I was in JSS 2 when my mother flogged me for drinking fruit wine like I’d stolen money from our neighbours. At the time, I was 12. I recently asked why she beat me over wanting non-alcoholic wine. Her response? She flogged the hell out of every potential alcoholic from me.
But at 23, I still think back to those strokes of cane I received in the backyard just before I take alcohol when I’m out with friends like my mum could appear and descend on me even now I’m miles away from home.
That’s just one scenario of the many rules that came with being the first child, the only girl in my family and the first grandchild. Of course, they couldn’t stress my brother because he had special needs, but I also saw the pattern of treating first kids as mini-adults amongst my cousins.
As a teenager, while my friends went to summer classes and pretended to learn, my parents felt I was too smart and needed private lessons at home to prepare for my next class. And if I did go out, I needed to take my little brother along.
Other 14 and 15-year-olds were having the time of their lives, but I was chasing and yelling at my brother the entire time. In school, I felt even worse. I was the dead babe with no gist about boys. I didn’t know any hot seasonal movies like The Vampire Diaries. My mother strongly believed anything — besides cartoons — was close enough to porn for a teenager. Her beliefs pretty much summed up my life.
In my mind, I had to be close to perfect to earn my parents’ approval. Those beliefs made navigating life as an adult difficult because I was such a people pleaser — which was already my default setting as a firstborn. I never wanted my parents to have a reason to yell at me and still wanted friends my age to like me.
The biggest hurdle was when I got my first toxic job in 2020. I graduated from university in 2019 and didn’t have any prior experience working for a horrible boss. I was hired as a program assistant, but when I got in, it felt normal to be called to serve tea, carry bags and wash my boss’ lunch plates. I thought it was the reality of capitalism, and I didn’t overthink it because I was used to service. I felt it made me a responsible child and, at the time, a responsible employee.
It may seem confusing because people think being the firstborn means you get to boss your younger ones around and pile up plates when you’re cooking, but it really comes with a daunting sense of responsibility and fear. The fear of taking the blame when things go wrong or having to do the extra work when your siblings don’t, for example.
Any perceived power pretty much ends at home. We don’t walk out of our houses thinking we’re the supreme leaders because we’ve only wielded any sort of power at home. Friends aren’t our little siblings; neither are our bosses or colleagues. So with new people, we’re completely unsure of how to exercise that firstborn “superpower”. More often you’re really just learning to tone it down and maintain relationships.
I was living my life for my parents up until I finished university in 2019. But in the past three years, I think I’ve slowly broken away. It all started in 2019 when I decided to pack my load and move from my parents’ house in Abuja to Lagos. And who really moves from Abuja to Lagos except they’re really going through it? I was.
I’d spent the year I finished school contemplating the move. I was tired of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to help get my brother ready for school, making food based on different needs and still heading out to my day job, every day. But my mother fought my decision from the beginning. To her, moving out was an insult to the entire family. It meant my parents couldn’t “take care” of me, which is really to say they couldn’t monitor me. My dad couldn’t see past the fact that I was a woman and only needed to move to my husband’s house.
I tried to push back on their decision, but it felt useless. It led to fights and damaged what little mental health I had left.
The 2020 pandemic was the last straw. Being on lockdown with my family drove me to the brink. Since my parents weren’t essential workers, they were home a lot more. That meant even more cooking and chores and less time to myself. My younger brother was also home, so I had to think of ways to keep him occupied daily. Added to these were my mum’s constant nagging that I wasn’t doing enough. I had to get out of that house.
First, I got a job in a different state. It was easy to push on moving away when my job was far away in Lagos. I had the choice to work from home, but I declined that option. The company offered me twice the salary I was previously earning, so my parents couldn’t argue against that. The only downside was not having the money to move on my own — that wasn’t going to stop me though.
My mum suggested moving in with her eldest brother. In her family, it was unheard of to live alone in a city where we had family members. But I’d been with my uncle before. I knew my days would be spent making ekpang nkukwo with his Calabar wife. Enduring that would be like moving from frying pan to fire.
My parents feared I’d become wayward overnight and suspected that I wanted to move in with my boyfriend. But except someone was willing to pay me the salary I was being offered, that one was their business. I explained how I’d been feeling overwhelmed and needed space. They didn’t understand, but I’d done my part in keeping the peace by telling them my mind.
I also tried to carry my parents along with each step. I understood they wanted some level of control over my life, so I gave it to them in bits and pieces. I asked for their opinion about the location to pick in Lagos since they lived there in their 20s. Of course, I knew what I wanted, but again, the illusion of control made them slightly more relaxed.
Sometimes, they didn’t respond to the questions. But when I brought up issues like how expensive it was to paint an apartment, my mother always had some snarky response on how I should enjoy the Lagos “big girl” life. I wasn’t surprised. If anything, I was just happy we’d moved from a hard “no” to “figure it out on your own since you have coconut head”.
Besides, there was a time my mother confessed to living with her university sweetheart after graduating, so that was always my petty counterargument. She’d correct me by saying, “He was an uncle,”. But that was a lie and it was too late for her to change the story.
Eventually, everyone gave in to my decision. By the end of 2020, I still didn’t have enough money to move out. I needed ₦900k for rent. But I’d saved up ₦500k, and with my new salary, I knew if I borrowed ₦400k from my friends, I would be able to pay it back in a month or two, without stress. That was the beginning of my freedom.
When I finally moved in January 2022, all I had in my new apartment were hand-me-down furniture I got from my older cousin and old curtains I sneaked out of my house. But I didn’t mind the struggles that came with living alone. Most of the interaction I had with my family was over the phone, and it made life much easier.
The next pushback was in April 2022. I’d been living in Lagos for five months and having a swell time being the black sheep of my family. My grandpa wanted me to visit him in Delta state, but I didn’t want to travel alone. All my female friends were occupied for the weekend, so my boyfriend was my only option. Of course, my family lost their minds at the thought of me taking a man to my grandfather’s house, but it was either that or ignoring the old man’s request to visit.
Of course, I claimed he was a platonic friend throughout my stay, but things eventually blew over as we ended up sleeping in the same room every night. I think the guy may even be besties with my grandpa now, but at the time, everyone gave me hell. They called me a disgrace of a daughter. But did I care?
If I had another opportunity, I’d do it all over again. Because taking that drive to Delta and spending days on my grandpa’s farm with a boy I really liked are core memories of freedom for me — memories I didn’t get to have as a kid.
I can’t claim that my actions in the last two years have always been rosy, though. For instance, my mum’s trust has waned. These days, whenever I tell her I’m doing something, she assumes I’m lying or holding back information, and I can’t exactly ask for financial favours from my parents anymore. But everything has pushed me to think for myself.
I’m aware of my responsibilities to my siblings and parents. They expect me to send money back home, even for little things like my brother’s favourite snacks, and my dad jokes about setting up a farm for him in the village. I’m sure he’ll eventually apply pressure, and somewhere down the line, there’ll be a house to pay for.
But for now, I’m making room for myself to enjoy life. And I think anyone shouldering responsibilities needs that because how much time do you really have to be young?
If you’re wondering how much it costs to be a firstborn, here’s a glimpse of it: 7 Nigerians Talk About How Much It Costs to Be a First-born Child