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.
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