What does family mean to you?
When I think of family, my mother comes to mind immediately. A smiling, beautiful and articulate woman with a can-do attitude. I also think of my two brothers; one older and one younger, both who have very interesting personalities. Then I think of my Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and extended family, smiling and laughing at a family gathering.
I do not really think about my father because my parents’ marriage ended in the eighties while I was in primary school and he died some years afterwards.
My childhood memories are filled with intense discussions with my brothers about episodes of ‘Sesame Street’, ‘Storyland’, ‘Rent-A-Ghost’, ‘Fraggle Rock’, ‘Voltron’ and other programs which aired on NTA2 Channel 5, Lagos. I also remember my ears being pulled (and the warm sensation which lingered long afterwards), being asked to kneel down and close my eyes, being beaten with a cane (which we always hid but which the adults always found) or being given long talks about my naughty behavior and its consequences (I always preferred the beatings because they were over in a much shorter time than the talks).
I remember doing chores: sweeping, scrubbing, mopping, cooking and washing plates. My brothers and I had to learn to cooperate with each other because one person not doing his or her chores would most likely lead to punishment for all three of us. We learned responsibility and accountability for ourselves and each other.
I remember feeling care free and happy, being content to play with my dolls or to read from our vast collection of Famous Five or Secret Seven books. Our family set up was my mother, my brothers, myself and a sprinkling of aunts, uncles and cousins who visited our home for short or extended periods of time. I also remember playing in neighbors houses and being treated with kindness by strangers.
I was content with this version of normal.
My horizons were broadened greatly when I went to boarding house for my secondary school education.
Firstly, I realized that a lot of my classmates were more affluent than I was. It had never occurred to me before then that my mother, being a single mother on a Civil Servant’s salary was just getting by, doing her best to make ends meet. She had always made us feel secure, baking cookies at Christmas time (once even flipping a pancake to our collective excitement) and buying us new clothes when she traveled abroad.
Secondly, majority of my classmates came from two-parent households. They would often give account of their Dads disciplining them and being the head of their homes. I could not relate to these stories because it was not my reality; my mother had always been the decision-maker, the boss, the Commander-in-Chief.
My experience from being from a single-parent home has made me take a hopeful but realistic approach to different situations in which I find myself, although some would say that I am too direct, too strict, too tough. (“Nigerian men don’t like tough women”, I’ve been told).
I remember the amusement I felt when a guy I dated made a face when I told him my mum answered her Maiden name, so she is ‘Miss’ not ‘Mrs’. There was so much judgement in his eyes. I was in England at the time, studying for a postgraduate degree, which my “Miss” mum had paid for in full.
Another strange incident occurred when I had to call the Nigerian High Commission in London; a form of theirs made provision only for ‘Father’s details’ in the reference section. I called their number and I tried to explain to the lady on the phone that my mother was my only parent; how was I to fill the form? She asked where my Father was. I explained with great patience that he was deceased. She said I should still put down his name. I sighed and hung up, knowing that it would be useless to explain that not all families have two parents, and that not all families had a father as the head of the home.
I am not naïve; I know that Nigeria is not generally known for its open-mindedness. But this is no excuse to treat people who come from single-parent homes as though they are less than normal or as being far from perfect. Actually, no one on earth is perfect.
Family doesn’t always take the form in which we hope. What matters is what value it provides to you. There is no reason why anyone should be made to feel inferior because they come from a single-parent household.
My family is no stranger to squabbles, falling-outs and divisions. It is often the case that there could be more joy to be found in friendships than with people who share your ‘blood’.
But families ground us, they give us balance and boost our self-esteem. My immediate family members are my best cheerleaders. If we are to become what we wish to become, we need the backing and support of family, no matter the shape it takes.