Stay with Me

When four years into their marriage Akin and Yejide still have no children, pressure and accusations mount. Of course these are directed at Yejide because it can only be women who are to blame for childlessness. Her mother-in-law makes it clear that “women manufacture children and if you can’t, you are just a man”. The book sketches the lengths Yejide had to go to, to overcome her perceived barrenness. It shines a spotlight on how in African culture marriage and children are not a matter just between husband and wife, but of the whole family. As Yejide finds out, without children, a wife is ostracized and “othered”. She realizes that “…your family which, for a misguided period, I thought was also mine” has abandoned her corner.

If you were in any doubt about the position of women in marriage, Stay with Me will lay it bare for you. Adebayo asserts women’s pain (and harboring thereof) as the most consistent presence in relationships, especially marriage. In fact, I was left convinced that the deeper a woman’s capacity for pain, the more likely it is that the marriage will hold. Reminiscing on the life that she thought they would have, Yejide soon discovers that “if the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.”

Adebayo surfaces a nuanced angle to the role of women in society. She ditches the dominant narrative for a more complex position of motherhood. For her “…a woman can be a bad wife, but she can’t be a bad mother…”. So, motherhood is the role of woman, and wifehood is the means. But the end is children, who represent the continuity of a family, clan, and community. A mother has a specific title “Iya” (mother of) which ascribes status for her in the family and community. In The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives Lola Shoneyin reinforces this point. By having children, the three wives each earn themselves couches in the family lounge. Bolanle (who doesn’t have children) sits on the floor. In a sense, she doesn’t yet have “a defined place” in the Alao family.

As the first borne son, Akin represents his mother’s “beginning of strength”. So, his failure, is her failure. By not procreating, her own position in this polygamous family is threatened. As a first wife, it is through her son’s children that she can protect, entrench and affirm herself in the lineage, and perhaps begin to heal from her own anger and resentments. Desperate, she begs Yejide “to make sure our son leaves a child behind when he dies…I beg you don’t spoil my life”.

With this backdrop, Adebayo helps the reader to understand the treacherous emotional journey Yejide is willing travel in search of motherhood. Despite the pain of losing two young children, and the trauma of going through the ensuing harrowing rituals thereof nobody really pauses to check how SHE is doing. The focus is on her failure as a vessel to bear children that survive and carry on the family name. Assuming that her third baby would also die she consciously disengaged: “I had lost pieces of myself to Sesan and Olamide and I held myself back from Rotini because I wanted to have something left when she was gone.”

But in Stay with Me Adebayo also brings to our attention male hurt and pain. Akin loves his wife but he bows under the pressure of his family to take a second wife. He is torn between his mother and his wife. His humiliation and shame are palpable. But it is the “arrangement” with his brother, Dotum, that tears me apart. I was left unsure whether Akin was saving himself, his wife, or both. Could Akin perhaps be so selfish that he would be willing to compromise both his wife and brother? Or could he be so selfless that he is able to swallow his own pride to save his wife and mother? But, whatever his motivation, it is a courageous act.

Adebayo is a skillfully provocative writer. Expect to be emotionally drained by this book, especially if you are a woman. The storyline has twists and surprises that adeptly enunciate the untenable position of women in society.

Stay with Me is her debut novel and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I recommend the book to young couples and to anyone working on gender issues.