I have a friend who has burn scars on her arms and legs. I had never really asked how she got them because body issues are a sensitive topic with women. I figured that, as we got to know each other more she would tell me how it happened. We’ve known each other for almost 12 years.

Seven years ago when my daughter was five, she was running into the house from outside and she collided with her sister who was carrying a pot of boiling water with an egg in it. My five-year-old burnt badly, she lost a nipple in the accident. It took weeks of burn treatments to get her chest right. It was during this time that my friend opened up about her burns.

She grew up in rural Eastern Cape and at age nine she was responsible for a long list of chores. She had to fetch water from the river, gather firewood and cook porridge for her younger brothers, all of this under the very strict supervision of her stern mom. With all these age-inappropriate responsibilities, there was very little time for play. At nine she had twin brothers who were four years of age and she was the deputy parent essentially.

On one occasion her mom had gone to visit a neighbour and she had left my nine-year-old friend with the instruction to boil water so she could bath her twin brothers. Being a child, play got her distracted and she forgot the water on the stove while playing with her friends. Her mother came back and the twins were still unbathed. She was raging, cursing the nine-year-old out for being irresponsible. The mother had asked why the twins were still dirty and in a panic, my friend said “because the water wasn’t ready yet”, that it was still cold.

Her mom then picked up a pot of boiling water and threw it at her nine-year-old in order to demonstrate that the water was indeed ready. She sustained third-degree burns and had to get skin grafts from her thighs and stayed in hospital for almost a year. On the way to the hospital the mother had ordered her to lie about how she got burnt; she was instructed to tell the doctors that she had spilled water on herself while trying to remove it from the stove. So there was this burnt child who wasn’t getting any justice because she had to defend her abuser. No one thought to ask why a nine-year-old was carrying heavy pots of boiling water.

While this is an isolated incident, I find that society sometimes extends a large grace to unfit mothers. Even after all these years, my friend finds it hard to call her childhood experience what it was – abuse. There is a lie that says that all mothers are nurturing, a lie that calls physical abuse at the hands of a mother, discipline. There are thousands of broken adults who we do not allow to express how badly they were treated by their own mothers. We always see abuse by a female parent as an anomaly and often society coddles unfit mothers because at least they stay.

Mother’s Day must be a nightmare for children who grew up like my friend. For two weeks straight beforehand there are soppy messages on how wonderful mothers are, imagine how lonely it is to know that your mother wasn’t wonderful, that she yelled too readily, that she lost her temper too often, that you had to tiptoe around her temper in order to keep yourself safe.

I think we should be honest that not every woman who gives birth does a good job of mothering, it is not enough to merely be the parent who stays. For some women nurturing is not intrinsic and their version of raising children has a negative effect on adults.

Often in the community mothers who might not have wanted to be mothers in the first place emotionally blackmail children with the one line – “I carried you for nine months”. That is the absolute bare minimum, what happens in the womb matters less than what happens after a child is born.

I’d like to see a world in which mothers guide instead of control not allowing their tempers to decide the severity of discipline, allowing themselves to be emotionally available to their kids. We need to raise the kinds of kids who are not frightened to tell their mothers when they’ve made a mistake but the kind of kids who inform their parents secure with the knowledge that they will be helped to fix whatever problems that they come across in life.

We talk a great deal of the men in our lives who let us down. But what about the women, who exist in the shadows? Their victims deserve to talk about how much the abuse hurts.


Read about one writer’s opinion about fathers who abandon their children, here

Tell us: Do you think we talk enough about the role of mothers in children’s lives?