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.
When did you realise you weren’t your parents’ favourite?
I’ve always known. They never hid it.
I was the ugly sister — the third child of three girls and one boy — and as far as I can remember, my father and mother always picked on me about it.
What was the first memorable thing they did that made you know for sure?
When I was around seven years old, my mum stopped me from going with my sisters to a birthday party because she didn’t want me to embarrass them. I ended up alone at home with the nanny, who followed my parents’ example by treating me badly too. She only ever fed me cold Indomie when I was alone with her. I cried the whole day.
Sometimes, I think back and realise even at that age, I knew I was considered ugly, and that was why my mum wouldn’t let me go to a party with my sisters.
Why were you considered ugly?
I’m very dark in complexion, and anyone who had my skin colour in the 80s was almost always looked down on. People also made fun of my big eyes, nose and lips. The funny thing is I took after my father, unlike my siblings who favoured my mum’s looks. She was fair with more fragile features. Meanwhile, my dad would still blatantly call me ugly.
What do you mean by “blatantly”?
Anytime he was angry I spoiled something or failed a test, he’d say something like, “Get away, you ugly somebody.” Or sometimes, he’d just want me out of his sight.
One time, when I was in primary six, my dad’s boss came to visit with his wife.
My mum warned all four of us kids not to come out of our rooms except they told us to. An hour into their visit, they called my siblings to greet the guests, but they said I didn’t need to come. The second time they called them out, I waited for some minutes, and then I followed into the living room. I was curious to see how the “big man” looked.
My parents were so upset when they saw me, but they pretended in front of the guests. I couldn’t even introduce myself before I saw my mum give a look, and we all returned to our bedrooms.
OMG. What happened after?
My parents didn’t speak to me at all after they left, and I was both shocked and relieved because I expected a beating. That night passed and the next day came, and they still didn’t speak to me. That’s how almost a year passed without them saying a word to me.
How was that possible?
You have to understand that I never had normal communication with them before that, so it wasn’t a huge jump. I was still in primary school, and there wasn’t much that had to be said between us. Instead, I was referred to as part of a collective when they spoke to my siblings.
For some reason, I didn’t try to speak to them either. It didn’t even occur to me to beg for forgiveness until our firstborn brought it up. I just kept to myself and pretended not to exist. It was only after I went to apologise to them about that day that my mum hissed, and they started speaking to me again.
Wow. I can imagine growing up in that situation was difficult
It was the worst.
Every time I tried to talk about anything, my mum would tell me to shut up. I’d always get served food last just so I could get the bottom of the pot. And she’d conveniently forget to buy me new clothes except once in a blue moon. It was petty things like that, but also, she’d over-punish me when I made mistakes, compared to my siblings who’d get a small scolding.
I’ve heard her talk to her siblings over the phone and mention how she doesn’t know how she gave birth to someone like me. She often said it as a joke followed by loud laughter, but I don’t know if that made it better or worse.
I don’t know what to say
To make matters worse, I started comfort eating once I entered secondary school, so I became overweight in no time. At some point, my dad started calling me “nwaezi”, which means “baby pig” in Igbo. I thought it was an endearment until I found out the meaning one day.
I’m so sorry. What were your siblings’ reactions to this treatment?
We’re all close in age, so they were young too.
They tried to ignore it instead of interfering, but you could tell they were uncomfortable about it. They just weren’t uncomfortable enough to stand up for me against our parents. The only person who was particularly mean was our eldest when we were all in secondary school. She’d join my mother to laugh at me, but she stopped that once she entered university.
How did you manage to survive it all?
I’m not sure.
It deeply affected me then, and it still affects me today. I failed out of secondary school because I never read or listened in class, and no one cared enough about me to make sure I did. After repeating about three times, I had to take post-secondary classes to enter a polytechnic, while my siblings all attended university.
That made me feel worse, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t interested in what I was studying or any career at all. I graduated with a pass and went back to my parents’ house. They descended on me, and this time, they had many reasons to. I was ugly, overweight, had no reasonable degree and couldn’t get a job. I lived off of them for almost five years and enveloped myself in their verbal abuse.
Did you have any support system growing up?
I was and still am quite antisocial.
At that time, I didn’t have friends or relatives I was close to. In school, I carried the weight of self-hate and low self-esteem around with me, so people hardly ever approached me. Even teachers ignored me.
I cross paths with people I attended secondary school or polytechnic with, either online or in life, and 95% of them have no memory of me. Some even recognise my sisters but swear they don’t remember me. As a child and young adult, I never really had anyone I could casually reach out to.
It sounds like things improved at some point
Yes. Taking church seriously was the turning point.
In 2004, some years after I got my HND, I switched from my family church to another one and started attending every service and special programme to escape from home. In less than a year, I was a full-fledged church worker and gradually opened up to the other workers. For the first time, I was part of a family with a defined purpose. While it wasn’t all love and light like it was supposed to be, it was a thousand times healthier than the situation at home.
And that’s where I met my husband.
How did that happen?
He was also a worker, about five years older than me.
When he first started talking to me nice, in 2006, I immediately decided I didn’t deserve someone like him. He was well-liked in church and had a pleasant face. I thought I’d embarrass him by being romantically associated with him. I didn’t want him to feel bad and ashamed of himself when he finally realised I was actually ugly. So I started avoiding him.
But he was persistent for a good year. Even when I skipped services, he’d come to my house — sometimes, with our pastor — to check on me. As soon as I agreed to date him, he proposed. I was ecstatic. I ended up being the first of my siblings to get married. Everyone was shocked.
What did they say?
My mum laughed at me when I told her. She said, “I thought you would be our stay-at-home child, to take care of us in our old age.” She made a show out of telling me how lucky I was and how I should make sure to “tie the man down before he runs”. When he came for the introduction, she was very happy. My father was indifferent.
Please, tell me it went well
Our marriage was great until I had our first child in 2009. As soon as I became pregnant, he grew distant, and the affairs rolled out. For several years, I accepted this as normal and even encouraged it.
He started seeing other women. Of course, at first, I felt betrayed, especially because he was supposed to be a born-again Christian. I really didn’t expect adultery from him. He’s an assistant pastor today, but it hasn’t stopped him.
But I’m curious. How and why did you encourage it?
After I found out about the first one, I told him it was okay, that I understood.
I thought it was expected, considering how ugly I was. I found myself making excuses for him and justifying it. In fact, I believed he did me a favour by marrying me, giving me an escape from my parents and having to figure out a career or finances.
Our marriage stopped being romantic or intimate after our first year, but he’s never treated me badly or disrespected me for one day. I’ve told myself I’m content with that.
When you say “stopped being intimate”, do you mean no more sex?
Oh no. He still performs his marital duties — we have three kids now — but it’s clear he doesn’t enjoy it with me. I understand why. I’ve never really been able to let loose in bed for him.
Do you still believe your looks justify his infidelity?
Not at all. I’ve seen too many marriages in which the wives are simply perfect but the husbands still cheat or treat them badly to believe that. But something in my head still tells me it’s only natural that he’d seek comfort in other women.
A part of me feels like I’m a source of shame to him. When others boldly show their wives off, what can he do?
Did you ever confront your parents about how they treated you?
No. I was terrified of them, so I just treated it as something normal I had to endure.
They’re still alive and strong today. My mother did Omugwo for all three of my children. I’m still not their favourite, and they hardly notice when I don’t communicate with them for a while.
Have you ever considered therapy?
No, I haven’t. The church community has been quite helpful with counselling and that feeling of fellowship, so I’ve not yet found it necessary.
Has your experience affected your relationship with your own children?
As a young adult, I was so sure I wouldn’t have children because I didn’t want them to have a similar experience. But when I got serious with church and married my husband, I healed from that. I realised my children wouldn’t suffer like I did because I’d never behave like my parents. Neither would my husband.
We bring them up as Christ would, with gentleness and kindness.