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October 5, 2020

To the 30-Something African Unmarried Childless Woman.

I am in my late 30s.

I’ve always been a high achiever, I have a great career, and I’m highly educated—I attained my PhD when I was 32.

I am generally well-accomplished in many aspects of my life. In other words, I live a happy, whole, and healthy life.

However, I am unmarried and do not have children. And because of this, and given the African society that I live in, I am constantly made to feel like my life is not worthy. As if my life is somehow not valid, like I am not really living, like I will only understand “what living really means” once I get a husband and a child.

I remember, toward the end of my PhD when life was highly stressful, an Auntie ridiculing me and telling me (in my native language, Kikuyu) that I do not know what stress is, and I will only ever understand stress when “I get a home,” meaning—when I get married. I was puzzled.

I’d always considered myself as having a home, and one that I happened to love dearly—my place of peace and solace that I could retreat to and catch my breath from the chaos of the world. But apparently all I had was a structure that I resided in, nothing to be proud of. What made my feelings of stress any less valid just because I wasn’t married?

This is only one of many things that I have been told because of my unmarried childless status. I have been labelled, “too picky.” Basically implying that I should not have standards, or at least have very low standards, when it comes to a decision as important as picking a life partner. Just pick someone, anyone!

I have been asked to “tone myself down” (read: shrink myself to conform to society’s expectations of how a woman should behave.)

I’ve been told, “ninafunga jam” (literally translates to “causing a traffic jam”—as if my life journey should hinder or block anyone else from walking their own path).

I’ve been asked, “sasa ukisoma hivyo sana utawahi pata bwana?” (meaning, “if you advance so much in your education, will you ever be able to find a husband?”). So again, I shrink myself and shy away from greatness so as not to intimidate men.

And my favourite is: “it is of God.” Marriage and children are of God, therefore anything that does not conform to this is “ungodly.” Another auntie once publicly told me off in front of a crowd of family members, stating loudly that she, and others like her, had made “godly choices”—unlike me.

Incidentally, at least in my case, the brunt of this shaming always comes from fellow women. It is no wonder sometimes people say women are their own worst enemies—we give society the fodder to say so. When it comes from much older women, as vexing as it is, I take a deep breath and remind myself that there is a generational gap in our thinking. But when it comes from my peers, it downright infuriates me because they should know and think better.

I should pause here and clarify that I have nothing against marriage or motherhood (and there is nothing wrong with desiring these things). In fact, the contrary. I believe marriage with the right partner can be a source of joy and fulfilment. And if the joy I derive from spending time with my 10-year-old nephew is anything to go by, I have little doubt that motherhood can be an amazing experience.

Whilst acknowledging the potential benefits of marriage and motherhood, I do not believe it should ever be used as a reason to belittle or stigmatize those who are living alternative lifestyles, whether by choice or by circumstance. Marriage or having children is not an achievement; it is a choice. When we belittle older women who are unmarried or have no children, what we’re saying to them, and other women and girls, is that their sole purpose on this earth is to procreate and be someone’s wife; that they serve no greater purpose beyond this; that they should only ever aspire for these two things, and without accomplishing these, they might as well not exist.

I have seen women spiral into depression because they’re unmarried or don’t have children. Because society has made them believe that they are not “full women” without these things. They feel unworthy, unlovable, and like their lives do not matter. It breaks my heart to see this.

Even sadder is the stigma, trauma, and torment that women in marriages who are unable to have children experience, both at the hands of society and sometimes their own families. Even when the issue is with their husband or partner, they’re still often blamed.

I have seen women make questionable choices because any man or husband is better than none, only to spend the next several years living in tears, frustration, and misery. I have also seen newly married women, some of them former friends, look down their noses at me, only to come seeking me out later when they realize that their partner was not a prince charming after all, and marriage wasn’t the bed of roses they thought it would be. I sympathize with these women.

But with women like me, society often judges us so harshly without even knowing our stories. We, too, have stories.

Some are simply stories of choices made, because one prefers one way of life over another—and that is okay too; we do not have to conform to society’s expectations of us. A friend of mine once put it brilliantly, “having children (and marriage) is not a need for every woman, it is an expectation society has of us.” A woman can exercise her freedom of choice and decide not to get married or have children. We all have a right to live our lives as we desire (and no, humanity will not suddenly grind to a screeching halt because some women decide not to have children; there will always be many women out there who will have a strong desire to have children).

Other times, the stories are sadder. More traumatic stories of remarkable heartbreak, unimaginable losses, disappointments, perceived failures, and much more, which can lead one to give up on the idea of marriage and motherhood altogether. To this latter group of women, (yes, I know these streets are rough) but I give you Maya Angelou’s words: “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”

The difficulty with being a woman like me—an older, unmarried, childless woman—is that society does not allow us to have a voice. We are considered “subaltern women.” We don’t even understand what “true stress” is, remember? So how can we know of pain, loss, and disappointment? How about we first focus on bagging ourselves a man and popping some babies, so that we can earn the right to be heard?

So, this piece is in honor of all those unheard voiceless women out there. The ones who society mocks, judges, ridicules, and bashes on the daily, without knowing our stories. The ones who are tired. And to the rest of society: before you go telling someone that “anafunga jam” or they are “ungodly,” please consider that you know nothing about their life story and that, in fact, it really is none of your business.

For the woman out there who I am writing this for, I don’t know you, but I understand your struggle. I understand the exhaustion of having to survive in a judgmental and insensitive society. But understand this—you are not the problem. Whenever someone tries to put you down because of your marital or child status, remind yourself that the issue is with them and not you. People who are happy and content with their own lives do not go around trying to bring others down. They simply don’t. However, misery loves company. And my own observation is that those people who are always all up in my business, are people whose own lives are not going well. And so, they try to put me down because it makes them feel better about themselves and validates their life choices.

I have learnt to simply not pay attention to this. Your best revenge is to live your best life and to be the fullest and most authentic version of yourself. In other words, unapologetically do you. And always, always hold your head up high, because contrary to the lies that society has told you, you are truly worthy, and you are a jewel. I hope for you all that you truly desire, whatever that may be.

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