A working parent in South Africa

A working parent in South Africa – the life, the joys, the challenges

I am working mom raising very young children in the USA.  I wonder about parents in other places a lot, do you?  What is life like for them?  What are the day to day issues? How do families function?

I invited Chantelle Ashley, a friend of mine from high school days in Zimbabwe, to share her experiences parenting in South Africa. She has been very excited to contribute to my blog and I am absolutely thrilled to post this interview with her!

Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself. What do you do for a living, how many children do you have and what are their ages?

Well… I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and lived there until I was 24 before heading off to Malawi, where my eldest daughter Maya was born, and then on to South Africa, which is where my mother’s family is from and where Eva, my second daughter, was born. I am a tinker, something I have in common with one of my children’s favourite fairies. By that I mean, I enjoy working on myself and exploring the world and perspectives of the people around me. So it was really only a matter of time before I became a teacher, which is something of a family business. Maya is 10 now, which is proving to be a wonderful age for our dynamic, and Eva is 6 although she often seems at least 10 years older than that.

What are the day to day activities your children are involved in?

During the school term, Maya and Eva both participate in swimming, ballet and hip-hop dancing as extracurricular activities and Eva is also a super-enthusiastic member of Nutty Scientists, which is my favourite club ever! We have an extended school day so they’re in class until 4pm and 3pm respectively, so our chill time is really reserved for the weekends, which usually include a family swim at the local Virgin Active on Friday evening, a 5km Park Run on Saturday mornings and often a movie, if there’s something out that they haven’t seen yet. We try to expose the girls to a range of activities and possible interest areas because my ear is constantly to the ground for when they show that spark of passion that will lead me to bankrupt myself in the interests of supporting their chosen pursuit. At present, for Maya the biggest flame is for dance and performance (she’s a literary girl, so she writes a lot too), while Eva is a real hardworker in several areas but mainly art and writing.

What grades are they in at school?

Maya is in fourth grade, but will begin fifth in 2017, while Eva, who started slightly earlier by South African metrics, will begin second grade next year. In South Africa, we begin with Grade R, which equates to kindergarten year, and then into Grade 1 and so on.

Are you married? What does your spouse do for a living?

I’ve been married to Adrian since I was 23, and we have often lived in different places for short periods. He’s an Executive for a company that deals with freight and logistics and is currently completing his MBA, but it’s a little bit renaissance in our family so his Undergrad, Honours and Masters qualifications all centred on language, literature and creative writing. He’s written his first novel but seems to have stopped prioritising its publication, but he does still write for magazines and publications, which include well-known titles like Rolling Stone and more bespoke covers like Local Government targeted publications.

What are the challenges you experience parenting in South Africa as a working mom? Can you comment on how this might be different with your parents’ experiences raising you in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s?

While I am aware of the social and economic differences between my home town, Malawi, where we spent about three years, and South Africa (Johannesburg, specifically), I am still often at a loss as to how there seems to be so much less time here. This is in part due to the traffic congestion common on Johannesburg roads (it has taken me almost an hour to drive the 15km to work daily), the distance between centres (I could walk across my home town of Bulawayo in the time it takes me to drive to the closest big mall in my present neighborhood now, and it would be ridiculous to consider walking across the entire town!) and the relatively lower priority people seem to place on their personal wellbeing here. When I worked in the corporate world, which I did until three years ago as a French-speaking administrator, it was not uncommon for me to leave the house just after my children woke up (which they have to do at 5am at the latest) and only return home when they’d already prepared for bed.
These factors made me really sad and was a key motivator to my finding the courage to take the pay cut and reduced social status (it’s common for people to look down on teachers, although looking up from the trenches there’s so much I wish they knew…) and go into teaching as I’d wanted to for the longest time. Ironically, my passions and fortunes led me to a school in which we keep corporate working hours and work late most nights and through the school holidays too (although most of the teachers I know do that, so I don’t consider this a special fact). The benefit, though, is that we’ve moved to live much closer to the school and I am at the same site with them for the entire day. I am consequently very involved in their lives and they have more access to me when they need me than they ever did before. When they take ill, I can look in on them and oversee decisions much more immediately.
This is a stark contrast to the childhood I had. It was not uncommon back then for mothers to stay home with children and, although my mother has always worked, there was always more time! I remember my routines as a child. There was time for a sit-down family breakfast, leisurely walk/cycle to school, French/Writer’s Club after school, a saunter home with friends followed by homework, bath and TV, chores AND extra reading before an 8pm bedtime. I honestly cannot explain how the days have shrunk in this way – mainly because I don’t often have the time to sit down and do a proper analysis!

If there was something you could change about parenting, or your children’s experiences in South Africa, what would it be?

I would definitely give us more time together to spend doing things that make us smile. The nature of life in South Africa (for me, at least) has added something of a transactional nature to social relationships. The need for efficiency during the school term is such that it’s not uncommon to set targets and match these to rewards and consequences like I’m the CEO of a team of tiny administrators so when something wildly far off the schedule (like a pet soiling a rug, for example) happens, it takes a disproportionate amount of inner strength to pull it all back in line again.
Having said all this, there is a confidence and ease of interacting with the world that my children get here that I definitely missed back home. It’s something Malcolm Gladwell mentioned in the book ‘Outliers’, that one element of the makeup of successful individuals is that they feel empowered from a very young age to negotiate the content and context of their daily lives, and so my girls challenge teachers and parents often (this has to be respectfully done or mum will have a few things to say about it), and extract meaning on their own terms in ways I couldn’t at their age.

Thanks for your time Chantelle!

If you’d like to get in touch to share your experience(s), please reach out on my “Contact” page.  Continue to be on the lookout for more blog posts related to cancer, blood disorders, books, and parenting.  Hover over the bottom right and click on “Follow” to subscribe to my blog.  Be well!

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