My mother has five children, of whom I am the eldest. The last born in my family is a set of identical twin girls, now aged 17. Each time I see them, I am acutely aware of just how old I have become. I used to carry these girls on my back and rock them to sleep on many nights. It feels like it was just yesterday when they were tiny little tots who used to rain down hell whenever they got hungry, had a wet nappy or were simply bored. Today, the girls weigh just 6kgs less than me, and are exactly the same height as me. And, they are still high maintenance!
My baby sisters now speak an interesting boarding school lingo that includes a shocking brand of Shona and some colloquial words I have never heard before.
They often poke fun at me that ndakasara (I am behind).
They make a point to phone and check whether or not I will come for visiting day, and if I am coming, tell me I better come driving, not on the public bus. I also get told what is ok to wear on such a day. When I was in boarding school, if my mother managed to come at all, that was more than enough!
They tell me riveting stories about boarding school life nowadays; including how such and such a girl was once caught on camera making out with her boyfriend and got punished. In my day, the school authorities had the right to kill you on your parents’ behalf, if you were ever caught with a boy!
As my baby sisters grow older, I often find myself reflecting on how I have played the thankless role of mother to them most of my adult life, despite the fact that their real mother still lives.
I remember very clearly the incident which ushered me into this role many years ago. I woke up in the wee hours one morning to find my mother sitting in the living room with the twins screaming their heads off. One had a fever and the other one, well, back then there was a popular belief that when one twin got ill, the other one would feel it too.
So there they were, bawling their eyes out. My mother kept trying to feed one, mumbling over and over that she couldn’t understand why the baby wouldn’t eat. I took the child from her; only to realise from her soiled bib that my poor exhausted mother was unwittingly attempting to feed the child she had already fed before. The other one was crying probably because she was hungry.
Even though my mother had been a mother four times over, nothing could have prepared her for a set of attention-hungry twins. Ever since they were born, these two rascals have beenthe cause of many sleepless nights for my mother and I.
I officially stepped in as deputy mom on that morning of the terrible screams.
Between 2007 and 2008 when everything went wrong in Zimbabwe and most parents suddenly found themselves paralysed in the ‘casino economy’ that followed, I suddenly found myself in charge once again. My father lost his job around the same time. These hectic times coincided with the time I was just starting out in my career. The food and basic commodity shortages required the agility, energy and discernment of young people to hustle and put food on the table.
The many times my mother and I stood in long, unbearable queues to buy bread or used cooking oil, it was the faces of my innocent little sisters that gave us the fortitude.
I remember my mother’s weary, helpless face as she cooked the last of her rice one weekend when she asked me what the twins would eat the next day. I had that sinking realization that there was no one who could step up to the plate and help my family. I was it.
That same weekend, my husband (then my boyfriend) and I crossed the Mozambican border in an over-packed and over-priced commuter omnibus, and brought back two 50kg bags of rice and some other groceries, for both our families.
I will lay down my life for my baby sisters. No decision about these girls is made without me. I pay their school fees. I attend their teacher consultation meetings. I have endured many helpless hospital situations with them. I recently had a bitter fight with a matron and sued her for neglect when one of my baby sisters developed a wound that festered. I am ruthless towards any that wish to cause them harm.
Today, I am the one who gets told about the latest phone or clothes that they should totally have otherwise vanosara.
I am the one that gets the dreaded phone call from the school, whenever any one of them is in some sort of trouble because the girls will never give the matron their real mother’s phone number.
The girls get away with far more mischief than me and my two young brothers ever did. My other siblings and I always talk about how the twins are so spoilt, because they never saw the bottom of our mother’s slipper like the rest of us.
They also wear some of the most shocking things; things that my father many years ago would have never let me leave the house wearing.
Over the years, I have watched both my parents drastically change their parenting style. My mother in particular, has mellowed and softened tremendously, so much so that now and then I find myself mimicking how she used to discipline us with my sisters. I’m the one that worries about the girls’ skimpy dressing. Progressive as I think I am; there are certain dress lengths I simply cannot peacefully let my sisters prance around in. Lately, my mother just smiles lazily and says, “Ah, isn’t this the way you girls dress nowadays?”
I sometimes feel the girls resent me because I can be tough. But at the same time, they also think I am way cooler than main mom. I do not even want to explore how being compared to my own mother makes me feel. But it is all right. I am comfortable in my role as deputy mom. I would like to think that there are many more like me out there, who can relate, who often have to raise their own siblings because the situation calls for it.
So this mothers’ day, while I will celebrate all the mothers in my life and sit down with them for that special lunch, I am going to pop a bottle of champagne, and reflect on the past 17 years (while flipping through photo albums). Though I have never known the pain of labor, I will count myself an equal at that table. I will also give myself a lot of grace, and pat myself on the back for being the best deputy mom my little sisters could have.