Last year I wrote an Ivery Arie article on mother-in-laws. I was recently asked to write my assertions on daughter-in-laws. The intended audience of this article are to family members of a daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. I am not a therapist or a licensed counselor, however, I have some experience on life. I am a 38-year-old professor, married with three children, living in the United States and I am a daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. I have been married for almost 11 years and counting.
This article involves the delicate interface of an African daughter-in-law, namely a Nigerian daughter-in-law and her interactions with members of her extended family. The upcoming words may sting, but the truth is a most important elixir for healing, even if the medicine hurts while going down.
Dear extended family, this article is not to give you tips on how to undermine or usurp power from your daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. It is intended to encourage you not to take every action of a daughter-in-law as an offense to your family and to provide you guidance on how to derive civility and understanding during interactions with your daughter-in-law or sister-in-law.
Dear extended family, when your son or brother joined in marriage to his wife, the marriage is not community property. The wife is his, not yours. I do not subscribe to a notion of Nigerian culture of a man’s wife as “our wife.” Some may argue that this is a cultural term of endearment, but it has the subconscience underpinings of inadvertedly pigeon holing a woman to be subject wholly to her husband’s family, with little to no voice, even in her own marriage.
I am a traditionalist, but also a feminist. Don’t start to shudder and say, “Ah ha! There you are! A “modernized” Nigerian ghel says she is a feminist and coming to corrupt our women.” Mscheew. If that thought crossed your mind as I mentioned my advocacy of feminism, in tandem with traditionalist values, stop reading this article. If you are intrigued, continue reading.
For the record, I hold a doctorate degree in education and have no issue cooking for my husband and bringing him his food. In marriage, I respect my husband as positional authority head of our home, but in turn, he too recognizes the value of my partnership with him as his wife. This is what I hope to convince to the extended family members reading this. Are you at logger heads with your daughter-in-law? Perhaps it is because you disregard her existence as partner to your son/brother. There is sometimes the outlook that extended African family members can tell their son or brother something, and once it is discussed between the man and the extended family, then that settles it. Was the wife’s input or suggestions considered? Most likely not. This is when problems fester.
Where decisions involve major financial matters, or the possibility of an extended family member living indefinitely, or for a specified time with said son/brother and his wife, know that his wife will carry much of the brunt of hosting, cooking, cleaning, in addition to taking care of her own nuclear family, and in some instances she may be working full-time herself. This is why problems may arise in a daughter-in-law’s relationship with extended family, because there is the notion that her allegiance is wholly a sort of cultural servitude for the extended family’s every need and want. Not so.
While it pains me to say this, I must. I have come to find that many Nigerians living in Nigeria tend to have a misconstrued outlook about life abroad, particularly in the United States. They tend to think things in America are very easy. There appears to be this assumptive nature that when in America, they will pick money from trees and will immediately get a job and that their son/brother and his wife will be the conduits to make this happen, and in many instances they will not consider the costs involved…costs that are not just monetary.
One of my husband’s cousins who won visa lottery lived with us for some time and I pointedly gave him a reality check about life in America. Yes, in America there are good roads…yes, there is constant electricity…yes, there is this and that, but it all comes at a price. While we were happy to be of assistance to my husband’s cousin, getting him settled came as a hefty price to my husband and me in many ways (ie. financially, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually).
If a daughter-in-law is not in agreement with a prospective family decision, dear extended family, refrain from thinking that “this witch my brother married is preventing my/our progress.” Have you considered that there may be some constraints on their end that prevent them from helping you the way you want?
If you want to warm the heart of your daughter-in-law/sister-in-law, do you truly call to ask how she is doing, versus just talking to your son or brother? Is the daughter-in-law treated like an outlier in the extended family?
I have come to admire one of my sister-in-law’s cordiality toward me. She asks how I cope with my children and how my work is. Over time, we have developed a civil and friendly relationship. Just a few weeks ago she came on a visit to the United States and stayed with my husband and me. Throughout her stay, for her medical checkups, my husband and I agreed to pay for her medical expenses. I took her with me to different outings and we got along well.
During her stay, she did not put on an air of me having to “serve her.” Do you know that after her morning prayers, without fail, of her own volition, she swept the house and on more than one occasion tidied my kids’ rooms and cooked? My sister-in-law is eight years my senior and was humble enough to recognize that she was in her brother and wife’s house, not “her brother’s house.” These wonderful gestures made all the difference for me to reciprocate in kind, because she saw me as a partner to her brother and not an auxillary. I never once told her to do the things she did.
Dear extended family, if a married woman is made to feel like she is classless to her husband and extended family, don’t be surprised if she treats you all the same. Be very careful the words you utter about “that witch your son/brother married.” This is the same “witch” that bears your son/brother’s children. This is the same “witch” your brother sleeps with. If you are calling her a witch (or any other horrible names), chances are, it is because there is a feeling of not getting your way in a matter.
To daughter-in-laws, as much as you can, be civil toward your husband’s extended family. Make effort to be cordial in every interaction. Do not put a wedge between a man and his family. I do not endorse a daughter-in-law trying to stymie communication between her husband and his family. If you believe there is a semblance of dislike toward you by your husband’s extended family, exercise distance avoidance with them, and tell your husband in order for him to try and remedy the situation. The distance avoidance I mention is simply giving principal focus to the needs of your husband and children and mitigating your own contact with extended family for a period of time.
Dear extended family, while you may not like it, know that your son’s/brother’s wife has the positional authority to reduce instances where she feels you all may be overreaching your boundaries in their marriage, especially instances where you all may go to the brother/son principally for everything.
Before I married, I ended a long-time relationship with a boyfriend because nearly every request made by his family, for the most part he aquiesced to. I saw the handwriting on the wall and ended that relationship, because while it is admirable he wanted to be there for any extended family issue, I foresaw where this could be problematic in a marital relationship. In all, what I’ve written may have been hard to read, but perhaps it will shed some light on improving daughter-in-law and extended family relationships.
– Dr. Chisom Unegbu