BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
Muna has horrible morning breath. OK, I’m being dramatic. It’s not horrible, really, but it no longer has the innocence of a baby’s breath. It used to smell like grapes and pumpkin and milk when she was little, now it has the whiff of black pepper, shoe laces and an old chloride battery.
She’s growing. Hell, she is. And it’s showing in all elements of her toddlerhood.
She turned two in November.
She’s traded her diapers for little undies (the cutest things) and is dutifully using the toilet; we’ll be hanging in the living room watching TV when she’ll run down the corridor yawping, “Susu! Mummy, susu tolet!”
So. We got her this toilet-ladder-seat trainer online from Baby Stuff so she can take the step up by herself and comfortably sit on the toilet bowl. Before we got her that thingy, she’d dangle her feet and balance her tiny bum by her tiny wrists on the toilet. It was rough. It was the equivalent of me squatting to take a leak in those toilets in Narok, the ones where you have to pay 20 bob and ask for extra tissue when you want to do more than pee.
What cracks me up is that she demands her privacy now. She’ll sit on that trainer bowl as if she’s some uppity Viking princess on the throne then she’ll tell me, “Mummy go.” (She can’t say go, as ‘go’, she says, ‘doh’. “Mummy doh.” “Papa o doh slide.” “Aunty doh bike Una.”) It never used to be like this, she only used to tell me to go when she wanted to drop shit. And don’t let the tiny tummies of kids fool you, these babies can drop a shit so wicked, so massive you’d need a gas mask and a whole pack of wet wipes to get them clean again.
But now she tells me to go even if she only wants to sit on that bowl to catch her breath or take a break from us or smoke a cig (heehe). I’ll stand outside the door with my hat in my hands and wait, and after a few minutes, she’ll scream my name out so I can wipe her. I’ve taught her how to get the tissue and wipe herself after peeing but of late, she’d rather unroll the tissue until it all sits in a pile on the floor. I’m like her slave girl.
Muna knows she’s a good girl for using the toilet because we – Nanny Viv, GB and I – tell her so. We’ll also clap for a #1 and cheer for a #2. I don’t know how long these celebrations of toilet breaks will go on for, maybe until she sits her KCSE? Maybe.
Her day is structured into a routine so rigid that at whatever time of the day I call in, I know what exactly she’ll be doing. I have to schedule time with Nanny Viv to break the routine to see her. It’s as if she’s Muna’s PA. “Saa kumi je? Can I play with her for 30 minutes, akikunywa uji?”
Nanny Viv will gently tell me no, “Akikuona ata sumbua; ata kataa kuoga na kulala.”
“So mpaka amalize kukula supper jioni?”
“Eeeh,” she’ll say regretfully.
Muna has also mastered the fine art of entertaining herself. Her pattern is the same every evening: She’ll ride her bike around the digs, standing on its seat as if she’s the Pope. Or she’ll pedal around. There’s nothing more heart-warming than seeing a toddler gleefully pedal herself on her three-wheeler – the only issue we have now is the old cat lady who lives in the apartment below ours, she has reported us to the office saying that Muna is making too much noise. I know.
Anyway, after the bike, Muna will sit in her corner of the living room building Lego and mumbling things under her breath. She’ll soon tire of thinking too hard and fling the pieces aside to scale the furniture and leap across the living room floor. “Mummy, see! See!”
Then she’ll play, on repeat, YouTube videos that are her current favourites. In December it was Dave & Ava’s ‘Row your boat’. January it was this cover titled ‘I’m Still Standing’ from the movie Sing. You seen it? The cover is sung by some gorilla in blue jeans, leather jacket and navy converse shoes that look like one of mine. His name is Johnny. I like Johnny.
Muna doesn’t want to watch sing-along cartoons or 3D animations anymore. She’s outgrown such immature entertainment, it seems, let’s leave those for the younglings who can’t pronounce their own name like she does. She wants to watch real videos of real kids doing real things. So in the last few weeks, her favourite is this tall white dude called Blippi that dances like a snobbish black dude; he makes educational videos for kids. The first time I watched Blippi on a playground, I was irritated. I thought to myself, Who the hell is this annoying man child that’s talking too much?
The only way to enjoy Blippi is to think like a child and be a child. That’s what makes him so appealing. Now I not only envy him but I love him.
Amidst all this frenzy, Muna will wriggle herself into my laps and cuddle with me on the couch. She loves it when I gently rub her feet and palms and knead the tension out of her knotty shoulders (yeah, she’s such a girl). I’ve never felt love the way I feel when she lays on my chest and I kiss the top of her head. When she hears my heartbeat, I wonder if she remembers hearing it for the 40 some more weeks she was in my belly.
In my quarters, the last few months have been the most selfish and most rewarding of my motherhood journey thus far.
Here’s the thing – you might want to sit down for this one because I never read it anywhere before I learned it the hard way myself.
The thing is this, the mother-baby relationship is initially dictated by an unhealthy imbalance of give-and-take: those early months, when she was between one and maybe six months old, were about me giving so much of myself to her and her returning so little. Breastfeed her, change her diapers, bath her, play with her, express for her milk, sing and dance to her, wake up in the middle of the night to soothe her back to sleep, pause your art and everything else in your life, repeat, breastfeed her, change her…. Ghai. Frustration stained most of my days.
When she was between six and 12 months, the post-partum hormones started to wear out and it’s like a fog was lifted from my eyes. But the fog didn’t lift to clarity and aha-moments, it lifted to more confusion, fear and anxiety. I felt like I was Eve and I’d suddenly realized I was naked all along. Naked and in a jungle. I felt like I was muscling my way naked and rudderless through this maze-like jungle of motherhood, career, old friendships, new friendships, old sex life, new sex life, old wardrobe, new wardrobe, should I drink vodka again or not, can I party till late, is it OK to go on a shopping spree, is this what it truly means to be a mum, am I raising her right, when will I write again like I used to, what happened to my creativity…? Questions, questions and more questions.
I didn’t know where I was going or where I was coming from. I didn’t even know who I was. I was in a personality limbo. It was unnerving. Unnerving and maddening and disorienting.
Then she turned one and everything about her made me so happy but all what I did for her didn’t feel like it measured up. She didn’t need me as much as she did before but I had this maternal ache to always be there for her. Like literally sitting next to her and breathing her air and helping her open her eyes so she wouldn’t strain her little eye lids. “Muna, baby, would you like me to chew your food for you?” Hahha.
I would take a week off from work to spend full days with her but the following week, when I was back at my desk and working late or having a drink on a Friday night with my pals, I’d feel like I was the worst mum in the world. Like, ‘Gosh, I’m not spending enough time with my baby’. Or, ‘Why am I putting my career or my pals before my family?’ And, ‘What’s this paper that you’re giving your best to chasing?’ The worst was, ‘Why am I letting someone else raise my child for me? Does Muna belong to Nanny Viv or is she mine?’ Guilt constantly hovered about me like a nimbus cloud.
That disorientation, frustration and guilt is gone now, thank God. This stage right here is about she and I giving just enough to each other without draining ourselves to the point of empty.
She’s also given me a new sense of purpose in my writing, plus the energy and drive to fulfil that purpose. It’s healthy and amazing and so darn fulfilling. I know this sounds so clichéd and idealistic but let me say it because I’ve bloody earned it: I love being a mum. I do.
I’m living my own life now, the life of Florence Bett, the writer, not the life of Mama Muna or of GB’s girl. I feel like a new girl living an old life anew. The novelty of this life is tucked into ordinary moments throughout my day. Moments I’m jealous about, moments I keep guarded close to my heart because I don’t want the thief of time to smell them and take them away from me.
It’s in that moment when, after a quiet uninterrupted nine hours of restful sleep, my eyes snap open at 4.30a.m. and I get up to bang a few hundred words on my laptop before dawn breaks. It’s when I arrive at work by 7.30a.m, my mind so crisp, my subconscious tingling with a story, and I sit tight at my desk – fully tuned in, working deep, channelling my creative conscious – until noon. I can actually carry this concentration into the rest of the day that I even forget to call Nanny Viv to check in on them. (And guess what? It’s OK to not call in. It. Is. OK.)
It’s in that moment when I get back home at 5.30p.m., when Muna has just had her bath and is about to nap, and I take a long cold shower then lie on the covers of my bed naked and read a book until after Muna’s dinner at 7. Then I’ll put on a fresh dera and play with her until her bedtime at 9.
It’s in making it on time to a very-early breakfast meeting. Or having a glass of wine at Viva, alone and on a loose Wednesday, before returning home to put her to bed.
It’s about going to Maurice’s at Jamia Mall and buying myself five pairs of sexy low-waist distressed jeans then pitiaing Brayo’s to leave deposit for (another) pair of brown ankle boots. It’s about selfishly spoiling myself and not succumbing to the pressure to buy something, anything, for Muna, too.
It’s in that moment when I wear a pair of sexy wedgies and Nouba’s #66 lipstick, and I feel like the vixen I’d forgotten I could be. I feel like Kelly Booth from Black Mirror.
Those moments don’t end there. Ever since GB and I shacked up, we can experience the intimacy of being new lovers. Because we never did. I moved into his place when I was a six, seven weeks pregnant. (It was still his place back then, not our place. Or our home.) I was in the stormy eye of first trimester nausea. I was hormonal, erratic, lazy, a little bit deranged and had the appetite of an adolescent elephant. I also had enough gas to fire a train’s turbine from here to Lilongwe and back. And I was as shameless as the next mum-to-be is – I’d let out that gas whenever I felt like it, hahha.
Here’s a story: GB used to like reading a book in the evenings after work. I suppose it’s a habit he’d matured from his bachelor pad and carried on with when I moved in with him. (Now he reads a book while watching TV.) He’d sit in one corner of the couch and I’d curl up like a kitten on the other and nap, my ass would be pointed straight at him. I think I spent my pregnancy napping. And there I was, fatigued and bloated and snoring – I’d let out so much gas, so many grunts that at one point of the evening, when he felt like he was about to pass out from being poisoned, he’d slither off the couch like a black panther and go read his book in the bedroom.
I’d startle awake at probably midnight and penguin to the room bitching, “Gosh, you left me there! Why didn’t you wake me up?” Before he’d respond, I’d have plopped myself into bed and continued snoring. And letting out the gas.
I’m sure GB rolled his eyes every evening and cursed, “What does a man have to do in this damn house to read a damn book in peace?”
I didn’t make it easy things for him, I admit, and there are several nights he must have looked over at me snoring and thought, Is that the eternal snore of marriage? Should I leave a snack on the nightstand for her midnight feed, before she eats me in my sleep? Will her nose be as swollen as it is right now? Where’s the girl I fell for? Is this love?
Two years later and I sleep like a fairytale princess, like goddamn Cinderella.
To our Pumpkin, Happy Second Birthday. You gave us a new kind of happiness.
An edited version of this story first run in the December-2017 issue of True Love magazine.
Craft It on YouTube
We’ve uploaded a new video to our YouTube channel. Check it out here >> Afrika Handmade Popup
The video is about a popup market Will and I attended early March at Village Market’s food court. This video is only one leg of the feature – the other leg will be an interview with Christine, the marvel at Afrika Handmade that put together this exhibition. I’ll hit you up as soon as it’s done.