Ramatoulaye is a devoted mother to her twelve children. When Modou abandons her for Binetou, and then when he eventually dies, Ramatoulaye must redouble her efforts as a mother and face with courage the prospect of being a single parent. Ramatoulaye’s struggles as a mother are not just particular to her marital situation—they are also particular to the times in which she lives, as her children are growing up during the dawn of Senegalese independence. They are entering a society that is less repressed and inhibited than it once was, but by that same token is full of new dangers for teenagers, who are now exposed to a much wider array of temptations and urges.
Ramatoulaye faces this very difficulty in the final of third of the book. A progressive mother, she treats her adolescent children with a laissez-faire (“hands off”) attitude, allowing her daughters to wear trousers (unusual for Senegalese-Muslim women) and go out at night. As she puts it, “I wanted my daughters to discover [love] in a healthy way, without feelings of guilt, secretiveness or degradation.” However, when Ramatoulaye finds three of her daughters smoking, and soon afterward discovers that another daughter, Aissatou II, has gotten pregnant out of wedlock, she comes to reconsider her parenting methods. She grows angry at her children, and worries that her hands-off parenting has left them in peril.
In the end, however, Ramatoulaye brings herself to meet her children’s mistakes with equanimity and love. Rather than spurn her pregnant daughter, she remembers how her daughters supported her in her time of need, and welcomes her with open arms, writing “one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable…one is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.” And, in any case, she is impressed by her children’s ability to confront and resolve their missteps completely of their own accord. In particular, she is surprised to find that Aissatou, upon learning she was pregnant, worked together with her boyfriend to determine how the child would be cared for, arranging that her boyfriend’s grandparents would care for the child in the first years of its life.
For Ramatoulaye, motherhood is an ongoing, mysterious, hugely difficult, and ultimately reciprocal process. Her decision to meet her pregnant daughter with boundless love, while not exactly conventional by her community’s standards, brings her closer to her child, and reinvigorates her with a new understanding of motherhood.
Motherhood Quotes in So Long a Letter
Life is an eternal compromise. What is important is the examination paper… This, too, will be at the mercy of the marker. No one will have any say over him. So why fight a teacher for one or two marks that can never change the destiny of a student?
And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.