I shared a post recently about our nutrition outreach with mothers and children. My point was that nutrition outreach is holy work because children matter to God and good nutrition is so vital to the wellbeing of God’s littlest worshippers.
It has been such a good time for me personally to be able to connect with so many mothers and young children in the past several weeks. There is something unique and wonderful about gathering with a group of women for one expressed purpose: we love our babies! There’s a certain maternal vibe in the air, and I thrive on it.
There are also some challenging aspects to the under-five clinics. The lack of organization makes my type-A personality want to screeaaaaaaaaaaam and start herding everyone into straight lines. I also find it ironic that a program geared towards the health of young children could possibly be so not-kid-friendly. Where are the “be kind to me, I got my booster shot today!” stickers? Not here. And I hate it when mothers try to shove dewormer down their kids throats instead of taking it home and sneakily hiding it in their nshima. These are things I’ve come to expect and (for the most part) accept, and sometimes I even let down my hair and laugh about it.
But there is one thing that really pains my heart and I’ve never gotten over it. The sound of the small child whimpering because she’s hungry is by far the most upsetting sound I’ve ever heard. In these crowds of women with all their little ducklings, many of the kiddos are crying because they are tired or bored or hot or annoyed that someone stole their toy. But in every group, there is one who is too tired, too weak, too dehydrated to cry with gusto – all that is heard is a pitiful moan. The sound from that one child is worth a thousand shouted phrases though not a single word is uttered. Someone feed me, I’m so hungry is what it says. And my heart breaks. Sometimes I can justify not really worrying about all the other kids – they’ll probably be ok. Being small for your age isn’t that bad. Hopefully they’ll catch up in their development once they get to school – these are the things I tell myself. But it’s the one that’s on the brink of ruin that always catches the ear, and by extension, the heart. For you, dear child, I must care. For you, dear child, I must pay attention. For you, dear child, I must do something. And yet, you are not mine. Herein lies the horrible tension I carry around with me at every growth monitoring clinic. Every maternal instinct in my being wants to take that one child and snatch her away when her mother isn’t looking; to feed her with my own milk and prepare for her colorful foods and take off that bonnet that’s making her sweat and dehydrating her further.
Try as I might, I have a hard time stopping myself from thinking thoughts that begin with: “If she were my child…” I cringe a bit to accept that I think this way – thinking that I can do it better than some of my fellow moms at under-five. But, I think, what about my home country of America where parents loose their children for less egregious reasons than what I see here? What about the orphanages we support all across Africa that are full of children whose parents are still alive? These global attitudes towards children and first families confuse my concept of justice and sometimes even seem to support my otherwise arrogant attitude towards mothers whose performance doesn’t stack up.
And yet, as much as I know that the family policy and attitudes of my home country would often have my back when I think and feel like I want to snatch that child and make her mine, there is something else that tells me “this is not God’s best.” These are heavy words and again, I’m blinking away tears as I think about Mable, Maggie, Impundu and Timothy and my heart hurts for them and their tiny frames. But I still believe to my core that they were meant for their own mothers, no one else. There have been so many times that I myself have felt like a horrible mother – like when I found her eating cat poop, or when I failed to shut the door and she fell off the same set of stairs - twice, or when I left the wipes at home on the poopiest day ever, or how about every single time I bang her head into the door frame as we walk outside. More than once I have thought, jeepers, I’m sure someone could raise this girl better than I can. I think about how I have made the “terrible” choice to keep my baby in a Malaria infested country, far from good health care, no where near Grandma, without viable public educational and devoid of any of the familiar features of my own enriched upbringing. I half expect someone to show up at my door one day, succinctly explain that I am not fit to keep this child, and whisk her away to a better life, probably with an upper-middle class family in a pristine neighborhood in a top school district in Connecticut. As I play out the scenario in my mind, I understand the rationale but still hear myself yell in protest, “But she’s mine! God gave her to me! God gave her to ME!”
The thought that Bronwyn girl was designated to me, entrusted to me, commissioned to me and no one else, all with the foreknowledge and intentionality of almighty God gives me great pause when I look at other women. As much as I may want to swoop in and rescue the whimpering little one, I remember, she is being held by a mother who loves her, who was hand picked by God to care for her and be responsible for her. In those instances when both mother and father are totally unable to care for their child, I am thankful that orphanages and international adopters are ready and willing to humbly step into that role of providing familial care. It’s God’s grace to children all over the world that second families are there. But something in my heart tells me that God’s heart is for the first families.
It’s a necessary good that the systems and structures are in place for rescuing children and placing them with second families when no better option exists, but far be it from me to enable such action before working my tush off to see that the true mother has every opportunity to do right by her child.
Our attempts at nutrition outreach are meant to do just that. Teaching moms to make soy milk and explaining the dietary needs of babies and making home visits to counsel and advise on feeding plans and offering food support to mother’s whose small-for-age children need a serious boost… it all communicates a certain level of respect. I respect the fact that God chose you, not me to raise this child. It is therefore my privilege to walk with you in that journey. There is no shame in imperfection – Lord knows I’m not much better. But perhaps, by God’s grace, we can see these children become all that we dream they will be. Now, who wants to whip up some fishy-vegetable porridge!