What is a ‘family’? I have pondered a lot on this question since my daughter came into my life, just on a year ago now.
For all intents and purposes, of course, we are one, albeit on a greatly reduced scale, certainly compared to the Western ‘nuclear family’ model and ten-fold against the African ‘extended family’ structure that she has been brought up on. Until now.
In many ways, I like the informality of being a single mum. Our weekend mornings are spent lolling around on my bed, Skyping friends and watching clips on YouTube until we decide it’s time to get up to face the day. Together we opt for the beach or park, shopping or even getting our nails done—a luxury we can afford thanks to the dozens of latino salons in our neighbourhood. There is no one else to consult, no other egos to be rubbed and no schedules to fit into other than our own. At times, I stress that there is nobody to play the ‘ good guy, bad guy’ routine, and no one to watch over her when I need to do a supermarket run—a task that, as every parent knows, is best done by yourself.
Not that she doesn’t have any male figures in her life, especially amongst my circle of close friends, whom I refer to as my ‘Barcelona family’. In her orphanage, volunteers were referred to as ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ and carers as ‘mamas’ and ‘papas’. Friends were ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. When she first arrived in Barcelona, she would declare that male acquaintances were her ‘brother’ or ‘father’. I don’t know whether this came from behavioural habit or whether she really did fantasise that they were family members. What I do see is that she revels in (older) male company, often making me feel inadequate for not supplying a stable male figure in her life.
There is no doubt that she is innately maternal, not in the way that young girls are fascinated with babies and toddlers because they are cute and doll-like, but because she knows exactly what to do with them. In group gatherings, she makes a beeline for the baby in the room and asks the mum if she can pick them up. After reassuring words from me that it’s ok for this tiny eight-year-old to take in her arms a kid not much smaller than herself, they are amazed to see that she knows how to hold them (more expertly than many adults), burp them and even change their nappies—skills learnt from that magnificent chain of care that runs throughout African communities.
All this makes me wonder what she thinks of me, her mum: a single women living in a foreign country halfway across the world from her own family, who has decided to start a new family with her. I think she is getting used to the idea and, for the moment at least, is content that there are just two for the road.