The other day, my four-year-old daughter and I were hanging out, drawing pictures of Disney's Princesses Cinderella, Belle and Jasmine from a birthday card she received. We were having a nice time when from nowhere (it seemed) she suddenly uttered the words that I hoped never to hear from any daughter of mine: "The woman always gets saved by the man."
I felt my heart sink in that instant. "No, no, no", was all I could think, "How did she miss the lesson I had so carefully been trying to teach her?" Actually, more to the point, how had I missed the fact that I hadn't done a good job of teaching my daughter that the woman doesn't always get saved by the man?. Reaching for all my thoughts and trying to quickly get them in some kind of order, I quickly composed myself, looked her in the eye and with a smile said, "No Dara, there are only two people who can save you -- God and you." Of course she didn't agree with me and an argument ensued, "No mummy, that's not true", she insisted, "the man saves the woman."
After about five minutes spent trying to explain to her, I was starting to get a little frantic and slightly impatient, "No, Dara, you save you!" I called out to my husband for back up "Babe, tell Dara that a woman can save herself."
To an outsider watching this scene unfold, I can imagine they would have wondered why I was making such a fuss about my daughter's statement, and why I was frantic, desperate almost, for her to believe me at once. They would have no way of knowing that for me, this was a big deal, far bigger than the few words uttered.
The dialogue transported me back to my own childhood where, probably the same age as Dara, I had internalized a similar message, which soon grew into a rooted mind-set that became a source of anguish and pain for the next two decades of my life. From a young age, I had heard messages about how wonderful life would be when I got married. With Disney's happy ever-afters on the one side and the women in my family on the other, marriage soon became the utopia of my imaginations. "When you go to your husband's house, you can do as you like", my mum would say. "You must learn to cook so that when you go to your husband's house, you can take care of him and he will be happy with you", "You must learn to clean the house, look good, dress up nicely, so that when you go to your husband's house...", and on and on it went.
I absorbed the message, internalized it, and soon enough the theme in my life was a waiting game and like a music concert, where the first half showcases the supporting acts who fill the time and do their best to entertain the crowd. They may clap and cheer, but in reality, everyone is holding their breath in anticipation of the main and final act -- the reason why they came in the first place. That was my life. My teens and early twenties were really about filling my time with things to keep me busy, whilst I fantasized and waited for my big event. I did the usual things like school, university and career, but lacked depth, purpose or enthusiasm because this was just a means to my end goal -- finding my prince, getting married, being Mrs. Somebody.
Looking back through my journey of self-awareness and self-discovery, I had always attributed my mind-set to my culture. I was brought up in Nigeria, where generally a woman's true rite of passage is becoming married. You could meet a woman with accolades and achievements the length of your arm but if she is not married, she is treated differently indicating that she has not achieved a "woman's ultimate goal."
So fast forward 30 plus years on -- I'm in the UK, in my living room with my daughter. I am of course surprised that she has internalised a similar message. Where did I go wrong? I had buckled under the pressure to buy her princess books and stories, because these were traditional, old stories and fairy tales passed on from generation to generation -- Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Cinderella, and the new ones Jasmine, Tiana, Rapunzel... Okay so the Frozen story has a different message with Elsa saving her younger sister Anna, but you get my drift.
Just so we're straight, this is NOT another feminist rant. I'm not looking to take the joy out of these beautiful love stories and timeless traditions which I loved and still do, but I bear the scars of what stories like this can do to women. In my work as a therapist I see and hear countless stories of women waiting, putting life on hold, denying themselves the opportunity to really love and enjoy their life because their prince has not yet arrived. Stories of women who feel incomplete in who they are because they are not yet Mrs. Somebody. Painful experiences fuelled by desperation, settling for toxic abusive relationships because having any man at all is better than having no man. Having unfulfilling affairs with married men, in the hope they could have a chance at happiness. Successful single women in powerful jobs being told to tone down their lifestyle choices because it might be a stumbling block to finding a husband.
Of course, this is not the life I want for my precious daughter. I want her to enjoy every second she is on earth. More than anything I want her to have a strong sense of purpose, knowing from a young age that she has unique, God-given gifts and talents to offer the world and serve others.
My husband and I had a sombre conversation about death as we prepared our wills and life insurances. Not a nice conversation, but a necessary one and he said if the worst happened, he couldn't imagine not being at our daughter's university graduation, not walking her up the aisle on her wedding day and not seeing her have children. My response was, "How do you know she will want to do all those things? What if she chooses to become a nun like Mother Theresa, what if she chooses not to go to university, or says she doesn't want children?"
Whilst I may want these things for her, I also have to be careful about the messages I plant in her mind or expose her to. As a child, the framework of my life was pretty much decided for me even before I had a chance to choose and that lack of choice in knowing that I had a hand in discovering my true purpose, harnessing and fulfilling it left me bereft, apathetic, bored, empty all through my teenage years, wishing my years away in hope of finally beginning life.
My story of love and marriage finally unfolded but not without scars. It is a different story for thousands of other women across all continents, and ages spanning twenties to sixties and beyond. Many are still waiting in quiet desperation and anguish, wondering why in earth their Prince has not yet turned up.