A Chat With Suzie Njoroge, A Kenyan-Born Single Mother, On How She Does it.
Raising children in a country and culture that is different from where you grew up can be challenging; as is the case if you are a Kenyan raising a child in the United States or in Canada. Whereas many people in Kenya can afford a live-in nanny —who in many Kenyan households plays the role of housekeeper, cook, personal shopper and cleaner —here, it is a luxury only reserved for the rich who can afford to pay a nanny, a housekeeper, a cook, a personal shopper, and a cleaner; five different people for the five duties. Moreover, many Kenyans do not have close family members in their adopted countries and if they do, they live in different states —which in some cases, the distance is equivalent to flying from Kenya to South Africa, or from Kenya to Nigeria, or from Kenya to Egypt (Ok, you get the picture). So, all the spouses have is each other to go to work, take children to sports, take children to school or daycare, pick them up, cook, clean, be on call in case of an emergency at their children’s school, among other responsibilities.
What happens then if you are a single parent? Suzie Njoroge shares a candid story of her experience as a Kenyan born single mother raising a teenage boy in the United States.
Suzie moved to the United States in 1999. In 2003, she and her then boyfriend had a baby boy, but broke up when the baby was 19 months old. She got married in 2006 but got divorced four years later. Suzie says that the man she married was not the best man for her, but he was a father figure to her son. “He was very abusive, although he installed [sic] some values” in her son. She has, therefore, been a single mum on and off since 2003.
As a self-employed single mother—she runs a hair salon and a boutique—one of the things that she has done to help her juggle single-parenthood and earning a livelihood is teaching her son to be independent. For instance, whereas she drops him off to school in the morning, she has trained him on how to use public transportation to get home from school —the school does not have a school bus that plies their route—and has an Uber App on his phone for the days when he has to leave school later than usual. When asked how she feels about having her son go home on his own, Suzie replies: “it is very hard for me to say this, but I get my fifteen-year-old to get Uber.” Having her son go home from school by himself allows her to get an extra hour of work for the much-needed funds, given that his school is 39 minutes away.
One of the challenges that single parents who have absentee co-parents have to deal with is explaining to their children why their other parents aren’t as involved in their lives as they should; or handling the feeling of loneliness that their children have when they see their friends interacting with their parents. Suzie is no exception. When her son expresses how he wishes that he could get to do things with his father like his best friend does with his father, Suzie says that she tells him, “You know, things don’t always go the way we want in life…and I am… here you.”
Suzie frankly admits that she sometimes she gets mad and says harsh things about her son’s father out of frustration. Although, she uses such instances as an opportunity to tell him [her son], “Please do better when you have your own children. Be a father, be a dad…don’t be there at your convenience. Be part of these kids and that’s your responsibility.” This is an especially important statements when some women are asked why the consider themselves single parents, yet their children’s fathers are merely minutes away, pay child support, and pick up the kids once in a while. To this Suzie responds that a father needs to be present in his children’s life 100%, not just when it is convenient for him. She also believes that fatherhood is more than child support. If a man has to be begged to spend more time with his child, then, the mother has every right to call herself a single mother.
Like we mentioned earlier, there’s no manual for raising children and when you are in a different country away from your relatives, it gets more challenging especially if the child you’re raising is of the opposite sex. In Kenya, many communities have a culture where boys get to spend time with their male relatives and girls with their female relatives to learn values and to share about issues that they might not feel comfortable sharing with their parents, let alone those of the opposite sex. Suzie does not shy away from sharing what that has been like raising her son by herself. “He used to be mama’s boy when he was younger but not as much anymore…he is a teenager now…he is very introverted and a loner. He’d rather be by himself than interact.” She, however, tries to get him more involved with his peers by encouraging him go to church and to participate in community events. She facilitates his involvement in the community activities and events by getting him an Uber if she is too busy to drive him there and back. “I also try to make him do things with other guys like playing soccer. It is a positive influence…he needs to be around fellow men and to do manly things.” Says Suzie.
One of the community events that she has her son participate in is a summer soccer team, which meets every Saturday 2 PM-4 PM. She believes that such activities are very important in ensuring that teenagers get to actively socialize. Soccer is especially important as it gets most boys who are into video games out of the house. Suzie says, “As Kenyan communities, we should get more activities related to the families and to help bring them up as a community.”
Another event in which her son recently participated was the Men Impact Change conference held in Seattle, Washington. This conference is held annually in different states around the United States with the goal of mentoring boys as they grow into men. About her son’s experience at the conference, Suzie says that he had such a wonderful time in that whereas he gets easily bored when he goes to events, he stayed the whole time from 2 PM-11 PM without asking once to be driven home. He also told her that he was inspired by many young speakers, among them a young man who has published several books in-spite of him being only 20 years old. Her son also liked the fact that it was not an exclusively Kenyan event so he and his friends felt more at home because all the participants were communicating in English instead of Swahili or other Kenyan languages— an observation that brings up an interesting point about first generation Americans born of Kenyan parents, and how they feel about being in environments where they are might be expected to communicate in their language of heritage.
Suzie believes that we as Kenyans “should sit down and think about what we should do about teenage boys and girls. Especially boys who are easily secluded. Girls might have sleepovers where they get to talk to each other, but boys don’t do/have sleepovers.” She also believes that single mothers of boys need to get together and do more for the boys.
When asked if she has ever had to deal with peer pressure negatively impacting her son, Suzie says that she fortunately hasn’t had any major issues with him. She credits the school that her son goes to for that. Although he has to take three buses home every evening, he is able to attend a private high school. Suzie believes that school plays a major role in shaping a child’s character. “I used to live in a not so good neighborhood because the rent was cheap and that’s all I could afford as a single parent. However, I made it a point to conduct research to find out which ones were the best schools. After that, I would go to one of the schools and honestly explain to them my situation. That I am single mum and can’t afford to take my son to a fancy school, but I would really like to have my child go to a school where he is safe and can get a good education.” She went on to say that sometimes as a single parent, you have to do what you have to do. And that you can’t let pride get in the way of providing what is best for your children.
Advice to single mothers:
“Don’t leave all those problems bottled up. Because you will breakdown and you will breakdown hard. It also happened to me. You will get into depression which will lead to alcoholism and all the other crazy things…even though what you are going through is the hardest thing to go through in this country… You don’t want to talk about things with people because you are afraid that they are going to put you down because you feel that you are not right in society. You might feel that you don’t fit in because you have friends who are married, and you are no longer married. Don’t keep that bottled in. You need to release. It is very easy to get depression as a single mum. Keep yourself busy. Keep yourself out of trouble. The most important thing in the US is to be busy. Don’t let your mind be idle because once you are idle your mind starts wondering.”
She confesses that she also found herself facing some challenges especially when her son was a preteen: “I found myself screaming to myself, screaming to my mum, screaming to my brother that I can’t do it. That I wanted to send him to Kenya. Because I did not know how to do it and when I called his dad, he would ask me what I wanted him to do…” so she stopped reaching out to him for help.
“If you want to release something and seek for support or help, you can make an [anonymous post on some of the very supportive Facebook groups] get advice, good or bad because it makes you think. Release it. Do something. Don’t just hold it in.” Says Suzie
Suzie Njoroge is lives with her son in Tacoma, Washington. She is the CEO and owner of Afro Hair Braiding & Wear in Parkland, Washington.