The Orphan Advantage

child walking alone

This is Part 2 of the Mothering Without a Mother series that runs on this blog. Part 1 was an Apostrophe to my loving Mother on Mother’s Day. Indulge.

On a ‘normal’ day, I would be mindful that the only part of the stories of my loved ones I am allowed to tell are those that intersect with mine and only from my limited point of view. Apparently, the best writing tip is to “write as if your parents were dead.” 


I chanced upon a New York Times article several months ago while scrolling down their able list on the maternal grandparent advantage which elicited a lot of backlash and support. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law met in the comment section to fight. It was nasty and confrontational but with lots of uncomfortable truths.

December is that symbolic month of eternal shifts for me. It’s the month I lost a mother and gained a son. The month I said Yes to my future and a resounding No to all the bullshit packaged by the hands of those who apparently meant well by virtue of “we knew your father” to suit their needs and take advantage of. It’s the month some of my wonderful milestones and terrible tragedies come together for a chat. A lengthy one since I’m prepared always for a dress down. But. That’s not what we are unpacking today. 

Scratch that, it’s all we are unpacking. 

I lost my mother in her 30s, a life not even fully formed. This was just when I had joined high school. My father would go on to be with her just when I had cleared campus. You would assume my dad’s passing would therefore not come as a shock because I had already experienced loss? That death would arrive signed, posted and stamped, predictable right? However, that was the beginning of my grief for two people I dearly loved and thought would be around for the rest of my lifetime. 

I miss my mother. A lot. I am grateful she was around when I got my first period though. She made me so comfortable and safe and that’s what I miss the most about her – she was always the voice of reason amidst the chaos. Her hands a place of safety in a world that breeds danger to any breathing woman. I miss her. The rest of the girl stuff I learned from magazines, books and later the Internet. Sometimes I do wonder how our adult conversations would go. How would I view my father if she told me he wasn’t really the best thing that happened to her? Other times I wish to go on a lifelong journey to find out what was she like as a person, mother, wife, daughter, and friend. 

But I’m good luv. The memories I have of her are good enough to keep me going. See all these are the musings of an adult orphan (is that like… a thing?) who quite frankly feels like things would be totally different if they were raising their child with their mother around. 

Humans don’t know how to act after you’ve told them your folks are not around. They just don’t know what to do with that information. Some choose to embarrass you with it like it was your fault or like you asked for it. I have been judged for it though, so I know that strange stupid stigma very well. I remember hiding the letter dad had written to my class teacher informing him of mom’s death. I still have it. Sealed. I didn’t want a pity party in school or worse, to be offered pity money from my peers, as was tradition. I made my best effort to hide the irreversible fact. I only told my desk mate. In my head, stigma was incoming. In reality, it was introversion in a time of loss. It was denial and a well-honed coping mechanism. I don’t know how one of them knew to prank me by sending me a letter from ‘mom’ just to see my reaction. Awkward. 

The Orphan Advantage manifests in so many ways. I won’t have to deal with burying my parents ever again. Burying a parent is already one of the most painful experiences a human has to undergo but to go through it twice? Your mental and emotional maturity peaks at such a young age. There’s nobody to coddle you nor is anyone obligated to provide for you. There’s no one to stand up for you unconditionally, you learn survival skills by default. On the flipside, imagine never having a parent to push their own harmful beliefs or ideas unto you.  

It should therefore not come as a surprise that I would RT this with zero guilt since nowadays retweets are definitely endorsements. I can read Susan Forward’s book on Overcoming Toxic Parents’ Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Lifeand share it widely without worry. 

There’s nothing quite like parental death followed by motherhood to make you examine how you were brought up and what you would do differently. The first task and perhaps the most important one is to stay alive for as long as it takes. At least to see them hit those milestones and grow into the best versions of themselves.  

This past year I have observed with much interest how voices have slowly emerged to speak on the trauma they experienced from their folks. Some liberating, some cringeworthy but all valid to me because I have seen it play out so many times, even with no parent to call my own. Who knew there would be some sort of privilege in tragedy? 

I can comfortably engage in such conversations online (do they even dare happen offline because wow taboo?) mainly because I never got to experience this intergenerational pain and trauma most African parents pass on. We barely scrape the surface on these much-needed conversations. Speaking of, I read this well-written article the other day about how mothers project their insecurities to the girlchild and basically fault their daughters for them not having a better marriage, for them staying in abusive households, for them not living to their full potential. I found myself nodding throughout because this is happening. 

A minority few would dare speak up against their parent no matter how damaged they are. An episode on the receipts podcast addressed this sad reality. “We romanticize parents and parenthood but sometimes they could be your biggest enemies.” The girl was called brave for reliving her trauma on air. Months later after the relatives have caught wind of the episode, I presume elder meetings have been called upon. Bet. How dare you disrespect your own mother to the world for a few clicks and plenty love and light? How dare you! 

It’s a very dicey situation to navigate without being called the ungrateful brat who doesn’t quite have a grasp on what real issues your parents went through to raise you. Young people are suffering a lot and when they attempt to share their stories, erasure happens. They’re told respect your elders, keep your mouth shut, it will go away. It never goes away. Your past eventually catches up with you. 

Must there be hostility towards one’s own experiences as a child seeking to understand your beginnings and not be afraid to explore the possibility of origin and meaning? Meanwhile, I have told people from my mom’s generation how I have been suffering from postpartum anxiety and the response is mostly a well-meaning discounting of my sincere sharing. They don’t get it, I don’t blame them. 

So, no I shall not dismiss their trauma like the reply section on Twitter. Instead, I will understand, I will refrain from calling it ‘stress’ or advising those with lived experiences to sleep it off. Instead, I will acknowledge their trauma and hope they finally get the help and peace they so deserve. 

I’m a parent now, I know by default I have to do better. Bringing a child into this world, my responsibility is to provide an environment to thrive that doesn’t include fear of me or the family. He has to know he doesn’t have to walk on eggshells and suffer anxiety attacks anytime I check up on him. He has to know that I shall not attach codes to pass my passive aggression anytime he expresses himself about something. He has to know that I will easily admit my mistakes and learn from them without purposely or subconsciously hurting him in the process. He has to know that. 

The orphan disadvantage, however, is my entire existence really. The patriarchy visited me last December and in as much as I suppressed my emotions and convinced myself that it happened for a reason, I see no valid reason whatsoever for letting a grown ass woman who happens to be with child experience her worst trauma yet and turn her into a full-on social recluse.  

I’ll say it here, I have no regard for the dowry process and what it stands for. To think someone is trading me off for a few coins relinquishes the total control I purport to have of my life. Day and night I wonder what methods does one employ to bypass these customs and traditions because I am sick of it. How do I perform the duties of a bride and pose for endless photos when my parents are a no-show? 

That shitty feeling when someone is clearly knocking you down and you can’t do anything except wish you had someone to ‘report’ them to? Sick of that too. Those regular check-ins with your folks, not happening. You wish you could have someone to hand the reins of your life to when you are not in the right mindset because nothing will ever compare to a mother’s love. It may get close with parental figures so cherish them but more often than not, the void remains. 

Mom police double down on their angst for your casual yet consciously intentional parenting style especially when they hear you lost your parents – to them this indicates that you lack home training. It was naive of me to think at the very least mom police should only consist of mothers who may have washed your nappies back in the day, so you know, put some respect? 

Seeing children with their grandparents always hits hard because your folks will never get to meet your children. Family gatherings are a stark reminder of what you lost. Sadness does not stay in the past and news flash, you never get over your parents’ death. Facts. You will have to do without their affectionate support. This loss will continue to haunt and you may face even worse. Life will remain livable even without them but you will miss them at every event of life. 

That worry you probably have every time your parents shower you with unconditional love and presence, about losing them? I can’t relate. Perhaps it is exactly why people broach this topic with aversion. Perhaps nobody wants to face the inevitable reality that your parents will leave you and you will have to confront adult orphan hood, at your big age. The uncomfortable reality of your own mortality 50 years from now. It’s scary and ominously dark. 

It’s not all gloom though, you still have the chance to love them with all your heart. There’s never going to be that one more day once your loved one is gone. Don’t show them you love them tomorrow because you forgot yesterday. Go out of your way every day.

Lately, so many people on twitter have confessed to calling their deceased parents’ phone numbers just to see if the telcos have assigned their numbers. You can never replace your parent though. 




  1. Myroz
    December 11, 2018 / 12:16 pm

    Yea true, Bikozulu wrote that he once called his Late mum’s number and a guy with goats bleating in the background answered it.i think it’s a kind of closure you get once you know the number has been assigned to someone else. Well, he later on sent the guy kaMpesa..

    • lila
      December 11, 2018 / 9:18 pm

      Yes, closure. That’s the word.

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