When I was 10 years old, I almost became an actress. The day before our graduation from primary school, my class put on a play adaption of The Sound of Music. None of us had ever heard of it but we had heard that “Maria” was the main character so all the girls wanted to be her. I did not audition for the role because I knew Maami thought things like singing and dancing were wastes of time. However, I did not know that the mother of my friend—Amara—had called my mother to tell her that Amara was sure to get the role. It was then that Maami put on her going-out shoes, and dragged me back to school by the cuff of my shirt to audition for the role. She shouted all the way there saying that no ugly Igbo girl with her akata mother were going to outshine her daughter. I happened to get the role of “Maria” and Amara got to be my understudy.
Now, I could lie and tell you, as well as everyone else, that I knew what my mother did was wrong and I rejected it completely and I only auditioned for fear of the consequences if I defied her orders but I won’t. What actually happened was that I auditioned so well, not because I was particularly dying to play Maria or because I had some secret passion for theatre that kept me up at night, but I did it just so I could see Amara cry when she lost. I am also ashamed to tell you that as she and I went on to the same secondary school, whenever I told the story of how I played Maria, I always made sure Amara was there. I felt this need to constantly remind her that next to me, she was—and probably always will be—less.
Before the world taught me to compete with other girls, my mother did. For as long as I can remember, Maami has spent a disproportionate amount of her adult life fighting fictional women who she was convinced wanted to steal her husband. Now I say “fictional”, not because there weren’t actual women who wanted my father, but because my mother was not in competition with one or two, she was in competition with the entire female population. At least the population that came in contact with my father. She was—and still is—stuck in this endless struggle for my father’s undying love and attention where she is insecure enough to fight (often aggressively and even more often subtly) to win this imaginary “throne” in my father’s lap. She definitely looks trapped but she doesn’t feel it.
While we were growing up, my mother used her children as soldiers in this fight. As Maami would always say, “awọn ọmọ mi ni idajọ mi [by my children, they will judge me].” Therefore, she would make sure we outdid every other child in everything so their accomplishments paled in comparison. As if her husband needed a constant reminder that she was the mother of his incredible children. Naturally, my brother was often excluded from this rat race because there are unspoken rules of engagement which stated my brother’s worth, intelligence or talent need not be proved to anyone since his gender vouched for him. He had no thrones to fight for because they belonged to him and one day—like my father did—he would be deciding who would get to seat on them.
As Maami compared herself to these women, they compared themselves to her. Why else would Amara’s mother call her? When Maami dragged me to audition for that play, she never once asked what I wanted. She did not want to know if I could even act or if I had debilitating stage fright. She just needed to prove, to whoever cared to watch, that her daughter was better and that somehow meant she was better.
So I learned what my mother taught quickly. I can not remember exactly when I shifted from consciously comparing my achievements to female friends in my class to comparing my appearance to that of female strangers. But I do remember when I started to compete with my three older sisters. My sisters set high bars so I pushed myself to reach those same milestones at younger ages. Everything mattered to me: from as little as doing my own laundry at 7 years old to as huge as starting college at 16.
I’ve told you this long life story to make one point: for as long as I can remember, I was not proud of my gender. I felt we were weak and inferior which was why only one of us was fit to sit at the table with them and to get this seat, I had to prove I was not among the weak ones who did not deserve the power. Then in those times when I felt weak and inferior, I felt crippling shame that I was exactly like “those” women I despised.
I wish my gender history were unique to me but it is not. Too many of us are the same. We all learn that for one of us to thrive, all others must fail because there is simply not enough for all of us to share. Some are stuck as that same girl I used to be and others unlearn that behavior every day. Now, nine years later, I like to think of myself as a modern woman: nothing like my mother or grandmother or great grandmother. At times, I feel just enough self-righteousness to condescend to my mother and all those other women who are just like the girl I used to be. It is as though I completely forget all the times I slut-shamed my friends or took pride in being skinnier or “prettier” than other girls or the other times when I tore down another girl’s self-esteem to raise mine. However, when I do remember, I am mortified of that girl I used to be and the only thing that stops me from putting a knife to my wrist is remembering how far I have come and how far I have left to go.