On Being My Mother’s Daughter
My mother fought to keep me.
Her parents didn’t want her to. My father wasn’t a citizen and was barely scrapping together a living for them. She had always had trouble keeping a job due to her social anxiety and the fact that often her mother would get her fired so that she would have to return back home to live with her. I also was going to be born Black at a time when that wasn’t entirely acceptable in this city. Abortion or Adoption were the options her mother had given her.
A young family doctor promised her that she would do whatever she could to help her keep me. Years later, after my mother’s overdose, my family doctor would tell me this story, a story my mother had told me often herself when I was a child, but which I hadn’t heard for over two decades. My doctor was giving me the story so that I would hold on to this life, after I had once again come close to suicide in the wake of losing my mother.
Holding on to life has always been a struggle for me, just as it was a struggle for my mother. When the court cases started and my grandfather was finally brought to justice, she began to deteriorate, physically and mentally. A lot of this was precipitated by the escalation of psychological abuse from my grandmother, who would eventually also end up arrested for hiring a hit man to kill my aunt.
My mother began to threaten to commit suicide and I found myself doing everything I could just to stay at home and be with her. My own mental health issues were identified early on, I remember having to see a social worker at school who told me that I needed to make sure I didn’t repeat the cycle in my family between mother’s and daughter’s. She said I had to make sure I became my own person. I thought I understood what she meant then. I already thought I was my own person and that I was the sanest person in my family. It was only when my mother passed I realized that I really hadn’t become my own person.
My mother raised me to be her champion, her confidante, her protector. These were roles I can remember being tasked with around the age of 4 or 5. It meant that as we grew up, both of us never really became adults. My mother was always in some ways my child and I was always in some ways never independent enough from her to be really considered an adult. So when she died I felt both the anger of a child being abandoned and the guilt of a parent who felt responsible for not being able to prevent her child from hurting herself. And the whole purpose of my life was erased. I had failed to protect her from herself.
On Being My Father’s Daughter
My father fought to keep me.
He withdrew from studying languages at Carleton University and went to work after he found out my mother was pregnant. She was afraid of raising me in poverty and her parents were pushing her to abort or put me up for adoption. My father’s withdrawal from studies meant that there was no longer a valid reason for him to stay in the country. My mother’s application for social assistance in order to more securely support us meant that she couldn’t sponsor my father to stay in the country. He was deported back to Nigeria about a year after I was born. He stayed in touch by writing for about five years until my parents were officially divorced and my name was changed.
My mother raised me thinking that my father didn’t want me. This was partly out of her own need to isolate me, her own insecurities around being abandoned, needing me to be all hers. It is not a coincidence that she died less than a year after I went to visit my father. When I eventually found my father in my twenties, my mother admitted that she had lied to me all those years.
My father was the hope for his family, as star student, he was sent out into the Western World, he returned with nothing to show for it, nothing but me. The weight of this failure only really hit me when I went to Nigeria to meet him in my thirties, and one of my cousins shared, in a gathering of up to about 100 of my relations, that no one really believed I existed until they discovered my blog. They thought he had just made me up to say he had accomplished something while he was in Canada. My father has lived something of a desperate life as his deportation from Canada broke him. He never remarried or had any other children. Despite his education and mastery of several languages, he works in a position often held by Nigerians who don’t speak English. But he still manages to keep up his curiosity to learn, to explore, to collect knowledge wherever he can find it.
A Life So Far
Both my parents never lived up to their potential and that continues to be an anxiety of mine, particularly now that I have reached this age and don’t have much tangible accomplishments to show having spent so much time on earth.
Both my parents were very intelligent and curious people. It is the inheritance of their curiosity that I value over their intelligence. It made them both open to the world in many ways, explorers. My father was limited by having the wrong citizenship. My mother was limited by her family and her fear. If they had not been so limited, I wonder what they could have achieved?
There are many good reasons why I have not achieved what many others have by my age: a career, marriage, children. I still don’t even know how to drive. But, I need to not confuse reasons with excuses. I need to focus on what I can achieve and not accept a life without accomplishments. I won’t be able to live up to the standards of my peers because I’m not working with the same assets. Like my parents, I am limited. But to live without some ambition is to just sleepwalk through life, which is what I feel I have been doing for a good decade or so.
They say it takes a village to raise a child but that’s not true, it takes a village to raise a couple, to raise a parent, to raise a family. We leave people alone too much in these small units, thinking that it is enough. But it’s not. We each need more people to keep us going than just the ones closest to us.
That’s the biggest lesson I have learned so far. Great love can fail just for the lack of one good mentor, one good advisor, one good confidante.
I wasn’t enough to keep my mother going and that wasn’t my fault. I know this and I will probably struggle for the rest of my life trying to believe it.
Even though I struggle with mental health issues that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for other people. But it does mean that I have to be careful to find meaning in other things than being a “helper” particularly as the “helping” role is not the healthiest pattern for me given my upbringing. I also need to learn how to let myself be helped. The relationships I look to build from now on I hope to make more reciprocal, being both helped and helping the people in my life, being depended on by others as well as depending on others.
My parents fought to keep me and I must commit the rest of my life to fight to keep myself. I have managed to commit to life for another year, and for now that is my greatest accomplishment.
Photo Credit: Mohamed Shaheen