This past weekend I suffered a loss like no other. No-one physically died but the idea of them did. I have always had a difficult relationship with my mother. The cause of this was incessant physical, verbal and emotional abuse my siblings and I faced daily. Abuse was common in the home I grew up in. Most parents hit their children or ‘spank’, but this was to a level so extreme that the beatings would leave us bleeding or fearing for our lives. I saw my sister choked on the kitchen floor and at 13, I was pulling my mother off my sister to stop her killing her. I was threatened with death, called names, told I was dark black and ugly. I grew up in a constant state of fear whilst being controlled heavily by my primary care giver. Her beatings came from nowhere and ended everywhere. My worst beating came from an extension cord used for electrical items. Prior to hitting me with this cord, she had used a ruler on me until it broke and slapped me several times. After each slap I would hit the floor, get up, and get slapped again. Brutal. The next day, I remember going to school with large long bleeding welts on my back. We were doing a school Christmas play at the time and during costume changing, one of my friends gasped upon seeing my back and when I said my mum hit me, she said “My mum has never hit me like that!”. That’s the first time I realized something was so wrong about the life at home. I was only 10 when shame set in and took a deep hold of me for over a decade.
Shame is the swamp-land of the soul. Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame says “I am bad”, guilt says “I did something bad”. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, suicide, eating disorders. – Brene Brown
Fast forward almost 2 decades and more abuse has happened, gradually moving from physical to emotional and verbal. Once I moved out of home at 19, it was numerous calls from my mother, not to ask if i was alright but to ask for money, how much i was earning, if I knew all the problems she was facing. Seeking self pity. From me? I was the most confused child-adult ever. I felt bad about who I was. I felt a deep sense of shame and I was not good enough for anything or anyone. In 2014, after suffering a deep depression and anxiety from dealing with my two abusers on a constant basis, I stopped speaking to my mother and cut her off completely.
As children, we are at the mercies of our parents. Many children are abused by parents who do not love or want them. But children, in their innocence, will always love their parents no-matter how terrible the treatment. A parent is their child’s superhero, they are the world to their children. My superhero was a villain and it took me 27 years to begin to accept this. Despite not speaking to my mother, I felt terrible. I felt hopeless and blamed myself continuously…doubting my memories, doubting myself. I felt like the worst child ever and the criticism I received from extended family members or African friends made me feel worse. I had low self-esteem and no self-worth. I suffered from a crippling shame. The poor relationship choices i made reflected this so loudly. I did not know how to value or love myself when my whole life the one person who should love me, my mother…hadn’t.
Two years later, I decided I could not move on because I was still holding onto hope that things could change and that miraculously I could somehow have the mother-daughter relationship I had so envied from observing friends with their mothers or movies where the lead character had so much love and support from their parents. I wanted that so badly. If God had told me to give up my legs or eyesight in exchange of a loving mother, I’d have told him to take my breath too. I wanted it that badly. Unconditional love.
So this past weekend I wrote a long letter, it was loving but firm. I wrote to my mother about the pain I felt and the things she had done to hurt me. I detailed how this had affected my life as an adult. It was hard not to cry writing (or reading it). I debated sending it several times but I unblocked her number on Whatsapp and sent it.
She denied everything. I expected that. She denied the abuse, the beatings, the evil things she had said. She did not acknowledge my pain, instead asking me to ask her how she feels. I said I wanted to rebuild a relationship but would only do so once she acknowledged what she had done and apologized. I needed to keep my boundaries and self-worth intact, even though every part of me wanted to give in and accept the crumbs she was offering. She said she didn’t care and I was fine to carry living my life without her.
The thing every child dreads finally came true for me; the realization that my mother does not love or care for me. I come from a culture where one must respect and love their parents no-matter what. Children are seen and not heard. I gave myself a voice against my abuser. I challenged the silence, I told my secrets, I rejected the judgements from fellow Africans. A large part of me expected this response, after 27 years I think one should know whether their parent cared for them or not. Perhaps I had stockholm syndrome, I didn’t want to accept the truth. No child who truly loves their parent wants to ever accept that their love is not reciprocated.
I had a small amount of hope for change. That final hope is gone. All that is left is grief. Grief for losing the idea of ever having a mother. Grieving the loss of unconditional love. Grieving for….what I never had? It consumes me.
The only positive from this situation is that I have let go of the shame. It never belonged to me to begin with.
I have hope that the grief will subside and the feeling of immense loss will eventually abate but at least for now, I can move on shame-free and aware of the strength within me. I survived childhood abuse. I stood up for myself and what I felt I deserved; motherly love. In spite of my mother, I am alive. She tried to kill my spirit and I survived. I am not a victim but the victor.
All I can do now is take my grief, accept what is and try heal where I can. Where my strength and hope lies is in what I can do for others. I have never made the mistake of thinking that I am the only African girl-child who has a mother that hates them and a terribly broken relationship with the one person every girl who finally grows into a young woman needs in their lives.
Shame is an epidemic in our culture. If you put shame in a petri-dish and want it to grow, you only need to put 3 ingredients in with it: secrecy, silence and judgement
– Brene Brown
I know there are so many suffering in silence. Paralyzed by a shame they should not own. Afraid to breathe, afraid to be free. Trapped by a sense of obligation imparted on us by our cultural values. It’s time to let go of the shame, give a voice to your silence, share your secrets and don’t be afraid of judgement.
This is why I write and I hope that in freeing my own soul and releasing my shame, you find the strength to release your own.