The highs and lows of single parenting in a pandemic
It is tough enough raising a family as a single parent, but how does one cope when the ravaging effects of a pandemic compound their circumstances?
We salute these three remarkable single parents who shared their experiences of navigating parenting in the time of Covid-19. We hope their stories will inspire all parents, single or otherwise.
Before Covid -19, Kara Kithure, a single mother of two, engaged in a thriving business of selling second-hand clothes.
“I was comfortable with the income. I never delayed with settling my bills such as rent or school fees.”
Kara used to buy ‘camera’ jackets, jerseys, tops, and children’s clothing and deliver to her clients, mostly in their offices and homes. At some point, the orders were so many that she was considering employing an assistant.
In addition to selling second-hand clothes, Kara is a trained beautician. She would occasionally get called upon to serve some of her customers by her previous employer in a beauty parlour.
“The two incomes were good. I was able to enrol my daughter in a private boarding school and ably provide for my young son.”
She was also considering opening her own beauty parlour, with a focus on barbering. But then came 2020, and with it, Kara’s dreams of expanding her business came to a sudden juddering halt.
Months earlier, she had left an abusive relationship that had also cost her all her the savings. She, however, had a sure proof strategy of recovering her savings in that New Year of 2020.
Her expenses were highest at the beginning of the year as she had moved houses and, at the same time, settled her young son with her mother back in the village. She then focused on her business, but things changed drastically in March 2020.
Suddenly, Gikomba, her primary source of supplies, was no longer importing new items. If they did, the prices were exorbitant. Her customers were now scared of physical contact.
“Selling became hard, and getting new products to fulfil some pending orders was becoming a tough task.”
To make matters worse, the beautician jobs completely dried up. Kara decided to take a few days off from Nairobi and travelled upcountry to stay with her mother. She assumed that the Covid-19 was a passing threat that would last a few weeks before life would go back to normal.
“While there, the county borders into Nairobi were closed.”
Days turned to weeks, and soon, the resources in her mother’s house were depleted.
“I come from a semi-arid area, and we rely entirely on rain as we have no rivers or streams to do farming. The rains had not been enough, and so my mom’s food ran out.”
They had to depend on her brother for upkeep. He owned a barbershop, and his business was also struggling to stay afloat.
“Being a single mother has been hard in this Covid-19 period. I never imagined I would lack food for my children. I have to think of their welfare as I am their sole breadwinner.”
After three months of being locked up in the village, Kara eventually managed to get back into Nairobi. Her landlord had been calling about rent, but he understood her situation and agreed to a payment plan.
“It has been hard, tough to get an income. People are not buying clothing as they used to before. Many of my customers also lost their jobs, and some offices are still closed.”
Even though things are far from average, Kara is optimistic that soon, she will find her footing. Calls from her customers placing orders have started trickling in.
“When you are a single parent, you are everything to the child. You have no one else to turn to; for example, you can’t ask anyone else to pay your rent.”
Kara says that Covid-19 complicated this much more for her. Children also ask tough questions because they are scared.
“They keep reminding me not to get Covid-19 because I am their only parent. And they ask about their father, a difficult question for single parents with a complicated past relationship.”
For Kirema Kaburu, when Covid-19 was announced as a global pandemic, he was still in the throes of grief after a double tragedy. He had buried his mother in March 2019 after a sudden illness and a month later, lost his wife through a tragic road accident.
His children were also involved in the accident and survived physically unscathed but would emerge deeply traumatised.
But the hardest thing for the 40-year-old as he would come to learn the very following day was to announce to his children that they had lost their mother.
“It hit me immediately that the children needed to know, and I was the one to tell them about their mom.”
For the remaining months of that year, Kirema had to learn to adjust to his new life as a single dad. He is a father of two sons, aged six and eight.
Juggling single fatherhood was already a tough job, but when Covid-19 happened, Kirema found himself at another difficulty level. His employer was already struggling to pay staff. They went for five months without pay before they were eventually laid off.
He was working as a rider with a logistics firm, one of the adversely affected sectors by Covid-19 after the closure of offices and other businesses. Without a source of income, Kirema knew that it was only a matter of time before putting a meal on the table would become a problem.
As Covid-19 cases escalated, Kirema, who owns the motorbike that he used for courier and passenger services, would hang around bus stops but rarely got work.
“People were terrified at that time, and motorbikes do not allow much of the social distancing. I, too, was scared, but my children had to be taken care of.”
There were no parcel deliveries as well. His time was also limited because he had to get home to make lunch for the children before hunting for jobs. Losing his wife also meant one income, and any savings they had were long gone with the job loss.
“I was not ready to let my children sleep hungry. I considered taking them to my parents, but then I remembered that my father was now alone.”
But his father insisted that he would watch the children as Kirema looked for a job. He eventually took his children upcountry to his father and focused all his efforts on finding a job, even as he did odd jobs to send home some money for a meal.
His children stayed with his father for four months, by which time he thankfully found a job just as schools were re-opened.
“My landlord was extremely understanding, a rare kind of person. He did not even threaten me with an eviction all this time, yet I had rent arrears accruing.”
Kirema says that going through the Covid-19 pandemic is made more challenging by his being a single parent.
“I have, of course, to explain to my children what Covid-19 is and reassure them that we will be alright.”
Kirema cannot let his children know that he is also worried about the pandemic.
“I have to put a brave face. It would have been much better if we had my wife for company during the lockdown.”
Other unforeseen problems cropped up during the trying time that he had to take his children to his father. Kirema would learn, one afternoon, that some relatives from his late wife’s side had timed a market day when his father stepped out to go and take his children. They took away his youngest son without his father’s knowledge or Kirema’s consent.
“We’ve had a traumatic relationship with my in-laws since my wife died, and at that time, we were not on speaking terms.”
It took the intervention of the area chief and his father-in-law to get his child back.
“All this animosity was not there before when my wife was alive and without Covid-19, I would not have burdened my father with my children.”
For Wanjiru Mungai, the pandemic struck when she was battling mental health issues. In February, she was admitted to a hospital for an entire month, before which she had been in and out of hospital admissions five times in less than two years.
The trauma of working in conflict-ridden South Sudan for almost a decade had taken a toll on her.
“I often wonder how did I not go mad. As part of my work, I experienced and handled raw reports of the conflict in South Sudan, which was rarely positive but was mostly about unwarranted destruction of property and life, including rape and other gross violations of human rights. Anyone who deals with such reality day in and day out for years, with little if anything that you can do to alleviate the suffering of these people – it gets to you,” she says.
“So come February last year, all the trauma I had bottled up came thick and fast. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder after I started experiencing random and unexplainable fainting spells. I realised trauma had been piling up from way back. I lost three siblings in quick succession, one of who died in South Sudan, and I had to transport his body in a body bag to Nairobi for burial. For all these issues, I never sought therapy, as I thought I had to remain strong, which was a big mistake,” she says and advises anyone going through such issues to seek help.
Her contract ended when she was admitted to hospital and was not renewed, so Covid-19 struck when she was out of work.
What saved Wanjiru was that she pays all her major bills well in advance. She had paid for two year’s rent and a year’s school fees for her two children.
“Apart from clearing major bills when I get money, I am deliberate in creating relationships within the community, which has in turn been an unshakeable source of support. Also, I strongly believe that it is less what happens to you but more about how you react to your key circumstance, so I decided to use the pandemic period as a time to spend time with my two children and recover all the time I did not spend time with them when I was in out of the country – being more of a human being and less of a human doing,” she explains.
“I have a 15 and seven-year-old, and I needed to be there for them holistically – emotionally, physically and otherwise, so we homeschooled together, cooked together, played together and generally bonded a lot,” she says.
For subsistence expenses, Wanjiru farms traditional vegetables that she sells to the neighbours and also uses in her household.
Things are looking up right now for Wanjiru. She started Premium Errands Global, a company specialising in the running of personalised errands and provision of social services locally and for the diaspora such as facilitation of health services, parent and family care, events and travel management, school/education, real estate and property acquisition, government and related services among others.
“From my personal experience in the diaspora and the resultant concise understanding of the challenges that many Kenyans face especially in putting up development projects and building of social capital back home – particularly the serious challenge of lack, or shortage of efficient representation, I am confident that the company will add value in representing clients and resolving bottlenecks of investing, as well as ensuring value for our clients’ money.
She hopes things will look up this year, and the company, which has handled more than 20 clients since its inception late last year, will grow into a considerable firm.