Overcoming your Programming

Posted Thursday, 05 May 2022

My children noticed ugly truths about my parents years before I did. I was conditioned not to think deeply about their behaviour. If I questioned them, they attacked me, so I would just scratch my head when they were hurtful, refusing to connect the dots that they always behaved this way.

One summer morning, my dad decided to take my young children to the aquarium. I tagged along because they did not want to be alone with him. We parked in a parking garage, and my daughter held the elevator open, waiting for me to join them. There were other people in the elevator, too, strangers who had parked their car on the same level. 

“Hey, fatso,” my father called to me, as I trotted towards them. “Don’t come in here. You’ll make the elevator break. You’re so fat.”

I stepped inside the elevator and ignored him. The strangers in the elevator giggled at my dad’s insults.

“Didn’t I tell you to take the next elevator? There’s a weight limit, you know. This elevator is going to kill us all, and it’s your fault. Whales have no right to go anywhere. You’re obese.”

As he continued prattling on, and the people kept laughing at me, I felt nothing. I was slim, and I was dressed well. But this is how my father acts. He needs constant attention, and he will say or do anything to be noticed by other people.

When we exited the elevator, my eldest walked ahead with her grandpa, and my two younger children clung to me, stricken.

“Why was Nana saying those mean things to you?” my daughter whispered.

“Why was he making fun of you?” my son said.

I shrugged. “That’s just Nana,” I said.

“You’re not fat,” my son said, his brow tightening. “You’re beautiful.”

“Yeah,” my daughter added, a murderous gleam in her eyes. “Why didn’t you tell him he’s fat? If he’s so worried about the elevator, he should get out, not you.”

“I can’t act that way,” I said, feeling my chest constrict. “In our family, my dad says whatever wants, but we aren’t allowed to be rude to him.”

“But he’s your dad,” my daughter said slowly, as if that settled everything.

I thought about that moment for many years afterward. My children had a father who loved and protected them, so it was bewildering for them to encounter a father who didn’t do the same for his child. 

I envy my children for the parenting they’ve received. They can come to me and their dad when they’re shattered, trusting us enough to help them piece themselves back together. I didn’t experience that when I was young. To this day, if I am in pain, I have to hide it from my parents because they abuse me when I act human. I am supposed to be perfect, so they can look like the perfect parents.

The fake front I have lived with to protect myself from them has left me out of touch with my emotions. I work as a memoirist, someone who is meant to be in tune with her feelings, and I am not. When I do feel things, it frightens me, and I can barely stand it. I disconnect from reality. I avoid thinking, and I use substances to dull myself. That’s why I can no longer drink alcohol. If I did, like many of my relatives, I’d be a drunk. I don’t do drugs. I try to eat carefully. I live like a monk, and living like a monk is no way to live.

I wish I could tie this column up with a pretty little bow, but every story does not have a happy ending. All I can say is, with no role models to draw from, I’m doing my best to be a healthy wife, parent and human being. I’m a cycle breaker. It’s difficult and very, very lonely.

Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian writer. 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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