Permission from my Mother by Nena Ndioma
Few African mothers (bless their hearts) will ever encourage their daughter’s divorce. Mine is no different.
I’ve never had a particularly easy relationship with my mother. Now that I look back, I can see that this partly stems from the fact that while I’m a ‘born’ communicator, my mother’s communication style is pretty indirect, and therefore difficult to decipher. Understandably, our communication styles clashed too often for us to get along terribly well while I was growing up. With the passage of time, we’ve gotten better at communicating – or, rather, at accepting that we communicate differently, and at (sort of) trying to meet each other half-way.
I broke the news of my divorce plans to my mother gently, but clearly and directly. I broke the news over a period of weeks, repeating the same message several times to give her time to absorb and make peace with it. Each time, in her characteristic communication style, she shrugged it off like an uncomfortable shawl, nervously laughed a little as if to help take away the sting of the unpalatable message, assured me breezily that the marital situation would get better … and then changed the subject.
I understood that this was a painful subject for any African mother to consider. My divorce, after all, would have an impact on her life, whether real or imagined. What would people say? What message would the divorce send to others about my family, about my upbringing … about my mother?
Our family home is named ‘Ndi oma Lodge.’ Ndi oma means ‘good people’ in my mother tongue. It’s an appropriate name – given by my father, who was a good man, and who left behind the legacy of a good name, good children, a good family. Good people.
I married into a family of good people, too. Indeed, a poignant plea from my former spouse was that I reverse my decision in order not to blight the divorce-free testimony of his family.
I found this interesting – at least theoretically: the mentality that not getting legally divorced could somehow bestow some sort of mysterious blessing on the entire family, when we had already been divorced in every other way for years. I could see the parallels between this mindset and my mother’s, and I could understand it. We were ‘good people,’ after all, and these kinds of things aren’t supposed to happen to us. Besides, nobody wants their world changed, re-arranged, ruptured – not even me. But if leaving your world intact means that I no longer get to exist (but you do); if not rocking the boat results in my being erased (while you’re not) … then there’s something fundamentally unfair about that picture. I’m sorry for wanting to be, for wanting to exist so badly.
The very last time I conveyed the news of the impending divorce to my mother, I did so firmly, yet gently and directly. Finally forced to talk about it, she said (essentially), ‘Listen – these things leading to your divorce are non-issues. They’re no big deal. You want to hear about marriage? Let me tell you about marriage ….’ And she began to narrate a litany of the typical marital experiences of her generation.
I responded in turn: ‘Mummy, the diseases a man’s carelessness could give a woman in your days were mostly curable. Today, the diseases a man’s carelessness will give you can kill you.’
There was a long silence as she considered this reality, perhaps for the first time.
That was the end of the conversation.
The next day, after work, I was lounging in bed, trying to de-stress. My mother appeared in my room and sat on the chair by my bedside. We watched TV together quietly for a while.
And then she began a conversation. A monologue, actually, with a captive audience of one. She told me the story of a young woman from my village who fell ill in the city and came back to the village ‘coughing.’ She claimed to have malaria. She died not long afterwards, and the rumor was that she was HIV-positive.
The next evening after work, I found my mother waiting for me, seated on the same chair. As I slipped out of my work outfit and fished around in my closet for a change of clothing, she launched into another monologue – this time, a new story about another young woman in my village who succumbed to AIDS.
The evening after that, she was seated in my room yet again – this time in semi-darkness. I switched on the light and she welcomed me with yet another story with the same theme.
This happened for a full work week. Each time, I listened attentively, making all the right noises to let her know I was paying attention, but saying very little.
By the end of the week, I understood.
My mother, from a totally different generation – my mother, in her indirect, cryptic fashion – was releasing me to make the decision I felt was best for me. She was letting me know that it was okay. It was okay to upset her world, as long as it meant that I would be okay and healthy.
For my undemonstrative, reserved, guarded mother, this was the closest thing to saying ‘I love you.’
Thank you, Mummy.
Nena Ndioma is the pen name of the writer behind Remembering my Journey, a blog detailing thoughts on being African, Christian and Divorced.