The first issue of Lost in Lagos Magazine went to press in February 2017, exactly five years ago. The theme of that magazine was love, which has been the theme every February since. Oh, I have had loads to say on the topic! I’ve written about loving my husband and our children, loving our lives in Lagos, loving to cook, loving the fusion of my Indian heritage with my husband’s background and loving the Nigerian citizenship I proudly hold. I could fill pages listing what I love.
There was always one glaring omission when I considered my favourite things, however. A person I never mentioned was myself. Not once in the five years I wrote and contemplated love did loving myself even enter my head. How could it?
My parents grew up in mid-century India, where family reputation was everything. Marriages were arranged and to fail in marriage brought shame to the entire clan. I want to think that’s why my parents raised me in the way that they did. It would be preferable to hope that my parents had a plan, rather than think that they had children without wanting them and never really cared for them.
I met a Nigerian boy during my first year of university, who was smart, capable and protective. He liked me, and I jumped at him and never looked back. He was so grounded, he became my touchstone for everything in life. I hadn’t developed into a normal human being under my parent’s regime. Everyone in my family of origin was expected to share the same feelings and interests, which my father, whose interests were limited to himself, decided upon.
My mother liked to prattle on about our cousins and family friends and how superior they were to us. My dad just shouted that we were morons and losers, even though my sibling and I went to Ivy League universities. I made myself as small as possible to endure my time in their home. In my attempt to be invisible, I never learned what I liked, what my passions might be or what my skills were.
I grew into a frightened, doubtful adult who clung to her partner to survive. Instead of setting my own goals in life, I spent decades trying to earn my parents’ approval. But I never even came close. They told me I was worthless, and I believed them.
When I became a mother, I pushed my kids hard, trying to make them exceptional, hoping they could be the path to win my parents’ love. But that love skipped a generation. While they complimented their grandchildren, both of my parents made it clear I had nothing to do with their success, and I continued to be a failure. They were the perfect parents and grandparents, they claimed, and it was sad they hadn’t gotten a daughter worthy of them.
The pandemic gave me breathing room from my family of origin for the first time in my life. I had a chance to gain perspective and detach from the warped way of thinking I had been raised to believe was normal. Now on Sundays, I volunteer for an organisation that works with adults who’ve grown up in dysfunctional families or homes with addiction. I’ve developed a spiritual life, and I’m finding my tribe.
Recovery from a childhood like mine can be achieved by becoming one’s own loving parent and by treating oneself with gentleness, humour, love and respect. To me, those are still foreign concepts. But gradually, I am seeing myself as someone worthy of love. Perhaps in another few years, my February column will include a little bit about loving me.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She holds an MSt in Literature and Arts from the University of Oxford, an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University and a BA in English Literature from Columbia University.
Read more at www.monazutshiopubor.com
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