Being African & Codependent (1/3)

The last video I posted on abantumay was on whether we as Africans are raised to be codependent by nature/tradition? I wanted to explore this subject further by sharing how my own African home upbringing raised me to become co-dependent and why and how I have started the road towards recovery. To not make this an entire novel – I will break it up into different posts.

Part 1: The Passing Down of Codependency

Definition of codependency

a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (such as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); broadly dependence on the needs of or control by another

While the definition of codependency often refers to people in relationships with addicts, it can also refer to any relationship where one person is emotionally dependent and controlled by another to the point that they bury themselves in the needs of the main person in the relationship. They become comfortable in having a one-sided relationship that is unhealthy for the enabler but also the under-functioning person.  Children raised in a codependent relationship might lack the ability to create healthy boundaries, to build healthy mutually beneficial relationships and to experience love that doesn´t exploit one party for the benefit of another. They also often develop a chronic need to help in ways that get them to neglect their own needs. They are usually people-pleasers and afraid of any conflict that might cause others to be angry at them as they often prefer toxic “peace” over the fear of getting disapproval from those they love or want to have relationships with.

I would like to start from the beginning.

I was raised mostly by a single African mother.  To be fair, before I start, I don´t really hold any resentment towards my mother for the codependency I grew up with. She too had been through very traumatic experiences and somewhat, an emotionally neglected childhood from her caregivers. They did the best they could in the circumstances they lived in. So, I knew that she was only passing down what she had inherited. She couldn´t have given me anything other than that. I also don´t say this in the codependent manner of always making excuses for those who have harmed them in some way, but because I understand now how generational codependency works.

Another thing I would like to add is the fact that despite her own upbringing, my mom has made great strides to give us a better childhood and one where we had a better relationship with her than she had with her parents. She succeeded in doing this in many ways and seeing her willingness to grow and develop also inspired/inspires me to pick up the torch and keep it moving in the right direction. Especially when I felt that she had brought us and our relationship as far as she could and is still putting in the effort.

So, before I start, I guess I should share a little about my mom´s own upbringing too. My mom grew up in a strict and religious house, a house where rules were to be followed and not questioned. Most love and affection was kept for the Lord and Jesus and all things religious. So, in our own home, my mom wanted us to obey without questioning too and to just do as we were told. Our relationship was often one-sided in that we knew much more about our mother than she knew or even seemed to want to know about us as individuals. We were to be good girls, to keep/clean the house (almost every day, unless it was the holy day). Our relationship was often on the verge of fear and respect for our mother. We also used to be seriously beaten as punishment when we were younger – something my mom stopped doing when I turned 11 and I will never forget that day: We were in an elevator and she looked at me and said something along the lines of; “now you are 11, you a all big girls, I will no longer be beating you guys when you misbehave, instead we will talk about it”.  And she kept her word for me and my sisters, we never again got the kind of beating we used to get before that talk. That day really meant something to me. That things could change.

Life went on, and mom was always commented on how well behaved we all were and how clean we always kept the house. It wasn´t until I turned 16 and had started going away to boarding school that I started “answering back” when I would come home from school on the weekends. The boarding school me and my sisters went to, was a crucial part of our development as children, the time away allowed us to return home with a new perspective on our family structures. It no longer seemed to make sense that we needed to clean the house every single day or how much anxiety we experienced from my mother´s presence in the house and fear that she might find something we didn’t finish – Note: I believe that the self-criticism that my sisters and I suffer/ed is also due to these experiences – the feeling that whatever you did was never good enough or complete.

So, my talking back was mostly surrounded around these things; questioning them, challenging my mother on her beliefs about us as her children/servants or the way she spoke to us or didn´t speak to us. I wasn´t insulting her or disrespecting her just doing something I wasn’t supposed or raised to do; thinking for myself and questioning the adult. I obviously then became the black sheep and was met with “why can´t you be more like your sisters and just listen!”. But I no longer wanted to just listen and obey, I wanted to understand. By persisting, as hard and uncomfortable as it was, I also challenged my mom to understand why she did what she did or why she treated us the way she did – why she didn´t know of any other way to relate to us than commanding us around all day and the unhealthy ways we dealt with conflicts in the house. I remember the Sunday mornings as teens where we would wake up to the horror of what we called “spring cleaning music” and my mom would open our bedrooms, forget knocking, and call our names, “Get up and get ready, you will be cleaning the bathroom today” – No “hey, how are you, did you sleep well? What are your plans for the day?” Our plans or desires for the day didn´t matter or cross her mind, all that mattered were her plans and desires for the day. Another thing I remember, was her sharing heavy and burdening information/problems with me from a young age, information that in all honesty, I could do very little about but so desperately wanting to help as young as 7, I would take it upon myself to be the other little parent in the house trying to fix adult issues.

I later realized that this was obviously the only way my mother knew how to relate to us, the only respect she knew, but also her only form of processing the hardships in her own life – through cleaning, sharing adult problems and controlling things.

Looking back, writing about it, I wonder if it was really that bad – I mean, we grew up alright as my mom says. Yet did we really? Or did we just survive or perhaps even, turned out alright despite it and not because of it?

But when I feel conflicted about whether it was that bad,  I wonder if I would want my kids to feel the way I felt growing up about my mom’s presence?: An anxiety, the fishing for validation and comfort? The slight but swallowed anger that cracked away at us everytime we heard our names called. The sleepless night of worrying about problems no child should have had to worry or know about. The awkwardness of intimacy – the half-apologies and the “bribes” of forgiveness in forms of presents or favorite foods (my weakness was the food, unfortunately) – then the learning of using food as a comfort, another way to bury what wasn´t allowed. The learning of passive aggressiveness because there was never space or courage to have respectable disagreements or conflicts.

I don´t think I would want my children to grow up like that – and the bittersweetness of it all, is that I know all of this because I grew up in such a home. While it did get better as I aged, as I persisted to have a better relationship with my mom and to build a different one with my sisters (my angels on earth) and as she herself slowly started letting go of her own codependency – however,  the damage it caused my being and my sisters´ is still something we are ironing through till today.

That was what I could remember from the beginning of it all. In the next post, I will talk more about how codependency shows up in our lives and how it negatively affects our relationships with others and ourselves.

Wherever you are, I hope you find relationships that make space for you too and that encourage you to be your fullest and healthiest self.

See you next week

love and light,

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