BABYLOVE: Parenting from a distance

By: SIMON MBURU

It is now two years since Christine Nguta left the country to work as an assistant lecturer at a South African university in Cape Town. Over this period, Christine’s two kids have been living with their aunt in the outskirts of Eldoret town.

“I miss them dearly,” she writes in a Facebook message.

“They’ve been living with my younger sister since I left.” Over the two years, Christine has only travelled home to see her kids twice, in February 2014 and April this year. Her sons are six and eight years old.

But why did she leave them behind? “I had been jobless for three years. And being a single mother, I felt that I needed to get a job anywhere to start fending for them.

I was no longer comfortable relying on financial help from my sister,” says Christine, who holds a degree in engineering.

When she received a letter of appointment to serve as an assistant lecturer, Christine did not think twice about accepting the job offer.

Nonetheless, at the back of her mind, she was disturbed that she would stay away from her children for lengthy periods.

“It feels bad to miss my children’s milestones. Sometimes I wonder if my decision was selfish, especially after I hear them cry over the phone asking when I’m going back.”

Lisa Kwamboka is another mother who had to settle for long-distance parenting. She has just returned from Qatar where she works as a house help.

The mother of a six-year-old girl says that she only gets to talk to her daughter when she comes back to the country every mid-year. “I don’t get access to phones or the Internet.

NO LONGER CALLS ME MUM

And even if I could go online, my mum, who lives with my daughter, doesn’t have the know-how to use online communication,” she says. Three years after leaving the country, Lisa says that her daughter no longer calls her mum like she used to.

“She has forgotten that I’m her mother. She calls me by name and instead calls her grandmother mum!”

This leaves Lisa with a lump of pain in her throat. Her only consolation is the money she sends back home to cater for her mum and her daughter’s expenses every month.

For Gladys Mulee, who has been living in the US, away from her family, for the past six years, the parenting dilemma has been how to instill discipline in her twin 11-year-old sons who live with their elderly grandmother in North Kinangop in Nyandarua County.

“My mother is not able to keep up with them, so fights have become commonplace as neighbours and teachers complain that my children are naughty and unruly bullies. It breaks my heart as I feel very helpless when it comes to disciplining them,” she says.

With these kind of stories, it can seem as if long-distance parenting cannot work.

However, those who find themselves in this kind of arrangement are there due to circumstances: They either had to take a job far away to provide for their families or they are studying to improve their qualifications for better career prospects in future.

How then do these parents who only get to see their children few times a year remain involved in their children’s lives and feel at peace?

According to child therapist and child abuse researcher and author Rebecca Dion, the first step begins before you depart. She notes that you should explain to your children how long you will be gone and that you will miss them.

“Children under five years generally need two or three days’ notice that you’re leaving. School-age children may need more time so that they can be assisted on how to cope way ahead of your absence,” she says, adding that you should consider leaving a calendar in the house for your child to mark off the days until you see each other or a map where they can touch and get a sense of where you are,” she says.

Further Bernice Mutile, a child therapist based in Nakuru, observes that when leaving, you should ensure that your child remains with a caregiver he is familiar with.

“It will be easier for the child to feel comfortable with such a caregiver than with an unfamiliar person whom he has to get acquainted with. You should also leave your hild with someone you are comfortable with,” she advises.

Additionally, you will do well to get a mature female caregiver with a proven history of raising responsible children, who will be able to look after your child accountably in case you’re unable to make contact.

“Let the caregiver, a neighbour, a close relative and your child’s teacher know how to easily reach you if they need to.” In the same vein, even when you’re abroad, you must have reliable contacts back home you can call to reach your child in case of an emergency. For instance, who would you call if no one answered the phone at your child’s guardian’s place for two consecutive days?

To build and maintain a stable relationship with your child over the long distance, you may need to learn how to cope with, and listen to feelings of rejection, loss, anger and pain from your child. Inevitably, these are feelings you are also bound to experience. “You may call your child today and he will not be interested in talking to you. Then when you call in tomorrow, he may start crying and begging you to come home or send for them,” says Ken Munyua, a psychologist.

“This is normal behaviour among children with long-distance parents and their acts of seemingly rejecting you shouldn’t strike you as final.”

To avert unnecessary anxiety over your child’s safety, have an itinerary of their daily activities. Also, see to it that you talk to your child either through social media or through video calls.

This should help your child feel your presence in his life, and give him a moment to look forward to.

This works for Dorothy Nashipei, a mother of a four-year-old girl. She works in Dubai. “I call to find out how my daughter’s day at the kindergarten was. I ask my mother – who lives with her – to take videos of her and send to me via WhatsApp while I send her voice letters via the same platform.

At least after every two days, we hold a video call during dinner time,” she says. “This has enabled me to always be there for her, to talk to her and to feel that I am part of her early development.” When you get to talk to your child, ensure that you have helpful, honest communication and remember to tell them that you love and value them.