My mum is a remarkable woman. As a Professor of English and mother of 5, she is the epitome of the African woman who ‘has it all’. She is driven and ambitious and a wonderful wife and mother, who is not just an African woman, but an Urhobo woman and our culture means the world to her. Raising my sister and I, she constantly instilled certain principles in us, I’ve spent the last three years trying to unlearn.
I got my period when I was 9, an age I guess she deemed too young to get the ‘talk’. So she waited until I was 13 when I had begun to develop breasts that could have belonged on an 18-year-old and my hips had started to spread. I remember the talk almost verbatim, and it touched on way more than the usual stories of the birds and the bees.
Over a boiling pot of stew, she patiently explained to me my role as an African woman in the society and most importantly to my husband. From that day there was a distinct shift in how I was being raised. I was berated more than usual for messing up the housework and spent long hours in the kitchen, while my brothers waited to be served. I was constantly policed about the clothes I wore, as it became more difficult to hide my overdeveloped body. I often felt like I was being prepared for some competition everyone had failed to inform me about.
It’s been 10 years since I got that talk but here are the 3 things I’ve been unlearning from it.
That what I wear isn’t necessarily a projection of who I am
I’ve long passed the age where my mum is able to police what I wear, but sometimes when I put on a skirt that I think is a little too short or a top with a neckline that’s a little too low, I can hear her voice berating me if I close eyes. “Don’t wear clothes that’ll attract the wrong kind of attention”. But what she failed to tell me was that what I wore didn’t stop me for attracting the wrong kind of attention, and I’d still get catcalled regardless of the fact that I was in an ankle length skirt instead of shorts. For years I heard her blame women who had been sexually harassed attributing their misfortune to the clothes they wore or the fact that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, not so subtly hinting at the fact that the victims were partly at fault.
It’s no surprise that for several years, I adopted her sentiments and thought in the same manner. I’d hear stories about sexual harassment and think to myself thoughts like ‘well her skirt is always a little too short’ or ‘ why was she always surrounded by so many boys, it was bound to happen’. I’ve finally learned that sexual harassment is never the victim’s fault and witnessing first hand what our culture of victim-blaming does to victims of sexual assault, causes me to speak up as frequently and as loudly as I can. Preaching only one gospel – it’s never your fault.
That the marriage isn’t the most important thing I had to aspire to
Growing up, not a day passed that my mum didn’t mention what my sister and I dubbed the ‘ Big M’. It became a running joke between us, at the beginning of a day we’ll take bets on how many times my mum will mention the word marriage and try and stifle laughter every time she did. My mum was constantly focused on preparing us for marriage, which was funny because we were barely allowed to even glance in the direction of boys. Not a day went by without her saying something along the lines of “Don’t show so much cleavage what will be left for your husband” “Is that how you’ll do xxx in your husband’s house?” “If you don’t learn how to cook xyz who will make it for your husband?”.
Everything about how I was raised seemed like a means to an end, with the end being marriage. After I got my L.L.B my mom gave me a hearty “Congratulations!”, sat me down, and told me that while a degree was great and ambition was admirable, the most important next step was to find myself a good husband. Getting a well-paying job or career satisfaction played second fiddle to this. I had worked hard and finished with good grades yet I remember being livid at the thought that she didn’t appreciate all of my efforts. Then I remembered that she was raised in a different time, and while it might be too late for her to unlearn that a woman’s ambitions could reach beyond marriage, it wasn’t too late for me.
That my worth isn’t measured by how well I could make a pot of stew
Cooking was often a cause of conflict between my mother and I. For reasons that she couldn’t understand or tolerate. I hated to cook. No matter how hard she tried or what threats she made, I avoided it as often as I could and consequently never got really good at it. I’d often burn a pot of stew or oversalt a pot of jollof rice to chagrin. For my mum, my lack of cooking skills was more of a disappointment than any bad grade or moral slip up I could have made growing up. She’ll go on for hours lamenting as to the fact that I was unlikely to find a good husband. In contrast, my sister was an excellent cook and loved to be in the kitchen. As a result, my mum almost unconsciously pitted us against each other based solely on our cooking skills. For years I felt inferior — like something was fundamentally wrong with me for not wanting or knowing how to cook. It took me several years to shake it off and realize that my lack of cooking skills didn’t invalidate all of my other skills and achievements.
Featured Image: Bria Benjamin, prints available at Society6