For those who might not know, Omugwo is the word that defines the period when a mother, mother-in-law, aunt, or other older female relative, comes to help a new mother after she has given birth. It is considered a thing of pride to most, especially Moms, and daughters also dream of such a time when they will get some relief. In an ideal world, it is the most beautiful process of, not only giving much needed assistance and support, but also passing on vital parenting knowledge or information. But alas, we live in anything but an ideal world. As beautiful and symbolic as this process is, sometimes, it can disastrously wrong!
Let’s start with the typical scenario of mothers and daughters who do get along. Yes, the teenage years are extremely precarious for this duo, but the odds are high that by the time the daughters are married and/or are of child bearing age, all daggers would have been sheathed, relationships mended, and deep bonds formed. So yes, we are talking of the mother and daughter who have a great relationship. So, Mom arrives a few days or weeks before, or after, the birth of the baby. At first, it is all peaches and cream. Daughter relishes being spoilt by the person who knows her best, and enjoys being able to catch some precious sleep while Mom watches the baby, and supervises other domestic activities. Mom, on the other hand, is loving bonding with her new grandchild, and, of course, attending to her original baby. Everything is fine in their world…till the criticisms starts. “You need to hold the baby’s head like this” “Please enough of the feeding bottle! What she needs is breast milk!!!” “Why are you drinking cold water??! Don’t you want your stomach to go down??!” “What do you mean you don’t want to drink ogi?! You want your breast milk to dry up, abi?!!” From experience, I can tell you that this nagging is enough to drive one CRAZY, and almost always leads to at least one shouting match between mother and daughter. But this is quite normal, and after a few hours, days at the worst, mother and daughter are back to loving each other again. This is the good case of omugwo.
However, when the mother and daughter do not have a good relationship history, this is where it can get tricky! You’re already tiptoeing around each other on any given day, and when you throw in the new baby, it can sometimes further fray an already weak thread. For as long as I’ve known a friend of mine, Chinwe*, she always talked about the fact that she wasn’t close to her Mother. Everyone who knew her knew that. Her parents had divorced when she was a teenager, and she and her siblings had been raised by their Dad and Stepmother, whilst their Mom moved to the UK to work as a nurse. Some of her younger siblings had been able to maintain a good relationship with their mother, but Chinwe just couldn’t connect with this stranger she only got to see once a year. When she moved to the UK to pursue a postgraduate degree, she lived with her Mother briefly, but their personalities clashed so often that she quickly raised enough cash to secure hostel accommodation. Fast forward a few years later, when she got married and had a baby. Without even asking questions, her Mother had shown up, bags in tow, for the expected omugwo. Truth be told, they both gave it their best shot. They tried to keep their strong personalities in check, and did everything they could not to get into disagreements or altercations. But the sad truth was that they were stark strangers. They were constantly moving around each other awkwardly, and just never seemed to be in sync. When the baby was asleep, instead of catching up on gist and those wonderful mother-daughter chats, they would sit in cold silence. You could cut the tension with a knife! After an unbearable first month, much to her relief, her Mom finally left. When she had her second baby, after the perfunctionary telephone greeting, her Mom had not bothered this time around. Instead, it was her Step Mother, whom she considered more of a mother, that performed the omugwo function.
As sad as that situation was, for me, the worst case of omugwo happens when there is already friction in the home, before Mom gets there. When things are awry between husband and wife, the presence of a not-so-neutral party can throw conditions into a tailspin! Ruth* and Diran* had an understanding. They had been married for 4 years before their son came, and Ruth had gotten used to Diran’s sometimes domineering and bossy attitude. He was a fantastic man in general, but was very used to having his own way. She had learnt how to ignore him when he got difficult, and knew exactly how to calm him afterwards. A few weeks after their baby was born, Ruth was catching a nap in their living room, after hours of trying to put the baby to sleep. She was awoken by a hungry Diran, asking for his dinner. As he got increasingly cranky and edgy, Ruth called out for the house help, and shut her eyes to blank out his tantrum. She knew him well enough to know he would calm down soon. Alas, Mama Ruth didn’t know that. The next thing they knew, the older woman had charged into the living room, throwing all sorts of insults at Diran, for daring to boss her daughter around in her condition. Before Ruth knew what was happening, Diran had thrown back some choice words at her Mom, and soon, a full scale verbal battle was raging. Ruth tried in vain to diffuse the situation, to no avail. As quick as lightning, her Mother grabbed Diran’s shirt by the collar, and in his struggle to pull away, the shirt had torn. To cut a long story short, a few hours later, Ruth’s Dad and Diran’s parents were in their house, trying to resolve the sticky situation…but this wasn’t to be, as soon both fathers were also exchanging words. Ruth and her baby were bundled out of the house that night, and it took months for any reconciliation to be reached.
Omugwo can be really tricky indeed! But there are some ways in which it can work! My Mother spent a whole year with me, and, despite the inevitable bickering and irritation once in a while, I loved having her, and was saddened when she left. We were able to make a success of our situation by ensuring that, regardless of how irritated one person made the other feel, there was always mutual respect, love, and appreciation! At any given time, I made her know much I appreciated having her help me, and she, in turn, was always full of praise for me for every triumph I had, or milestone I reached. And, very critically, we had boundaries! Despite how much we told her to sit down and chat, after a few minutes of hanging out with my husband and I, my Mom would always retreat to her bedroom to give us some alone time. Whenever my husband and I got into an argument, and she happened to be within earshot, she would literally sneak away like a mouse, so she could be far away from any such incident. She never interfered in any disagreements or arguments we had, and the one time he tried to pull her into one (by reporting something I had done), she had found a way to diplomatically wriggle out of it. And lastly, even though she came to my house with her own wealth of experience, she respected the fact that it was my home, and didn’t try to change any of my processes or routines. And that way, we were able to have a wonderful arrangement for the entire year that she spent with me, and beyond!
My advice to all Mothers-to-be is to be patient with your Mom (or any other person who comes in her place), and appreciate the time she is dedicating to help you. In turn, Mothers (or their proxies) should keep in mind the primary purpose for which they are there, without veering off course into areas that are of no concern to them!
I hope this helps! Good luck everyone!