Growing up, I feared using the word, “boy,” in front of my parents. When I used it in simple references, I often whispered it, perhaps because I felt that a whisper made the taboo word less repulsive.
I can’t say what brought about my fear of the word “boys.” Maybe it was Sunday School and the countless warnings given to girls about remaining pure in the sight of God followed by the punishments that came to those who strayed. Or it could’ve been the Nigerian culture of setting specific time periods for various life events– from birth until the early twenties: go to school then get a job; mid-twenties: get married; late twenties to death: make a mark for your next generation.
Whatever the reason, it kept my wonderful mother from having a real and full discussion with me about boys, possibly under the assumption that I knew all the essentials, i.e. boys are a bad idea, boys distract good girls from school work and being successful, and boys should only appear when a girl is in her twenties and ready for marriage.
A girl doesn’t start to mention men until she is considering marriage– because, you know, somehow when the “time is right,” the perfect man will appear and she will know how to have and be in a relationship, and all the tricks about being a wife.
This hurt me so much that it was later in college that I finally broke free from the invisible chains of expectations that my parents had strung around me.
The first time my brother used the word “sex” at the dining table, I nearly had a panic attack. It was another taboo word, and by using it, I automatically assumed that my brother was a bad kid. He was much older, was in his last years at secondary school while I was still an innocent primary schooler. I remember my mum cringing, and my brother suddenly getting agitated and saying something like, “Mum, she’s getting older. Say it. Sex. Sex. Sex. It’s not that hard. Stop shielding her all the time.” My mum didn’t respond, and I just took his outburst like I took all his other rebellious teenage activities– with less than a grain of salt.
But my brother had been right. I was nearing puberty. I was getting curious about stuff. But I was too ashamed to ask.
We had a library in the house; most of it shelved my mother’s academic books from her days as an English major, while a huge cabinet, concealed from the rest of the other acceptable literature, hid romance novels. I stole them daily after school, hid in my room, and read them. I skipped past scenes with graphic sex because even in secrecy, I was afraid of being a bad girl. But I wanted to know about human relationships, especially those that involved intimacy between boys and girls. One day, my mum came into my room, and before I could hide the novel under my pillow, she snatched it and threw it on the floor in anger.
She looked at me and said, “Stop reading these things. I didn’t read them until I was in my last year of secondary school. You’re too young for this rubbish.”
I was frustrated. I couldn’t explain to her that I needed to understand. I had begun to feel things for people; things that I absolutely could not control. How could I ask her to talk to me about these crazy emotions without her believing that I was distracted at school or even worse, that I was a bad girl?
By the time I went to boarding school, I felt a little more independent. I was hundreds of miles away from my folks at a co-ed institution. Surely, I would learn from someone here. But although it seemed easier for people to have “relationships” in boarding school, it was still a strict Catholic institution and such relations were frowned upon for the most part.
Faculty and staff would never broach the subject with students and our guidance counselor restricted his services to getting into college. The students themselves just seemed excited to be free from parental authority and didn’t have much to say about relationships. And what’s worse, I still struggled internally with any attraction I had to boys.
The first time I fell hard for someone, I didn’t know how to deal with it.
I turned to the unrealistic novels I read trying to find out how to curb the attraction. Then when that didn’t work, I read more to figure out how to approach my crush. I talked to my close friends about it, but as teenagers who were in pretty much the same mess as I was in, they just teased me and giggled whenever he passed by. Then I found out that he had feelings for my best friend. And I didn’t know how to deal with jealousy. There was no outlet. All I knew was that a good Christian girl didn’t hold grudges against her friends. And so I swallowed my sadness and watched as they attempted to make things work.
As I got older, and finally traveled to New York for college, I began to see things that frightened me more than boys.
Couples held hands in public. Couples joked with each other over food and drinks. Couples fought and talked about their issues. Women had unapologetic sex. My friends frequently dressed up nicely and waltzed into bars to meet guys. People dated without looking so far as marriage. This was a whole new world against which laid my stark inexperience. I finally realized the absurdity of being “marriageable” at twenty-four when at eighteen, I knew next to nothing about men and relationships. How was this whole thing supposed to work? Didn’t I need some kind of experience?
I went for counseling and talked about the dilemma I was having with my parents expecting one thing and me needing to do something else. My counselor helped me come to the decision that it was ok to do things that I was comfortable with and only whatever left me feeling as complete of a person as I was just before. And this led me to my very first serious relationship, which lasted two years until he moved to a different state.
All the while, whenever my parents checked up on me, they reminded me to steer clear of boys, as they were not appropriate for my current life stage. They reminded me that the time will come after my professional development when it will be ok to find someone.
I didn’t tell them that I had a boyfriend or that I knew what it was like to be in a serious relationship and still do well in school. I didn’t tell them because I knew that if I ever had a grade below an A, the boy would be blamed immediately. I didn’t tell them because I knew that all my moods, any moment I forgot to call them, any forgotten tasks, and any argument would all lead back to the fact that I let the evil of boy come into my life.
My parents are still not ok with me dating. My mum does not even use the word boyfriend; she emphasizes the word, friend. I don’t understand why she does this and I don’t know why I’ve never asked her to explain. Why does my mum believe that talking to me about men, emotions, and relationships is an uncomfortable or inappropriate topic between a mum and daughter?
I’m pretty certain it’s not just my culture that has difficulty with discussions of this nature, especially with youths. Is it just that cultures like mine do not condone dating at a certain age because they want to maintain some ideal purity that disappears when romantic feelings get thrown in?
Whatever the reasons are, I do not agree with them. Dating teaches you to understand how you are when independent and how you are with another person. It teaches you to understand yourself better and to figure out what characteristics of a partner complement you or don’t. It teaches you to find what you want and how to say no to what you don’t. You learn how you behave in fights and how to work through problems. You learn what it means to be selfless but also, what it means to value yourself selfishly enough that you are not taken advantage of.
Dating and relationships are invaluable, and I regret not being able to have a resource in my parents to talk about them without the implication of me being a bad girl.
Mum, if you read this, know that I love you and I’m not saying that you’re a bad mum. You’re the absolute best, but this is one place you could have done better. I’m glad that I went to college in a great school and in a city that provides one with multiple perspectives. I learnt to trust myself a little more and be more forgiving when I made the wrong moves.
Sometimes, up until today, when I really like someone, I doubt the wisdom of pursuing it based on the immediate reaction that I’m doing something forbidden. But then I calmly remind myself that flying can never make me any less than a dove.