Breaking Our Own Boundaries
Written by Claudia Ugbana // Illustrated by Kyra Wells
History and Culture Do Not Have To Be One-Dimensional
In 2018, my mother moved from her home, Lagos, Nigeria, to Houston, Texas. She said she wanted to be closer to her children, to see the lives we built for ourselves and make a new one of her own. There was something about her decision that seemed so strange at the time; it was incredibly unheard of for 50-something Nigerian women to leave behind their home, job and husband to pursue an unknown future in another country.
Angela Ugbana has been extremely well traveled due to her marriage to my father, who, 30-something years ago, was once extremely wealthy. She toured most of Europe, had her children in foreign countries, and most importantly, her children were, by all accounts, as American as they came. To her, the move seemed effortless and easy. She termed it a “natural life move I felt I should have made years prior.” To the women around her, it seemed like she made a decision women her age simply didn't make.
My mother was married at 24. Soon after, there was talk that she was barren, unable to have children because of a miscarriage she endured a year into her marriage. Rumors started by my father’s sisters.
“I remember feeling like God was punishing me for some crime I had committed. Something I couldn’t remember,” she told me. But I know deep down, she remembers it often, clutching on to the idea that she would have been a mother of five, and not of four children. So she and my father kept trying. They had my sister just three years later, another baby girl came less than two years later, and my brother was born a little under a year afterwards. She was 30 years old, with three children under the age of four. Being a woman in what seems now like a different world, although just a different culture, meant being a wife, then a mother, strangely in that order.
Growing up in a Nigerian household was like walking around naked, with everything laid out bare. You were never really alone, because it wasn't in our culture to be your own person. Not really, anyway. At the same time, my upbringing was also knowing halves of whole stories, while the rest remained whispers behind closed doors of my parents bedroom that my mother said was, “Only for grown ups to know.”
I remember routine Sunday visits to my aunt’s house. The children were sent off to play outside or watch a movie in the children’s playroom. In the living room, the adults drank and laughed together. On the outside, it seemed like my mother got along just fine with her sister-in-laws. The room was always filled with laughter and animosity would have been a brief, fleeting thought. But the car ride home revealed my mother’s disdain for them. In actuality, she deeply detested my father’s sisters. It was something I, too, started to feel after witnessing through my childhood the relationship dynamic between my mother and her sister-in laws. They would laugh together in public, but there were clear signs of distrust and unease. I began to feel something I never really understood, because it was one of those things I wasn’t allowed to know, but I abided by my mother anyway. Blossoming into my adult years, I am well versed on the story now.
I laugh and tell my mother that I couldn’t see myself living that same life she did. From one home to another, never making a life of your own before you belonged to someone else. My mother spent the first 24 years of her life belonging to her parents, serving them and obeying their culture and commands. Then into adulthood, she belonged to my father’s home and to her children. Everything she was being just a mother and a wife.
“You have to become your own person before you find yourself belonging to someone else.” Hunched over the kitchen stove-- her favorite place to be-- my mother preaches quite often. Over the years, she developed a mantra. She became almost obsessed with instilling into my sisters and I that we needed to know the women we were before we got lost in the world of a man. Her voice is pregnant with regret and pity for her 24-year-old self.
“You have to become your own person before you find yourself belonging to someone else.”
An article for the University of Birmingham’s official website describes the ideas of marriage, in African cultures for women married or unmarried, as “stigmatic, an interim economic and social solution, with marriage still being the end goal.” This premise is the reality of my mother's last 30 years.
“Do you regret it all?” I ask her. She shakes her head in response and I have to wonder, is she being truthful? Are her responses out of the duty she holds as a mother to me and my siblings because of the duties our heritage deems she is supposed to uphold?
I believe at age of 55, she’s come a long way from where she started. Parts of her life are still attached to the places that molded her into the woman she is today. She makes routine visits to Nigeria for the sake of her new found long distance relationship to my father.
“He’s still my husband,” she tells me. I tell her that I understand. She does not have to be just one thing, or have a single identity. She can be the middle-aged entrepreneur who embarked on a new career path and enjoys the value of the American dollar she works hard for each day. She can also be the wonderful mother of four children, obsessing over our well-being even as we continue to age and form various identities of our own. She can also still be a wife, wanting to uphold the vows she took years ago to love and honor my father. I tell her that abiding by the culture we came from does not mean we have to limit ourselves to being one dimensional; I tell my mother as women especially, we can be a million different things all at once.