Tales of Kenyan women’s lost war against crazy mothers-in-law

There is always that most-dreaded phase of getting married; being introduced to your prospective mother-in-law. There is never room in between; she will either like or hate you. Period

Mothers-in-law come in all shapes and sizes. “You can’t fight her, because you’ll never win. And you’ll never win, because she was there before you.” That was what Evelyn Wafula, who works at IMAX in Nairobi, said when this writer sought her opinion on rogue, difficult-to-deal-with mothers-in-law.

Well, everyone values marriage.  After going through gruelling experiences in relationships, and even at times taking time off, there is nothing as exciting as coming by a man or woman with the right qualities for marriage.

For most women, this joy can never be hidden; it is shared among her friends. A woman will throw her peers into delirium when she finally announces: “I am getting married.”

However, there is always that most-dreaded phase of getting married; being introduced to your prospective mother-in-law. There is never room in between; she will either like or hate you. Period.

Pauline Karimi, a 28-year-old single mother and businesswoman, was married for two years and about seven months. She had an unpalatable experience with her mother-in-law, which necessitated her divorce.

“From my own experience, what I see, and from what I have heard from friends, only two or three out of ten mothers-in-law are good. My mother-in-law happened to be in the bad category. She is the reason my marriage did not work. I lived in the village with her, but in a different house.

Snide remark

“She’d come to wake me up in the morning to start doing domestic chores, even when I was with my husband in the house. She’d find fault with everything I did. However well I cooked, she’d find a reason for a snide remark.

At times she’d insist on cooking for ‘her’ son, telling me to eat the food I’d prepared with the house help,” reveals the lovely young lady, as she lightly taps on the counter of her boutique in Nairobi.

So what did she do? Nothing

She explains, “I decided to keep out of her way. I would do wifely duties then ignore whatever she did or said about me. If she decided to cook for her ‘son’, I just let her do it. It was upon her son to decide whether to eat my food or her food.”

Her silence did not help. She says that at first, her husband would be on her side in case there was a disagreement between her and her mother-in-law. This happened for a year and a half or so. Then one day, he switched sides. Pauline had a conflict with her mother-in-law and the man joined her mother in castigating her.

What was the conflict about? She winces.

“I can’t tell you that. But the day he went to her side, was the day I realised that I had to leave,” she says. She waited to see if things would change, if it was just a one-off. It never happened. After that first switch, the son remained on his mother’s side, and six months later, she was out of their home.

Feign ignorance

Women have very interesting ways of coping up with such mothers-in-law. Some choose to cry and feign ignorance to make the mother-in-law feel superior.

However, for how long can one cry? And would that change her and make her like you? Others choose to ignore her. They ignore her however petty she gets; even when she starts telling them how to arrange their houses, how to cook, where to live, and what to spend family money on.

Those who choose to ignore mothers-in-law believe they just need to get along; after all, they are not married to her. There are those who say hello and talk to their mother-in-law like Pauline and then there are those who give them a total blackout, talking to them only during family meetings that happen four times a year. The ladies agree that it worsens the situation, because to wait for her to change is futile.

So why not talk to the man and see if he can in turn talk to her mother?

“Not a good idea,” says Irene Wambugu. “When you talk to the man, he will tell you one thing: ‘elewa mama ni mama (just try to understand her)’. And you can’t get past that.”

Irene had a different experience. She was married for eight years before getting divorced. Reason? The man had changed. The mother of two children says her first two years were full of friction between her and her mother-in-law.

“I come from Murang’a and she made it clear to me from the start that she did not want a woman from Murang’a for a daughter–in-law. My husband was a man from Nyeri. Things were rough. Very rough, but I stayed on. I did all I could and it was like cutting a rock with an axe. Nothing worked. But I stayed on,” she says.

Then after some months, she realised that if she was to keep her marriage, she had to try and win her over.

“I made her believe I’m extremely hardworking by making my husband realise his full potential in life. He was a businessman, but doing badly then. So I got into business with him, put in some money from my earnings and helped him run the business. It took two years for the results to show. The business started doing well, and by the end of the second year, we opened a second shop,” says Irene.

Her mother-in-law was impressed; she softened her attitude towards her in due course. She became close to her mother-in-law so much that even now, though she is not married to the man, she still visits her in the village. Her failed marriage was not because of her, but because the man grew reckless had changed.

Husband happy

There are the ladies who believe that keeping their husband happy is the best way of handling a difficult mother-in-law. Such women say that a woman, however difficult, will always have a soft spot for her son and would always want to see him happy and comfortable.

They say if you can keep the man well, then you are half-way through in relating well with the mother. They add that while it is not directly an effort at turning the son against the mother, it is sort of like killing two birds with one stone. The woman will be easy on you if her son is well kept and the man will also be on your side.

“You can’t turn a man against his mother. That is a difficult thing, almost impossible. But you can do good things to him so that in case of frictions, he will always be on your side. This way, he will rein in his mother in case she wants to cross the line,” cautions Irene.

Sam Kariuki is of the view that the best way to avoid friction with your mother-in-law is to avoid her at all costs.

“The two women can’t stay in peace. Your wife will see you and think, ‘my man’. Your mother on the other side will see you and think, ‘my boy’. They both will, somehow, want to compete for your attention. She’d always want him the way she brought him up, forgetting that the son is now a man.”

Tolerate her

Evelyn Wafula, who rules out fighting one’s mother-in-law, says that she will play along to her demands and will tolerate her intrusions.

“I will try as much as I can, without grovelling to cooperate with her. If her intrusions can be ignored, I will ignore them. So long as my husband is at peace with me, I will keep my cool and play along to her whims and demands; after all, I won’t live with her.”

She says that as long as the man is hers, she will keep her head low, even if it is for ten years. She adds a disclaimer though: “The day the man changes sides (which is what most men do), I will walk out. You can’t fight her, because you’ll never win. To fight is futile.”

A war against your mother-in-law is one you cannot win. And as the adage goes, if you can’t beat them join them. Perhaps that might help.