The challenges of relearning intimacy as a Black woman when your parents never showed affection
I hypersexualized intimacy and convinced myself that was the only way to develop meaningful connections.
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By Lidia Abraha
When you live most of your life in fear of being touched, it’s hard to remember how you got there. You question everything: your upbringing, past relationships, even yourself. For me, it all came back to my parents, both of whom are strong, willful and tenacious, but never knew how to show physical affection.
My parents fled Ethiopia when they were in their 20s, living as refugees in Sudan before moving to Canada. When they talk about their experience, they put on a mask of detachment. I grew up hearing their stories of survival in awe and gratitude, but they always maintained their distance as authoritative parents.
Hugs and kisses were rare in our house. Touching was unheard of. I didn’t realize these were things I needed until I left home for university at 19.
Death can be a rude awakening just as much as it’s a tragedy. When a member of our small Ethiopian community in North Carolina passed away, it touched everyone’s hearts. My mother, who rarely showed emotion, did exactly that as she remembered her friend for fiercely defending her children.
“It’s like,” my mom started, struggling to find the words to describe the kind of mother the woman was over the phone, “It’s like… an unconditional love.”
As I remained silent on the other line, muffling my tears, my mother started to share stories of her own mom with regret and resentment. They had a complicated relationship, where affection remained on the sidelines even up until right before my grandmother died.
My mother found ways to show love without physical affection, but it was near impossible to get her approval, and it took a toll on my self-esteem. She was obsessed with perfection, just like her mother. As a chubby kid, she always told me I had to lose weight to be pretty. Or I had to spend 10 hours a day studying instead of 8. Or I would be happier if I became a doctor or an engineer instead of a writer. In the end, I became emotionally distant from my mom, and fulfilled my need for intimacy in other ways.
I found the intimacy I needed through the long phone calls I had with my friends after school. Until I went to university, I was often home alone for hours while my parents were at work, and it was then that I was able to talk about all the things my African parents wouldn’t entertain. These calls helped me feel less alone. Building these connections with voices of familiar friends was the earliest intimate connection I can remember.
I never blamed my parents for their authoritative style. I know that it’s ingrained in our survival-oriented culture. Ethiopia has a complicated history as the only African country to fully resist colonization. In the 1960s-1970s, the country experienced the worst famine in history, mass killings and civil war. Most people, like my parents, have seen innocents die in horrible ways, and never recovered from the trauma. This goes back generations in my family. My parents held unresolved trauma from their childhood and as refugees, and I knew this influenced my parents to keep them keeping their emotional distance.
But for some reason, listening to my mother talk about unconditional love like a foreign concept woke up the sad child in me that I had forgotten was there.
I started to remember how hard it was to feel good enough, while bending over backwards for my parents’ approval. How all of the guilt and depreciation never left my body. Instead, it transferred to my insecurities, especially in my romantic and platonic relationships.
While the archetype of the “strict African parent” is well documented in our society, it’s different when you’re living in it. Research shows that collective cultures, where children are socialized to understand their parents support is a payoff that they have to reciprocate, can fabricate their relationship with intimacy.
One 2017 study explored the relationship between Jamaican mothers and their children. They found that in these relationships, children feel obligated to reciprocate their parent’s love and support, and they end up forgetting the harsh punishments that occur in other areas of the relationship.
For me, I hypersexualized intimacy and convinced myself that was the only way to develop meaningful connections. I drove myself over the edge, having horrible sexual experiences where I was often waiting for things to be over. This is the reality of many young Black immigrant women navigating their sexual experience.
I had to learn that there are many ways to experience non-sexual intimacy without physical touch. I started with lots of therapy, meditation and journaling my anxieties away. Since physical affection was an external experience, I had to look inward to find out why I was uncomfortable. I had to deconstruct my concept of intimacy, so I spent more time with friends and focused on how to strengthen my platonic relationships.
It’s hard for Black women to navigate our relationship with non-sexual intimacy after living in a world that tells us we aren’t allowed to be vulnerable, or watching our parents ignore their own traumas and be emotionally distant. It can feel like a difficult journey that takes you back to your roots, and you struggle to find your way back to the present.
My journey was not linear; I went in circles at some point and took many steps backwards. But with time I started to find the beauty in intimacy. Now, I’m more open with my needs in relationships, and willing to love others unconditionally. It’s my way of honoring that sad child in me who yearned for affection. Her voice has started to quiet down, and the weight on my chest has finally disappeared.
Lidia is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Ont. Her work appears in NOW Magazine, The Canadian Press and Exclaim!. She has a journalism degree from Ryerson University and writes about social justice, racism, arts and culture. She hopes to share stories of the diaspora with an anti-oppressive lens. Follow her on Twitter @lidiabraha or on Instagram @lidiaabraha.