The Problematic Expectations of Somali Parents

Every culture got taboos that are like the elephant in the room where it’s in your face but you have to pretend it’s not there.

You know what the Somali taboo is? Parents.

Parents are treated as divine. They are always correct no matter what they do by virtue of being parents. Everything they do comes with conditions that the child must reciprocate when they’re old enough. Actually, scratch that. The daughter carries that obligation, alone. The son, much like the father, isn’t expected to contribute anything other than staying out of trouble and balwad.

I can’t get into the stuff girls go through, psychologically, because it’s way beyond the scope of this note, but I’ll say this to those who are plagued by cognitive dissonance as a result of emotional abuse or neglect and the guilt that arises from making out the parent to be ‘the bad guy’. It’s hell. You’re damned either way. Writing this brings up dissonance in me. I’ve always been at odds with my parents. Not because I was wild or anything. I’ve always been a nerdy introvert. But I also only marched to the beat of my own drum; a fact that caused me immense anguish when controlled and restricted, and being mislabelled as a stubborn ingrate. 

As a child, I’d be dissuaded from speaking up because it was considered rude and I’d repress all that volatile energy until one day I’d turn into the Hulk and I kid you not when I say I wouldn’t feel pain nor possess common sense.

I’d go up against boys older than me who’d easily snap me in two but my obsession with standing by my values prevented me from turning my back. I’d fight until they’d knock me out cold or someone had the good sense of breaking us up. I’d keep to myself and make sure I don’t wrong anyone, but come at me unprovoked and the streets will flood with your blood. Hell hath no fury like the young me scorned.

This got better in my teens when I learnt to speak up and not let it reach a point where I’m prepared to either die or do life behind bars. 

Still, because it’s taboo to go up against your parents by establishing your own authority, figuring myself out and the path I wanted to take in life was nearly impossible because my parents would see that asmadax adeyg or me throwing my life away.

Oh Lord. That’s all anyone would say about me; parents,relatives,family friends,neighbours, teachers. I hate the word but because every time I was complimented I just knew a but was in there somewhere followed by a string of complaints; She’s-a-genius-nerdy-bibliophile-who-has-no-life whatsoever-outside-books-which-should-be-every-Somali-parents-dream BU-HU-TTT she’s stubborn, she’s not focused,she’s self-righteous. Basically useless.

In the end I learnt that our culture encourages dysfunctional codependent relationships where women – primarily- derive a sense of worth from the stuff they do for others with the expectation of getting the validation and love they are starved of. Overworked and underappreciated girls grow up to be mothers who carries on the invalidation torch.

So I learnt to create boundaries which meant that I was responsible for my life and emotions and no one could make me do stuff. However, instead of reacting viscerally by lashing out or throwing a tantrum, I could compartmentalize who I am with my parents by responding in a conscious way.

I owe them respect but not my life. I owe my life to the One who put me on this earth. And I owe my utmost consideration to those who raised me from infancy.

For instance, if they invade my privacy or treat me inhumane, a visceral reaction would be to shut down and self-loathe. Or to lash out and be destructive to anything and everyone.

However, having boundaries gives you buffer time to process what’s being said. Because you now have inner power and freedom, you don’t feel the need to defend yourself. So you consider why the parent did this, where did that burst of anger come from? What are they actually pissed about? And you realize perhaps that they feel threatened by your newfound independence and they fear losing you. So that enables you to discharge the situation and have compassion for them. You’d be able to respond in a way that defuses the situation by validating their unconscious emotional angst that triggered the burst of anger. In most cases they aren’t even aware of this underlying hurt and they don’t even know how to deal with this, so they lash out in anger because it’s easier.

That way you can live your life authentically and have an amicable relationship with parents or relatives who are otherwise unrelenting and difficult.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.

— Jim Morrison

The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.

— Alice Miller

When we suffer anguish we return to early childhood because that is the period in which we first learnt to suffer the experience of loss. It was more than that. It was the period in which we suffered more total losses than in all the rest of our life put together.

— John Berger

5 responses to The Problematic Expectations of Somali Parents

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Your thoughts are the thoughts of many. I think key to understanding why some parents act in the ways that they do, you have to go back to their own childhoods. What was their relationship like with their parents? What expectations did their parents have of them? Were they raised in the harsh context of the baadiyo? In my work, I have found that many Somali parents are not intentionally trying to harm children by at times holding them to unrealistic expectations. Many of our parents parent the ways in which they were parented. On top of that, the implications of the 1991 civil war still remain at the fore of many of our parents psyche and have resulted in mental health implications for many of our parents. What we haven’t fully grasped is how the trauma of the war impacted our parents parenting skills. 20+ years after the civil war, many of our parents continue to operate in survival mode and this does indeed have implications on children’s sense of self and identity. Thank you again for writing on this important topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blues Fairy – Author

      Certainly, such investigation is imperative in understanding and perhaps curing this ill. After all, it’s a widespread evil that occurs non-discriminatory across nations and cultures. However, for something to be rectified it must be acknowledged and faced first, and it is here that I find many grapple. It’s an existential threat to question one’s parents because it feels like to do so is to cut them off. But in this blind devotion the pain goes unaddressed and the destructive behaviours go unchallenged. Also, no matter how well-meaning some parents may be – and let’s not disregard that a significant minority are pathologically malicious- the impact that emotional neglect and abuse has on children is non-discriminatory in that the actions may have destructive effects on the child’s personal growth. And it is only through firstly acknowledging this emotional wound on the person as a child that they would gain sufficient healing and strength to look to their parents with forgiveness and compassion. So my aim is not to vilify parents but I think the severity of the emotional abuse and neglect on third culture kids has not been properly addressed and acknowledged. As long as this is left unspoken about, no progress can be made – both for parents with unresolved trauma from the conflict, and millenials who grew up in between worlds.

      Thank you for taking the time to give your perspective and adding to the discussion. It’s much needed.


  2. Agreed. I should add too, that at the core is an incorrect, sometimes superficial understanding of the deen among parents. I think if some parents understood the amaanah of not only providing the basics for kids but actually raising emotionally healthy and stable children, this gap could definitely be ameliorated. Too many of our parents have come to the West via the rural communities of Somalia, where their only responsibility is to provide for the basic needs of the child. My hunch is (perhaps due to the trauma) that many have not shifted gears to the new context in which they reside. Its important that we collectively create the spaces in our communities, where parents can discuss what it is to be a caring and loving parent, that children in the West (third culture kids) require a parent who is loving and supportive. And that these spaces are culturally responsive. Those spaces currently don’t exist, unfortunately.

    I think diaspora youth too could be more patient and understanding of our parents generation. We can’t meet trauma with anger. As the Sunnah commands of us, we must meet trauma and challenging personalities with patience and love as hard as it is.

    It is such a complicated issue,with sooooo many different layers and you have written about it in such an eloquent way. Keep writing on this.


  3. Crumpets and Tea

    I would like to add to this discussion by mentioning the fact that these issues are happening because most Somali parents are operating on a very collective mindset. Couple that with absent fathers and trauma from previous generations, children are left carrying very heavy baggage. You see, collectivism in the Somali contextworked really well and without your community you wouldn’t survive. Now, fast forward to today where more Somalis are becoming very educated and are visible in various fields. The same collective mindset is being adopted in a very individualistic setting. That being said, seeing as this is very problematic the best thing for the parents to do is to meet the kids where they are at. For example, having an unrealistic expectation that your daughter build you a house when she herself is living paycheck to paycheck and is not right. I have countless other examples of Somali Parents treating their children as properties. However, mentioning this is great taboo because after all they are your parents and you owe your life to them? That thinking enables all kinds of abuse and keeps the status quo in place. To conclude this post yes trauma from war is a factor in this behavior but it’s minscule compared the the trauma of generations of children raised with neglect and baggage. ( Also I would like to add on my whole individualistic vs collectivistic mindset comment, I don’t believe both in their pure forms are perfect like everything else in life moderation is the key) The reason for that disclaimer is that whenever I mention it there are accusations of abandoning your parents and I’m not saying that is what going to happen now but just making it clear.

    Liked by 1 person

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