Set in the politically explosive Nigeria of the 1980s, breakout novelist Ayobami Adebayo's deceptively slender debut, Stay With Me, focuses on the marriage of Yejide and Akin — a young, middle-class couple who have sworn off their culture's polygamous traditions and are ready to start a family of their own.
As the years pass, with no pregnancies to appease their bewildered relatives, Akin and Yejide's devotion begins to fray. And after her partner reluctantly takes a second wife, Yejide is left to carry the shame of her supposed barrenness alone beneath the gaze of exasperated friends and in-laws. A story told alternating between husband and wife, Stay With Me knits together all the wistful, enchanting mythologies its characters build to survive, or even explain, the unbearable ache of their childlessness. The result is an emotional weave of betrayal, resentment, and enduring love as courageously honest as it is generously told.
Stay With Me is a stunning book, not least because it comes from a writer so young; Adebayo's just 29 years old. Yet while we tend to label infertility as exclusively impacting older couples, reproductive challenges touch aspiring parents of all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 in the United States have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. And 11% of married women under the age of 29 will also face difficulty having kids.
Adebayo's investment in shedding light on infertility sprang from her confrontations with a similarly invisible disorder. Sickle cell disease, a genetic illness that affects 100,000 Nigerian babies every year, becomes a spectral presence for Adebayo's characters, haunting Yejide's desire for motherhood and slowly unraveling the secrets lurking in her marriage. Like the unspoken grief endured by young women trying to conceive, sickle cell represents an insidious crisis hidden deep in the chemistry of cellular inheritances.
"I began to research the disease because I wanted t0 understand this thing that had been such a big part of [my friends'] lives before it eventually killed them," Adebayo explains. "I also happen to carry the sickle cell gene although I don't have the disease. The implication is that if I have children with someone who also has the gene, our children could have sickle cell disease. So, I read a lot about the disease while I was in my early 20s, and that seeped into a number of projects I was working on at the time, including Stay With Me."
A former student of Margaret Atwood's, Adebayo is no stranger to thinking about the harrowingly precise methods societies have developed to control women — their bodies, their histories, their lineages. In Stay With Me, Yejide's childlessness warps to a calamity plaguing her entire community, earning her the invasive "help" of everyone from ecstatic mountaintop mystics to a zealously cruel mother-in-law. And though the book clearly meditates on many of the same anxieties pushed to terrifying extremes in The Handmaid's Tale, Adebayo's real artistry comes through in her subtle staging of the deteriorating communication between the partners at the center of the story. These unarticulated pains — the isolation of longing, the knowledge of disaster stealthily woven into strands of DNA — slowly erode their bonds of trust. What's left, Adebayo reveals, are the resilient little fictions we tell ourselves to make sense of unfathomable tragedy.
They are both afraid, though for very different reasons.
"I come from a part of Nigeria where a lot of value is placed on implicit communication," Adebayo says. "The 'well brought up' child is the one who can pick up nonverbal cues from adults and interpret them correctly. I think this primed me to be particularly interested in what is left unsaid, to always be conscious of the layers that lie beneath social interactions. With Stay With Me, it was interesting to explore the impact and implications of Yejide and Akin's inability to confront certain issues because they are both afraid, though for very different reasons."
At its core, Stay With Me resonates as a rich collage of quiet storytelling — the lies Yejide and Akin use against one another to hide their guilt, the brave faces they're forced to maintain and the fairytales they likewise cling to. But Adebayo proves that their devotion, coarsened by the heartbreak of the most private crisis made excruciatingly public, never truly wavers. Instead, her characters give a uniquely empathetic voice to the messy and imprecise ways young couples grapple with fertility struggles, pulling them out of the darkness and showing us their disillusionment, their unspeakable pain, and, ultimately, their thirst for hope.
"If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break," Akin observes as he watches his marriage slowly crumble. "But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love."
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.