Stay With Me is a novel by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ about a married Nigerian couple, Yejide and Akin, who experience ups and downs while trying to conceive and raise children. The couple previously agreed to pass on some of their culture’s traditions in favor of having a more modern marriage. But after four years of marriage and no children, their families assume that they are infertile and pressure Akin to take a second wife. Feeling obligated to their families’ expectations, they sacrifice their desires and put their marriage at risk to please their elders.
Disclaimer: in discussing the practice of polygamy my intent is not to disparage the cultural practices of other people. I’m not Nigerian and I’m not an expert on the topic of polygamy but it plays a major role in the story of Stay With Me and thus I discuss it within the context of the book. I take the practice as being more of a generational issue rather than a cultural difference as Yejide and Akin also initially decide that polygamy is not for them. Though they adopt the practice to humor their family members which results in all kinds of drama.
Stay With Me begins in the present where Yejide has left Akin and built a new life for herself in a different town. She has formed new friendships and dated other men. But, while these people know some, they don’t know everything about her. The relationships she has created aren’t deep enough for her to miss anyone and she will likely forget many. There was a time many years before when she was still young, naive, and willing to open her heart to anyone willing to love her in return. Life experiences have changed Yejide causing her to close the more intimate parts of herself to the world, unwilling to be hurt again.
Yejide and Akin are estranged and have lived apart for several years. When Akin’s father has passes away he decides to invite Yejide to the funeral in hopes of clearing the air and putting the past behind them. The funeral also offers an opportunity for him to take stock of his relationship with his family members and their relationships with each other.
He believes that his parents likely never loved each other and only kept up appearances until he and his siblings left home. Akin’s mother had a lot of pent up resentment which she then gave free-rein. By that point, his father was an old man who was worn out from trying to keep up with four wives who were likely quite younger than him. There’s a tendency to present a face of happiness while being miserable on the inside. And the older family members burden Yejide and Akin with the expectation for them to follow in their footsteps.
Yejide thinks back to her marriage to Akin and the hardships they endured as a young couple struggling with infertility. Akin seems to be stable and dependable which are important traits to Yejide. She seeks security and more accurately, the warmth and comfort of a family of her own. Having lost her mother at birth and growing up ostracised by her father’s wives she had a deep feeling of loneliness. Akin doesn’t share his family’s traditional beliefs but goes along with their plans out of a sense of familial obligation. He sides with Yejide when they’re alone together but follows tradition when their family members are around. It’s unclear what Akin wants for himself as he often speaks in terms of doing things because it’s what someone else wants.
There’s a simple situation early in Stay With Me that foreshadows the serious problems that will develop in Yejide’s and Akin’s relationship. The couple has a disagreement regarding sleep and lighting in their bedroom. Akin tries to find a solution and purchases a lamp for Yejide but does so without any discussion. It’s a minor matter but points to Akin coming up with solutions to problems in their relationship on his own and just springing it on Yejide assuming that she’ll agree or just adjust. He doesn’t have conversations with her about the initial problem or his proposed solution. And he tends to brush off Yejide’s concerns. Often refusing to have serious conversations about problems, preferring to ignore them for as long as possible in hopes they’ll go away.
There’s a lot of importance and self-value placed on being a mother as it’s a large part of the women’s identities. Yejide wants that for herself because it’s expected of her as a woman and especially because she never had a mother of her own.
According to their families, Yejide’s role as a wife is to provide Akin with children who will one day be obligated to him as well. By failing to become pregnant, she is viewed as failing as a wife. She is not just shamed by members of Akin’s family, but some are fairly hostile towards her though passive-aggressively so. It’s surprising that while the couple is pressured to have children, the families seem to focus their disappointment and disdain on Yejide. She explains how fond she’s become of Akin’s mother seeing her in some ways as the mother she never knew. But I was caught off guard by how cold and callous she became as a result of Yejide and Akin not having children.
Throughout Stay With Me, there is a push and pull between modern and traditional values. The finer details might just apply to Nigerian culture but the broader customs and expectations would be relevant in many cultures. It’s worth noting that some of the story takes place in the present when Akin and Yejide are looking back over their lives. Much of the drama surrounding their fertility issues take place when society and culture were going through major changes and shifts. But Yejide and Akin are members of a transitional generation.
I thought it was crazy that Yejide was viewed as selfish for not pushing her husband to take more interest in his second wife. She is told that because she has yet to become pregnant, she should push Akin away so he can try with Funmi. The couple’s infertility is viewed as a valid reason for him to sleep with other women. But there’s no thought given to Yejide seeking comfort with another man given the lack of emotional support she gets from her husband.
Both Yejide’s and Akin’s fathers had multiple wives and the women have these petty rivalries where the children are used as part of their competition. There’s this idea expressed multiple times that women have hard lives because they must struggle and sacrifice for their children. The older women are miserable and jealous of their husband’s other wives. But misery loves company so they pressure Yejide to accept Akin having a second wife.
Seemingly everyone’s happiness is to be sacrificed for Akin to have descendants as his children will be a testament to his life when he dies. Yet when Yejide’s and Akin’s fathers die few of the family members seem to care. Their fathers came across as being fairly distant from the kids and their funerals are more focused on traditions and expectations than celebrations of these men’s lives or any true grief.
Akin explains that he was immediately attracted to Yejide by her elegant bearing. She’s described as being pretty but Akin seems more drawn to her being impressive. It feels like less of a regular physical attraction and more along the lines that she would look good on his arm. Yejide is also immediately taken with Akin but her attraction sounds more physical and later deepens as she finds that he feels safe, stable, and is a good listener.
Stay With Me goes back and forth between their perspectives but it felt like you got a bit more of Yejide’s perspective. From the beginning, she speaks openly about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences. There are also chapters from Akin early in the book but they felt shallow and distant. He doesn’t share his inner thoughts or feelings until far into the book when things are falling apart and he’s kind of backed into a corner.
Akin thinks back to them dating in college and coming to see Yejide as his soul mate because they share most of the same views with regard to their hopes for the future. Yejide mentions that she clings to Akin because she has no one else who would care if she ever went missing. But then a story is told of how they once attended a demonstration that erupted in violence. Akin took off running without checking to see if Yejide was with him and didn’t think about her until he got to safety and realized that he’d abandoned her. It turns out that she’s fine. But the reality is that in a difficult moment he thought about himself and left her behind. This is a recurring issue throughout Stay With Me.
After four years of marriage but no children, Akin caves under pressure from his family and takes a second wife, Funmi. Instead of moving Funmi into the house he shares with Yejide he provides her with an apartment on the other side of town along with an allowance. He is now expected to split his time and attention between the wives and their households in hopes that one or both of them will become pregnant.
This is the issue that I take with the concept of men trying to juggle multiple women. Most men have a hard time making one woman happy and maintaining a relationship with her. How well are you going to do with two or more? That’s why so much of the focus is on how multiple women fulfill the one man but not how that one man likely isn’t meeting the needs of the multiple women. And that’s when you run the risk of the women deciding they no longer want to share and either pushing for more of the man’s time or deciding that he’s not worth the hassle and giving him up completely.
Yejide loves Akin and wants to be with him. But she knows that without providing him with children, her position in his life is in jeopardy. For the time being she is expected to share him with Funmi. But if Funmi becomes pregnant first, she runs the risk of being pushed aside. Yejide and Akin are comfortably middle class with him being an accountant and her owning a successful beauty salon. And here is the kicker: they both contribute to their household bills but Funmi doesn’t work so Akin provides for her.
And then predictably, Akin flies into a jealous rage at the mere thought of the possibility of Yejide being interested in anyone else. This man has a whole second wife with whom he spends quite a bit of his free time. He leaves Yejide by herself to figure out what to do about their fertility issues. They’ve been tested and both are normal but because of sexism, everyone blames Yejide for the couple’s lack of children. Akin only intervenes when the pressure begins to take a toll on her mental health.
Part of why Yejide places so much importance on having children is that growing up her father had several wives and 24 children. With Funmi in the picture, Yejide has to share Akin. Having a child would allow her to replace Akin’s presence in her life with a family member she can have to herself.
Their infertility leads to the couple taking drastic measures but eventually Yejide becomes pregnant and gives birth. It should be a joyous occasion and on the surface it is. But so much has taken place by this point that there are hurt feelings on both sides that threaten the survival of the marriage. Even after Funmi is sidelined the problems continue to fester until they turn into resentment.
With time, reflection, and maturity, Yejide comes to realize that after all these years Akin is still a stranger to her. She’d told him about herself down to her deepest and darkest secrets and insecurities. And while he listened and comforted her, he was never quite willing to be as open about himself. He feels the need to hide his insecurities from Yejide which does more harm than good to their relationship. Pride and ego have been many a person’s downfall and the demise of many relationships.
In having started life with so little and still losing so much, Yejide tries to keep things together. But experiencing multiple personal tragedies becomes overbearing. To escape her sadness, she shifts more and more responsibility for their child onto Akin. She realizes that motherhood is not the cure-all for the loneliness she grew up feeling.
Akin too had once believed that having children would alleviate some of the unhappiness he felt but his perspective changed over the years. He felt emasculated by their infertility but was surprised to find joy and fulfillment in tending to his child in the manner that a mother usually would. In stepping out of the role of manhood he felt he had to play, he found a sense of usefulness that he didn’t know he was missing.
Here’s the thing, while I don’t believe in polygamy, I also don’t believe all relationships are meant to last for a lifetime. I believe in conditional love and if necessary divorce. A relationship requires both people to be committed to making it work and willing to put in the time. It can’t survive on only one person being open and willing to share their thoughts and feelings, especially if when they do so, the other person is dismissive.
While I’ve discussed some of Stay With Me’s major themes, I’ve made it a point not to go into details or include any spoilers. The book contains multiple twists and turns that I haven’t touched on at all. So don’t feel like you’ve gotten the full story here as I’ve left out a lot to allow you to read the book and still experience the same shocks that I did.
Stay With Me is just 274 pages. Usually I prefer longer books so there’s time for the characters to develop throughout the story. But this was jam-packed with plot twists and social commentary that make it a quick and engrossing read. The gift and the curse of this book are that I was left wanting more. I highly recommend the book and look forward to reading more from the author.
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