Twenty eight year-old Jacqueline, a banker and mother of two, has been married for five years. While she says her marriage has been ‘okay’ so far, she is worried about some feelings that she has been developing lately.
Feelings of resentment towards her husband and his side of the family.
“My husband is the first born of five children. Three of his siblings are still in school, one in high school and two in primary school,” she begins.
Even though Jacqueline and her children do not lack, she feels that her husband spends too much money on his family, money they could invest as a couple.
“My mother-in-law lives in a small farm where she keeps chicken, goats and cows, yet she constantly asks for money to buy animal feed, pay the farmhand, repair a leaking roof…her financial demands are endless,” Jacqueline laments.
What’s more, her husband pays school fees for his two siblings in primary school, which comes to about Sh60,000 a year.
“I have no problem with him supporting his family, but I feel he spends too much money on them at the expense of our growth as a family,” she says.
Due to this, she points out, they have been unable to investment.
“By now we should have bought a piece of land somewhere and started saving for our children’s education. At the very least, we should own a car, but my husband is always broke, yet he has the money to send back home.”
She adds that even though she has never asked him to stop supporting his family financially, she once requested him to review the amount he spends on them so that they can progress, but he did not take it kindly.
“He told me that I knew about these financial commitments before we got married, therefore it is unfair of me to ask him to stop fulfilling them.”
Jacqueline now fears that the dreams and plans she had for her family will never come to be.
She is not alone in her frustration, for many other women find themselves in a similar predicament where in-laws are concerned. One such woman is Monica, a marketer married for three years now.
Monica says that her mother-in-law frequently visits unannounced.
“I hate it – why can’t she inform us in advance? A visit from a mother-in-law is a big deal, and you have to go out of your way to make her happy and comfortable. All I ask is that she tells me before coming over, so that I can prepare well,” says Monica.
What is even more frustrating is that her husband does not see what the fuss is about.
“He says that the doors of our home should always be open to anyone, especially family members.”
But the unannounced visits from her mother-in-law is not the only thing that irritates Monica – the duration of her stay is also a source of conflict in her home.
“She stays for not less than three weeks, and has even lived with us for two months,” says an agitated Monica, who also has to put up with her husband’s 20-year-old brother, a university student who lives with them over school holidays.
“He is the laziest man I have ever seen! All he does is watch one movie after another. He doesn’t do any chores and cannot even leave the couch to answer the door bell,” she says.
But it is not only women who have grievances with their in-laws. Martin, a taxi driver in Nairobi, is concerned about the influence his mother-in-law has over his wife.
“My wife often consults her mother on many issues about our marriage, and is the first to know whenever we have a disagreement, something that greatly annoys me,” he says.
He adds that there are many times they have agreed to take on a project, only for his wife to suddenly tell him that the project is not feasible, after having a conversation with her mother.
“My mother-in-law controls my wife in a way that is not healthy for our marriage. It is as though I am married to two women.”
The experiences of Jacqueline, Monica and Martin highlight just a fraction of the challenges faced by many couples where in-laws are concerned. While ideally, marriage is a union between a husband and wife, in many marriage institutions, especially in the African setting, a marriage is a clan affair.
This ‘clan’ of in-laws can exert a strong influence on one’s marriage, and while there are supportive in-laws, the reality is that there are some who interfere in the lives of their children for selfish gain. For example, take the parents-in-law who believe that their children owe them for the rest of their lives because they educated them. They expect their children to build them a house, furnish it, set up a business for them, buy them a car, give them a monthly allowance and educate their younger siblings.
What about the parents who hold on to their ‘little girl’ and keep checking on her every now and then as if they do not trust their son-in-law to take care of her?
Woe unto the man who got married to a woman from a wealthier family than his, for he might always be frowned on, with his in-laws believing their daughter married down and could have done better. In some cases, they might refuse to recognise him as the head, and try to manipulate their daughter into making certain decisions in her home, especially those pertaining to money.
With all these formidable challenges, is it possible to have a cordial relationship with in-laws? If it is, how do you go about laying this foundation?
Jacinta Njihia, a marriage counsellor at Royal Life Springs, says the first thing a couple should do is set boundaries earlier on in their relationship, preferably before marriage.
“When dating, talk about and agree on the extent your relatives will be involved in your affairs. If one of you is financially supporting a family member, disclose this information and discuss how to go about it after marriage,” she says.
She however admits that the intricacies of financial support towards in-laws can be deep.
“Some men believe that they should support their side of the family only, and not their wives’ relatives, yet sometimes, the needs of the wives’ family surpass those of his family. Unfortunately, such an attitude only serves as a fertile breeding ground for resentment. If financial support it given, it should be extended to both sides of the family according to respective needs. One side of the family should never be sidelined.”
Another decision that the couple needs to make early enough is how comfortable they are living with relatives in their home.
“Are relatives welcome to visit and stay in our home? Should they inform us in advance of their planned visit? Are we agreeable to hosting for weeks or months? Would this relative be expected to assist with house chores or contribute to the expenses of running the house during their stay in our home? These are some of the questions that couples need to ask before they get married,” advises Jacinta.
If they agree that visitors are welcome to stay, Njihia particularly advises men to clearly communicate with their relatives before they begin their stay. This is because there are some who believe that the house belongs to their brother and so they can do as they please.
“They will show open disdain to the wife and treat her like a servant in her own home, expecting her to tend to their every need,” Njihia says.
In such a case, it is the responsibility of the man to nip such attitude in the bud.
“The husband should make it clear to his relatives that his wife is in charge of the home and should abide by the rules she gives.”
One of the greatest stereotypes that exist in society is that mothers-in-law are ‘monsters’. This stereotype is further fuelled by the roles that these women play in films that cast them as vengeful, intolerable and conniving women.
“When a woman gets into a marriage with the mind-set that her mother-in-law is her enemy, she is already starting her relationship with the older woman on the wrong footing. Not all mothers-in-law interfere with their sons’ marriages.”
To discourage interference from in-laws, the marriage counsellor advises couples to present a united front.
“When you make a decision, you should speak as one voice, that way, it will be difficult for in-laws to try and sway one of you.”
All it takes is clear communication
Josephine Mosongo interviewed Isaac Machani, a 35-year-old father of one, who explains how he handled this tricky situation.
In a broader perspective, especially in an African setting, family is very important. Due to this, those with some semblance of financial security feel obligated to give financial assistance to parents or siblings who are not well-off. The question many ask is whether there is an obligation to be financially responsible for family, and to what extent.
Isaac Machani, 35, started supporting his family in his first year of employment, in 2000, although he was not entirely responsible for footing all the bills.
“I knew where my family stood financially at the time, and I partly felt obligated because my dad raised us single headedly,” says Machani.
That sense of responsibility, he says, is something that he picked up from his father who put him and all his siblings through school.
When his father retired in 2004, Machani took up the larger responsibility of ensuring that his siblings never lacked for anything, from their school fees, right down to the shoes they wore.
In 2010, his sisters started finding their footing, but instead of cutting them off completely, he slowly weaned them off financially. He continued to support them but let them know that it was not an indefinite arrangement since he had plans of starting his own family.
By 2012, Machani was married with a new born on the way. By then, his siblings did not entirely depend on him, but he had a discussion with his wife about continuing to financially support his siblings.
“I explained to her that it was important for me to continue assisting my siblings until they became financially independent, and also reminded my sisters that since I now had a family, I had other obligations which are a priority, therefore I could not assist them forever” he says.
If the roles were reversed, Machani says he wouldn’t have a problem helping out his wife’s siblings or any of her family members. In his perspective, he says, it is inevitable for spouses to inherit each other’s baggage. His sisters are financially stable now, and are taking care of their younger brothers.
Is what he did something he would want his daughter to do in future for her siblings?
“Families are dynamic, so hers might not need her help. That said, I’m sure I won’t have more than three children because I want to ensure that my daughter has the best in life and have the things I didn’t have growing up. But more importantly I want to educate her, hope she gets a good job and impose on her the value of being an employer, rather than being employed,” he says.