HomeOpinion & AnalysisThe flip side of family planning

The flip side of family planning

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Zimbabwe’s response to planning families is no doubt a matter that is marvelled at by health experts around the world.

By ROPAFADZO MAPIMHIDZE

The country managed to reduce the number of children from an average of seven to at least two in three decades.

However, these reductions have now started to produce very sad tales of parents, especially those who are single or widowed, that lead very lonely lives.

Having many children in the African context was a form of social security for elderly parents, who normally would not have a pension to support them.

Many births would serve as an economic cushion, where these elderly parents eventually became dependent on their children.

It was not uncommon to see women bearing children until they were well over 40, a practice that medical practice now discourages. This is because siblings would also assume the role of parents when these parents passed on.

Today you hardly see that many pregnant adult women in both rural and urban establishments.

A discussion among women at a meeting I attended prompted me to write this article. They expressed how their children had turned their backs on them, and in some instances left them in very desperate situations.

I learnt that most of these women were either widowed, divorcees or single parents by choice.

But what intrigued me most was the fact that most of these women lead very lonely lives because their children are grown up, leaving them in “empty nests”, where they spend hours on end either watching television or just lazing around their homes.

One woman started the discussion during tea break and expressed how she wished she had had more children because loneliness was driving her crazy.

“I wake up to a quiet, big four-bedroomed house, which feels intimidating. I have two children who live overseas and neither has been back to Zimbabwe for over a decade.They are both married and they hardly meet my day-to-day living expenses. I yearn to be around them like what we used to do with our parents many decades ago,” a former domestic worker, said.

“I am the last born in a family of eight children and I was the last to leave home when my parents died. They had me at home through and through, but I don’t see that happening to me,” a retired nurse, said.

Other women chipped in and soon there was what resembled a talk show, as women narrated how they were coping with the “empty nest syndrome”.

Most of them either had one or two children and only one woman indicated that she had four children, who were all in Canada.

This is the crisis that these family planning methods have created for most families especially in the urban set-up.

As more and more women exercise their desire to pursue studies, a lot of them have also suspended child-bearing in line with what is happening in the developed world.

But the rural folk too have not been spared.

Recently, I visited Nyanga and Nyazura, where I was told about many elderly parents that were living alone, as their children sought better opportunities in urban centres and neighbouring South Africa.

There is hardly any young people left in the villages, save for a few that mill around business centres, where they mingle at night as they guzzle a few bottles of beer.

With economic problems biting across many countries around the world, most children are not able to fend for their elderly parents and hence they feel abandoned.

Most families now prefer staying with their children in their lodgings in the city, where opportunities look brighter for them.

“Years ago, we would have grandchildren living with us here in the rural areas when their parents went to work in the cities. Today, the scenario is different.
Not many couples are willing to surrender their children like what used to happen when we were younger and hence the reason we have become a very lonely aged people,” said an elderly man I met at a grinding mill in Nyazura.

When families had more children, raising them was a shared responsibility with their grandparents, who literally became “surrogate parents” until nature took its course. It was an acceptable cultural practice, which was common in most rural areas.

“It was not unusual for grandparents to live with scores of grandchildren, whose parents would visit every month-end with groceries and many other goodies. But I have noticed a very big shift from that practice and what I see is an increase of elderly people relying on each other for their day-to-day survival,” said a shopkeeper in Nyazura.

One urban dweller concurred, saying when she was growing up in Mhondoro, most of the children she went to school with in Ngezi lived with their grandparents.
“I lived with my grandparents until I completed my
“O” Levels and moved to my parents in Highfield to do my “A” Levels and later proceded to the University of Zimbabwe.
“I had a very strong attachment and bond with my grandparents, but the same cannot be said about my teenage son. The longest period he has lived with my parents is two weeks in a year. My sisters also have small families and rarely send their children to be with our parents in Highfield,” she said.

Some traditional leaders confirmed that many elderly parents have been “abandoned” and that some die miserably with no close people around them.

“Urbanisation has created this problem. Children have become self-centred and do not care for their parents, who spent sleepless nights trying to make their lives better. Last month we nearly buried an elderly widower in the absence of his two adult sons who live in Bulawayo and Victoria Falls.

“The excuse they gave was that they were tied up at work and they left a day after the burial, something that is unheard of in Shona culture. Times have changed and without a reasonable pension, most parents are doomed to a sad and lonely end,” said a headman from Buhera.

Perhaps Zimbabwe ought to establish more retirement homes for the elderly, where they can live in the company of other people sharing similar fates.

Have children become so selfish as not to care about the emotional well-being of their elderly parents? Could this be described as abuse of the elderly retired senior citizens?

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