By Bunmi Sofola
THREE days after she had her first child, Halimat’s husband, Doja, brought mother and child home – with Doja’s mother happily settled in the family home. “Shortly after we arrived, I put my son in the Moses’ basket we already had ready for him”, Halimat said. “All of a sudden, the sound of my new-born son’s cries filtered through to the living room, stinging my ears and piercing my heart. I rushed to where he was but I was too late. He was already in the possessive grasp of my mother-in-law who’d placed an exclusion zone of fierce grand-motherly love around him, barring all from going near.
“Grandma is here” she cooed as she clasped Jare to her chest and peered at me, her wrinkly face filled ith a direct challenge. ‘Mine’ she seemed to say as she sang to him. So began one of the most painful weeks of my life, one which still smarts now when I think about it, and which pushed my relationship with my husband to the brink. To this day, I still feel hurt and resentful when I recall how my first weeks of motherhood were tainted by the interference of my mother-in-law – a typical village woman she made me feel superfluous, useless and inferior – that I was nothing more than a uterus that had d livered her first born grandson!
“Maybe it was partly down to the clash of cultures, ‘Grandma’ is from my husband’s very remote village and speaks barely a word of English, and I couldn’t understand her native tongue that well. Maybe it was also because she’d been ‘widowed at 29; Doja, her youngest was just two years old when his father was killed in a road accident, leaving her to raise three children single-handedly. It has left her fiercely proud of her family, as well as being very critical of their partners.
“From the self-consciousness of my post-baby body to the way I held my son, I felt short in every department. And Doja, the devoted mama’s boy, seemed to accept her word on everything, excluding me as they gabbled on in their own language. Whenever I heard friends complain about how little help they get from their in-laws, want to shout how lucky they are. After the hospital staff fussing over my son, I’d arrived home to find her waiting at the door and literally wrenching Jare from my arms. Taken aback by her forthrightness, I tried to put it down to excitement. He was, after all, her first grandchild. Yet as she clutched him to her chest, ignoring me, my heart pounded in panic. Although logically I knew he was safe, a new mother’s protective hormones turned hcr into a lioness.
“I would have fought and killed for my son. The trouble was, so would Grandma. But instead of standing up to my mother-in-law, I went to our room and cried. Looking back, I can’t believe I was so weak, so unassertive. I can only put it down to the shock I felt at having a domineering stranger barge into my life. This was her first visit to our home. Although I’d met her a few times, when we went for family functions in her village, we’d never got beyond small talk due to the language barrier. Although she’d never said it, I wondered if she blamed me for luring her son to marry outside his clan.
“Doja and I had met at the university. He was one of our lecturers and we quickly recognised that we had a lot in common. He transferred to another university close to my family’s home when I graduated. He later set up his consultancy business. But it wasn’t until I gave birth that I realised the true character of my mother-in-law. From the outset of her visit, she made it clear that ‘Grandma knows best’. And Doja did nothing to correct her. She was constantly barking ‘advice’ on everything from feeding to sleeping. Everything she did contradicted modern parenting advice. She put Jare on his tummy to sleep and swaddled him in layers of blankets. I put my foot down when she wanted to feed him herbal concoctions. Since when did a newborn baby need that? ‘Its just how they did things in her days’, Doja said as his mother went off in a huff. Of course my husband ran after her to console her, rather than me.
“Breast-feeding became my only solace, the only time my son was all mine. Even then, she’d stand so close that I felt inhibited and self- conscious. Once, she unexpectedly yanked up my top, revealing my postnatal belly. ‘What a stomach’, she remarked in her native tongue. It was utterly humiliating. In our bedroom, Doja and I hissed at each other. I was sick of being undermined and humiliated. In my worst moments, I wanted to run away with my baby.
“Her month-long visit, eventually ended, but the effect on Doja’ and my relationship reverberated for long after. Despite the tension, she would arrive at our door every six months without fail and stay for two weeks. ‘You can’t stop me seeing my mother!’ Doja would fume. ‘She can’t stop me from being a mother!’ I would retort, I loved my husband, but there were times when I wondered if I’d be better off alone. But after I’d given birth to two girls, I felt stronger and more in control. Yet Grandma still came down to undermine me. I had to justify everything I did, from not putting salt in my children’s food, to not letting them ‘sweat out’ a fever, to letting them run around barefoot – as she believed colds are caused by floors, not viruses.
“On one of her visits, I left her to give the girls their breakfast while I took Jare to school. I got back to find both children triumphantly sucking chocolate coated digestive biscuits, having clearly ignored the cereal, toast and eggs on offer. She knew my views on this. Biscuits were a treat, not breakfast. ‘No biscuits!’ I protested at which she and the children smirked conspiratorially. It was only when my youngest was two years old, the same age Doja had been when his father died – that relations between us started to thaw.
“One day, exhausted and stressed, trying to juggle work, money and the family, 1 tried to imagine being responsible for these three little ones all on my own. How did grandma manage it, producing such loving, loyal and well-adjusted son as Doja? Suddenly, the thought of my mother-in-law’s next visit didn’t feel quite so much as an invasion, but a welcome extra pair of hands. The children clearly adore their Grandma, and love chatting in her native language which she’d tried to teach them. I’m now determined to grit my teeth and meet her halfway. Who knows, maybe we can start again!”
Doja still couldn’t get his head around how things could be so thorny between the two women he loved. “I have no recollection of my father”, he said. “He died far too soon and my mother sacrificed everything to give me, my brother and sister a good upbringing. It’s no surprise then, that I will always love and admire her. After our son was born, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my mother. So, I couldn’t
understand why Halimat felt so threatened. The first visit was a nightmare. Mum just wanted to get to know her grandson, but Halimat couldn’t bear to share him. Somehow she thought mum was trying to steal him. She couldn’t see how ridiculous that was, or disrespectful to my mother’s feelings. After all, she was just visiting her a few weeks.
“I couldn’t help but feel that all this highlighted the massive cultural gaps between the ethnic groups in the country. In my village, families are much stronger, there’s none of this ‘not interfering’ business. I felt like a hostage in my own home, stuck in a field between two raging bulls! It didn’t help that mum and Halimat didn’t speak the same language. Not only was I torn between two different cultures, I was constantly having to translate for them too. 1 love Halimat – and my mother. I just hope that, over time, they will learn to love each other”.
At Cross Purposes (Humour)
A young man was keen to buy his girlfriend a very special present but, unsure of what to get, he took her sister along to help him choose. A little later, they decided to buy her some gloves – something not too personal but at the same time something that she would wear often and think of him. As he gave the gloves to the assistant to be wrapped, the sister had also been buying for herself and handed in a pair of knickers. However, unknown to the two buyers, the assistant muddled up the package before sending it off. He simply wrote the following note to go with it:
“My darling, 1 hope you like the enclosed gift. 1 bought them because 1 notice you never wear any when we go out together and your sister thought the short ones were better than the longer ones because they’re easier to remove. I hope you like the colour. 1 know they’re a little light but the lady in the shop showed me the ones she’s been wearing for the past month and there was hardly a mark on them. She also tried them on for me so that I could see what they’d look like. It’s such a shame I won’t be there to help you put them on for the first time. Others will see them before I do. Just one little tip. When you take them off, blow in them as they will be slightly damp from wearing. Looking forward to seeing you wear them on Saturday night. Much love. – Ken xxxx.