Childbearing in transient sexual unions and the importance of motherhood
It is reported from many parts of Africa that women may manipulate their child’s identity, i. e. fatherhood, to improve their social and economic positions when such options are available to them (cf. for instance, Bledsoe and Pison 1994).
In her study of single mothers among Yoruba-speaking groups of Western Nigeria, Jane Guyer developed the conceptual framework of polyandrous motherhood, which captures the particular life situation of the unmarried mothers in a more fruitful way than does the concept of ‘prostitute’ which reduces them to immoral sexual beings: ‘Polyandrous motherhood’ is a liaison consisting of women “cultivating co-parental ties with more than one father of their children” (1994:230). Such multiple-partner unions, where women bear children to several men, Guyer argues, “set the primacy of parenthood over marriage” (1994:231). Childbearing, she argues, creates a longer and more “sustainable union” compared to marriage because the child links the mother and the father into life-long networks. Actually, she argues that “children are the main means of giving some solidity to old relationships without foreclosing new ones” (1994:237). According to Guyer, polyandrous motherhood is particularly beneficial for women:
[A]lthough a woman cannot have concurrent husbands she can have concurrent recognized fathers to her children, men whose lineal identities are different from each other and whose children therefore tap into different kinship networks. In terms of resource access and daily needs for herself and her children a woman may be managing several men at once (Guyer 1994:250; cf. also Bledsoe and Pison 1994).
Guyer’s description from Nigeria tallies with the life of most single mothers in my study. Childbearing is valued among both men and women. Rachael, for instance, had nine children (two of them died in infancy) by various men. Although she had children because she wanted to, she also gave birth to many children to comply with the wishes of her various partners. Similarly, Nora considered her two children to be sufficient, but she made great efforts to become pregnant when Mal, her current partner, wanted another child. Before Nora became pregnant, her relationship with Mal was about to fizzle out, but when she later gave birth, Mal showed more responsibility. Thus, as noted by Guyer, the child is “stabilizing an otherwise fleeting relationship”(1994:237). But a common child also bolsters the mother’s right to ask for economic support from the child’s father. In line with Guyer’s argument, we have also seen that even though a sexual relationship may gradually fizzle out, a common child often cements the relationship between parents. Sometimes the father, who has neglected the child for years, may re-establish the relationship with the child’s mother. Thus a child may create a lasting relationship between the parents.
Yet, for a woman to have children by many men or, as Guyer says, “concurrent recognised fathers to her children”, is not without difficulties. As often argued by the single mothers themselves, to bear children with different fathers, may backfire. To raise and educate children is expensive and some fathers may therefore lose interest or, in times of economic hardship, they simply cannot af-
‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania
ford to support them. Consequently, ‘polyandrous mothers’, like Nora and Rachael, often have to turn to other men for economic assistance and are faced with a demand for more children to maintain a new relationship. There is also another risky twist involved in ‘polyandrous motherhood’, which is often voiced by the women themselves. Although many are offered help and support by their children’s fathers, at least for some periods of time, to use the child to claim more long-term assets, to paraphrase Guyer (1994:237), may be risky. For a woman to receive economic assistance from previous lovers and fathers may, in fact, endanger her role as a custodial mother, i. e. her right to remain with her children. Nora’s experience, mothering children by three different men, speaks for most: “If he [the child’s father] offers me help, I will usually accept it, but I will never ask him for any support.” Thus, there is a delicate balance to be maintained by single mothers between their need for economic assistance and their wishes to keep the children and be a good and caring mother. As further asserted by the same woman, “Once I ask for help, he may later claim the child.”
Thus, some single mothers lose the custody of their children. Whereas some turn to their natal family in times of crisis and thus secure their role as good mothers, some do not have such options. Their respectability is further marginalized when they are deprived of motherhood. Since the respectability of a single woman very much hinges on her performance as a mother, once she is deprived of motherhood, she is further marginalized as a loose woman. Thus, ‘polyandrous motherhood’ is not a real option for the poorest or for those who cannot turn to their natal families in times of crisis.
It should also be noted that ‘polyandrous motherhood’ is not always planned. Whereas some have an unwanted pregnancy, others struggle to become pregnant. The way single mothers manage their reproductive capacity also depends on the woman’s age. Whereas younger women more often become pregnant without any plans and may have children by any men, older women are frequently more conscious about how they allocate their fertility. These older women may strive to fulfil their own desire for children or to obtain respected motherhood, but they may also bear children to concede to their lovers’ wishes.
Although the women in my sample are still of reproductive age and are likely to have more children, the fertility rate among ‘polyandrous mothers’ is lower compared with married women. Among the upper classes in Lagos, Wambui Wa Karanja found that fertility patterns among ‘outside wives’ differ from those who are properly married. She argues, “outside wives, because of the fundamental instability of most outside unions, seek to keep their options open to establish new unions, if necessary, by having just enough—but not too many—children within their current unions” (Karanja 1994:194). In other words, in case the current relationship fails, the woman must restrict her fertility for future options.
Arnfred Page 226 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM