Navigating the burdens of expectation as a married woman in Nigeria
I gave birth to a girl. Actually, the doctor helped me give birth to my daughter. Because I was drifting between sleep and wakefulness after two days of labor, he took his scalpel, nipped at skin, fused a vacuum device to my baby’s head, and pulled my daughter out.
After my daughter was born, I was always fully in act, cooking and serving and smiling at the family who was often around. Though I had a couple of childhood friends I kept in contact with, I had few new friends; the women I socialized with were the wives of my husband’s friends, those women who identified themselves by their husband’s aliases—Nwunye Emeka Japan, Nwunye Nonso London, Nwunye Tony Italy. A husband’s name, or his alias, commands respect, and our society permits a woman dignity only through marriage. You are a nobody without your husband’s name, no matter how much you have in your bank account or how many businesses you own. You belong to someone, and you are supposed to give him children, to give him son(s).
Many of the women had given birth to sons first. They walked with extra oomph in their steps, their laughter loud and free. My friend, the only classmate I could bond with at the polytechnic near our home where I pursued my diploma, already had three daughters. She was two years older than me and was often the light in the room, the one who made funny jokes, who dreamt of working in an oil company after she graduated from school, who talked about her dreams as though she could reach up and pluck them from a tree. Before my eyes she underwent a frightening transformation. I saw inside her an agony so deep that it ate her inside out, turned off the light in her eyes, wrinkled her skin, and hunched her shoulders. She walked like she carried invisible sacks of garri on her back, sacks so heavy they didn’t let her stand straight. And one semester, when she didn’t return to school, I learned that her husband had gotten their house help pregnant and this help had given birth to the son my friend never gave her husband.
This was what would happen to me if I didn’t fulfill the purpose for which I was married, I was sure.
In 2004, while everyone was terrified by the intense inter-communal violence and rise of insurgency in the Niger Delta, cities mere hours away from where we lived, I was yet again praying for a baby boy.
For months before my due date, I was in the middle of a deep depression. I had suddenly become a “prayer warrior” and would kneel in the middle of my room every night, whispering to God, asking for just one miracle. Labor was swift this time. I clutched onto a pamphlet with Jesus’ face I had gotten from church and chanted prayers all through my labor. And when the nurses pulled my baby out of my body, I waited for the magic words.
Imulu ife mgbowa, the nurse said in Igbo. “You have given birth to a being with a vagina.”
She was smiling. I was crying. And for hours, after we had been moved to a private ward, I stared at my daughter, at her pouted lips, the hair curled around her ears. I thought she was perfect.
Relatives did not come immediately to the hospital. I got a phone call or two, generic congratulations on the birth of my child. My father was ill, so my mother couldn’t come as quickly to care for me as our Omugwo culture demanded. I bathed my baby, cooked my own meal. It was liberating. There were no judgmental eyes around. But I did not stare too long at my husband’s face for fear that I would see disappointment staring back.
We moved into our own house, a small, unpainted bungalow that sat at the edge of a hill. Houses here are all bounded by tall, looming fences; we could go months without seeing our neighbors. But they saw us, our front yard riddled with wild weeds. Often I worked the yard with my husband, plowing the hard earth with rusty hoes and machetes, cutting the grasses. We planted guavas and papayas at the front, and ugu and bitterleaf and nchuawu at the back. I watched my daughters with an obsession that bordered on paranoia, keeping them in sight so they wouldn’t go tumbling down the cliff behind the house. On Sundays, we sat at the side of the house and drank Pepsi, and I made soups with vegetables I plucked from the backyard.
My husband and I spoke little about our depleting finances. Things had changed over the years. His business was struggling. His store had been broken into, his shipment of mobile phones stolen. It was a difficult time. Family and friends gradually stopped visiting. For the first time since we married, we were alone. And I was pregnant again.
My son was born on a warm Wednesday morning. I had spent the night squashing fat mosquitoes against the wall of my ward and breathing through my mouth. And when my husband drove us home the following morning in his red Toyota Bluebird that creaked when it rode over potholes, he kept reaching over to cup my cheek, to touch our son, his eyes bright with happiness. I had finally fulfilled my purpose. I searched my heart for joy and relief but found nothing. For many days, I wondered why I shrank each time neighbors came by, each time hugging me and congratulating me on my redemption.
Though my husband put up a good performance for our visitors, although he still laughed and listened to his favorite records, though he loved his daughters and his new son, he would often sit in a corner and stare at the middle distance, his eyes clouded with unspoken sorrow. He was disappearing before my eyes, this vibrant man I had married, his neck now thinned like a plucked chicken’s, his pants now loose at the waist. This man who laughed often, who was the happiest when throwing a feast for friends, had become a shadow of himself.
The week after my son’s birth a relative was sitting stiffly in the sitting room. He refused the beer I offered.
“Our son was doing very well before he married you,” he said to me the moment we were alone, his eyes raking over the bare sitting room, his lips thin with displeasure.
At nights while my husband snored lightly beside me, I would slip into the bathroom and cry my eyes out. One morning, out of the blue, I thought of leaving my children behind and running away. But I had no money. I had no job. So, who would I run to? To my parents? They would bring me back. So I woke one morning and went to hunt for a job with the diploma I had earned.
I found a job as a customer service officer at a local bank. The first month, I withdrew my salary, counted the nairas to make sure it was complete, and stuffed them in my purse. Walking home that evening was like a journey over enemy lines: I jumped when people walked past, clutching the purse to my chest until I got home, sure someone would snatch my bag. I gave most of that money to my husband. Giving him the first salary I had ever earned in my whole life and seeing the sun rise in his eyes was liberating.
That weekend we ate an extra piece of meat. We had a side of salad. We sat around the TV to watch our children’s favorite animated movie, and when the power company cut the electricity, my husband bought some petrol for our generator. Many years had passed since we used that generator, and now it hummed again, joining the symphony of evening noises in our neighborhood.
And so it happened, as many things do, gradually: I began to contribute to our family’s upkeep. I paid our children’s school fees. I helped to fix things that needed fixing. My husband stopped walking as though he was permanently hunched at the shoulders. And laughter began to rumble in our home again.
I saw then that it was my financial independence that had lifted the sacks off my shoulders, unlocked the yoke around my neck, and broke the shackles bounding my limbs.
Once, during a visit, my in-law squinted at the new slick flooring of our sitting room and asked when we got the tiles. My husband pointed to me and said, with a smile, “She paid for it. She has been fixing a lot of things around here.” The in-law shook my hand and patted my shoulder and said, “You are a good wife.”
I stared at him. For a long time, I just stared. Only a few years ago, he had blamed me for our struggles. Now, he was smiling. Now, he thought I was a good wife. And in the months to come, all other relatives had kind things to say to me. Although we still endured a few struggles because our earnings were never enough, I saw then that it was my financial independence that had lifted the sacks off my shoulders, unlocked the yoke around my neck, and broke the shackles bounding my limbs. I could finally stand straight. I could finally breathe well.
I saw my cousin recently on Instagram. I was scrolling through my feed when I found her, a grainy vintage snapshot of her leaning against an old Toyota. I noticed the cheap synthetic weave-on, the chalkiness of her skin. Seventeen years had passed, and she looked thirty years older. I could vividly remember the chic cousin who came home wearing the most glamorous clothes, talking down her nose at the villagers. I still remember that Christmas when she came home with a new, shiny car that she wouldn’t let anyone ride in, except for me. She invited me to join her for the Ede Aro carnival to watch masquerades. She was dark and lean and had a body that poured into shapely clothes, and I was tall and thin and worried too much about the tightness of my dress, the length of my heels. At the carnival, people looked at us, flashing smiles, and I wondered if they thought we were siblings, even though she was twelve years older.
I often wonder how things would have turned out if my cousin hadn’t caused me to walk into marriage with a chest pressed tight with fear. I wonder if my early years in marriage would have been happier had she encouraged me to seek financial independence rather than an immediate pregnancy.
Seventeen long years have since passed, with our lives taking different turns. She married and moved to Enugu with her husband, and they have three daughters. She resigned from her job because he wanted her to be a stay-at-home wife. She stopped wearing her chic clothes, swapping them for cheap wrappers and blouses. She sold off her car and, years later, after a long fight with her husband, asked my father for a small fund to start a trade.
But before this, before she buckled under the pressure and agreed to marry, before she resigned from her lucrative job and moved out of her fancy apartment, before she moved into the two-bedroom flat in Enugu and settled for a housewife, before everything changed, I was an awkward teenager and she invited me to ride with her in a car she owned. She was smiling, so full of life. She said she would invite me to visit her in Lagos. She said things that made my chest bubble with laughter and I imagined growing up to become like her: a single, successful woman, unburdened by society, living on her own terms. And in those brief moments in my memory, we are happy together.
Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Kano, Nigeria, and now lives in Vermont. She was awarded an honorary fellowship in Writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2014, she was chosen as one of Africa’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital. In 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program.
Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in the New York Times, Longreads, The Rumpus, Brittle Paper, Rattle, Jalada, and more.