Everybody the world over knows a joke or two about mothers-in-law, some funny, but most of them not at all complimentary at all. One would be forgiven for thinking that the father-in-law is an insignificant in-law who prefers to remain in the background even as his wife makes life hell for their son.
Talk about having problems with your in-laws and it is automatically assumed that it must be your spouse’s mother giving you grief; after all, they are seen as the ‘ogres’ in any marriage, their main job being to meddle in affairs that otherwise do not concern them.
The father-in-law on the other hand, is usually seen as the quiet authority who never shouts, never works too hard to assert himself, but leaves no doubt that he is in charge.
Fathers-in-law having open disagreements with their children-in-law would be frowned upon, with everybody wondering why he is usurping his wife’s role. This is, however, not always the case. There are numerous cases of fathers-in-law trying to take over the day-to-day running of their children’s homes and some even going as far as having affairs with their sons’ wives.
In most cases, these fathers-in-law are rich, arrogant, and any opinion apart from his own is considered unimportant. They run their families the same way they run their businesses; to them, their children are an extension of their successful businesses and just like in business, something that does not work is quickly discarded.
*Julia could tell a thing or two about such fathers-in-law, because she has one. “My father-in-law is a monster – in fact, he is the patriarch monster. He hated me from the day he met me, without even giving me a chance to show him what kind of a person I am.”
According to Julia, the fact that she came from a different tribe was reason enough to be disqualified. Besides, he had already chosen a wife for his son, unaware that he was already dating Julia.
“I got pregnant with our first born, and that was when we decided to see both sets of parents with our intentions. My father-in-law was unfriendly and not interested in anything to do with me from the word go. To him, I was an imposter – he did not know me, I did not fit into the plans he had for his first born son. You see, the girl he had in mind is from a well off family, not to mention the fact that she was from the same community as them, and I suppose, had they married, that would have been like bringing two dynasties together.”
Julia agreed to go ahead with the marriage only because her husband-to-be supported her. “After all, I was getting married to him, not his father, and I had no reason to suspect that my fiancé’s allegiance would ever change – I also hoped to win his father over with time.” But that time never came for Julia.
“Eight years later, he hates me as much as the first day he saw me – in fact, I would say he hates me more now. Before we got married, my husband lived in a house his father owned, for free of course, and we moved into this house after the wedding. One time, when my husband had travelled out of the country, his father kicked me and my daughter out – I was pregnant with our second child; just because he had found out that I had come home at 10 pm after a company dinner. To him, this was proof of infidelity.”
She did not put up any resistance and moved to her mother’s house while waiting for her husband to come back. The father would not let us move back into the house as long as his son was still married to me, so we had to move to another house and start paying rent.
“For that, I was accused of turning his son against him and he swore never to rest until we were apart. His son’s happiness did not seem to matter. Now, he seems to know my every move, which leads me to believe that he has me followed. When my husband travels, his father seems to know every step I make, the exact time I get home, who drops me home etc. It is unbearable. When we go for family gatherings, he makes sure he invites the girl he still hopes his son will one day marry because she never got married. He takes every opportunity to make me feel unwanted and an outsider, and unfortunately, because he holds the purse strings, everybody else is afraid of him so I have no support.”
The pressure, however, seems to be getting to her husband who seems to have changed of late. He insists that I stop seeing my single friends. But these are my best friends and he knows how much they mean to me. Of course, I won’t let him take away my friends, my job, or the little freedom I have.”
But what happens if the husband does not change? “I will leave. I know his father has threatened to disinherit him if he does not leave me and because of late, he has not been doing very well financially, he has probably decided to sacrifice his family for the money.”
Given a choice of what sort of father-in-law she would like, *Carol would easily pick Julia’s father-in-law because her own husband’s father, simply put, is a modern day Casanova who will chase anything in a skirt, including his son’s wife.
“My husband and I have had to move out of town and if it gets to that, we will move country, just to be as far away from his father as possible.”
What could the man have done to deserve such wrath?
“I have been married for seven years, but things only became bad three years ago.” When Carol was dating her husband, he used to tell her how he would not be introducing her to his father anytime soon because he was afraid his father might steal her from him.
“I used to think it was just an excuse not to introduce me to his family, I got very upset and threatened to leave if he did not introduce me – I mean, what kind of father steals girlfriends from the sons?” Reluctantly, he took her to his parents. “His father was an older version of her boyfriend, only more distinguished. I remember him complimenting his son on choosing beautiful bride.”
At the time, Carol had laughed at the statement, thinking the father was a jester, but a look at her then fiance told her it was the wrong time to laugh.
The next time she saw him was on their wedding day.
“During the evening party, he asked to dance with me, holding me very close which I thought was improper, and then he went on to dance with all the small girls in the party. I thought it weird that a father would attend his son’s evening party, but I excused him because he is only 20 years older than my husband who was only 25 when we got married.”
By the end of the party, however, Carol saw him walk out with a girl who could have been his daughter – how disrespectful was that.
Three years ago, Carol’s father-in-law visited their house – I was alone, my husband was out of the country.
“I welcomed him respectfully, offering him refreshments, but he told me he would rather drink me. I almost fainted. It got worse as when I told him I thought that was out of line, he told me to stop playing hard to get, that he knew I was attracted to him – I panicked, especially because he kept following me around. I am a petite woman, he is strong, I could smell rape, so I ran to the bedroom and locked myself in.”
For 10 minutes, he kept trying the lock, telling me that it would be our little secret and that my husband didn’t have to know. I was in tears, and I was lucky when my house help, whom I had sent to shops, came back. He left soon after.
To tell husband or not to? “I knew if I told him, he would probably try to kill his father – he used to tell me the day his father hits on me he would kill him. If I didn’t tell, my father in law might misinterpret it as a signal to try again. So I suggested we move out of town. I was lucky because Nairobi was getting too congested for my husband too, so we moved away and told no one where we moved to, except our close friends and my family. I do wish I could be closer to my mother-in-law, she is a lovely woman, but how could I face her, and how could I be her friend without bumping into her husband? I never told my husband about his father’s indecency, but I think he is happier that we are far from his father. So far, so good, but if he ever finds us, I will campaign for us to move further.”
According to Rev John Kamau of PCEA church, when a couple ties the knot, they must always protect each other from respective families. Here are a few pointers on how to maintain good in-laws relationship:
Establish independence:– Move a respectable distance from them, it creates boundaries.
Demonstrate oneness: Do not criticise your partner in front of your in-laws, do not allow him/her to be criticised either, and do not take sides against your partner. If you disagree with your partner’s behaviour towards your family, wait until you are alone.
Accept your partner’s parents as your own and give due respect, but if they are like Carol’s father-in-law, keep your distance without being disrespectful.
If, for instance, a wife wants to give her own mother some money, it would be better if she asked the husband to do it, and vice versa. This way, the respective in-laws get the message that there are no secrets in that union.