In 2001, Shanna Brewton-Tiayon joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa, where, unbeknownst to her at the time, she would learn to be a parent. This is her story.
By Shanna Brewton-Tiayon
What's faster than the speed of light? The stride of a working mother trying to accomplish a two page to-do list during a half-hour lunch break. What is the best tag-team collaboration around? The mother and father duo, attempting to balance a full-time job, extracurricular activities for the children, family time, and, oh yeah, household chores.
This was my reality growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1980s and '90s. As an adolescent and eventually a college-bound teenager, all of what I amassed to file under the "how to be a good parent" category of my mental library was discovered and learned in the Tidewater area. I grew up as a typical overly socialized child with a mile-long activity list, but with no alternative logistical resources, except my mother. I became used to my mother - a single parent wearing multiple hats at once, with no complaints or requests for breaks.
My life was full; I was happy. What I didn't know was that my mom was overwhelmed and very tired.
The spectrum of my parental examples taught me that a good parent trudges forward, bears all, does all, doesn't complain, and most certainly never asks for help. Help was a word suggesting vulnerability, or a word useful only to those who could afford maids, butlers, and nannies. For everyone else, help was a public admission of one's incapacity to parent. The best scout badge for any parent of my day was the badge of self-sufficiency (I think you get this badge after that of self-denial). Always knowing that I wanted a family of my own, I assumed this was the reality I would have, however, life had another plan for me.
In 2001, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Cameroon, Africa. My over-socialization of adolescence quickly turned into over-ambition. Yes, I was there to save the world. But fortunately, it was Africa that saved me.
The women in the village where I lived had an amazingly disproportionate amount of work in comparison with the men. Women often worked outside of the home, farming as a way to supplement the family income, combined with numerous household responsibilities and no modern technology to make their jobs easier. Despite all of these challenges, the women didn't rush through life as mothers in the US do, and they quite comfortably lived by an internal motto that said, "I can only do what I can do in one day and the rest is for tomorrow."
There was no sense of urgency to supersaturate their lives or the lives of their children. What surprised me the most was that they accepted willingly and openly the fact that they couldn't do it all by themselves and were comfortable exposing that vulnerability to others.
Related: Welcome to the Intentional Community Where 100 Adults Raise 17 Kids
To illustrate the point, most families had somebody external to the nuclear family to assist them in managing the home. It could be a member of the extended family or a hired person, but someone was always present to help out and fill in the gaps. This additional assistance didn't carry the Western notion that it was for the privileged or parentally inept. It was more of a right, an integral part of a larger system that just made sense. The pattern of household assistance was mirrored throughout the country and throughout the various socio-economic classes of Cameroon.
Along the way, somewhere between Chad and Uganda, I married and started my own family. With the birth of my son and the adoption of my two stepchildren, I was faced with the choice of which ideology I was going to adopt to manage my own household.
When making my final decision as to what kind of mother I would be and what kind of example my husband and I would set for our children, I had to let go of some of my emotional strongholds. I had to abandon my desire to be ceremonially pinned with the badge of self-sufficiency and accept the humbling fact that I very well may never receive that badge. How could I receive the badge of self-sufficiency when the minute I walked through the door from work all I wanted to do was hold my newborn son and enjoy him? I didn't want to shift into autopilot, reviewing my internal to-do list and masterminding my strategy to get it all done before midnight.
This was the deciding factor for my husband and me in our decision to adopt the African model of parenting and household management that indicated it was OK-no it was our right-to need help raising our family. Once I made that decision, my internal conflict ceased and life began. We recruited the ranks of an extended family member to move in and help us.
Despite the limited or non-existent availability of some of the creature comforts of parenting I grew up with, like familiar over-the-counter drugs, access to the ingredients to quick home remedies, a plethora of stimulating extracurricular activities for children, and the occasional indulgent Häagen-Dazs ice cream bar, parenting in Africa suited me well. The ideology that all families require additional help to run more efficiently was mirrored in all women that I came across, African and expatriate alike. Due to this commonality, it was easy to form social networks with other families for moral support or just for advice, which increased the richness of parenting-we were parenting in community.
Having my first parenting experience rooted in the heart of Africa afforded me the opportunity to assign some of the non-personal tasks of household management to someone else I trusted, which freed me to focus more on the development of the moral fiber of my children. It was a memorable experience to live in a society that had not yet been completely eroded by materialism, which made the whole idea of "it's what's on the inside that counts" really have value in our children's lives.
Related: 5 Tips for Creating Real Community From a Once Lonely Mom
Parenting in Africa was a gift. It gave me the gift of time that I can't imagine being possible in a society that praises the supermom for her extraordinary self-sufficiency and multitasking skills. I had the rare privilege of getting to know my children intimately and spending exclusive time interacting with them and being in their presence on a very regular basis. For example, in the first African country we lived in together as a family-Chad-there were no theme parks, movie theaters, bowling allies, and so on. Instead, we created our family time organically. This organic time together manifested in long walks, picnics outside, art sessions, and other low-maintenance activities. Africa gave us the time we needed to lay the foundation as to who we were as parent and child, without the limitations of an overly tired mother or an overly stimulated child.
After raising our family by the African model for the past three years, I am a bit anxious about our upcoming relocation back to the Tidewater area. I am not sure what awaits me in terms of the latest parenting trends. Perhaps I shouldn't care, but I know I will. I want to be in the inner circle of parents and be thought of as a credible mother, but I suppose I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I know this article will receive some criticism as to the infeasibility of the notion of help for all and, yes, I am quite aware that there are things to be improved upon in the African system of household management.
However, what is essential is the recognition of the great momentum that is started by a simple decision-only then can a plan be made to reach the outcome. By making the decision that complete self-sufficiency isn't the best or the healthiest option, you open your life to unsought opportunities and overlooked ideas to provide your family with the extra support it deserves. This support can come in the form of creating community networks, re-prioritizing funds to budget monthly cleaning assistance, or starting a babysitting pool with friends. The options are limitless if the will is there.
For now, we are still in Africa for a few more months. As I type this article, I take a sigh of relief at how much at peace we have been over the last three years with our decision to choose the African system-the less developed system, I remind you. Although my parental examples worked from the best point of reference they had available, I know there is definitely a better way. What did Africa save me from? A life of worry about having to get it all right, all the time, all by myself.
About the Writer
Shanna Tiayon lives in Hampton, VA, with her husband and three children. She is currently involved in public speaking and diversity initiatives, while continuing to document her repatriation back to the U.S. after working in Africa for a period of seven years. Shanna can be reached via email at [email protected]