Mom walked in holding my balloon. “I found it! I’ll blow it for you” she said. So she blew it, and blew, and blew, and POW! It burst! I whimpered in fright but it didn’t matter. She was already shrieking louder, saying “It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault!”. She threw the balloon pieces at my feet and walked out of the room. I was 5.
That she was doing something nice, juxtaposed with the horrendous outcome, was too confusing for my 5 year old brain. Was I allowed to be upset? Was I supposed to comfort her? What could have been a quick lesson on emotional literacy, and how ‘everyone makes mistakes though it does not determine their self-worth,’ was missed, and was instead a reminder that my 5-year-old feelings were second (at best). Early, I learned that expecting emotional consideration (on my terms) from the people who were my whole world, was simply asking for too much.
“Whose fault was it then?” I wanted to ask. But her body language said it all as she hot-tailed it out. “Whose fault? I don’t know. Not mine though!” As though scared that if she took one iota of responsibility, then she would immediately become a write-off. The lightning fast subconscious monologue may have gone as such: “If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about? Then was I wrong the last time? And the time before that? Was I then EVER right? No no. Lets just not go there. You’re either bad or not. And I’m infallible. So it can’t be me.”
A 5 year old was left to pick up and make sense of the broken pieces of what was formerly her balloon. It did not occur to mom to comfort the child who had now forever lost something that had just been found moments before. To mom, it was more important to absolve herself of responsibility first. Neither did it occur to mom that her rejection of responsibility may make the child think it was her fault. Nah. She wasn’t responsible for that either. That was the dance, the routine, the relationship. Though the child never asked to be born, she was to be grateful for simply being fed and accommodated, and should expect nothing more.
In the moments following the balloon, the below-zero level of self awareness was astounding. She fled from responsibility, like it was the devil. “Nope. Not my fault. Too bad for you. Not my fault at all.” For something so small, her denial was so swift and vehement, it was quite confusing. In retrospect, it betrayed the terror in her mind, and possibly, why African parents cannot and do not apologize.
Maybe no one ever taught her that she could simply be accountable. That “It was an accident. I’m sorry” would not bring back the balloon, but at least it was the start of ‘enough’, and it wouldn’t deem her useless or downright rotten. Maybe that’s why she often ‘finished’ me at the slightest mistake or misstep. And now, she had to reject responsibility lest she finished herself, or I thought to finish her too.
Maybe she also feared the very tool of shame she wielded on me, a tool used and pre-installed in her too by her own parents. Maybe such nuance had been beaten-out and polished off into a slippery smooth binary of extremes: good and bad, useful or shameful. So I guess she can’t apologize ‘cos where would it end? Isn’t it her ‘turn’ to be all-knowing and all-powerful? How would “because I said so” fly? No. She’d rather leave the cracks, chaos, trauma and debris, after all it’s my inheritance too. “How else will you be prepared for the harsh world outside? You figure it out. It’s not my fault. It wasn’t even an accident. Besides, I wasn’t even there.”