Book Club · Culture

Stay With Me: What is Motherhood Worth?

Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me follows the story of Yejide, a young hairdresser and wife in Nigeria, and her struggles to conceive a child.  When, to rectify the situation, her in-laws come to Yejide’s home one day with a new wife for her husband, Akin, her grief and anger reach new bounds. She thinks that the only way to keep her husband is to have a child.

Adebayo’s exploration of motherhood is one that is filled with pain and pressure. Though Yejide wishes to be a mother, reading the book I had to question what were her motivations for this. Coming from a family where she felt like she had no place, with a mother who died right after giving birth, and stepmothers who made her feel like she didn’t belong, an adult Yejide seems caught up in the fantasy of what motherhood could be, and how motherhood can change her life. When she thinks of having a baby, she thinks that she will “have someone all [her] own, [her] own family.”

Coming from a family where she felt like she had no place, with a mother who died right after giving birth, and stepmothers who made her feel like she didn’t belong, an adult Yejide seems caught up in the fantasy of what motherhood could be, and how motherhood can change her life.

Spoilers Ahead!

Her desperation pushes her to unprecedented bounds. Afraid of losing her husband to his new wife, Yejide becomes delusional, suffering from a phantom pregnancy. Despite her husband’s, and multiple doctors’, insistence that Yejide is not actually carrying a child, she is convinced that they are all wrong, and displays all the symptoms of a pregnancy. Including the lack of a period, and the swelling of her stomach.

When Yejide finally does become pregnant, it’s after an illicit sexual encounter with her brother-in-law. What follows is heartbreak after continued heartbreak for Yejide, as she loses both a son and a daughter. Disturbingly, her loss prompts those around her to reassurances that seem to regard her children as disposable, and replaceable. The same people who had previously regarded her with pity and resentment because of her inability to conceive, tell Yejide that she “will soon have another child,” and Yejide muses that “It was as if nobody would miss her [daughter]. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone – she did not really matter.”

It was as if nobody would miss her [daughter]. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone – she did not really matter.

After the death of her second child, Yejide’s mother-in-law suggests that he might have been a “malicious spirit child,” leading to the sickness and death of Yejide and Akin’s children. Once more, Yejide’s grief is pushed to the side, even by her husband. So when their third child – Rotimi – is born, Yejide is more distant, already aware that she will die of the same genetic disease that plagued her previous children.

Stay With Me is Yejide’s plea of desperation and loneliness. Throughout the novel, Yejide is constantly pleading for those in her life to stay with her. Whether it is her husband after his second marriage, her already-lost mother, or her children who are riddled with a disease that Yejide doesn’t understand. And while those around her are desperate to be included in Yejide’s life – her barrenness, her husband’s second wife, and even the joy of motherhood – they are incapable of letting her grieve her losses or even be a person in her own right. Yejide’s role for those around her seem rigid – she must be a mother. And that is the role that she desperate to fulfill throughout the book. She is, in fact, so intent on the idea that a child will bring her the happiness that she has always desired, has been promised by society itself, that she becomes blind to the happiness she has already acquired in life.

Stay With Me is Yejide’s plea of desperation and loneliness. Throughout the novel, Yejide is constantly pleading for those in her life to stay with her. Whether it is her husband after his second marriage, her already-lost mother, or her children who are riddled with a disease that Yejide doesn’t understand.

One of the most heartbreaking things about Stay With Me is that Yejide and Akin seem happy before the pressures of having children catch up to them. They’re two people who are undoubtedly in love with each other, and devoted to each other. Yejide, in many ways, finds in Akin someone who she has never had before – someone who she can trust and rely on. But their relationship exists on a precarious balance of societal expectations – expectations that push them to their breaking points, and eventually fractures their relationship beyond repair.

Stay With Me is a book that delves into exploring these damaging ideas of motherhood, and womanhood. Of exploring the idea that women have to be mothers at the cost of everything. Yejide’s struggles to become a mother do cost her everything in the end. It costs her a family, her husband, her happiness. It costs her two children, and unmitigated grief and pain. The book ends with a glimmer of hope as Yejide meets with Rotimi – the daughter she thought she had already lost. And the question we, as readers, are left to ask is, was it worth it in the end?

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