“I wish someone had told me” is a series of posts that feed into our inquisitive nature at CN&CO. Each week we hear from someone in our network about something interesting or surprising that’s recently happened or occurred to them – or lessons they learnt. These blogs are a way to pay it forward and form part of CN&CO’s belief that the world can be a better place – and we all have a responsibility to make it so. This week’s post is by Josie Dougall about how rich her life is thanks to her black mother and now, more so, her right-hand mother.
I grew up as a privileged white South African. Privileged because I was free from oppression. Privileged because I had a mother and father who I lived in a house with who loved and cared for me. Privileged because I was exposed to a network of other privileged people who cared for me. Privileged because I went to school, with shoes on my feet, books in my bag and breakfast in my tummy. I was also privileged because, as well as my biological mother who adored and cared for me, I had a black mother called Clara Dladla who was my everything. She woke me, dressed me, fed me, played with me, kept me out of danger, scolded me, laughed with me, hugged me, cooked for me, cleaned my clothes, made my bed, taught me to speak Zulu, taught me manners, picked me up when I fell, and was my rock.
Clara allowed my mum to be a better mum, and my mum was the first person to admit that. She was part of the proverbial “village” that it takes to raise a child. She gave my mum a break so that when at boiling point and ready to lose her cool, as all parents can, she could leave, breathe and have time out, and come back with a cool temper and patience and love me calmly once more. As a family we always laughed at Clara’s nickname for my mum in Zulu. uMuvuthusa – it means “The one that explodes (like thunder)”. This dual raising of children shared between a South African domestic nanny and a mother is a part of our fibre. All of my friends, black and white, have such beautiful memories of these “second mothers” who raise us on a daily basis.
So what I wish someone had told me is, how incredibly special this relationship between nanny and mother is to the mother as well. I had the privilege of having Phindi Mthonti as my right hand for the first two years of Grace’s life. I only realised how vital a role she played, when she left to pursue a career in nursing, and for 10 months my life fell apart. I missed her. I needed her. I didn’t know how to be a functioning mother without her. Her presence is still missed. After Phindi I had Thembi Msane who adored and cared for my Frankie for the first eight months of her life. Being an uptight, rigid, caucasian… I was addicted to schedules, I had Frankie’s schedules plastered all over the house. When I would come in from a meeting at lunch time and grill Thembi about when Frankie had eaten, how many millilitres had she drunk, and why it was 14:30 and she was playing not sleeping. And Thembs would just look at me calmly and say: “Frankie is happy; she will tell us when she’s tired. When she is hungry, she will tell us”. And she is SO RIGHT! Thembi made me completely relax as a mother and just trust my gut and trust my baby to communicate with me. (I haven’t completely let go of my schedules… but I do try!)
I think back to moments where my mum and Clara would share hysterical laughter together, share the pain of incredible loss together (Clara lost three children during her career with us and my mum some significant losses, too), when Clara’s daughter was raped, Clara brought her straight to our house, and as a very young child I remember being struck by the enormity of what was going on behind that closed kitchen door as I was whisked away to another part of the house.
These women share our lives, literally, as they work in our homes daily. They are our counsel and we theirs, we pay their salaries but we are also their friends. And we put the ultimate trust in them. The trust of caring for our children.
I just think it is such a fundamentally huge part of our lives as South Africans. It is unique to our country and our lives. Families in most of the rest of the world don’t have this privilege. And I want to honour these women who love and care for our families.
I can with 100% conviction say that I am who I am today, because of Clara Dladla. She was as present to me growing up as Mem Holley was. I love her. I am thankful for her. And above all I hope that one day Grace and Frances look back on their lives feeling richer for the other mother(s) who helped me to raise them.