There are many stories about mothers-in-law, recondite with the extremities of this special breed of women in African folklore. Their activities are often directed against persons of their own gender- woman on woman, woman against woman, women being extremely hard on, wicked to women. Which is sad. A big irony. I recall reading a dramatic poem written by Poet Laureate Niyi Osundare in which a mother was confronted by her son about public perception of her and how she was a terrible person and so on. Responding, she said among other things: whoever said so, may his eyes see the back of his head… and so on! Hmmm! Character is like smoke!
Some of these archetypal images have spilled into modern narratives and indeed modern families. In Nollywood, one actor, Patience Ozokwor epitomizes the fiendish mother-in-law who sees nothing good in a daughter-in-law. Here we refer to the type of mother-in-law who visits and begins to eye the clothes the new wife wears, the soup pots, what time she wakes up, the type of meals she prepares for her son, and the jewelry she wears. The one who believes that her son’s money is being wasted on frivolous items and confronts wifey after her son has gone to work! God save Wifey if she has no job or no visible financial contribution to the house or if she unable to makes babies! In some instances, the daughter-in-law is no respecter of persons. She is ready for battle after enduring many years of harassment.
Why does a lady suddenly become an evil or a bad person in the eyes of her husband’s mother? Obviously, there is some rivalry between both women. One gave birth to the man, nurtured him, and must now cede him and all his affections to another woman, for whom the son has deep romantic affections. This is what some mothers cannot stand. ‘Losing’ their son to a total stranger! The stranger becomes the closest person. They sleep in the same room. On the same bed.
One mother-in-law was reported to have said to her son’s wife: I breastfed him, he sucked my breasts as a baby. To which the perky young lady replied: ‘he doesn’t need your breasts anymore. Every night he sucks mine’. Such pettiness over control of one man! When some husbands lose their mother and wifey participates fully and joyously in the funeral ceremonies, one wonders whether she is mourning a death or celebrating freedom from the tyranny of a fiendish mother-in-law! Hehehehehe! The things that happen between some mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law will wear a hat!
The truth is that some mothers never really let go of their sons. For this reason, they become permanent intruders in the home of the young couple. In some cases, they make so much trouble that the young man finally bans his mother from coming to live with them till further notice! Fathers-in-law rarely get involved in the cat and mouse game! They are too busy or would rather the couple live happily ever after with minimum interruption from Madam Wife!
Conversely, how does a son-in-law suddenly become a bad person to his wife’s mother, sometimes from Day One of their meeting? The second category is not as common as the first. A wife’s mother is usually more friendly with her son-in-law than the other way round. Perhaps because there is no rivalry between her and anybody. She treats him nicely so that he would look after her daughter. Except in rare cases!
There is this mother-in-law who is fiendish to her own daughter and her husband. There is no record in the books to account for her behaviour. She left her marriage very early and brought up the kids by herself, at least to secondary school level. She always fights her daughter who looks after her. She is always bitter. Harsh. Mean. She extends the fight to her husband too. When some say its old age, the daughter will tell you that she had aways been like that.
She once ordered her daughter to buy her a car and give her a driver. Daughter says to her: I don’t have that kind of money. She replies tell your husband to give you the money. My husband has no money to buy you a car! Fool! What about the money you made when you were in Abuja? You defend him all the time; is it because you are afraid that he would take another wife that you sound like a fool all the time?
This exchange between mother and daughter is unusual. Once, she directed that her daughter should ensure that her salary was shared into three parts – one for mother, second part for her sister and the third part for the lady who earns the money. This same mother-in-law once locked her son-in-law outside his own house! What else is witchcraft in the real African sense? Such a fiend-in-law ought to be kicked bag and baggage out of the house without much ado!
Mothers-in-law must allow their daughters-in-law live in peace with their husbands. Theirs is a new home. A home for two. Not three. If there is a third person, it should be a child. They should remember that troubling the young woman also affects their son negatively. No man really feels happy when the two important women in his life- his mother and his wife do not get along and quarrel all the time.
Once a man takes a wife, the new woman has more rights and privileges than Mama, no matter how longsuffering Mama may have been in bringing up her son. The same spirit of ‘ownership’ flares up if a son dies prematurely. Some mothers-in-law and the big family often pounce on the property of the deceased man. Chase away the wife and kids and take full possession of everything in sight.
Of course, not all mothers-in-law are fiends. I have seen a mother-in-law who takes her daughter-in-law lime her own biological daughter. Such a wife is the envy of other less fortunate ladies who enter a marriage where they become enemy Number One just because they entered matrimony with a man that they love! For me, the man to stop all the nonsense by intrusive mothers-in-law is son. Period. No man can marry his mother!
Professor Hope O. Eghagha (BA, Jos; MA; PhD, Lagos) MNAL
Department of English
Faculty of Arts
University of Lagos
Akoka Lagos, Nigeria