Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
Today’s subject on #ZikokoWhatSheSaid is a 55-year-old Nigerian woman. She talks about navigating marriage expectations from Nigerian aunties, her reasons for choosing a funny over a cute man, and coming to terms with the possibility of never having kids of her own.
In 55 years, what’s one thing you’ve learnt that drastically changed your life?
Ignoring expectations. They drive us to places we’d rather not be.
What do you mean?
I was 47 when I got married. A lot of people expected me to be bothered by the 46 years I spent without a husband. In my 20s, most of the women in my life were either planning a wedding or in a serious relationship. And in my 30s, the rest were married. I wasn’t interested in the commitment to marriage. Dating for fun was a much better option.
Why were you uninterested?
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I didn’t see a lot of emotions between my parents. Tbh I didn’t see much of them even. They travelled a lot for work. Sometimes, we went along with them. In seven years, we’d lived in Lagos, Zaria, Port Harcourt and Akwa Ibom. Even when we were home together, they’d be in their room or occupied with work. We just weren’t close-knit. A part of me didn’t see the need to marry and end up so distant.
When we did speak, our conversations centred around staying away from boys. My mum used the whole “If a boy touches you, you’ll get pregnant” talk to scare me. I eventually figured out she lied.
Before one of my parent’s trips, my parents dropped me off with my older male cousins. A lot of their male friends also came to the house during my time there. I was 14, and that was the first time I felt like I was hanging around guys. And I did not fall pregnant, and neither did the women whom they gisted about hugging and kissing.
How did that gist change your relationship with boys?
In three months, I became a tomboy. I didn’t have a crush on any of the boys. I only became interested in their clothes and sports. I loved their baggy jeans and t-shirts. I also fell in love with tennis and badminton.
By the time my parents got back from their trip, I had a whole new look. My mother’s solution was to ship me off to an all-girls boarding school in Akwa Ibom. She expected me to get in touch with my “inner woman” again.
As their first daughter, I’d say this was where their expectations started. “You have to be an example,” “Women wear dresses,” she’d say. I was constantly expected to be a perfect woman.
Did your mum’s plan work?
LOL. I’m 55 and still wear jeans everywhere.
When I got into uni, I was free to dress however I liked. I schooled in Uyo while my parents settled in Zaria. I wore my baggy jeans and low cut in peace. Boys were a lot more forward about dating. But I wasn’t interested in anything serious. After watching one or two football matches with me, they settled for being friends.
When did the expectations for marriage start?
Right there in uni. It started with the guys I dated. Back then, men promised marriage like water. They’d date you for a few weeks and expect you to introduce them to your family. I didn’t get it.
The most ridiculous one was in my fourth year in 1992. Two months into the relationship, he ghosted. He lived in Port Harcourt and only visited Uyo to see me. I tried my best to contact him, but writing letters was the best I could do. I didn’t get any response.
A year later, he showed up at my faculty. Imagine the audacity of this man asking me to marry him. He talked about missing me and not thinking straight. He even threatened me with the “You won’t be young forever” speech. I was only 26. Again, the audacity. I had to deal with his stress until my graduation that year. Then, I moved back to Zaria.
Tell me, how did moving back in with your parents with no man in sight at 26 go?
LOL. There were one or two questions about marriage from my mother’s sisters. My parent, were more invested in their first child finally becoming a breadwinner. They expected me to earn money right away. That wasn’t possible. I studied Industrial Chemistry, and it wasn’t a course that people cared about in the early 90s. At least not like banking or medicine.
I spent a year trying to secure a job. When that didn’t work out, I decided to go for my master’s. It bought me more time with my parents. As academics themselves, they were happy I was going back for another degree.
I got into a school in Zaria in 1994. The degree took longer than I expected. My thesis dragged on longer than two years, but I had to complete it. I expected I’d get a better chance at getting a job after. I didn’t graduate until 2000. I was 33.
How did that feel?
I felt slowed down. But hey, life happens. The unexpected part of the degree was falling in love for the first time. I was willing to marry the guy.
In uni, I got into playing long tennis, and the guy loved to play on the field as well. He was cute. It just seemed like the right time when he asked. I was uncertain about the next step, and most of my friends were married. It seemed logical to go with it. There was also love sha. Did I mention he was cute?
LOL. So what happened to the unexpected love?
My father disapproved of him. We were both from the same state — Akwa Ibom — but my father hated the guy’s tribe. I was willing to fight for the love. Until I got a letter from the guy saying his family needed me to join their church. It was his condition to commit to the marriage.
For me, that was the end of the relationship. My friends tried to convince me to overlook it. They were concerned I wouldn’t find someone else.
I hated the concept of a biological clock for women. Like if I wasn’t married by 40, I’d be an old cargo. I was going to get married on my terms. The Akwa Ibom man was not for me. And that was that.
I love it. How was life after your second degree?
Good. After my master’s, I decided to move to Abuja. It was the “Lagos” of 2000. Everyone wanted to travel there and get access to government jobs. So did I. When I arrived, I linked up with an old school friend to help me with a job. He did, and it was in the oil sector. The money was good back then. Three years later, I was promoted and transferred to Warri.
Did you enjoy Warri?
For sure. The starch and banga, sitting at football centres, playing badminton and drinking palm wine… Warri was a good time. No one bothered me about becoming an old cargo. Warri people just wanted to have fun.
Within that first year, I also spent a lot of time travelling outside the country. If I was under any kind of stress, I’d book the next flight to the UK or Paris. My late 30s were the best years of my life.
The marriage questions came up again when my mother died in 2006. I was 39, and my aunties were furious. After the burial, they went on about my sister who was now pregnant with her second child. Until I left for Warri, I didn’t have a moment of peace.
How did that feel?
I didn’t feel anything. At that point, I’d come to terms with probably spending my life alone. I was already experiencing irregular periods. I knew it was menopause. So beyond a husband, I knew having my kids were out of the picture at 39. I had accepted it. When I turned 40, my period completely stopped. At that point, nobody’s talk could get to me. I had accepted my reality.
The awkward part of the experience was having friends tell me sorry. I hated it. I hated when people said sorry to me for not having kids. I wasn’t unhappy with my life. I earned enough money to support my father, travelled to more countries I could count and lived life to the fullest.
So why did you decide to get married?
LOL. The man simple showed up at the right time, for me.
In 2009, my dad was diagnosed with dementia. So I brought him to Warri. It was a stressful period for me. I wasn’t even looking forward to any relationship. One day, my colleague forced me out of my house for drinks. She went on about a guy who’d been to our office and wanted a date with me. It had been three years since I’d been on a date. I didn’t mind.
The guy wasn’t cute, but he was funny. After the date, we talked on the phone for hours every night. I felt like a schoolgirl. Imagine a 45-year-old woman blushing. Three days later, he asked me to be his wife. I said yes.
You had a fiancé in three days?
LOL. We were too old for games abeg. I moved in with him within three months and I probably shouldn’t have done that.
It took him two years to propose. Staying together made the guy sluggish with marriage plans. At some point, I was ready to leave. But one of his friends talked sense into him, and he started pushing him to see my father’s brothers in Akwa Ibom.
He’d seen my dad a few times, but half the time, my dad was meeting him again for the first time. So travelling to Akwa Ibom was important. I needed my uncles to stand in for my dad. The whole dowry transaction happened with my uncles over text. In a week, we were in Akwa-Ibom for the wedding. Everything was sharp sharp.
Were you anxious?
Far from it. At 47, I was sure about what I wanted. After living together and having sex for over a year, what’s there to be scared of? I only cried on the day of the wedding. That was even shocking for me. I blame it on the sappy wedding songs they played.
As for my husband, he’d been married before, so it wasn’t anything deep. We didn’t even have a white wedding — that one pained me.
Are there any parts of marriage that shocked you?
For the most part, it’s the cooking. I didn’t expect I’d have to cook more often. I’m talking about waking up at 2 a.m. because my husband had a craving. That’s one part I hated. Eventually, we established the boundaries around cooking.
It was refreshing to have someone to watch a tennis match with and also spend their money. I’d spent three years taking care of my dad. It was nice for someone to take care of me.
LOL. Did you ever talk about kids?
He already had three kids with his previous wife. So there was no pressure from him. The only time I felt sad that we couldn’t have children was in 2018. My sister sent her kids to visit us on holiday. One night, her daughter crawled into bed with us, and my husband seemed so happy playing with her. I felt bad that I’d never have kids. It was a fleeting thought though.
If he missed his kids, he’d visit them at their mother’s place.
I’m curious: are you open to adopting kids?
It was a process we started four years into our marriage. But I was worried. First, I was more comfortable with the idea of adopting a child if we knew the parents. I felt it was safer. At least that’s what was implied from parents who had adopted kids. In the middle of everything, I got scared about losing the child if they decided to look for their parents. I’d be too heartbroken. When I turned 50, I gave up the whole idea.
My aunties still say my husband will leave me for a younger woman. But I’ve never been scared of being alone. I’d be happy to travel on a whim again.
Mad. What are you looking forward to right now?
Travelling with my husband. I’m glad we get to do it together. It’s something I still wish my parents did.
Catching flights and feelings at 55. Love it.
LOL. I also want more pictures. My father died last year. He died unaware of who he was or the life he lived. There were no pictures to prove that he lived such a full life. If I end up growing old and forgetting my past, I’d love to have pictures that remind me of the amazing life I lived — with or without kids.