Stories are part of the foundation of civilization. They serve as the fabric by which our interactions, both interpersonal and intrapersonal, are made. They serve as the points of contact between ourselves and the world around us. They serve as the basis by which we decide to buy the cars we drive, the houses we live in, and the clothes we wear.
Among the many things I learned in my cultural anthropology course in my Junior year of undergrad, the existence of stories in the context of culture fascinated me the most. I remember my professor telling the class that by virtue of the existence of societies, each one of them has a storyline that is handed to you the moment you are born. You’re convinced that this story is the way you are meant to live and you live hoping that your life matches up to the expectations determined by that story. For example, in Nigerian culture, a girl will learn domestic cleaning and care during her childhood because one day, she will get married (note that the primary reason is not for personal development but for someone else not even in the picture yet but I digress). So, she gets married around her late twenties and has a bangin’ body to boot. You know, the tiny waist and wide hips in dramatically hourglass-figured glory. Once she is married to a man, birth control is out of the window because she must be pregnant within the first year of marriage or else, people who know of her marriage will wonder if her husband “married a man.” After having her children, she gains weight and may not sweat it since many see gaining weight as a sign of her maturation into womanhood.
The above storyline serves as part of the narrative Nigerian women are meant to follow. But reality says that not every Nigerian woman will be married by her late 20s. Not every Nigerian woman will be married at all. Not every Nigerian woman will have a successful pregnancy that begins within the first year of marriage. Heck, the marriage many not even last a lifetime! And the failure to perfectly adhere to this narrative constructed by Nigerian culture leads to the disappointment in the heart of Nigerian women who see this storyline as the way life should be lived. The same thing applies to any person of any background.
Reality also says that there will be women who will question why, because of their sex, they are the only ones expected to do housekeeping. They will question why the primary reason for learning this is for a husband that is not even in the picture yet. And after having kids, the woman may want to live an active lifestyle that may result in a body type that counters the “mature woman” ideal. And while the woman may find joy in pursuing her own story, she will be in a constant, exhaustive fight with others asserting her autonomy and her decisions, maybe even the decision to stay single in a culture that seems to elevate marriage as the end all be all.
Now, I definitely do not have the exact answer on how to navigate through the various narratives we have been handed for several reasons: some of us are wrestling with one culture and the several subcultures within the culture. Others of us have the even more daunting task of wrestling with multiple storylines that come about from spending significant portions of our lives in several countries. And none of these narratives look exactly the same. Regardless of the differences in our life experiences, I do know that there is power in owning our stories. I know that is okay and perfectly healthy to question the narratives that have been handed to us. Perhaps you will find areas in your life where you’ve decided to have zero expectations which runs counter to the rigid stories that you are bombarded with, giving you less anxiety and a more relaxed view in that portion of your life. Or maybe you have decided to opt for a different outlook that contrasts with a particular ideal you were raised with. Whatever the case may be, you have one life and your story is yours to write. You are allowed to make mistakes and change your mind. You’re allowed to dust yourself off when you you’ve fallen and admit when you are stuck. You are allowed to live your life.
What are some of your joys, frustrations, or disappointments that you have experienced as a result of the culture stories you’ve subscribed to?