One of my earliest most persistent detail from my childhood that may have scarred me for too long is growing up and being reminded everyday how skinny I was. And while it is arguable that most of it was never actually done with malicious intent, it did affect my psyche at school and at play. I knew that I could debate the hell out of any topic but I stayed hidden for a long time because I had been told that I looked like I was about to break and I didn’t want that, especially not in front of a crowd. The single fact that it was usually the only conversation starter especially with adults who desperately felt the need to know why I was that tiny upset me to the core. They asked if I was SS, or born premature, if I couldn’t see that I had no flesh. But I was only a child, with no right to even think up the idea of anger towards adults, let alone express it, especially seeing that they were in some way looking out for my well being.
They tugged at the skin of my arm and my ear to emphasise that they could not pull any “meat.”
O’ o se wa l’eran leti bai? they asked, with a priggish look of pity, and called me elenu ma jeun, as though it were a title, in the mock distinguished way you would call someone “The Law,” not because they had any law degree but perhaps because they talked too much.
Whenever I participated in my school’s quarter marathon and I ran into them in the course of the race that route through the popular tiny streets of the University of Ibadan campus, they sized my lean body up, like something that had been maimed and needed proper identifying before telling me anything remotely close to ‘well done’ or ‘congratulations on a good race.’
By university age it still went on. Those who hadn’t seen me in years demanded why it was, that I was “watching my weight,” a popular fitfam saying of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
“If I knew that boys liked girls who had something they could hold.”
“If I knew that I was putting my yet to be born babies at serious risk if I insisted on remaining like a pankere, with no child bearing hips in sight.”
Me, all of 16 with no clue what I wanted to make of the life ahead of me, let alone thoughts of babies. Thankfully, none of these verbal attacks as they rightfully were ever came directly from my parents, at least not in the way that got me covered in goose bumps from agitation, and in retrospect now, that it didn’t come from them was my comfort, my consolation and my hiding place. However, that there was only so much they could have done in regards to shielding me from this trauma is a concept I understand could have been totally out of their hands, but still can’t quite wrap my head around.
I grew up African, undilutedly African, and so I am aware that even parenting your own child your way can be met with traditions and norms that are deeply rooted and unchallenged. You can barely even name the child that you conceived and carried yourself without questions about whose right it is to name a child culturally not arising at one point or the other. There are surprisingly more questions about what people will say or think of your actions than how the actions affect you.
Today, as my toddler turns 2, I know, more than any other thing I know or have learnt in my only 2 years of parenting, that she will not experience this feeling of smallness and forced upon identity I once felt as a child. How? Because I will not be allowing it. SIMPLE.
Too often, we down play the aftermath of childhood events; pleasurable or traumatic, on our adult lives. We forget that we are all products of our childhood, and even when living as adults, it is from wounds that we either nursed or didn’t as kids that we become. Especially for trauma, we don’t get closure, we don’t tackle it, perhaps because we do not know how too. It is why we hear that broken women are looking for father figures in their relationships with equally broken men. It is why boys cannot cry, cannot express a completely natural human emotion very much like laughing, because grown up’s insist that from the time of their tender boyish minds, they are men and men don’t cry. We insist that they must be versions of themselves that they are not just so they can conform to what we want. Learnt and still learning never to measure my toddler on a scale of what a girl of her age should be doing. She is but a child. So rather, I measure her on a scale of being the best version of her childish self. Plus, I want her to be a child that she actually is without having to be thrust with the responsibility of adult decision making. No child should have to question whether they want to remain children but we put that enormous responsibility of choosing on them when we force them to be who they are not.
In my toddler’s only two years already, questions that add as much as a mustard seed to her existence have been asked. Questions about her hair – why it is always undone, if I realise what responsibility of making hair I have inherited by reason of having a girl. Questions in respect to her age mates. Why she’s still wearing nappy, why she’s starting school later than others. Questions about her favourite TV shows and toys, how she watches too much boyish shows like Paw Patrol and Jake and the neverland pirate, how she needs to watch Sofia the First instead for balance, because she’s a princess. I want to tell them that besides the rabbit in Sofia the First, she’s completely uninterested in the show. She does not get up from her chair to dance when the opening song comes on like she does for Paw Patrol. She does not say the words back to the TV screen as she does with Jake and the Neverland pirates.
I want to tell them that when she sleeps at night she puts her fingers through each strand of twists on her hair and unravels them. I want to tell them that she’s barely 2, so hair shouldn’t have to be a thing. That if it’s not dirty, she can fro it for weeks. I shouldn’t have to pressure her or myself into hair making at this ridiculously tender age. I shouldn’t have to be deciding what colour of attachment will suit her skin tone especially if she’s uninterested, all because we are preparing for birthday or christmas hair. But I don’t bother explaining, because frankly, it is my child and I do not need too. I only need to stay away if I think your relationship is toxic.
Surely I cannot protect her from all of life’s perverseness but I am willing to do my best. Give it my best shot. Give a second thought specifically to the things I’m exposing her mind too. If they are edifying, because emotional abuses build over time and take long to heal. I intend not to dismiss her too quickly if she says she doesn’t like a certain Aunty or Uncle. I don’t have to force likability on her but show her what kindness to other human’s is. She can learn to greet people respectfully by seeing me greet people. I want her to know that she can say no, even to adults, and heaven will not fall. She can tell me if an adult is lying. Growing up, an adult visitor lied against me and while I knew that my father believed me, the matter still ended with the saying that it is wrong for kids to say an adult has lied. Adults lie all the time, but a child should not have to bear the brunt for them. I let her know, even now, that nothing is do or die. She doesn’t have to score the highest when she begins school or be able to speak 5 languages. She just needs to put in her own personal best and if that results in an all A grade. Good. If not, we move.
I insist vehemently that friends and family she has access to do not call her words like olodo, or use words like shame on you when she cries those very mouth spoiling cries that children are known for. Once, I had a nanny who sang the sha sha shame song to her because she had pooped. Again, it wasn’t malicious, she was even singing it as a rhyme to engage her but I asked her why shame of all rhymes? Is pooping a shameful thing? Can a 7 month old (at the time) tell you that she needs to poo? So what’s shameful about her pooping in her nappy? Isn’t poo the reason why there’s a nappy on her bum in the first place? The nanny looked at me in horror because as far as she was concerned, it was only a song.
Ultimately, I just want my toddler to be a child. Unapologetically so. To not have to be caught up in hangups that she doesn’t need as an adult. It will be unfair to put that kind of responsibility on her. So if I so much as smell that any experience is toxic, potentially toxic, averagely potentially toxic, medium potentially toxic, toxic even in it’s most diluted form, it becomes the end of it and I will protect my child.
I make no apologies for this.
I cannot claim to know all or even much about parenting, but every so often, I write on it, raising a toddler and even pregnancy. Search for The one in my belly to see other posts about my pregnancy and parenting.
Feel free to give me your feedback and share too.
Thanks for reading.