When Your Parents or The In-law Visit

By Femi Awodele
The relationship of the husband and wife should supercede that of son and mother (as tough as that can be), the relationship of the nuclear family should super-cede the relationship with siblings, so when there is problem, there is a principle to work on. At the same time disrespect from your spouse to your parent is also a NO NO (you can define disrespect between each other).

Extended family is a major part of an average African family, at engagement (or whatever it is called in your part of Africa) ceremonies family members on both side are introduced to each other. When couples have marital conflicts the elders in both families step up and douse whatever fire is brewing between the two “children”.

This influence of the extended family also go beyond just resolving marital conflicts, the new wife automatically become a “property” of her husband’s family, hence she has to call a two year old in her husband’s extended family “uncle or aunty”, in some cases she is even referred to as “Eru (slave)”, we Ijeshas (Yoruba - Nigeria) call a woman married into our home “Eru Owa (the king’s slave)”.

The parents of the man have tremendous influence on the home of their son, the mother; if close to that son have much more influence. The woman’s mother also yield some influence as she is the one often consulted by the daughter and available to help with the children. I have counseled with many Africans in Diaspora where the influence of the extended family visiting (or some residing back home) from Africa is a huge problem.

Our parents from Africa visit us for many reasons, some come for graduation, some for business, some for vacation, some for health reasons, but the most common reason for their visit is helping out with a new child or growing children (someone to stay at home when we are at work). When our parent visits they come with the African notion of what the structure of the home should be, what they experienced with their mother-in-law or the larger African society. The concept of the “peculiar marital conflict” (the role of man and woman, romance, conflict resolution, etc) of their child and his/her spouse in Diaspora is foreign to them, and depending on the personality (aggressive, passive-aggressive or passive) of the visiting parent, their visit brings about its own set of conflict in that home.

Unique problems often associated with visiting parents from Africa

1. Life Style Adjustment

I grew up with six siblings (and then some) living in a very tight square footage and did not feel crowded; many of you reading this article did as well. However, when we do have visitors it feels like someone is encroaching because we have to adjust our lifestyle. I remember visiting the homes of some of my friends (and they mine) when we were in Ife, it took a lot of adjusting especially when friends visit my home, as my family often walked around with little clothes on.

Many couples in Diaspora live a particular lifestyle before the visiting parent arrives; now they have to adjust to suit the visiting Mom or Dad. For instance, my boys make their own breakfast (cereal, waffle or my 12 year old make eggs), Ola and I just make do with our mug of coffee (I think we are hooked to coffee) till lunch and sometimes for me dinner. In many Diaspora home, the wife would usually not make stew on a regular basis because of work schedule. However, to accommodate a visiting parent, changes are made to this regular lifestyle.

There is also a reverse-adjustment when a parent is visiting. Many African husbands do house chores like washing the dishes, cooking if they are home first, cleaning the house and taking care of the children’s need. However, for strange reasons when their parent are around from Africa, they refuse to do these things again, perhaps because they don’t want to look like “woman wrapper” or sometimes just thinking that their mom would take over those duties (because they believe it’s a woman’s job and they’ve always done it to help out).

These adjustments if it is going on for too long would start to cause discomfort and conflict between everybody, from the visiting parent to the husband and wife.

2. Habits from home

In fairness to our parents they have their own habits or routine back home that is disrupted when they visit, and some of them want to continue those habits when they are visiting in Diaspora. I find this more common with the men, they want their food served only by their daughter-in-law, they want stew cooked daily, they don’t want to eat on the dinner table (as it is the habit in their son’s home), they want to be waited on just as it was back home etc. Some mother-in-laws would usually refuse to cook in their daughter-in-laws kitchen as well.

Our parents have a thousand and one thing they do at home (in Africa), from volunteering at church, to being the neighborhood parent (yell at kids), many of them are also elders that get to solve extended family disputes. When they visit western countries, especially in areas where African population is minimal, they become homesick real quick after a short while and that could affect their mood and that of the home.

The problem with the above is that with the lifestyle in Diaspora (husband and wife working with no house-help) such a habit or demand cannot be met in some cases or sustained for long in most cases.

3. Taking care of a new baby or discipline of adult kids

When we had our first baby, my mother-in-law stayed with us for a couple of weeks and my mother came for about six months. I saw my wife (then a medical student) struggle with both mothers and their style of what to do with the baby. With her mom, she was able to talk to her about what she wanted but it was tougher with my mom, she eventually did (can’t tell you the timeline or if it was with me or not). It is amazing how our parents respond to baby’s need (based on oral traditions) and for new mothers in Diaspora who have read all available books on child rearing and development, this issue could really be a big problem.

For the parents visiting to help with adult kids, they often find your style of rearing your kids different and for the aggressive parent, they’ll correct you and even change your rule in front of the children, the passive parent might not say anything to you but would call your child and undermine your authority by changing your instruction.

When our parents correct our children, many of us feel that rebuke is really on us (I did) and did not like it. Some of the corrections are appropriate (could be done in another way though), we just don’t want them calling the shot in our home, especially since they’ve had the opportunity to raise us and now it is our turn (for better or worse).

4. Disagreement between a visiting parent and child-in-law

One thing I tell young adults getting married is to be careful how they introduce their fiancé to their parents. If you introduce your intending wife or husband as a doormat expect your parents and siblings to walk all over him or her, if he/she is introduced as a queen or king, expect some opposition for a while and then respect (if consistent) or cordiality with him/her eventually.

Things can get weird and ugly quickly when a mother-in-law with little or no respect for her son-in-law or daughter-in-law is visiting to help with a new child. The daughter or son is left to navigate the mine between her mother and husband and in some cases the son between his wife and mother.

Some of the issues discussed earlier could also be the source of disagreement between a visiting parent and the child or in-law.

5. Personality of the visiting parent

This is a major part of the dynamic of the visiting parent in many African homes in Diaspora.

An aggressive parent would not hesitate to share his/her feeling and depending on how it is said or received, “third world war” could break out. Passive-aggressive parents are interesting as well, as they’ll keep quite but refuse to eat and make you feel guilty for bringing them abroad and making them “suffer”. Passive parents are expert in smiling and laughing but when offended they drop “atomic words” capable of causing long term damage.

Living in peace and harmony with visiting parent

We have a rich and blessed culture in Africa, and like any other cultures of the world some part of our culture negate Biblical principles (especially if we profess Christianity), and we have to make a clear choice what to do when faced with such conflict between the culture we were raised in and Biblical principles that we chose to believe.

The Bible clearly points to the fact that a man (include woman: Ish-Shah) shall leave his father and mother and be cleave to his wife and they shall become one, the loyalty of a husband automatically switch to his immediate family (wife and children) the day he gets married and the parents and siblings become secondary. The advice of parents becomes that “an advice” and decisions should be made with the wife’s opinion weighing more than what your parent desire. African women in Diaspora also need to know that your mom is not more important than your husband or his mom in your home.

Clear boundary of respect should be drawn so that our spouses do not disrespect our parent even as we protect such spouse from our parent or the prevalent culture.

It is important to explain to your parent before they visit what the dynamic of your home is, so that they do not have unrealistic expectations during the visit. In my case I spoke with my mom about my wife and spoke with my wife about my mom, they are both alike (both first born aggressive female) and it wasn’t until the visits that what I said to both of them made sense to either of them. After a couple of visits, I had to set a rule to save me from going nuts. I refused to talk to my mom about the negatives of my wife and also refused to talk about the negatives of my mom (it was tough accepting that my mom had negatives – she is my spiritual superhero) with my wife, except the three of us were present.

While explaining the dynamics of your lifestyle in America, Canada, Australia or Europe, they might not understand (especially before the first visit), but do it anyway, it will be beneficial for them and yourself later on.

Staying alone at home with children without adult conversation all day could be a big challenge for someone who is used to being the mother or elder of everyone in the neighborhood, or being the deacon or deaconess in church with responsibilities, my suggestion would be to look for an African based church where the visiting parent can interact in her/his local language and his/her experience or expertise put into use. The best time my mom has had in the US was when she helped coordinate the women and prayer group in the branch of her church in the state we lived then, they in-turn gave her a plague that she still cherishes (her pastor in Nigeria actually presented the plague to her formally on her return in front of the congregation).

Communication they say is the key but the how of communication is also very important, when there is an unpleasant thing to share with a visiting parent, the child of that parent need to do the talking (except in cases where the in-law relationship is superb). For instance, if the visiting parent is getting in your way with child discipline and you both don’t want it, then both of you need to agree and the child of that parent should call the parent and respectfully tell him or her not to undermine their instructions in front of the kids, that his/her advice is appreciated but it should be given to you and he/she should not change your instructions already given to the children. If a parent refuses and continues, then that parent does not want to come back or he/she is ready to leave your home.

As soon as the visiting parent arrive in your home, it is important to take him/her around the house and make him/her feel at home, it is important to let them know where they can and cannot go (I’ve had to talk to a guy about his father’s habit of using the master bathroom/toilet, and not the guest bathroom/toilet). The woman of the house should specifically invite her mother-in-law into her kitchen and tell her to feel free (if that is what you want). Also, never let your visiting parent ask for money, make it a habit of giving them allowance either weekly or monthly as you can afford it (they’ll want to give money in church, buy things for their grandchildren or just have money in their possession), be firm on what you and your wife or husband can afford and avoid situations where the two of you butt heads because of demands from a visiting parent.
Visiting parents are often in dilemma when the marriage of their son or daughter is going through a tough patch when they are visiting, it would be a disaster if as a parent you take side with your daughter or son, my suggestion is to remain neutral as much as you can and encourage them to get help with their pastor, professionals, and if they are not, solicit the help of their best friend to get them the help needed.

As I conclude this article, it is important that I mention again that the relationship of the husband and wife should supercede that of son and mother (as tough as that can be), the relationship of the nuclear family should super-cede the relationship with siblings, so when there is problem, there is a principle to work on. At the same time disrespect from your spouse to your parent is also a NO NO (you can define disrespect between each other).

In fifteen years of marriage, I have learnt a valuable lesson, when Ola and I were both looking out for each other’s interest there was resentment on both side (and lots of fights) but when the focus shifted, we have become the best advocate of each other’s family.

May God help us all as we navigate through this uncultivated new ground.