Modern Moms with a Traditional Twist
Bridging the gap between modern and traditional parenting practices is a struggle that many South Africans face when they bring a child into the world. New parents are caught between the decision to honour their family customs and expectations, or to raise their children in a more contemporary way. We take a look at a few mothers from different cultures, and the routes they chose to raise their children.
Athiwe Langa*, a 36-year-old mom of three, comes from a traditional Xhosa family and married into an equally traditional one. With the birth of her first son, Vuyo, she struggled to abide by the rules prescribed by her mother-in-law.
She says, “When I fell pregnant with my son, I was bombarded with a whole lot of customs that I had to follow, even though I had planned to raise my child my own way.” Firstly, she had to give her son a name provided by her in-laws. The name is usually prescribed based on a series of events, and because he was the first grandson, they were happy and gave him the name Vuyo (which means joy). However, when they discouraged her from having a baby shower or being public about her pregnancy, it was more difficult to accept. Athiwe decided to have a baby shower and shared some of her pregnancy photos on social media, because she wanted her friends to share in her excitement.
There were also a number of traditional ceremonies they had to do for the baby, pre-birth, to introduce him to his ancestors and protect him from evil. And after the birth, Athiwe was not allowed to go out with her baby or let friends and distant family see the child until he was four months old. She adds, “Before we were allowed to go out, Vuyo was held upside down over a sacred smoke mixture made by my in-laws, in a ceremony to make him stronger and protect him from any evil. He cried and coughed hysterically. My heart was broken as I watched helplessly. He was then passed through my left and right knee to conclude the process.” After four months, the family celebrated with a traditional welcoming ceremony, and she could finally see all her friends again.
Rifda Shah* is Muslim. Her mother passed on a number of cultural expectations to her, such as drinking a mixture of boiled roast cumin and cloves while pregnant, as a way to help ease the birth of her child. When her child was born, the father or another male figure had to recite the Azaan (a Muslim call to prayer) in the child’s ears to help the child understand their duty to Allah early in life. Rifda adds, “Seven days after the baby’s birth, their hair is cut off and buried in the ground. This is thought to remove the impurities of birth.” Some Muslims also weigh the baby’s hair and donate the equivalent weight in silver to the poor.
Rifda says, “After I gave birth, my family restricted me from leaving the house for at least 40 days, so that my body could heal and restore itself post-birth.”
Being a Zulu mother also comes with its own challenges, especially if you aren’t accustomed to the traditions. When Gugu Zulu*, a 26-year-old single parent, was pregnant with her second child, her family went to her then boyfriend’s house so that he could pay for ‘damages’.
She explains, “Because I wasn’t married and I fell pregnant, my family went to my boyfriend’s house to declare my pregnancy. He had to pay damages in the form of money and a goat, which would be slaughtered, for all the virgins in my family and to compensate for the loss of my virginity.” This was however the only practice that she chose to adapt to as part of her plea to respect her family after she had fallen pregnant out of wedlock.
The Jewish culture provides a few important traditions that mom of two, Kristy Lipchitz*, recalls having to practise. One of the most important traditions was to have her son circumcised (brit milah) within the first seven days of his birth. The circumcision is performed by a mohel, an observant Jew who has been trained in the relevant Jewish law and surgical techniques. In most instances, circumcision performed by a physician is not valid even if a rabbi is present. After being circumcised, he was bandaged and given a name, and a celebration was held for close family and friends.
“Growing up in a traditional home, I knew that I’d have to follow all the practices that form part of my culture, and I was only happy to, because I didn’t know any other way and it was all for the benefit of my baby.”
New mom, Tshifiwa Mavhungwana*, is a Shangaan who married a traditional Venda man and, as a wife marrying into his family, had to adopt his traditions. She says, “When my daughter, Isiba, was born, I was exposed to a number of very tough rituals that my husband’s family wanted me to do. I had to thank the ancestors and welcome her into the world, which is also meant to ensure that she is protected and guided by them. As cold as it was, I stood outside with my newborn child and watched them slaughter a goat and smear her forehead with the blood of the goat to welcome her to the family. We then celebrated her birth and lots of family and friends came to see her and wish me well. It was hard and very overwhelming because I was so tired, but I knew this was her tradition and I had to follow through with it.”
Priyah Naidoo* is a Hindu mom with an eight-month-old daughter. She says, “When I found out I was going to be a mom, I knew that my parents would expect a lot from me in terms of following many traditional practices. For example, after giving birth I wasn’t allowed any chores or housework, because it’s believed I needed this time to heal after the hard work of delivering a baby. This was a bit frustrating for me because I am quite independent and like to do things for myself.”
Priyah also had to take special daily baths with eucalyptus, guava and mustard, for their healing properties. And her newborn baby had to be held over the smoke of burning coals sprinkled with sambrani (benzoin resin of a tree that is dried, powdered, and sold as a powder or in blocks). Afterwards she was massaged with oil by an elder, to help clear out any fluid she may have taken in during the birthing process.
For many of these families, the decision to implement the rules that come with their traditions is done because it is a big part of who they are. And although many parents decide for themselves whether or not to follow customs, all of them agree that this decision is always with the intention of being the best parents to their children.
Please note: these are all personal stories and not everyone from the same religion or culture will necessarily follow them.
*All names have been changed.