African Mothers-In-Law And The Cycle Of Abuse

You get married. Acquire a new family. It’s a good thing right? More people to love you and you reciprocating. An extended family by marriage who will celebrate life’s journeys with you and offer solace when life throws you a curve. In an ideal world, that is what you’d hope to get. And in a lot of cases, that is what obtains. What do you do though when say your mother in-law turns out to be a monster-in-law? This phenomenon is the reality in a lot of African marriages, and though it goes both ways, the odds typically tips not in favor of women.

You have a few things working against you: It’s likely she’s also an abuse victim in the hands of her husbands’ family, and unless she’s a reasonable person whose heart is made of pure gold, most abused women will turn around and abuse their own daughters- in-law. Sometimes, because that’s all they know in the name of “culture”. In some cases though, it’s a twisted form of vengeance. Secondly, you are competing with her for her son’s affection. This perhaps is the most potent motive of all. This may be compounded if he’s an only child, a first son or Lord have mercy he’s become very successful prior to your marrying him. You are seen as a leech who has come to enjoy the fruits of her labor. You have come to take over her role as his primary source of female counsel. Her only pride and joy is now going to re-channel all his love and attention to you and she‘s not going away easy. If he also happens to be her retirement plan as is the case in a lot of African situations, you have to be bridled lest you meddle with the flow of cash. So you see, you’re fighting against a lot of odds.

For some, this problem starts before marriage, you bet that this is a huge red flag or at least a need to tread cautiously especially if you observe the guy to be chicken-livered when it comes to his family and wouldn’t stand up to defend his spouse should the need arise. A guy should never have to compromise his wife for his family or vice versa, it’s about balance and fairness to both sides. But the African wife has been silenced for so long by society in the name of culture and norms even in so called “modern” marriages.

I dated a Nigerian guy once, highly educated and very well traveled. Soon, things became serious. So we took a short vacation to discuss issues relating to where the relationship was headed. Immediately, he laid down some ground rules regarding his family. First, he acknowledged that his family could be problematic, even troublesome and sometimes insulting, especially his mom and his aunts, (and a plethora of other distant relatives and non-relatives. Ok, his mom, I agree, but it befuddled me as to what some relatives in the nth degree’s got to do with my relationship with him?). Sure I need to know about these people who could be my possible in-laws and who obviously are close to him. Since I’m very averse to such drama, I asked, what happens then if my future mother-in-law and his aunt bring trouble to my doorstep unprovoked. He told me “You have to bite the bullet, that’s the way it’s done in our culture“. So you won’t defend me? “What am I supposed to do, she’s my mom“. Well in that case then, I will have to speak up for myself. “No, it’s not your role nor your place” Exactly my point, It’s your role as my spouse and her son to be the intermediary. The buffer. The peacemaker. “My mom will always be right, even if she’s wrong…it’s our culture”. Mmm… Okay, So, let me get this straight, if your mom or your aunt (Lord have mercy should both of them) come to our home and bring drama, or insult me, you can’t and won’t defend me, and I also can’t defend myself…“Yep, you just bite the bullet“….Ugh? I’m no trouble maker, but then, my teeth are also not made of metal so it will be hard to eschew insults and abuse with my husband standing there watching his family walk all over me. Of course, for this reason and other “ground rules” laid down for me regarding his family and every other insignificant distant relative and non-relative in his life, I took to my heels and thanked him for the heads up. Unfortunately, this is the lot of most African Women, and many accept these abusive in-law relationships in the name of culture. When you are married to your husband’s family, you are fair game. The funny thing is that these same in-laws will probably treat a foreign western wife with more respect than an African one.

There are excellent mothers-in-law who will treat you like their own daughter, and there are those who even before meeting you have their gun barrels loaded. I’m not advocating that one run away at the first sign of in-law troubles, but the odds will be greatly stacked against you if your spouse isn’t mature enough to know when to defend you and when to let things be. You’ll be fighting a losing battle. Remember she’s his mother. And too many African men are brought up not to be able to have adult conversations with their parents, so in the face of the battle of the in-laws, they duck for cover and throw you (the wife) to the “wolves“. You’re on your own baby.

Mothers-In-law are great help when it comes to assisting with babysitting, especially for those who live in the West. They come all the way from where ever they are in the world to spend months, even years with their sons’ growing family. When this works out as a mutually beneficial plan, it’s great. She gets to spend time with her grandchildren, and you and your husband get some time off to deal with the busyness of living life abroad. But what happens when she’s more trouble than she’s worth?

An African couple living in the UK just had their second child and reasoned it will be more cost effective to bring “Mama” here than paying for daycare services for two kids. Wife works full time and is enrolled in an evening MBA program, husband works 12 hour days. So his mother packed her kit and bade home goodbye for a few months of grandchildren bliss and what the couple hoped will be a financial ease and time well spent. What they weren’t prepared for was the drama that will unfold. First, the couple are from different parts of the country, speaking different dialects, so they can only communicate in English. A language his mother speaks very fluently, but she chooses only to speak to her son in her native dialect even when the wife is around and the conversation involves her. Secondly, she would not step into the kitchen, so after long days at work and school, the wife drags herself home, to fix dinner the way her mother-in-law prefers it: African food cooked to perfection from scratch and prepared daily. All the while, the husband pleads with his wife to be patient. She bore her cross everyday with a smile. Of course, the camels back had to break soon, as the mother-in-law was intent on breaking her will no matter how accommodating her son‘s wife was. The week of her final exam, Madam made a note to call her husband to pick up dinner at an African Restaurant on the way home so “Mama” can eat as usual since she is obviously pressed for time to study. He did. That was when big drama unfolded. His mother gave her an earful when she returned, refused to eat and threatened to leave “because she felt insulted her in her son‘s home by them having ordered “take out” dinner. Her son had had enough, and so had the wife. In retrospect, she wondered whether taking her kids to daycare wouldn’t have been more “cost” effective when you add the emotional and physical toll of having an insensitive mother-in-law to wait hand and foot on.

The more female relatives the guy has, it seems the more compounded the problem becomes as they all gang up in an estrogen frenzy to protect their male relative against his wife. The sisters and aunts in some cases will come in to add ammunition to the battle. Some of these women sometimes are also dealing with abusive husbands or In-laws in their respective homes or will expect to deal with

same in the future.

There was a girl once, who had been married for five years and could not conceive a child. She had not had sex prior to getting married to her husband for religious reasons. Her mother In-law, and her husband’s four sisters all very educated professional women came over one day to accuse her of having “tricked” their son and brother into a childless marriage by not having had pre-marital sex with him on some religious pretext (how this is their business beats me). All of this in the presence of the husband who claims “What’s a man to do? I can’t fight with my family even if they disrespect my wife. I don’t want to be caught in the middle”. Such is the lot of the African woman. When the shake down happens with your in-laws and your husband wimps out, you either give as much as you get, roll over and take the crap, or ship out before they send you to the nut house, ‘cos baby, you’re on your own. Society will turn it’s back on you, sometimes, even your own family especially your mom will admonish you to grin and bear it, because that too was her own lot. And thus, the cycle of abuse continues.

Written by
Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde
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25 comments
  • African mother in laws are evil! Period! Mine hates me with her whole heart. She refuses to even speak to me. Her son doesn’t tell her she’s wrong. He just apologizes that she is mean. The DIFFERENCE between American in laws is that the family doesn’t let you know they hate you, even if they do. I think i may get out of this “African culture.” Or i may get another African man with aREAL backbone.

  • Nice Piece. A few things I though I should add. In the story of the mother in-law baby sitting two kids, I though it was unfair not to get her food prepared. Do you know how stressful it is to babysit just one child. The food could be prepared over the weekend and a process arranged for her to serve herself. I think that was a lazy wife. Must people I know combine family, work with studies and make out time for every one through adequate plan. I understand that most ladies prefare their mum staying with them. In my experience, my mother In-law (wife’s mum) was invited to help us with our baby. She was such a loud and uncontrollable woman. People I felt I should stay away from, she built relationship with them. She was just wild. The funny thing was that my wife didn’t see anything wrong in her actions and each time I tried to correct her, my wife comes to her aid and gave her the encouragement to do anything she liked in the house. When she left and my mum came over; my mum is more of a reserve and quiet woman(mind her business), my wife began to see all her faults and tell friends what my mum did wrong.

    It all comes down to living a selfless life and loving people whether they are blood-tied or not. Love covers a multitude of sin. Most woman dont get along with their mother In-laws because they see the woman as in-law not as a mother. But if two has become one indeed then your husbands mum is your mum and just like your biological mum, she’s not perfect, and if truly you see her as your mum, you can correct her in love and not destroy her by going outside to mock her. The moral in this is love your neigbour as yourself including your inlaws. If you know you are not perfect, don’t expect perfection from anyone. Everyone act according to their level of wisdom.

  • This is so true, My mother-in-law and I do not have a relationship at all. To tell you the truth, I prefer it that way. She never had a good marriage according to her, and of course she is a bitter person. Her son is so emotionally attached to her and as such can’t see beyond his nose, so for me, I am on my own and I hit back as much as I receive. His sister is of no use,of course she backs her mother and brother. You know what I have giving mother and daughter a long rope. Luckily for me I get along with my Father-in-law and his people(they are cool ),since mother-in-law and father-in-law are separated. Unfortunately for my MIL,she walked out of her marriage and she is full of regrets now. This has also affected her children,who she brainwashed. In the past I regretted marrying my husband,however since I met my FIL and his people, I am at peace with myself and understand the whole issue. My husbanfd is not a bad person, but his mum is the problem.

  • Thank God for your gift/talent and courage. I appreciate your work and respect your point of view. I can relate to the subject matter. The mother-in-law issue in my marriage was a major catalyst in my divorce. I tell you what, I blame my ex-wife more than my ex mother-in-law because my ex allowed it. How can a relationship survive when there is a discord of monumental proportions? Well, in my case, it did not. Sad to say that my ex mother-in-law and ex sister-in-law (my ex-wife's sister) were both murdered by my ex sister-in-law's husband. There are unintended consequences to these in-laws issues. Again, thanks for your service. Keep up the good and important work. Regards.

  • Finally! Someone has the boldness to say what alot of us have been thinking in our hearts! Thumbs up to you Fola, for having the courage to write this very apt article. Ofcourse, not all Mothers-in-laws can be this awful but some be real pains in the . The solution? It woud be better if the man asserts himself BEFORE his relationship with his wife so she wont be accused us being the one "turning his head". After all, it is "how you price your woman that your people will buy her" not so?.

  • It can go either way; against the daughter in law or son in law.

    This happens when a child is not able to tell the parent the truth if the parent is at fault. Put sentiments aside and speak the truth!

  • Hello Folks, I've been musing for a long while about shooting a short documentary films on the types of discussions based on a dozen or so articles I've written as a series scrutinizing African relationships that I occasionally post online. I hope to be able to get around to shooting the first one before the summer is over or by fall. I'm looking for folks interested in the project. For now, they''ll have to live in the NY area or at least be within a short drive (unless you're willing to fly themselves in). If project expands, we'll probably shoot in other locations including in Africa. I will make allowances for people who may wish to remain anonymous although preference will given to those not. My demography of choice will be Single, Married, Divorced or Separated 18-40-something yr old African Men and Women. Or anyone who is married, dating or has dated an African. More details about requirements needed for selecting participants will be forwarded in the near future to those who express interest in the project. If you or anyone you know have a compelling personal story or viewpoint on topics such as "Gender Equality and abuse in African relationships, Mothers-in-law and Abuse in the African setting, Gender roles in African relationships, and such topics pls send a short briefing to me or just simply indicate interest. Interested folks can send a very short email with subject line "DOCUMENTARY PARTICIPANT" indicating interest to this email address only: folasayo_documentaries@yahoo.com IF YOU ARE ALSO INTERESTED IN THE PROJECT AS A SPONSOR, PLEASE CONTACT ME WITH SUBJECT LINE: "DOCUMENTARY SPONSOR" to folasayo_documentaries@yahoo.com Please pass this information along. Thanks. folasayo http://www.folasayo.com

  • I'm not married, so I can't contribute personal experiences. But I have married sisters, cousins and other relatives. They've been lucky. Their mother-in-laws are the so good to them as far as i know. I think it is the luck of the draw. At the same time, if the woman's family has any standing in the community and does not allow their daughter to be abused by her mother-in-law, then the playing field is even. My advice, make sure your own mom is on your side. If you can't confromt your mother-in-law's meddling ways, call the big guns (Your own mom)and watch the show 🙂

  • I think both the wife and the mother-in-law (MIL) in the situation described in the article are at fault:

    For the the wife: Why will the wife expect her MIL to enter the kitchen? To do what? cook for herself after babysitting your baby all day? You can expect your husband to cook once in a while if you both work but not your MIL. Some of us seem to think that we are doing our mothers (husband' / wife's mother) a favour when we bring them from Nigeria to babysit for us but we are not. They (the mother's) may be so excited the first few days, but after about 2 to 3 months they become frustrated (like most of us) because they are bored with the life in the western world and will like to go back home as soon as possible even when there are no problems between the mother and her daughter / son inlaw.

    For the MIL: First, since she could spaek english fluently, she should not have been speeaking only in her native language when she knew quite well that the daughter-in-law DIL)does not understand the language. Secondly, there is nothing wrong in ordering food for the family from the restaurant, expecialy in a situation when the wife is so busy that she did not have time for cooking. These two actions of the MIL should have been corrected / protested by her son (not in the presence of the wife though) if he was really a man.

    This is my own story, my wife had to go back to school for 12 months for her Masters Degree, so my mother came for the first 6 months to help with babysitting our daughter and everything went well WITHOUT any issues between my mother and my wife for the whole period. Just to make sure everything is balanced, my wife's mother also came down for six months to help with babysitting, you will not believe it if I tell you that my wife (not me) had problems with her mum almost on a daily basis to the extend that her mum threaten to go back to Nigeria. My wife's mum will not do alot of the things my mum was doing to help when she came down. She (my wife's mum) will not even serve her own food after the food is already prepared by me or my wife. Is this not an irony?

  • @ comments: Mothers-inlaw whether African, Europeans or Americans are same..and the rest with similar comments about how this is so elsewhere…did you read the title of the article and understand it? the author was specifically writing about "AFRICAN MOTHER IN LAWS", not european, finnish, german, or about father in laws, daughter in laws etc etc. no where in the article did she mention that there are not MILs who are bad in other parts of the world. The article is about the AFRICAN situation. period. Let her rest. i'm sure the noisy ones are the ones who the matter hits close to home with…mother can do no wrong whipped mama's boys….

  • I think it is fair to say mother in-laws are the same everywhere but the problem lies where they are the ones controlling your relationship especially if you as a man or woman cannot stand your ground for the spouse

  • Mothers-inlaw whether African, Europeans or Americans are same?

    ———————–

    Mother inlaw is in the trunk or boot! is an American car sticker!

    Does anyone know why?

    When I was married my mother did not bother my American wife… my mother was just happy that I was married! Some mothers would have mentioned the fact that my marriage was childless…. but my mother NEVER made any such reference to her or to me.

    My mother would qualify as an African mother inlaw… and she does not have any rift with my brothers wife! My sister inlaw and my mother actually frequently conspire against us about a lot of things….. and they jointly harangue me about re-marrying…..

    My sister inlaw and my mother …. are both STRONG in Christ…. when my mother vacations with my sister inlaw, I try not to talk to them…. because they do tag-teaming on me….. about why I should serve the LORD and why Marriage is God's will etc

    So, which mother inlaws in Africa are you guys talking about…. where is the research or empirical data? In the absence of research… I am relying on my personal experience!

    All mother inlaws world wide ….. are equal, or all mother – inlaws are individuals with individual merits or without…. read the above generalizations slowly, and you will realize that it is hazardous to accuse African mother inlaws in a sweeping generalizations sorts of manner!

  • Are Nigerian/African Mother-inlaws really different from ALL other mother-inlaws?

    Please read The New York Times opinion below:

    'I Married My Mother-In-Law,' edited by Ilena Silverman

    A Fine Old Conflict

    Review by PAMELA PAUL

    Given how callous, scheming, selfish and altogether exasperating in-laws can be, there is little conversational sport more gratifying than badmouthing them. While denouncing family members to the outside world is rife with peril, vilifying in-laws who serve as a kind of proxy family is not only socially accepted, it's encouraged. There's only one catch: the in-laws themselves, and often the spouse, can never get wind of what you're saying. Even in our tell-all age, the only safe way to discuss certain in-laws is when they're dead.

    Herein lies the conundrum that Ilena Silverman, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, faced while compiling her anthology, "I Married My Mother-in-Law." When she contacted writers about contributing, "many said they'd love to read a book about in-laws, they just couldn't write about their own." As she explains, relationships with in-laws were "fraught enough; who wanted to ratchet things up by taking it public?"

    So it's a considerable feat that Silverman pinned down enough writers and worthy ones at that to assemble an absorbing, often affecting, collection of essays. Though authors like Amy Bloom, who offers a vicious post-mortem on her lesbian partner's parents in "Dead, Thank God," operate at an advantage (divorced writers also have license to savage, and the one pseudonymous writer, in an essay called "My In-Laws Made Me Do It," rips her former in-laws rightly as "not simply eccentric, but bred-in-the-bone cruel"), some of the best writing is more nuanced. Martha McPhee's wistful essay about never meeting her husband's dead parents, Matt Bai's beautifully written "Family Without Stories" and Jonathan Goldstein's hilarious account of his emotionally needy father-in-law are standouts. Tom Junod's contribution about the improbable friendship between his reckless, indulgent parents and his cheap, modest, prudent in-laws also made me laugh aloud.

    The book comes complete with a pair of glittery writer-couples. The Harrisons, Colin and Kathryn, deliver strong essays, each dealing with death, though in very different ways. Michael Chabon describes the loss of a father-in-law in an early divorce. And though, as Chabon's wife, Ayelet Waldman, writes in her counterpart, "Dividing the Man From His Mother," the "tug of war between a mother and daughter-in-law over a man is an age-old phenomenon, the stuff of sitcom jokes and Greek tragedy," her take is so fresh and witty one hardly notices the clichés inherent to the subject.

    Nonetheless, there's a formulaic diversity to therapeutic anthologies like this one a kind of something-for-everyone-ness, whatever your sociopolitical identity or emotional sore spot. We've got the lesbian daughter-in-law, the interracial couple, the clash of classes. There's the cross-cultural barrier, the political rift, the early misunderstanding since overcome. The ideal in-laws, the terminally ill in-laws, the downright crazies.

    Still, Silverman doesn't rely on vinegary screeds, and that makes the book especially worthwhile. Many of the relationships described are affectionate, some even loving. In-laws are, after all, our half-chosen families the source, and often reflection or amplification, of those we love. While Colin Harrison's father lies on his deathbed, Kathryn Harrison writes: "I don't know how much my father-in-law has given me in the years since I married his son. . . . Here's what I do know. I love him, unreservedly."

    Pamela Paul is the author, most recently, of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families."

  • mama boys? Comment # kini- who is talking mama boys. There was a woman there before you came in- only mutual respect will ensure that both of you don't kill the young man with heart attack- it is a pity to see that the article turns men to whipping boys;. What most of the young wives don't realize is that they too will become mothers some day

  • I guess you women are your own worst enemy. Why not leave the young man out of all ur palaver? May be if you can control your own mother, it might really be helpful- women are indeed necessary evil! Evil!

  • the problem with the issue of "mothers'-in-law" is like they are often perceived as the "people we love to hate" so women get married and almost automatically "expect" not to get on with their mother's-in-law. This is a world-wide phenomenon… not only Nigerian.

  • Nice article.

    I was married to a Nigerian man whose mother came to 'visit' while we lived in NY. It was quite eye opening to me to become object of ALL his mothers ire. The drama provided me the ahaa moment I needed to leave this so called 'traditionalist' for a more open minded, kind man willing to treat me as more than the mother of his babies, cook and recipient of his two minute man bedmatics. tee hee

    To avoid the wahala at my home, I joined NY sports club, lost 50 pounds and met someone else.

    Yes, another Nigerian but one who grew up in Lagos, had a less headache inducing accent (my ex's ibo accent was as heavy as the American bombs in Iraq).

    My current husband had attended high school and college here like me. We tank God:)

    Had my ex's mother not visited a few years into the marriage, I would not have reasonably predicted my fate had I stayed in that union. I saw my future once she came. Yay!!!

    Hurray for huggies… I mean NY Sports club.

  • Comment #4, how can you have mother and sister in-laws when your were only boyfriend and girlfriend. It is all in your head. You are just agreeing with the author.

  • a woman after my own heart. Thanks for this piece. My boyfriend and I recently broke up over this issue of mother in law and sisters. Seriously, if a man can't stand up for you against his family then you need to wipe your face clear and really ship out of it. A broken relationship they say is better than a broken marriage.

  • Jaundiced. Writer has no experience in subject matter, it all reads like hearsay. Fix your own room before you check out your neighbor's leaking garage.

  • Am glad, to have well digest your article on the family geo-relationship in nigeria. And i thank you for that.its a very instructive one and i hope its time we exposed certains stereotype heritage in that country

    Agunbiade pius france e-mail: pmwap2004@yahoo.fr