“Falasha, she has no idea what our relationship is about.”
“I do understand. I know your story.”
These quotes are from a conversation with a couple on the show “Family or Fiancé” on the Own Network. It’s a reality TV show in which engaged couples try to get members of their family to agree or “give their blessing” to the marriage. In this episode Chris, a Ghanian-American, is struggling to convince his mother to allow him to marry Falasha, his African-American fiancé.
As I watched this episode I saw two different story lines emerge. One was the main story of the resistant Ghanian mother in law to be. Another was of the cultural misunderstandings that presented itself that were missed as editors focused on the main narrative.
Before I describe some of the things I noticed, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am an Igbo woman with an Efik mother born & raised in the States.** So I don’t know Ghanian culture like I know Nigerian culture. But the experience of growing up with this mix of cultures allows me to pick up on certain things which I explain here. I don’t expect to have all the answers but I hope to bring up some important questions.
So in this clip Falasha complains that Chris is a “mama’s boy”. In the American culture a “mama’s boy” is a man who doesn’t have a mind of his own but is instead ruled by his mother who dictates his every move. This phenomenon is recognized in several cultures but “mama’s boy” is the only name I know to describe it.
But is he really a “mama’s boy” because he needs his mother’s approval for marriage?
It could be that he is; we, the general public, do not know. But it is a good question to ask. In several West African traditions the parental approval of a marriage is very important. A breakup over a parents disapproval doesn’t occur all the time but is not surprising for a person to say that he/she could not marry without parental approval. That is because disfavor in the context of the family dynamics within the culture may make it difficult for the marriage to be successful. Chris may have hinted at the importance of his mother’s blessing within his culture when he tells his mother later in the show, “I’m fighting for your blessing and you’re like holding it over my head. Because we both know how powerful that blessing is.”
“Marriage is maturity and responsibility. I know my son so I think he is not ready yet.” –Chris’ mother
“Chris’ mother –if she loves her son the way she says loves him she would give her blessing even though she don’t think Chris is ‘mature’ enough. [Falasha] makes Chris happy. Chris makes [Falasha] happy–that should be it. ” — Falasha’s mother
I have noticed from my observations that marriages in the US have an independence that doesn’t exist in some African traditions. Now, is true that the family is involved in American marriages. In American tradition if a man wants to marry his girlfriend, he may formally ask her father for permission before he makes the wedding proposal. Also in the parents have a role to play in the actual wedding ceremony. It is also true that a disapproving mother-in- law can make an American marriage very difficult. However there may be additional disadvantages for the disfavored spouse in African cultures that function along strong family ties.
Just look at the traditional marriage ceremonies. For example in the marriage ceremony of several Nigerian ethic groups, the heads of the family must be present and the couple’s parents must perform important activities for the ceremony to be considered culturally legitimate. One may be legally married without this ceremony but the family can choose to ignore the relationship. This means that the family can withhold all of the social & economic support and privileges expected to be given to a spouse without fear of reprimand from the community.
In America all you really need for a marriage to be considered culturally legitimate to the community is the fiancé, a priest or justice of the peace and a witness. Whatever the head of the family thinks is irrelevant. “You’re grown”, they will say. “Do what you want.” (Although most American mothers will still be upset if their kids eloped.)
But that is not to say that young Africans will always yield to their parents disapproval. You can see this in the debate about parental approval for marriage in this shared video from the Ndani You Tube channel.
From the video it seems like there is a mix of opinions. Some would try to convince their parents to approve of the fiancé while others would just marry without their parents approval. A few people would just break off the engagement and try to find someone else. It is interesting that each had their own compelling reasons to make that choice.
So in light of all this let’s go back to the question about Chris & Falasha. Is it wrong for Chris to need his mother’s approval for his marriage? Does his hesitation show that he is wise in considering the obstacles within his culture or is it a sign of immaturity?
I am not sure because it is complicated. The show doesn’t discuss the pressures and expectations placed on Chris by his Ghanian culture which is a part of him. On the other hand, Chris has to live his own life and make decisions that are best for him.
At the end of the show, his mother gave the couple her blessing and it was a happy ending. But that doesn’t happen with everybody. So whenever you see an adult child of African immigrants lament that his family is against his potential marriage listen before you make a judgement. There may be more to the story than you think.
Did you see this episode of Family & Fiancé? What would you do if you where in this kind of situation?
**In my culture the children claim the father’s ethnicity. I also have a few Ibibio and Yoruba relatives but the breadth of my family tree would be too much to mention here.