I, like many other ethnic females, have a complex relationship with ‘mother’, not just the word, but the person. I have felt many things for her, anger, hatred, sadness, passivity and love. Gillian Flynn penned in Sharp objects; ‘I think some women aren’t made to be mothers. And some women aren’t made to be daughters’; foolish of me to believe that I was the only one who dared think that thought, brave of Flynn to pen it down. Like a child, my relationship with my mother has grown and matured, from a passive infant to a rebellious teenager, the relationship now stands as something I would describe as an understanding adult. We have raised that little girl- our relationship- together.
In this essay, which reads more like a personal memoir, I will journey through my past, that of my parents and our shared present to provide a wholistic view of my struggle with ‘Mommy issues’ and hopefully, provide some useful insight, a new lens, in which young females can look at their mothers through. My thoughts, for clarity’s sake, will be divided into five sections- the first looking at my early relationship with my mother, the second looking at the relationship my parents had with their mothers and subsequently how that affected the lens through which they saw me, thirdly I will look at how these interlinked webs of relationships affected how I viewed ‘the mother’ before I address how everything changed and provide ‘advice’ (if it may even be called that). I am aware that this topic is a heavy one, it has been in and out of my work rotation since February because, in some ways, I’ve been ‘pacing myself’ trying to make sure I convey each emotion to the best of my ability, this piece will not be easy to read, and for that, I apologise. I am aware that because this is a very subjective topic, my knowledge may be limited. However, like my predecessors before me, speaking out on their relationship with their mothers, I hope that this will help someone, anyone. To step out from the dark shadow cast by ‘the mother’ and live in the light shone by oneself.
Part I- Mother and I
I would shatter and piece together at her every command.
I was the only daughter, in a ‘traditional’ Christian African household, where gender roles were very much adhered to. It is very important to lay this foundation because it is on that which my early years were built, the mould into which I was poured. It is difficult to remember a happy memory with mother in my early years – it troubles me, but I am not surprised. I would very much like to recount the good before the bad, I want sweeter memories to be underpinned by a bitter aftertaste.
Perhaps I will recount my sweetest memory and a crucial one that shaped the woman I was now.
I am six, wide-eyed and have shed the fat that I came into the world with. I am sitting on the hood of a cream-coloured, street-battered Benz, underneath the mango tree in my grandparents’ compound. Mother has driven us, we listened to music on the way there and I completed the lyrics for songs I had never heard before. I am sitting on the hood of a cream-coloured, street-battered Benz, staring directly into the murky brown eyes of my mother, and she is looking at me as though I am a miracle, she is looking at me as though it is the first time she is seeing me, really seeing me- since she has given birth to me. I am basking in the glory of her gaze and the tingling sweetness of her recognition, her approval, in the clothes that she has picked out for me, in the hair that she has painfully slicked back. After she looks at me without saying anything, she begins to prophesy;
There’s something in you, something different
something special that they won’t comprehend
But have no fear, have faith!
Forged from the half of a dead star and tears
As you go through the years, you’ll transcend all your peers
And they won’t understand that you are beyond your time
I want you to fly, ascend to the sky where you belong
Leave me behind my precious sky child, my darling
You don’t belong in this world
You weren’t made from this world
and you weren’t made for this world
Don’t you understand?
Life won’t end in this world for you
So, I want you to rise, ascend to the sky where you belong
Leave me behind-
my precious sky child
Go my sky child, go where you belong
Daughter of the sky
Go where you belong
At that moment I knew who I was, a daughter of the sky. It was that label she etched at the back of my throat, where that lump was as I looked at her confusingly, that label which I would grow to wear with pride.
This just goes to show, the profound effect that my mother had on my life, she predicted my very career.
The sweetness of that memory eventually soured as I grew older. From being a dreamer, I became lazy, from being a speaker to being too opinionated and too loud, from being ‘of the sky’ I was too distracted, too distant. That precious yellow-green memory was overshadowed by darker hues; Scoring a goal at a handball game and the fading smile when I realised that she was never watching, the disappointment of my results, the summers spent in the family library, reading schoolbooks whilst my brothers played loudly in the parlour. The dread that came with getting an answer wrong blossomed into a constant need for her approval.
As I aged, my grades became less important, I had another role to fill. A helper. To me, it felt like slavery. The knives and spoons and forks became my friends, as I would use and wash and rinse and dry them. Ingredients that I had only known by taste became my scent as I would scuttle around the kitchen, whilst mother would be red-hot angry, agitated from a day at the market. The kitchen became my audience, as she made me dance across that tiny floor and ready to snap if I missed a step. I often missed steps. I often was snapped at, and slapped, and caned.
Then she became pregnant! And it was time for me to learn the roles of a mother, young as I was, I began to learn a different dance, that of empathy and feeling, that of care- knowing when a child was hungry, or sleepy, or needed a poo, a burp, a diaper change. I began to learn the basic steps to the dance of motherhood.
I resented every second of it after I learned that it was a dance whose steps would never be dictated by myself. Motherhood, daughterhood, and wifehood are all dances that I believed the steps to, would be dictated by someone else. I was an angry dancer, but for fear of consequence, I grew out of the clumsiness and learned to move with grace. She had succeeded in moulding me into something she could tolerate, not a work that she was pleased with, or proud of, but something fit for purpose. Good enough.
I was clay in her hands, but amidst the constant pressure of her ever-increasing demands, the heat of her expectations constantly rising, and the glare of her look of constant disapproval, cracks were beginning to show.
Part II(A) Mother and Mother’s mother
The stories I had heard of my grandmother could not be true. How could they? How could this frail, silver-haired darling be the one to yell and curse? To beat with a three-ended cow tail whip until welts grew? How could her soft eyes glance at anyone with anything other than affection?
My grandmother was softer than room temperature butter- in my eyes.
In the eyes of my mother, she was wholly different.
Mother, like I, was the only girl in a traditional African household that reeked of the stench of patriarchy. She had five brothers and even though she wasn’t the eldest, she was a ‘mother’ to them all. When grandmother couldn’t be bothered to cook, or go to the market? Mother would do it. When she couldn’t be bothered to wash and clean? Mother would do it. Unwillingly, but perfectly, for fear of consequence. I am very aware of the fact that my mother matured much, much quicker than I did. She took on roles I donned in teenage hood, as a child.
Yes, I will say it, bitter as the truth is, my mother is stronger than I will ever be.
Where did she learn that disapproving gaze?
Where did she learn how to curve the whip to ensure its sting?
Where did she learn to show love as quickly as she could put it away?
Where did she learn to smile when she was breaking?
Or put everyone before herself?
Where did she learn the moves, she makes me perfect?
Before Mother was mine, she was a daughter to her mother. Their relationship lies on ice. I wince thinking of my mother performing the dances she taught me for her mother, straining with effort to be perfect but falling short, as I have. The relationship with her mother mirrors ours, everything is dished out in the quantity measured to be enough, but just short of authentic. Like most relationships I have grown up around, it reflects the sentiment that where love is not enough, and prone to failure, obligation stands the true test of time.
‘You’re lucky you didn’t grow up with my mother,’ I was told when I failed at school, this was followed by a gruesome story about how my grandmother, after seeing a disappointing report card would sneak on my mother whilst she was showering and whip her with her famous pepper-stained cow-tail whip.
‘You’re lucky you didn’t grow up with my mother’ I’m told when I’m caught talking to myself, followed by a tale of how my grandmother called a ‘priest’ to inscribe marks on my mother’s face to chase away the demons, the invisible friends, that she was talking to. ‘You’re lucky you didn’t grow up with my mother’ I’m told when I’m shown any form of mercy. There is always a tale to be told. Isn’t it strange how she sang tales of her unjust treatment at the hands of my grandmother when she would be unjust to me? As if to say, I don’t know why you feel bad, I’ve felt worse. Even more, unspoken is ‘your feelings aren’t valid because, had it been me, I would have handled it better.’
‘My mother never used to look at my face,’ she used the same tools on me. My mother didn’t look at my face for the bulk of my girlhood. What a terrible thing for a teenage girl to not be seen. Add this to the list of things my mother can do; erase my very reflection.
Part II(B) Father and Father’s mother
Father, on the other hand, was the male sandwiched between two girls, with an absent older brother.
When he was younger, there was hardly a day when he was separated from his mother.
They were joined at the hip, and when hers was weak, he would provide support. He learned everything from that woman. More than, he will claim, he learned in schools and colleges.
I think about how my grandmother will forever be the most important woman in father’s life. I suppose I could come second, not because of anything I do, but because of my grandmother. Beyond the Freudian truths that tinge every father-daughter relationship, I have been told from an early age that I am the reincarnation of my grandmother. I have two of her names as proof.
To strip children of a chance to develop their personalities by ascribing them those of past loved ones is an unspoken crime, but I will not dwell on how I will forever be a ghost in my father’s eyes. This belief is not only held by my father but by all of his siblings. They rarely call me by my name, I note that when I am good my dad calls me my grandmothers name before he calls me my own, on the day I graduated my aunt called in tears telling me how wonderful it was that her mother had walked across the stage when my name was called. Ghosts.
I bring this up as a testament to how powerful my father’s relationship with his mother was and, in many ways, still is, to a degree where she is almost my saviour. The Christian Jesus is replaced with Ine, when my father looks at me in anger, he, like a god, ceases to view my defiant eyes. Before him is an image of his mother, and he breathes, and all my sins are forgiven. She died for my sins; I live so she can live through me. What a terrible thing for a teenage girl to not be seen.
Part III- My initial view of ‘the mother’
Guilt shrouded my concept of mothers, alongside the urge to pedestalise them. We as ethnic children are often told from a young age that we are, ‘all a mother has’- a concept no doubt stemming from the ugly roots of patriarchy which reduce a woman’s belongings to her womb and the fruit thereof. My belief system was that children are mothers’ only belongings, and must therefore act like them, doing all that the mother pleased.
As a young girl, I, like many others was prepared and conditioned to take on the role of a mother. I cannot recall when I began to deviate from the path. Perhaps it was when my mother would sneak into my room and silently beg me not to become like her. Perhaps it was even earlier. When I would see my grandmother silently sitting, almost docile whilst all the honour and accolades went to my grandfather even though I felt she did most of the work in the household?
For as long as I have been self-aware, I have always felt that although the role of a mother is necessary and of huge importance, there were other things more important in a woman’s life. Especially when the people who encourage you to be motherly will use those same characteristics against you; kindness is taken for granted, compassion is depleted by people who think there lies a never-ending supply, patience translates to weakness and forgetfulness, and so on.
Although the reality is that in the hands of people who look to find faults in women, everything they do can be held against them. A younger me conflated motherhood and being a ‘woman’ with a catch twenty-two.
With this as my view, I, therefore, clashed with not only everyone who played a motherly role, but people who insisted I played one too. People who couldn’t fathom that a woman could be a woman without wanting or having to be a mother, but I only thought a woman should not have to be a mother out of fear. Secretly, I did not want to turn into my mother, or either of my grandmothers, I did not want to become this power that others would look to and worse, draw from. My reluctance to embrace or grow into things labelled as ‘motherly’ stemmed from my insecurity that I could never live up to the standards that the women before me had set. It was quite a view, simultaneously thinking that motherhood makes one weak, but having the most powerful people I knew be mothers.
Now looking back I think adulthood has helped me to separate these views, you will find that I hold fast to some and have completely let go of the others.
Part IV- A turning point
I’ve sat on this truth for a year now. I don’t dare speak it aloud. I know the kind of backlash I would get. I know how I berate myself for thinking this thought, but it is the truth, it is my truth. Let this be true and let every man be a liar; my suicide attempt made me see my mother differently.
Or should I try to rephrase it? Should I be bolder, should I say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: Trying to kill myself got rid of my mommy issues?
It’s a drastic measure to take, I don’t expect anyone else to follow suit. Please don’t follow suit. I don’t regret what I did but I don’t recommend it. As I danced in and out of consciousness, epileptic on the floor of my flat, I hear my mother wailing on the phone to my flatmate ‘Is this what I’m suffering for Belema?’
The same thing I heard her, albeit the audio-visual hallucination of her says when I had my first episode, whilst my grip on reality loosened, I heard her wail as though she was next to me ‘Is this what I’m suffering for Belema?”
That moment, when I succumbed to the darkness, has been my most illuminating moment so far. I felt the hold that she had on me break, like chains snapping open, I felt nothing but the overwhelming freedom from my mother. Was it the realisation that even in my greatest moment of suffering, all that this woman could think about was how it affected her? Is it because taking my life was the worst thing I could do to someone who felt like she had given it to me in the first place? Was it the fact that the allusion to her suffering could serve as retribution for all the times she had made me suffer, physically and emotionally?
I do not know, but if there’s a moment that I can point to and say that when she lost her hold on me, that is where I stopped pedestalizing her, that moment is it. The next time my father saw me, he cried and hugged me and called me his mother’s name over and over again. The next time my mother saw me she looked at my face.
Part V- A different approach to mother.
Almost every mother-child relationship that surrounds me is strange and strained, this issue worsening in my female counterparts. I see us take on the role of the parent-child, being robbed of our childhood; from an early age, we are forced to reckon with the vicissitudes of life like an adult, and provide comfort for the parent, oftentimes berated as the quality of the comfort is never enough. I see them scared to show affection for fear of being hurt in the future, which goes on to affect their ability to trust. I see us all living the same reality.
Although I do not advocate for means similar to mine, I advocate for rebellion. I advocate for ripping oneself out of the reality that ‘the mother’ has cast for them and living to tell the tale. I call to remember the time I was at a hospital and a boy, and his mother sat next to me, and the entire time she spoke about her plans for his life, she laid out the next five years of his life before him and he said nothing. With the saddest, yet blankest look on his face he sat there and listened to her whilst I seethed. After I chanced a glance at him again, I noticed he was smiling to himself, and I knew that look; it was a calculated cold look, the kind that makes you shudder when you think of what the plan is. I hope he acts on it; I hope we all do; I hope we shock the ma(s)ters. I hope we take back the lives they have given us and make them our own.
I advocate for learning the dances- of womanhood, daughterhood, wifehood and taking time to rest, and plan how to make each move our own. I learned all too late that I had the power to dictate the tune to which I danced to and the moves I used.
Although my means are radical, I hope we balance them with the softness and kindness that mothers have shown us. I think why many people, especially young girls feel so connected to their mothers is because they understand them so well. It’s difficult to lose compassion for someone you understand. I see pictures of my young mother and I want to vomit; she looks exactly like me, she looks exactly like her mother. I think of how her hopes and dreams were put on pause for me, and although the debate of whether it was truly her choice or whether she was forced could go on forever, regardless of her reasons, what she did, taking on the role of the mother, is still sacrifice. Motherhood is still sacrifice, whether heroic or cowardly. It is however our choice if, and how to pay them back for it, but I will not pay for it with my life.