Friday, 7 November 2014

The Tribe that Raises my Children

I've just landed back in Johannesburg after a working week in Cape Town. I've walked into my father's house to a loving welcome from my two boys and a 'Welcome Home' gluten free cake. Only to find that my husband has been away working for the past two days in another city too. He hadn't actually told me he was going. And that didn't really matter. Because his mom and my dad have just been seamlessly caring for my boys in the 'tribal' home we are all sharing at the moment.

Why are we all sharing this home? Well it's a long story.

I'll start with my parent's marriage finally ending. My mother, the narcissist, has been bullying my father for their entire married life. It was miserable to live through as children, and equally unpleasant to be at the dinner table for family gatherings as adults when she would take pot shots at him and embarrass us all. They have lived in a beautiful house on a hill since I was 2 years old. It's huge, with a rambling garden. But once all of us left home, I think it must have felt quite empty. And expensive to maintain on two schoolteacher state pensions. Mom has wanted them to move into a retirement village for years. Dad has stubbornly refused. She wanted the company. He couldn't bear the idea of being surrounded by people all the time. Suddenly, last year, at 74, mom decided she was going anyway, and dad decided to stay behind. She moved into the retirement village and was suddenly surrounded by clamoring fans which suited her perfectly - she took over running the choir and achieved the ageing narcissist's dream - constant accolades and fame from everyone she lives with. And dad finally got the peace from her he's been needing for years. It was an inspired solution!

But that did also leave dad alone in a huge, rambling home, now trying to maintain it on ONE schoolteacher's state pension.

At about the same time, my big university son announced that he would like to return home and stay with us during the next 3 years while he completes his articles. I was thrilled! He had told us in second year that he thought he wouldn't be coming home again, and I had resigned myself to that. But this change of plan sounded wonderful - another 3 years with him for me, and also for his little brothers, felt like a wonderful thing. Except that the house we were living in no longer had enough bedrooms for him to come back to (he would call that #firstworldproblems). So we would need a new house. And also at about this time, my husband and I were starting to explore the 'separate but together' idea, in which case EVEN MORE bedrooms would be needed! Add to that the fact that my husband's mom lives with us intermittently, and you suddenly have a huge tribe of people needing rehousing.

My shrink and I were pondering the dilemma. And I suddenly put all those needs into one basket and realised that we could all move to my dad's place, and renovate it in a way that worked for us all! My dad loved the idea - we would build him a separate studio to stay in so he could still find his peace, with a view, but not have to worry about the expensive upkeep. So we've designed plans for a beautiful 'tribal village'. I'm jokingly calling it 'My Nkandla' after the dreadful joke in our country at the moment of the state having spent untold millions upgrading our current president's private homestead which houses a very large family.

Both my husband and I have always thought that bringing the tribe to live together would be a great ideal to strive for. Once my own mom is out of the picture, the rest of us are pretty good at co-existing and living together. So the place we designed has a homestead house, with two separate suites for my husband and me, and bedrooms for the boys. Then Grandad has his studio. And Granny has her cottage. And my grownup son also has a cottage. And all of this constitutes the tribe that will live together for now, three generations co-existing in relative harmony and supporting one another.

The older people are doing their own thing, but also will pick up some of the domestic tasks like emergency grocery shopping; supervising the domestic worker and gardener; sometimes collecting a child at school. Granny used to be a primary school teacher and has been invaluable in supporting my youngest with his homework. My middle son and Grandad share an enthusiasm for politics and nature survival techniques, and so both of them are really enjoying that time together.

So we sold the house we lived in, but haven't yet built the new 'Nkandla'. My husband is currently renovating one of the little rental houses we own so we can 'camp' there until the big building project is done. But we're camping at Grandad's house for now because the renovation at the small house isn't ready for us yet. So a lot of compromise, wobbliness and displacement issues happening in my family right now. My big boy drives up from Cape Town on Tuesday, ready to settle into his grownup life, and, as yet, we have nowhere for him to stay. That should be solved over the weekend, I hope!

So that's the long story of the creation of my Tribal village. It's 'in creation' mode at the moment, and will be for at least the next year. But I'll persevere: I love the idea of the village that raises my children. I love that the old people can become relevant members of our tribe and not disappear into lonely discarded places. My husband and I are most definitely in the sandwich generation space where both our children and our parents will need our support and care. But with this model we give them the space to support and care back, feeling that they do contribute. And their wisdom comes to our children. And our children's energy comes back to them and keeps them feeling cheerful and fresh. The old people and the young people cared for me kindly after my hospital stay, and they know I will do the same for them when they become more frail.

My husband is still considering whether he will continue with this weird marriage we have and live with us in the tribal village. But I'm going on with it regardless. I would love him to stay, so long as he manages himself in a way that doesn't make it all unpleasant. Maybe in a few years time, both he and I will be comfortable enough to have our lovers stay over sometimes - when everybody is comfortable with the idea, that may no longer feel weird. I hope so. It would be lovely if this family homestead can embrace the life stages we all go through and make it normal in our world.

And when the old people pass on, and the youngsters leave to create their own lives, well then I'll decide what Nkandla's next life will be: a commune for older single chicks like me? A guest home where I can earn some income? Who knows. But for now, it's the family homestead, and I'll be focusing on the creative process of making all of that come alive over the next year.


  1. Hi Trudy, my name is Banke and I manage a coworking space in Nigeria. I like your image and would love to adopt it in a quote i'm working on if you allow me to. Thank you.

    1. Hi Banke. I sourced the image off Pinterest, so I can't give you permission to use it, I'm afraid. Regards, Trudy