You’re All I Need

I happened to be reading Stay with Me Mother’s Day weekend, which was interesting timing as the book chronicles the pressure and pain of trying to become a mother. I have friends who are currently mothers (some through careful planning and some by accident), friends who recently gave birth or are currently pregnant, friends who are struggling to conceive, and friends who don’t know if they want children. Then, there’s me — someone who’s known since college that she did not want to be a mother.

I get very frustrated on the topic of motherhood because, while there’s so much damn pressure to become one regardless of how difficult it may be for someone, society certainly doesn’t support women once they become mothers. Women are expected to have it all and to be everything all at once. The expectations are incredibly illogical and unjust. So even though I personally don’t want to a mother, I get fired up for all my female friends and family suffering from impossible expectations and challenges.

These thoughts stayed with me while reading Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel, which makes profound statements about the various struggles of motherhood. I can’t say that I absolutely loved this book, but I was captivated by everything it had to say and the cultural context in which it made its statements. And if you were wondering, yes, the hypocrisy and criticism that the main character faces definitely evoked some angry emotions from me.

“I had been dangled from the edge of a precipice and I was now so weary that I wanted to be dropped.”

Stay with Me

Yejide and Akin fell madly in love at a young age while she was still in university. Although many of their family and friends in Nigeria expect polygamy for them — as is common in their culture during the 1980s — Yejide and Akin have agreed that it’s not for them. (It’s worth noting that polygamy would only be one-sided, and you can guess which side that is.) After four years of marriage, though, they struggle to conceive. They’ve visited fertility specialists and healers. Yejide has tried different foods and liquids. She even climbs a mountain while carrying a goat in search of a man who promises that one look at her will conceive a child.

Yejide is desperate. The pressure from both their families is ever climbing for them to have a child, and her anxiety reaches its peak when they arrive at Yejide and Akin’s home with a woman who they claim is Akin’s second — and younger — wife. Jealous, frantic, and angry, Yejide knows she must go to any length to get pregnant, which she finally does, but at a cost that may finally destroy her marriage to Akin, as well as her own emotional wellbeing. And she does so all while Akin stows away his own dark secrets.

As you can imagine, Yejide faces a tormenting plight that represents the numerous injustices women face every day. And her experience will illicit feelings of anger because even if you haven’t dealt with the many issues Yejide has, someone close to you has. The fact that both her family and Akin’s constantly pressure her to have a child is difficult enough. For one thing, it’s absolutely none of their business. And even though they pressure Akin too, it’s certainly more directed to Yejide as if their infertility is her fault. Further, the families aren’t wanting a child for the sake of celebrating a new life; they insist a child be born simply to preserve Akin’s lineage. And all of this occurs before the baby is born. We know the struggles mothers face during and after birth.

This theme of extreme sexism permeates the entire novel. It would be easy — and xenophobic — to say these attitudes and actions represent a different time and a different culture. They exist everywhere no matter how hard women have tried to prevent someone else writing their narrative, and that intensifies your feelings as a reader.

The anger and frustration that you feel through Yejide eventually change to sympathy and empathy when her desperation, which turns to hysterics, reaches its highest point. It’s tough to read Yejide make poor and dangerous decisions and sacrifice herself for the sake of her marriage and to satisfy those around her. Yes, she’s always wanted to be a mother, but that desire becomes amplified because of other people’s desires and expectations.

“The past flipped itself open like a spooky family album, revealing one familiar picture after the other, highlighting the things standing in plain view, which I had never seen. Things I had refused to see.”

Stay with Me

As a reader, your deep connection with and empathy toward the main character represents the strongest qualities of Stay with Me. Any time you can connect with a character or have prominent feelings while reading a book, you know you have something special in your hands.

This book is special, but its strengths are muted by a lack of exposition. At many points throughout the book, I had to reread sentences or go back in the book to try to understand something because of poor explanation. Sometimes I never got that clarity, which created an annoying confusion that I couldn’t shake. Adding to it was the story’s chronology, which didn’t always line up. Stay with Me is another book that’s short on the pages and short on the clarity for many reasons. Had it been a bit longer, I’m confident the narrative’s fog would have lifted.

I also anticipated more cultural context for the book. It certainly alludes to political and social issues arising during the book’s setting, and Nigeria’s upheaval at this time is mentioned. Because of that, I expected it to come to a head more prominently than it did or to have some explanation for why it was being mentioned and why it mattered. If Adébáyọ̀ made that connection, it wasn’t explained clearly enough for me to understand it.

Lizzie Skurnick from NPR perceived what I did not.

“The most subtly brilliant aspect of Stay With Me is how this stunning literary work serves as both astute political commentary and unfolding mystery,” she writes. “Adébáyọ̀ draws a clear parallel between the couple and the country: like Nigeria’s middle class, quiescent in the face of political upheaval, Akin and Yejide keep accepting the unthinkable to keep their family intact.”

Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge about Nigeria in the 1980s or my white privilege, but even in retrospect, I still don’t see what Skurnick does. This affected my experience with the novel.

As I mentioned above, a reader’s own feelings that arise while reading a particular book say something about that book — both good and bad. Unfortunately, I got a bit of both with Stay with Me. What started out as strong feelings of anger and sympathy were clouded by confusion and a desire for clarity that I never received. This novel touches on sexism, motherhood, family, loss, and cultural taboos, which are all something I very much wanted to read about. I still enjoyed those aspects of the book, but sadly they didn’t sustain me due to contextual issues that I just couldn’t overcome.

“But I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us and reveal to us the better versions of ourselves.”

Stay with Me

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