. But if my neighbours’ children are anything to go by, she is most likely to speak the language of her country’s former colonizers before any other. And while I am aware that part of decolonization means ability to express oneself in their tongue, I often find myself speaking to her in English.
Soon, my daughter will not be a four-month old baby; she will hopefully grow into a woman of her own and chart her own path in life. This is mine and my wife’s dream.
*George Gathigi is a nouveau dad. He Teaches and Practice Communication and Development.
Picture: George Gathigi and daughter Nyathira.
 For Example: Eggebeen, D.J & Knoester, C. (2001) Does Fatherhood matter for Men? Journal of Marriage and Family. 63(2) pp. 381-393; Pasley , K, Futris, T.D. & Skinner, M.L (2002). Effects of commitment and psychological contrarily on fathering. Journal of Marriage and Family. 64(1) pp. 130-138; Morrell, R. & Richter, L. (2004). The Fatherhood Project: Confronting issues of masculinity and sexuality. Agenda. No. 63. African Feminisms 2(1). pp. 36-44. Wall,G & Arnold, S (2007). How involved is involved fathering? An exploration of the contemporary culture of fatherhood. Gender and Society. 21(4) pp. 508-527;