By Wakanyi Hoffman
My daughter recently summited Mount Kenya, the third highest peak on the African continent.
She did this with swollen, frozen hands that could no longer fit inside her thick, woolen mittens, after 3 nights of camping in the bush. Each day this group of preteen amateur climbers would hike hundreds of footsteps upwards towards the mountain peak.
An Unforgettable School Trip
On summit day, she crouched hands and feet down, crawling on unseen icy rocks in the darkness for an ascent that begun at 2.00 am. This would become the most vivid memory of an unforgettable school trip.
“I nearly fell off the mountain mom!” She exclaimed casually when I picked her up from school on their return. She continued to babble nonstop about the experience, as if the thought of the near-fatality should be assuaged by the fact that she didn’t actually fall.
Or that I should be content in the knowledge that her teacher who was crawling up behind her managed to foresee the missed calculation that my daughter made when she turned her head-lamped forehead skywards instead of below her nose. She had tripped on an unseen rock, falling to the side, into the arms of Ms. L.
She had then picked herself up and proceeded upwards to the peak on Point Lenana where she sat poised in a ballerina pause atop a rock, with her face turned towards the morning sun. She had just conquered a professional mountain climber’s wildest dreams, at the age of twelve.
‘How far down would you have fallen?” I asked in a feigned monotone that matched her casual one.
“I would’ve fallen to the side, all the way down to the top of another huge rock,” she replied, then changed the topic to describe the vibrant gold, black, red and purple hues of the magnificent sunrise that painted the morning above the cradle of humanity, reflecting tenderly onto the frozen glacier lakes below.
She knew that she had pulled and snapped a mother’s heart-string. A picture of the mighty fall of my Afro-curly haired girl would skirt ruthlessly around my mind. Later that night, a vision of the gluten-intolerant-rash on her mixed-race coloured cheekbones would haunt my dreams until morning.
I would picture Ms. L collecting mittens fallen from too-fat fingers, frost-bitten now, clutching the vertical ground in the shape of a professional rock climber.
Face down. No, face on top of the fat fingers. She would’ve definitely cushioned her face with her hands. Eyes shut, lips pursed into a brave smile. The little musician that she is, a theme song for this dramatic event would remain beating in her faint, but never-giving-up warrior heart.
I would awaken myself from this nightmare to see my baby girl resting beside me. I would pat her all over to confirm that the accumulated 35 kg preteen mass was still breathing. A tender memory of the tiny baby born ‘small-for-dates’ on a rainy morning in Nairobi would regulate my hyperactive heartbeat.
Becoming a Mother
“Are you sure she’s not a preemie?” I had asked the doctor in the after-birth, the first gigantic step I took towards becoming a mother.
“She’s small but not premature,” he had said to me, a small light in his dark pupils peering into a brand new space in my heart, hypnotizing my newly heightened maternal senses into a blissfully numb, all-accepting oxytocined mother-brain.
‘I am a mother now,’ I would try to convince myself when what I truly felt was as though the real mama waited behind that birthing room door. I would picture her wide-eyed and all-knowing, plump-faced and soft motherly smile. Her strong, spongy arms, big boobs and fat fingers best suited for firmly grasping a slimy, wiggly, tiny, little baby inside a slippery and soapy baby bathtub.
But I had the manual. The baby books written by experts such as Dr. Spock on top of my mother’s wisdom.
“She’s so tiny!” Mom exclaimed upon seeing her newest granddaughter, middle-named Wanjiru after her, or ‘the one born in the dark’, with intriguing dark navy eyes that would fade into dark brown pupils within weeks.
“The doctor said she’s not premature,” I explained, matter-of-fact. In the minutes between having the baby placed on my lap and being wheeled out of the birthing room, I had udergone a biological evolution. That little girl that had wiggled her way out of the birth canal in under 3 hours had transformed me into a brand new sub-species of humankind.
No longer speculating about the mystery of childbirth, now Mother Nature’s mysterious, ‘expert mom’ gaze had taken over, and I inspected every little fingernail on this tiny human with microscopic detail. It helped that I had also spent nine months memorizing Heidi Murkoff’s ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting’.
Mom had been sitting outside the birthing room since she received a text at 5 am saying her baby girl was at the hospital in labour. She had not slept for 3 nights since I broke the news that I would have to be induced for the ‘too-small-for-dates’ overdue, but not preemie baby girl. She had watched me fret about a pink colour-cordinated nursery that had been prepared since the initial baby announcement. Even the woolite baby delicates soap powder came packaged in a baby pink-coloured box.
I didn’t ask my mother to come into the birthing room because it was now time for me to do my ‘big girl thing’.
Becoming the big girl
I had initially prepared to chaperone the children up that mountain until I asked for my daughter’s opinion. She replied, “No, mama, this is meant to be a bonding trip for me and my friends.” Right below my eyelashes, she was becoming the big girl. This was her way of telling me that it was her turn to do the ‘big girl thing’.
Looking at her still-too-tiny fingernails, still-too-soft hands, brown eyes and the recently-trimmed bouncy curls sitting atop a head short of me, I struggled to contain the adrenalined fear sizzling hot in my head.
My older, wiser and matured mom-face was now cast downwards, betrayed by the conflicting, self-doubting, mom-guilt trapped inside my throat. I struggled to accept that before me stood the bigger version of the little baby that emerged out of me in synchronized pushes and lamaze-trained long breaths not so long ago.
My mind wandered to a stored image at the very back, of the ballerina-postured baby bump that sat atop a not-firm-enough blue exercise ball, contracting at 5 minute intervals, sending my whole body into unfathomable pain.
My husband had breathed in louder, letting out long, exaggerated sighs. He was determined to follow the doula’s guided prompts and fulfil his role as birth partner while masquerading as the paparazzi of the text-book natural birth that was captured in under 40 minutes. This was just before the battery power on the video camera died. At that point, my husband had snapped out of the hypnosis and said in panic, “Hurry up, sweetheart! The camera is about to die!” Then we heard the baby’s first dramatic cry, followed by the click of the camera.
Little, Big Girl
I didn’t go up that mountain with her, but I did move into her bedroom. Like my mother did the night before I went into labour, I too lay awake inhaling my little girl’s lavender-scented pillow case for the 3 nights that she had embarked on a mountain climbing expedition 3,500 meters, 16,000 feet above sea level.
I cried when I saw her face emerge from behind the crowded mixture of fellow anxious moms, dads and classmates. She seemed wiser, this little, big girl.
“Describe the experience in one word,” I dared her.
“Fu-rd?” She said, a contemplative eyebrow raised towards the blue, afternoon sky.
“Fun plus hard equals furd,” she explained, stepping out of the car back home, happy to get her face licked by Thomas the ‘butler’ dog who was barking madly all over her.
Then she turned around for a hug and broke into tears.
“Did you cry going up?” I asked her.
“Not until I got to the top,” she revealed, as I wiped the pool of salty wetness collecting down on her collar-bone, towards the back of her neck, where there’s still a hint of that fresh, new baby smell.
As I held her at night and sat watching her evenly-timed breathing, legs sprawled wildly as she always did as an infant, it dawned on me that motherhood has so far been a furd journey towards the miraged mountain peak.
It is filled with near-falls, fat, cold and sweaty fingers, all clutching and crawling up towards the top, to the place where every now and then the cradle of humanity can be viewed in clarified hues of a rarely seen sunrise.
A curator of African folktales. A trained journalist and editor. An independent Global Education Researcher. Partner to a guy I met on a dusty bus stop in Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon. Mother to four of the world’s best backpacking kids. A self-proclaimed world citizen with strong Kenyan roots. A global nomad, always ready to stop over for giggles and a hot cup of Ketepa tea.