The idea of a nuclear family is a western imposition. In Africa extended families have always been the norm. The Xhosa word for maternal aunt is ‘mamomncinci’ if the aunt is younger than your mom; for an aunt older than your mom it is ‘mamomkhulu’. These Xhosa terms literally mean younger mother and older mother respectfully. In traditional African cultures a child had multiple mothers and multiple fathers. This method of relating was used because it worked. It was insurance against the vagaries of life. I am the youngest of four girls in Xhosa culture and I am a young mother to all my sister’s children. In the past if anything were to happen to my sister I would be expected to move to the center and seamlessly take on the role of primary mother in my sister’s absence.

The beauty about this culture was that it was encouraged from birth. So I would be expected to play the role of parent to all of my sister’s children in her presence, not only do so once she is no more. Cousins could flow back and forth within families because aunts are deputy mothers and uncles are deputy fathers. This way of doing things ensured that there was no need for orphanages, because within the extended family there would always be multiple women able to take over the child raising following a death.

But things are changing now and it is a shame. We as Africans are continuing to adopt western ways of bringing up children to our own detriment. The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is an ideal we must endeavor to return to. Extended families meant more emotional and physical support for the parents.

When I had my first son I was unmarried and still lived with my mother and two older sisters. Parenting my son was a breeze. There was always an extra pair of hands to comfort, feed and bath the new baby which gave me some breathing room as a new mom. I was twenty-one and I was not solely responsible for the wellbeing of my son. There was always someone to help out with the day to day demands.

Once I got married and moved out of home with my husband, things were vastly different. I had my second child and it was hard. There were no other females with child rearing experience in the house. All the nurture fell squarely on me. I struggled and then got diagnosed with postnatal depression.

As someone who has experienced parenting in both an extended and a nuclear family I would like to state categorically that it is harder to be a mom in a nuclear family. There is less emotional support, more isolation, less sleep.

I had assumed that getting married and moving to my own house with a husband was indicative of success. I was living the nuclear family ideal of husband plus wife and two children, but I was miserable. My husband and I fought constantly because he left ALL nurturing to me even though this was a second child and I had a fulltime job. He even complained that I looked more efficient as a mother when I was still living with my sisters. He was not wrong. I was more efficient because living with other adults meant that I had help. But being with him meant I was burdened with an extra child – him. Males often weaponise incompetence in order to get out of doing household chores. A person who runs an entire department will suddenly pretend that he has no idea how to sort colours from whites in laundry day, so he will intentionally mix whites and colors to ruin clothes so he never is asked to do chores again.

We have too many women headed households in the country where women are left to parent children on their own. The solution to this social ill is not some new program. It is time we started going back to espousing the advantages of raising children in extended families. We need the hands of the entire village once more.

I have three cousins, all single mothers, who had been renting apart and struggling after their relationships with the fathers’ children ended. Last Christmas they got together and decided to do things differently. They all rented a house, chipped in for the rent and the cousin who works shifts now has her trusted sisters looking after her child while she works nights. They all take turns cooking a supper which means each cooks only thrice a week, but all enjoy a cooked meal daily. The sisters seem more relaxed and the school-going children help each other out with homework. Now the three cousins have decided to stop renting and get a joint home loan so they can all gain capital for entering the housing market, while also benefitting from living with people who are trustworthy and helpful.

We need to rethink family structures, as families cannot be narrowly defined by having romancing partnerships at the center. Extended families pool together time, energy, and resources. When approached in an egalitarian way, extended families are the answer that is staring us in the face.

Tell us: have extended families played a positive role in your community?