Of Mothers and Daughters
The tale of two lost, tangled threads.
I doubt there is any family-pair as erratic, confusing, and yet constant as the mother-daughter pair. What I find most interesting is the fact that we all share similar experiences with our mothers and as daughters.
The Police and Criminal
To a lot of Nigerian girls like me, the word ‘mother’ is similar to ‘police’. A lot of mothers are their daughter’s first handcuffs. The worst deception of patriarchy is it’s ability to hide the true enemy. Why? Because whenever you approach the house, the first person you meet is not the owner, but the gatekeeper: the older Nigerian woman.
This mother-daughter dynamic is commonly expressed with first-born daughters. Ah, the first girl-child, born with all the responsibilities and none of the privileges of a first-born son.
First-born daughters are expected to be mini-moms, and so, they are forced to mature emotionally faster than normal, bearing the burden of the family. Expected to uphold a “good girl” image, the daughter becomes a harassed criminal with the mother as a “police”.
The Boxer and The Punching Bag
This relationship is common amongst emotionally abused women.
In the average Nigerian setting, the woman is praised for her silence and meekness. She is upheld for being with the average man for as long as possible regardless of the atrocities and failure of the man. She is taught that anger is not a good emotion for her. But what happens to a woman who suppresses anger continuously? She becomes bitter.
While women are taught to smile at their abusive husbands, accept the advances of their predatory bosses, and deal with groping men in public spaces, the only people who she does not have to pretend with are her children. And so, she releases all bottled up emotions of the day unto her punching bag: her daughter.
I remember a time when an aunt of mine threw a spoon on the floor, spilled rice over the counter and told her daughter that she was absolutely “useless” over a door left open. We stared in shock as we were left speechless. According to her, her daughter was very unhelpful and insensitive. She constantly puts her under pressure by leaving things undone. This was irrespective of the fact that my cousin had swept the house, mopped the floors and ironed some of my aunt’s clothes before her arrival. So what was really the problem? The problem was everything but the door left open. The problem was her boss at work who had given her more work to do, her mother who was ill, and her husband who had abandoned her. But here she was, taking it all out on her personal punching bag.
The Patient and Therapist
To some girls, their mothers are their first children. Working at a female-dominated environment pushes me to have conversations with women. A common occurrence in an abusive home, including mental, emotional, or financial, is emotional incest. Women manifest emotional incest on their sons by clinging to them, basically marrying their sons: this is very obvious in cases where a woman finds no woman good enough for her son and morphs into a monster-in-law. I remember being shocked when a married woman told me not to marry a first-born son, and that if I do, I should hope that his mother his dead (no competition).
But how do needy women manifest this on their daughters?
Daughters become their mother’s therapists. A lot of women who have served as therapists for their mothers leading to emotional incest.
Whatever love and care that the mother can not get from her romantic partner, she squeezes out of her child. Take note that this differs from a child sympathizing with a parent over a misfortune. It is way deeper than that. Emotional incest can lead to a child serving as a major decision maker in the house, constantly settling quarrels between parents, or being in a confidante for one parent.
The Jealous Wife
This kind of mother is found in the family dysfunction of “good father, bad husband”. I find it hilarious when men treat their wives like slaves and treat their daughters like princesses. A certain “uncle” of mine (you know Nigerians and their way of referring to older people as auntie and uncle) told me of his dreams for me, of how he loved for me to create an animation movie that will change the film industry in Africa. He told me this while his wife fried yam for him while juggling a child on her back and his plate in her hand.
I have observed girls who adore their fathers, oblivious to the maltreatment of their mothers. This makes the women resentful: a slave in her own house, to another female star. Resentment brings about tension and jealousy. After all, how could her child love the man who hurts her so deeply?
A very close friend of mine was telling me how she couldn’t wait for her mother to travel so that her father and she could do all the fun things that they wouldn’t be able to do when she was around. Things her father would never do with her mother. Things her father would never have allowed her mother to do.
I wondered how her mother felt hearing that.
There are fathers who give their daughters wings to fly
made out of bloodied feathers
freshly plucked from the backs of their mothers
A lot of girls are very forgiving to their fathers- the heroic figure. But what about the mother? The African society puts a lot of burden on the mother and hardly forgives her for slip ups. While empathy is offered to the fathers for not being around, not being faithful to their spouse, mothers are not shown that kind of mercy. And at times, we over-exaggerate their faults and under-appreciate their efforts.
But the irony is, the mother-daughter experience of a child influences how she would also have a relationship with her own child, especially a daughter. A lot of girls strive to fill the roles that their mothers have left vacant, in their own daughters lives. However, it is done to a fault.
I remember a discussion with a friend who talked about how her mother suffocated her with her presence. In her words, her mother just never knew when to “stop”. Don’t get me wrong, she loved her mother. But she hated the fact that her mother called multiple times a day, set curfews for her hours earlier than necessary and always seemed to be in her face.
For thirty minutes, we went back and forth on that issue. One thing that became evident after that talk was the lack of attention that my friend’s mother got from hers. My friend’s mother was not present in her life, and so she was ever-present in her daughter’s-to the point of suffocation. In an attempt to be nothing like her mother, she had successfully created another dysfunction.
So how do we heal this deep wounds that are etched into the hearts of daughters and mothers? For some people, there are no means of reconciliation. There are some wounds that will always leave scars. But we must solve this problem the way we solve every relationship: with transparency and communication. We, women must learn to break the generational curse of strain. And to start, we must heal ourselves.
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