As mosquitoes dined and wined on all ten of my toes one Tuesday night in the middle of a Lagos hair salon this August, I looked into the mirror in front of me and came to a shocking realization: the hairdresser that my mother and I have been patronizing since I was at least 4, well over a decade and a half now, was twisting red wool into my hair when I realized I did not know her name.
At first, I thought it was the heavy generator smoke clouding my memory and killing the last two brain cells the summer semester mercifully spared me, but I truly did not know and was too embarrassed to ask.
This woman has known me throughout my primary and secondary school education. She knows every member of my extended family on my mother’s side. Her firstborn, my age mate and namesake, is about finishing university. I know what school she’s in, what she’s studying, what issues she had with getting a room in her first year. I know this woman’s entire nuclear family and even her sister, who lives in the East. I know where she’s from, a village near ours. I know where she lives, where she worships, and what denomination she belongs to, but I could not tell her actual first name, which seriously shocked me.
As much as I referred to her, I’ve only heard her be called Mummy So-and-so, her own name never having come up in conversation with myself or others. That night, I just felt too ashamed to ask. It made me question why the thought of her individuality never occurred to me.
People say I’m a rude child because I call my mother by her first name. People say I’m a rude child for less, especially for that. How can you call your mother by her name? Don’t you have any respect?
I say I’m a rude child regardless, but that has nothing to do with it. If my grandparents did not intend for her to be called that name, they wouldn’t have given it to her. Barely anyone calls her by her name (no pun intended, but shout out to Lil Nas X).
She’s Mommy “S” to most, and perhaps it was my angst and hormones at work, but between the pubescent angst and hormones, I decided she deserved to be called what her parents named her, and it stuck.
Becoming Mrs. Somebody and Mummy Someone is like pushing a shiny glass under a rapid river. A once sharp image reflected to you – a clear, glass identity – soon becomes a hazy, distorted reflection of an identity that no longer belongs to you. Even when the cracks begin to form in the glass, when its sheen begins to dull, it is kept underwater because the owner is not around to claim it, and there it stays, drowning.
One of my favorite, and arguably, one of the best Disney villains, Cruella De Vil (portrayed by Glenn Close), once said, “More good women have been lost to marriage than war, famine, disease and disaster.” This line resonated with me right from the first time I heard it as a child.
Growing up, I wondered what it was about marriage that melted the hardest of women into a pool of water that never solidifies again. Observing people around me, I could never get it. I still don’t.
Each family comes with its unique flavor of dysfunction. It all falls back on what you decide you can tolerate. There was never a flavor that followed that I quite understood. Looking at a no-nonsense woman I knew growing up, desperate to marry a man who threatened to beat her in her own father’s house while visiting. He almost did, if not for the people at home with her. And I wondered what molded a love so cruel that you would swallow a dysfunction coated in thorns. Something that would scar you from the inside out. It was then I realized what marriage could be, a heavy wind to knock down even the sturdiest of trees, pulling away at your roots.
I saw friendships lost due to a habitual cheater who would never leave his wife’s friends alone, moving with the verified knowledge that she would choose him each time. I wondered if the woman had no fear when it came to swallowing their dysfunction. People half her age coming to her as a woman, her own friends lost to this man, and still, she stayed. I wondered if she would never break. I wondered if she had broken a long time ago and the ease with which she took the dysfunction in stride was the reluctant surrender of a battle long lost.
I saw a man lose out on having a relationship with his children because they refused to be pawns in his game of mental manipulation. I saw him try to pin it on his old wife with shaky hands, as though she has the cunning to turn their children against him, as though she was not against him also. And yet, she stayed, though arguing, mental subjugation, manipulation, and many nights where the tension was thick enough to smother her, she stayed.
Despite all this, these women would shine their teeth and ask young girls, “When will you marry?” It all appeared as a major ruse, a grand charade to convince society, who is not well on its own, that all is well with you despite the odds. Marriage is a mask worn at a masquerade ball that everyone is trying to convince you is their real face, even when you know that there is a lousiness, something so lackluster, hiding behind the monumental farce.
I wondered, for all a woman is taught to endure and submit to, would a husband ever reciprocate? Would people cry for him to stay with a notorious abuser, would they advise him to pray more to keep his cheating wife, would they ask him to sing a song of endurance because he was now Mr. Somebody? Would they beg him to drown in a tempestuous family because at least he had a family? Let’s not even go too extreme; would he let go of his name? Perhaps, but not often.
Above all else with most cishet marriages, even those without the abuse, without the infidelity, or any other moral dilemmas, there is a heavy reliance on the stripping away of the individual to form the unit that bothers me. We spend so much of our lives as other people: our parents’ children, the sibling of our siblings, somebody’s spouse. Who are any of us without the ties, without the noise? If we silenced the voices of everyone in our bubble, what do we have to say in isolation? Many people spend an existence living as the “them” in their parent’s minds, in their family’s expectations. I often wonder who any of us would be without it? If we shed away people’s expectations of us and just decided to be, freely? I think many people head into marriage without trying to figure any of that out. What does it matter anyhow, your individuality muddles into your new family regardless?
Even the Bible says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). One flesh, except he keeps his last name. One flesh, except he is not the one tasked with the role of returning home from a job, the same as his spouse, and being expected to slave away in the kitchen. One flesh, except he is not the child constantly reminded of how his mates are married in the North and how he should be learning to cater to his future family that doesn’t exist yet. One flesh, but he is not the one berated with questions of “Is this how you will be behaving in your wife’s house?” One flesh, but it is rarely called the “wife’s house.” And it makes me wonder, how tightly can the molecules in flesh combine to become one anyhow?
There is no beauty in loss of self. There is beauty in the change of self, regaining of self, but never in losing self. We expect women to lose themselves to marriage and admonish them if otherwise.
We expect them to claim to be “a wife and mother first.” Not whoever they were in the two seconds before they took on those roles.
We expect them, even before becoming wives or mothers, to spend ages praying to be wives and mothers. Going to retreats, revivals and restoration services to pray for their husbands and offspring. While married, we expect them to keep being this altar, this pillar of spiritual powers, as though the Head of House went missing.
We ask them ridiculous questions like “Does your husband know you do that?” and justify complaints with, “Well, her husband likes it like that,” as though she means nothing, is nothing, but an extension of her husband. As though she is not enough to like something for herself.
We strip them of their names. Their maiden names are nowhere to be found, their states of origin might as well have never come to be, and the children that they built in their body cannot even claim them. We refer to them by their first names, barely. We forget who they were before they became a Mrs. or a Mummy. And I cannot help but wonder how hard it might be, to let go of the concrete identity you have had all your life, to trade it in for a glass identity that can smash at any time.
Living under a patriarchal society demands this for the cishet structure to survive. Women who challenge this norm, especially in traditional, conservative communities, face backlash and pressure to conform. The man gains ownership rights; the man gains a Head of House title like it’s Big Brother on steroids; the man gains a cook, cleaner and babymaker to dominate. And the woman? She is left with a name that is not her own, which brings her added responsibility, the expectation to be a caretaker, and the unquestionable idea that she will place her family’s needs above her own each time.
When I was a child, a woman from my church had the most beautiful voice. She had two kids but no husband. When the time came for Mother’s Day, she was not allowed to sing with the mothers on stage because the Women’s department executives had issues with her being unmarried. I watched each tear roll down her cheeks, her back hunched, as she recounted this to my furious mother. I watched my mother call the Women’s Department head and pastor’s wife to tell them she didn’t know the meaning of their nonsense, but she wouldn’t be attending the Mother’s Day event. I watched them beg and fawn, like headless chickens who had no parts in the decisions leading up to that moment. I wondered how the lack of a husband negated her identity as a woman and a mother, especially since Mother’s Day has nothing to do with husbands. It was a big issue where the pastor’s wife had to apologize to her and my mother, but it made me realize just how much society stresses the package deal. Your womanhood does not depend on you growing to be a well-rounded woman. Society defines womanhood by marriage (happy or not) and kids, full stop.
I do not know where the willingness for this sacrifice comes from and I do not know if I will ever be ready to swap out my identity for one so demanding of me. I do not know if defining my life around children and my husband, rarely me, is something I am ready for.
Hopefully, there will always be people to remind you that there was a you before you became somebody else’s. Before my mother was “Mommy S,” she was what I call her. It is easy to lose sight of you in trying to be someone else’s. It is easy to let the concept of self suffer loss. It is easy to follow the new customs marriage and childbirth bring. Marriages take work, but women should not have to relinquish their identities to it.
My hairdresser’s name is Joyce.
Here is to one less crack in her identity.
About the Author:
S. Agboola is a student whose soul has been sold to medicine, but the arts still possess a great chunk of her heart. Since streaming services are yet to make her life a reality show, she writes creative nonfiction pieces and personal essays, mostly for her blog found at mattersofdedrea.wordpress.com. In love with the art of storytelling, language and bending reality, she also writes poetry and literary fiction. When she is not writing, one can find her crying into her chemistry notes, drawing or pretending to do one of three.
Feature image by Tracy Haught