Putting your child in a boat

By Tracy Danton. Tracy, 51 lives in St Helena Bay, South Africa. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below. (*Shortlisted for the 2018 prize!)


Discuss the following excerpt from Warsan Shire’s poem Home:

“you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land”


An obvious option is to discuss this within the context of the poem and its related economic, political, humanitarian and spiritual drivers. Or, one could extract it and discuss it from another perspective – something more personal to the writer – a topic of interest and keen debate over the years.

A personal essay will therefore ensue.

What exactly does it take to decide that the water is safer than the land? And, who are we to judge? Do we always have choice and freedom? What happens if decisions are imposed on us? How about the fact that sometimes we just do not know what to do? I know for sure that there are times in life that what we thought we would do/say/feel/be, we do not or did not. Reality is unique to the perceiver and a boat comes in many guises.

Adoption – a personal account of two acts of “putting your child in a boat”.

Imagine you are a 17-year old girl, in a small town, in the 60s, in South Africa – a country in the midst of Apartheid, fraught with suppression and restrictions, where way too many things are taboo – and you “somehow” get pregnant by your 16-year old boyfriend. The unthinkable lands right in your lap. (Pun intended.)

Let me take you on a journey; perhaps a very different one to the world as we know it now.

One might assume that it was a mistake – naiveté is a strange and powerful thing – but what we do know is that every action has a reaction, along with consequences that cling like parasites. I bet that while they were exploring and experimenting with their awakening senses, the dark fear of consequence was nowhere to be found. That guillotine came down when the pregnancy test showed positive. I can only imagine that horror; the fear; the terror of feeling so alone. It was in that moment that the land became a very unsafe place for that young girl, with child.

Her mother’s face pulled tight. Her lips pursed and her neck stiffened. Quite symbolic of the constricting society this was taking place in. Her body language relayed a very negative message. The entire landscape changed in that terrifying moment. Father removed himself and left Mother to deal with the mess, as he named it. Within the turmoil, driven by shame and disappointment, Mother surveyed the land, on her own, to assess the damage. It was unanimously decided that the only way to deal with these cards was to put her in a boat and sail her to a home for unwed mothers. There, they all shared the same cycles of guilt, panic, fear, rejection and abandonment. Ironically, it was in a desperate effort to save her child that Mother did this. She knew that on land, she would be bullied into a pit of shame from which she would never recover. Reputations would be smeared, through silent hissing and secret gossiping. The town would rumble with disgrace. This was the first act of “putting your children in a boat” – the unchartered sea being seen as a much safer place than the cruel, uncertain land for her “sinful” daughter.

The journey was tumultuous – waves of emotion nearly drowned her often. The repetitive crashing of blame, the invisible sneers from society peering over the swells and the haunting call of sea gulls, which echoed in the impossible silence. She had to be strong. She was a mother now – a single parent to a babe she would never know. The boy-father had been cast away, to an island of silence. Never to be spoken about, bondage became part of his land life.

Can you even begin to conceive the pain of being a surrogate mother to your own child; one whom you will never know? Can you feel the incredible discomfort and confusion of living a lie for months – being away and then suddenly reappearing? These are only some elements of the dark side of unwanted pregnancies. But, who are we to say it was unwanted? Sadly, some decisions in life are out of our hands and control it seems. The great imposition!

And so, the demand for the second “putting your children in a boat” scenario arrived. Nine months later, all out of options due to parental, societal and circumstantial pressure, the forced decision had to be executed. A death within a birth for that biological-surrogate mother. The little one had wanted to come a few weeks earlier and frozen rigid with fear, she begged her through the taut belly flesh to stay inside for a while longer. Till she could cope; perhaps an empty wish? There are some things in life we will never be prepared for. Only the scars of birth would attest to her motherhood, as, once her child breathed its first breath, she was taken away. Removed. Gone. Her young outstretched arms aching with an unknown longing to cling to her child. But no, the child was to be prepared by strangers for her “new life.” One which started at the local Child Welfare and then continued for three long months. The mother pondered on the irony of the word “welfare”, blinked and closed her reddened eyes.

And so, little Nicolette set sail, to a future unknown, in her plastic boat, on waters perceived to be safer than her birth land.

44 comments on “Putting your child in a boat

  1. Shannon Els on

    This is a poignant, well written piece, the emptiness, despair and powerlessness of the young mom is tangible and heartbreaking. Thought-provoking.

  2. Gi-Gi Saunders on

    A beautiful and heartfelt piece. To say rhat it is thought provoking is an understatement. It touches my emotions with vivid images of the young mother.

  3. Sue Christen on

    Beautifully written. So poignant and touching. Thanks for sharing the emotions, pain and heartbreak which most of us know so little about, in a situation like this. Well done Tracy.

  4. Barbara Adendorff on

    Such a deep conversation with the many layers of emotional confusion, conflict and the agony of making a choice which is so contradictory to the nature of motherhood! It is beautifully written and touches the heart of the reader!

  5. Daniel Smith on

    Well written Tracy, a very emotional piece! The last sentence “And so, little Nicolette set sail, to a future unknown, in her plastic boat, on waters perceived to be safer than her birth land.” sums it up for me with the word “perceived” to be the key to this very tragic story. Children should only be placed on a boat as a very last option and if the threat on land is far greater than on the boat/water. Sadly society’s perception of what is a “threat” (socially acceptable) is more often than not a very skewed perception and the cause of so much pain.

  6. Tracy on

    Thank you everyone. Much appreciated.

    Yes Daniel….we are often so torn and that is always a frightening experience. I can only try to imagine what my biological mother felt and would love her to know that I am happy, healthy, content and spiritually balanced. Children are such gifts, but I guess based on my sacred contracts in this lifetime (and the other players in this situation) I was meant to be with my other mom and dad….who were amazing!!!! May they both RIP

  7. Derick van Rooyen on

    The writing is incredibly vulnerable. It captures so well the fear and anxiety of the young mother and then to make that choice! WOW . Amazing way to end the essay, leaving it up to the reader to contemplate the choice made. Thank you Tracy for sharing.

  8. Divya Varadarajan on

    Beautiful Tracy! Oflate I have been a horrible reader. I barely make it past half of any article or blog I start to read , but I couldn’t stop reading your interpretation. I loved it. You’ve explained a Mother’s dilemma so beautifully. As a mother, we always want the best for our children even if it tears our heart.

  9. Erina Hey on

    Oh Tracy. This is so well written. I felt the raw emotion. The decisions in life that we as humans need to make at times can be overwhelming and wash us overboard. Thanks for sharing.
    Congratulations on this piece of wrttting.

  10. Dale Kelly on

    Tracy, this comes from deeply within and thank you for a truly poignant piece. I wish your biological surrogate mother could read this because she would be so comforted. I can only imagine her pain and the memories of her little baby girl that will last a lifetime. She would be so proud of the wonderful human being she brought into the world.

  11. Tracy on

    Thank you once again everyone.

    Thank you Dale. I guess that’s part of the dilemma too – should adopted children meet their biological parents (or the other way round.) so much water can be under the bridge, that it may bring up all sorts of skeletons. But….what if it proves to be glorious and healing? I’ve heard stories from both sides. Difficult one.

  12. Leoni on

    Tracy, you are a remarkable lady. You can be so proud of “YOU”. I just wish I had met you earlier in life. Keep going girlie, the world is waiting on your stories ❣

  13. Manya Biemans on

    Deep. Non-judgemental. Raw and bare truth.
    An insight people need desire to understand and forgive themselves and others.
    Great piece.

  14. Nick Saunders on

    This story paints an incredibly vivid picture that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me want to read further about the little girl’s journey and to see how she experienced the safety of the water. Having my own baby girl now that is the centre of my world, this story was particularly touching. Well done for baring your soul and for giving us insight into a little known part of your heart.

  15. Melanie de Grooth on

    Beautifully written, painfully raw…a poignant insight into the trauma and loss for both mother and child in cases of unavoidable adoption. Tracy, you have managed to get the reader to feel the pain and loss, and the fear of the unknown, in the most tangible and delicate way. Thank you for sharing this work.

  16. Sam Brown on

    Beautiful piece of the heart. I remember my own experience standing on a beach with babe in arms looking at the same boat wondering which was safer for my child. Thank you for this poignant snapshot.

  17. Lee on

    Beautifully written Tracy, very touching. I want to continue to read this little girl’s story so please keep up the good work.

  18. Don on

    What a beautiful piece of writing, Tracy. Its almost as though the poem was written just for you to flesh out the details. Now I await the child’s fascinating story.

  19. Cheryl Robertson on

    A tragic story told with such compassion and understanding for the biological mother you lost right after entering this world.
    I think her loss was greater though, because she didn’t get to witness the incredible human being you are and she didn’t get to see what you accomplished and the two beautiful children you brought into this world and raised, despite your uncertain start in life.
    Well done Tracy, for a phenomenal piece of writing that comes straight from your heart and for being brave enough to bare your soul for all who want to see it.

  20. Wayne de Jager on

    It was an interesting read and well written. I evokes two thoughts, one being the way that society has laid it’s judgement on something that is greater than it, the Devine’s plan which we don’t understand. The second being understanding that first moment of life. Some will never understand it until that have experienced it. I’m a male and never really wanted a rug rat until she arrived. I will never understand why I never wanted another little me in my life. Btw, she too was born out of wedlock but I chose to be part of raising her and not putting her in a boat and I am so proud of her today!
    Life is about emotion, without it we are nil. Society however tells us how to behave and feel. Step out of that for life has more to offer than a boat.
    Loved the meaning of it all Mrs. Danton!! Give us more! X

  21. Kevin Hansen on

    Well written Tracy! You definitely have a knack for writing so keep it up! Very articulate and well thought out read. I sense it came deep from within so thank you for sharing.

  22. Jeannie on

    Very moving, Tracy – as others have said, if only your biologcal mother could read this and know the person you’ve become – she would be very proud.

  23. Justin on

    Well done Tracy. Well done for an excellent piece of writing. Well done for putting such a hard and raw concept in such a beautiful way and well done for having the courage to write it in the first place.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  24. Janine Thomson on

    Awesome indeed!
    I want to just read more of this story. I was captivated from the first sentences because it comes from places deep within your being.
    Want the whole book, it will be a best seller!

  25. Tanya on

    Well done Tracy! Whilst reading I was swept away, I was this young mother who felt scared, anxious & sad. Your writing transported me to another world, her world… and is that not just the whole idea of reading, especially a well executed piece like yours? Thank for sharing, I am looking forward to reading more from your pen in the future!

  26. Gaynor Smith on

    This is a heartbreakingly beautiful article! Such a vivid picture of the truth surrounding circumstances such as this during those times in our country.

  27. Robyn Hughes on

    I was so captivated and drawn in to this thought provoking and heartbreaking piece. You took me on a journey where I felt torn between the sadness the Mother must have felt for making that tough decision for her Child (and grandchild) and for the Child having to face a life changing moment that should be filled with joy and love and all things good and yet was filled with shame and guilt and loss.
    I have a lump in my throat, goosebumps (at the same time!) and all my emotions are on edge! Please tell us more!!

  28. Bridget on

    This piece of writing vividly takes you on the this young woman’s journey. You can picture her life and feel her emotions. Incredible Tracy.

  29. Neil Niemand on

    Reminds me of the short glimpse of a story often added to the back of the authors book to entice the reader to buy the next book – I want to buy this one! There is some much more to explore with this story – it definitely leaves you wanting more….


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