ABOVE SELF-PITY

Don’t judge a woman by her motherhood - Millie Odhiambo

The MP says childlessness has been used to attack her politically, but she has never been bogged down by stigma over being barren

In Summary

• Odhiambo says she had late-diagnosed fibroids, which contributed to her inability to conceive naturally

• She says she has not let childbearing to define how she lives her life

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo
Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo
Image: FILE

Do you wake up every morning nursing the pain and stigma of childlessness?

In a social set up where childbearing means so much to so many people, childlessness or inability to conceive is widely stigmatised, leading to the collapse of many marriages besides affecting self-esteem.

In fact, for many women and men, inability to get their own children is such a sensitive subject that they shed tears in their closets when a joke about it is taken too far, or when a question that is insensitively phrased is thrown at them.

 
 
 

Many such women find it painful or shameful to attend social gatherings about children, such as baby showers or even rejoicing with those celebrating the arrival of a newborn, due to this situation. 

Childlessness may be by choice or by circumstance. If not voluntary, maybe they have not met a partner with whom they would like to have children, or because they tried unsuccessfully to conceive at an advanced maternal age, or because they suffer from certain medical issues, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), that make it difficult for them to conceive. 

PCOS is a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age. Women with PCOS may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. The ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid (follicles) and fail to regularly release eggs.

Am I going to die because I do not have a child of my own? I don’t think so?
Suba North MP

MILLIE ODHIAMBO'S CASE

The Suba North MP has not been able to conceive, and so does not have a child of her own. Odhiambo, 52, spoke to the Star in a free-wheeling, tell-it-all interview at the lounge of the National Assembly.

She said while it is true she is childless, she actually looks at it as being child-free. This is because she has not had one of her own due to circumstances within and without her choice.

“For me, not having a child has been both by choice and not by choice,” she said.

 
 
 

On the bit of choice, Odhiambo said she dedicated herself to being a child rights activist. It is this work that saw her rise to be the executive director of the Cradle, a child rights lobby.

“I love children so much and fighting for their rights was a vocation for me, not a career. I got sucked into it and forgot myself, ending up in marriage at 38 years,” the three-time MP said, adding that this does not mean she does not value having children, marriage or having a family.

"My love for what I was doing made me push my wedding forward for a year, even after I had bought the wedding dress. So if I really thought having a child was that big a deal, I would have sought to be married earlier than at 38, when it would be biologically proper to bear a child.” 

However, the legislator revealed she had fibroids for a long time, a condition that got diagnosed late in 2001 in New York, USA, but only got surgically removed in 2006.

Fibroids are abnormal growths that develop in or on a woman's uterus. Sometimes these tumours become quite large and cause severe abdominal pain and heavy menses.

In other cases, they cause no signs or symptoms at all. The growths are typically benign, or noncancerous. The cause of fibroids is unknown.

Some researches show that some types of fibroids portend infertility in women, especially if not dealt with in time.

"I used to have extremely painful monthly periods and heavy menses," she said. "In fact, I would be hospitalised every time I had periods."

Another factor that worked against her conceiving naturally, she said, was that while her work was in Kenya, her husband worked in Zimbabwe, and both were "not willing to sacrifice our engagements to be in one place".

"I had just got appointed executive director and my husband also just got tapped as a ranking executive of a chain of hotels in his country, so we thought it would have been unfair for us to let either of us sacrifice our careers, especially in a changing world, where distance no longer matters," she said.

"Zimbabwe was also going through hard times when we got married, and relocating there was really not favourable."

Combining all the factors, all the odds were now stacked against the MP's chances of getting her own baby when she wanted.

“As you may know for women, conception goes with age. At a certain age, especially when it is advanced, the chances [of conceiving] are largely diminished,” she said.

POSSIBLE INTERVENTIONS

Nevertheless, Odhiambo said she has never been at pains to have her own child "because a child must be my own for me to love him or her". 

While appreciating that countless women and men are battling crippling stigma for not being able to bear children of their own, Mabona said she never grappled with such because "I have always believed that having or not having a child is not what defines me".

"I do not want to take the pain that childless women go through and trash it. But for me, childbearing is not really an issue I give serious premium. It does not define me and women should rise above it; it should not define who they are," the boisterous legislator said.

Odhiambo said this is the attitude that has propelled her all her life, not thinking her inability to conceive naturally is a big deal. "In any case, if I really wanted a child, I would have sought other interventions," she said. "Am I going to die because I do not have a child of my own? I don't think so?"

She, however, explained that she felt deep emptiness after the death of her mother in 2011, a feeling of loneliness that she thought could have not existed if she had a child of her own.

"In fact, this remains the biggest setback in my life. I felt that if I had a child, the hollowness could have been filled. I, however, overcame it," she said.

Nevertheless, so deep was the hollowness she felt that she decided to visit a doctor alongside her Zimbabwean husband, Magugu Mabona. 

"We were exploring options the following year, including in-vitro fertilisation, but I again lost interest," she said, explaining that her husband has never put pressure on her to get a child.

"Lucky for me, my husband had a child when we got married and so he did not have the pressure. In fact, I think we have had a discussion on this subject only once," she said.

All is, however, not lost for the MP, as she said she has been considering what final decision to make on the matter and will make it by December this year. Among the options she is considering are adoption and in-vitro fertilisation.

I was informed that a male personality from the area said in a meeting that how can a 'lur' (childless woman) lead the people
Millie Odhiambo

CHILDLESSNESS AND POLITICS

While the ODM legislator was able to pack the stigma around this subject to the backburner all her life, getting into politics showed how seriously the society takes it and may occasionally apply it to her disadvantage. 

Odhiambo said childlessness, known in Luo as "lur", had not been used against her until she showed interest in running for Parliament in 2011 to represent the then Mbita constituency. She was serving her term as a nominated MP during this time.

"I was informed that a male personality from the area said in a meeting that how can a 'lur' (childless woman) lead the people," she said, adding that she was taken aback when she got to know about this.

The effect of this mudslinging was so deep, so much so that her mother, who had delicate health, got affected, even advising her not to run.

"I knew my mum was very affected by the abuse of childlessness and she expressed as much. I even told my colleagues here at the time that some of the senior leaders abusing me as a barren woman would stress my mother to death," she said, adding that this is what might have led to her mother collapsing and dying.

It played out again in 2017, when she was running for re-election. Leaders tried to push her out, including dissuading the Orange party from giving her the nomination certificate because "Suba North people deserved more than being led by a barren prostitute".

"Strangely, all these attacks, especially the 2017 one, were done by people aligned to a woman leader," she said, refusing to divulge any detail.

Mike Sonko became the latest ranking politician to throw cheap shots at the MP, using her inability to conceive to attack her on social media when she told him off over his outburst at former MP Ken Okoth's requiem mass. 

"I am longing for the day you shall open wide your legs to give birth to a child so that you experience the pain that the mothers I am defending go through. You must respect those single mothers who struggle with their kids as men go missing," Sonko posted on Facebook, accusing Odhiambo of having a 'weird marital life' and lacked the moral authority to lecture anyone on matters marriage.

But not taking bullying lying down, Odhiambo said she is proud of her childless condition.

"I am proudly childless just like several other women and men. Let us all be proud of our various God-given creations, including commas and full stops," Odhiambo posted on her Facebook account.

During the interview, she said, "For an idiot like Sonko who does not know me, the joke was on him. In fact, I think I'm wired differently, not like other women. If you tell me I'm childless, it is like you are saying I have breasts. It makes no difference at all," she said.

VOICE FOR THE VOICELESS

The MP said she considers herself immensely favoured to be a voice of the childless in the National Assembly, not giving any second to thoughts of pity. Odhiambo said she set her bars, including in her professional life, higher, not allowing any notion of pity with regards to having a child.

Odhiambo, who believes in godly predestination, said it was part of God's plan to be in Parliament as a childless woman and speak on behalf of the many who cry in their closets, not having any courage to speak out.

"After I spoke out about my situation, I received numerous responses with women coming forward, complimenting me that I'm actually telling their stories," she said.

"In fact, a woman in the media approached me, saying she is going through the same thing. Many women stop me in the streets, airports, whispering to me about their situation and thanking me for speaking."

The lawmaker said even to be nominated to Parliament was a privilege that millions do not have, an opportunity that gave her a footing in politics and a platform to air special interest issues. 

Edited by T Jalio