Family expectations can be really difficult to challenge, as they’re often intertwined with traditional obligations.
Family demands can be tough to manage, particularly for professional women who come from humble beginnings. When your relations claim a share of your success, breaking free can be almost impossible. Even women who are masterful negotiators in the boardroom battle to set boundaries in this terrain, for fear of being perceived as having abandoned the basic principles by which they were raised – including that of ubuntu.
Likewise, family members who betray your trust in them can remain figures of dread and resentment for many years afterwards.
These four women found a way to balance their own ambitions with their home obligations – without guilt.
Dudu Mwelase, General Manager, Corporate Affairs: Nissan SA, is a mother of two who comes from a large family in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). She includes extended relatives and the community in her definition of family, but says she’s discovered that while blood ties bind and build, they can also harm when trust is breached.
In 2012, Mwelase suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised. During her harrowing experience, she had flashbacks of her childhood which included traumatic events, such as sexual abuse at the hands of her extended family.
“I was confused about why these memories were only surfacing 30 years later,” she says. “I called my mother to help me put the pieces of the puzzle together, but she said she couldn’t recall anything either. Considering how many times we moved from one home to another, I concluded that she may have suspected something wasn’t right but didn’t have enough evidence to act on.”
This led Mwelase to interrogate the meaning of family trust and take drastic steps.
To protect herself and her loved ones. After her recovery, she found that attending extended family gatherings in KZN was excruciating. “At the first such event, I was an emotional wreck and cried a lot. I also noticed one of my uncles looking at me inappropriately, which was a trigger that released my long- suppressed anger. However, I knew that making allegations so many years later could easily start a feud in our family. I decided not to confront anyone,” she explains. Continuing to interact with her abusers became impossible for Mwelase.
She went through a grieving process and decided to avoid family gatherings and focus her energies on her healing. “As I empowered myself through studies and professional help, I came to understand the real effects childhood abuse had had on my adult life and how it had hindered my potential to succeed,” she says. Following the death of her stepfather in 2014, Mwelase decided to build a new family home in Margate, on the KZN South Coast.
There, Mwelase, her children, her mother and her brothers could continue their tradition of spending the festive season together – far from those who’d caused her such pain.
“Although my home’s in Johannesburg, KZN will always be my second home and I still wanted to be able to enjoy my family’s company in a peaceful setting, where I could relax and make new memories. Now the only times I have to see my extended family are at funerals, which I’m obliged to attend,” she says.
As part of her healing, Mwelase’s also extended a helping hand through the Ziveze Foundation to empower young girls and mothers from rural areas to speak about sexual abuse in the family.
The original version of this article appeared in the January issue of Destiny Magazine