My parents often spoke about coming to America from Nigeria with one portmanteau.
I imagine that their suitcase was filled with their hopes, dreams, and expectations, and in many ways, I feel like I was metaphorically handed this suitcase of desires and things the day I was born. It would now be my load to carry and make sense of.
But when I opened that portmanteau, I realized that the clothes didn’t quite fit, and there were notebooks full of expectations I would never meet.
Although I had a reverence for this great object and the hands that had passed this legacy to me, I wasn’t sure if I could carry all that was in it.
I think this is the dilemma of any child in a household filled with hope and expectation, and specifically for the immigrant child, it is often one of the defining questions of our existence. The idea of having a load you are destined to carry, even if you’re not sure you want to carry it…I can’t think of a more spiritual quest than this.
We know all too well that there’s so much more in that portmanteau other than a simple hope or desire. Often, we find that there’s unreconciled feelings, a trauma here or there, grief, and a firm belief in what is right versus what isn’t. So then the question for the immigrant child, and any child who knows what it’s like to come from a family that has its share of challenges, is, What is mine to hold?
In order to sift through all of this, I have had to rediscover who I truly am on my journey to recovery, especially as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Notice how I say “daughter,” which means I have to contend with a gendered reality where I am clearly a part of a larger unit. So these words—daughter and immigrant—imply that there’s a relationship existing between multiple parties with different understandings.
If this wasn’t enough to deal with, when we think of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation that has birthed many people who have committed themselves to making their lives better in service of a vision beyond themselves…well, this lets me know that I come from a place where people have chosen to fuel their inner light.
And like any place, this land that runs through my veins has also birthed people who could not see beyond their fears and chose (knowingly or unknowingly) to feed their inner demon.
All of us, no matter where we’re from, and no matter what we know or don’t know about our particular ancestry, must contend with the fact that our familial histories often carry the light and the shadow. So then naturally, I have to acknowledge that all this complexity has been passed down to me. This was the true start of my recovery, understanding that I come from the very best experiences that humanity has to offer and the very worst.
And let’s not forget that we’re immigrants living in the U.S., which means that we are now first and foremost considered Black people. So my life—like many of my counterparts—is a life of many understandings converging into one.
I have always had friction in my life between who I am expected to be and who I really am. In a way, the expectations I brushed against sanded me down to my most vulnerable parts, where I had to grapple with who I wanted to be.
In a previous reflection, I wrote about this vulnerability and exposure that led me to release a certain expectation that was expected of me in my family as it concerned religion.
“When the God you are told to love is either a brute or woefully withdrawn from the deepest stirrings of your heart, you can become frozen to life. I’ll never forget the day my father prayed about my clothes. I was fifteen or sixteen, experiencing a rapid growth spurt, and experimenting with makeup, bare midriffs, and platform shoes. One afternoon, my father stood as the mighty patriarch, doling out a prayer for everyone in the family. Finally, he got to me: ‘Oh God, please take away the spirit of looseness from, Itoro.’ … I yearned for a closeness to my parents and to my culture, but I also wanted a life free from denial and religious absolutism, where I could feel at peace as I truly was.”
Religious tension was one of the many reasons I imagined a life beyond the cultural expectation that a good daughter stays close to home.
It is a code that many families live by, the hope that you’ll get over any arguments and differences and “make it work.” For the immigrant family, this code of ethics is often vital to our survival. If we all don’t support each other, who will? But really…who will?
In short, there was something greater at stake for me to preserve, and it did seem to boil down to choosing family or the opportunity to become who I really am.
That idea that a good daughter stays close to home and does not disrupt the family unit was a huge expectation to carry, especially because I had a need for independence at an early age. Everyone would be sitting in the living room watching a movie or gathering together, and I would be upstairs dancing or listening to music.
It’s possible to love where you are from and yet want to be free of the expectations you must carry, and sometimes it’s necessary to let it all go.
And there was much more letting go to do. As I followed the small voice that wanted independence, I began to define who I am in present time:
A daughter will call her mother once a week and occasionally send pictures of her travels abroad. A daughter will make a new home and adopt a chosen family while she still holds the family she was born into in warm regards. A daughter will marry (or not) when the time is right for her and not a minute sooner…same goes for having a child. And a daughter is still very much the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, just maybe a daughter who lived up to a standard of her own making. Amen.
In my own experience, we’re often congratulated for our ability to carry a tough load. As Black women, we are often given accolades for our ability to do this and bear more than our share.
For me, the ability to manage relationships that may not be healthy, carry cultural expectations, and achieve at a high level has been the marker of strength, meaning to do anything different shows weakness.
However, I think that my true strength is determined by who I really am, and who I’ve always been is not the archetypal superwoman who can do it all. I’ve always been more on the sensitive and gentle side, and for me this is where my strength lies. My strength lies in the ability to put down the load and give up any expectation that would compromise my sense of integrity.
Where do we go from here?
The answer to the question of how we can free ourselves might be simple (i.e. just let go), but we know that the task of actually letting go is a difficult one. As one immigrant woman I knew said years ago, “I’ve already had to let go of so much…how much more change can one person take?” It takes a lot to give up the load, especially when there’s so much hope zipped into it.
So here are three reflection questions that might help in letting go:
What about my humanity do I need to embrace, challenge, and release?
I think before you can become who you’re meant to be, it’s also important to know where you come from and what you’d like to preserve from your upbringing.
In my particular embodiment as a first-generation Nigerian woman, I make it a point to honor this part of my story while making the necessary changes to broaden my perspective.
I believe this question requires one to really develop an awareness for one’s habits and identify those ego stories that need to go.
After sitting with myself for years, I realized that I was addicted to my anxiety. As a young girl, I always worried that I was doing something wrong and causing the adults in my life anger. Worrying about not being enough was an essential part of my framing, so essential that I wasn’t quite sure who I would be without it. It had shaped me for my entire life, so that feeling at dis-ease was my familiar state of being. But as I kept confronting myself I realized that it may have been familiar but it certainly wasn’t natural.
I was presented with a choice: Do I want to keep this or let this go?
Take your time with this, and if you are working with a therapist or support group, this might be a good question to work on in your process. I think of Eckhart Tolle’s quote in how I approach this question,
“In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization.” So this question is one tool to support you in getting honest with yourself and accounting for who you are. What’s the truth you need to tell?
What has carrying this load taught me about myself?
I think this is explanatory, but to use myself as an example, in carrying this load I realized the stress and resentment that had built up in my life. I also realized that I wasn’t quite sure who I was without it. More importantly, I realized there were actually things within the suitcase I wanted to keep and integrate into my new way of doing things, so in ways, the load wasn’t entirely bad and wasn’t entirely good.
What do I really want?
It’s taken me decades to answer this question. Some people come out of the womb understanding their place in the world and their desires, but for many people, often we have other people’s wants and desires as our blueprints for what think we want. But if no one was there to validate or invalidate your hopes and dreams, and this was a talk between yourself and your soul, what would it be?
I hope this helps in some small way, because letting go is complicated, and sometimes we just need the right tools and questions to help us get there.