Is there truth in perceptions about paternal and maternal relatives?

Is there truth in perceptions about paternal and maternal relatives?

By Kenyatta Otieno


ast year I came across a post in a popular Facebook Group that got me asking questions about interactions between families on the paternal lineage. The post implied that paternal relatives are mostly evil, unlike maternal relatives who are often loving and supportive. Almost everyone who commented on it agreed with it and some even went ahead to give examples how paternal relatives had let them down. It was a roll of paternal relatives bashing with tangible toxicity. 

I did not agree with it. 

Famous Igbo novelist Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart: “It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland.”

Most African societies are patrilineal where a child takes the father’s heritage. In Kenya only Kikuyus are known to be matrilineal but, functionally, they are patrilineal. Chinua Achebe captured it well in the quote above. He explains the posture of the two sides of the family in Africa. It is true that in difficult times, your father’s relatives may not come through, but why?

In parenting, the mother tends to take primary nurturing role. In this role, she is the primary caregiver and influences a child’s emotional well-being. This brings a sense of security, familiarity, and comfort to the child. However in most cases, the father usually gives a cover that is more ‘spiritual’ but with physical touch. This involves physical protection and provision. This means that the father’s role is more on oversight, removed and more often he is contact with the mother and not the children. 

Assael Romanelli (PhD) wrote an article – Are You the Upstairs or the Downstairs Parent? in Psychology Today; in it, he outlines a mothers role as the de-facto ground floor parent. He emphasizes that it is the downstairs parent who has an upper hand in most of the parenting decisions. It is their narrative that carries the day and their beliefs and even legacies that will be internalized by the children. 

Mothers meet a child’s immediate needs, breast milk, food comfort and encouragement. Men look into the long term benefit of the family. You want a certain food, but is it necessary now? A father is more concerned with dos and don’ts and even punishments which may raise internal conflicts in a child. On the other hand, if you take away the provision element in families, most men get lost. Their voice and opinion disappear as they recline into their own world. Unfortunately for most men when their energy dwindles, their parental insights even when true or helpful are often taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.


That background shows us the magnitude of maternal soft power. However, we all have maternal and paternal relatives. My maternal relatives are paternal relatives to their other cousins. How does this set of cousins look at my side favorably but are unpalatable to their paternal cousins? The separator is expectations. There is a high expectation on paternal side compared to maternal side. The father’s role of provision of physical needs is the same expectation carried to his side of relatives. The truth is fathers and their relatives more often than not fall short to this expectation. A father will pay school fees and give some pocket money but the child will appreciate the food and less pocket money from the mother during visiting day at school. 

In Luo culture, the only expectation you have on your maternal uncle is fried eggs, not chicken. If your uncle makes you chicken or gives you a live one to carry back home, then he has exceeded expectations. Meanwhile, there is competing interest on the paternal side due to the expectations of provision and inheritance.  This breeds envy and rivalry is inevitable. 

Paternal relatives are always on your face because we live with them literally or subconsciously, and believe we are tied to them. Maternal relatives, on the other hand, are visited once in a while. Familiarity ultimately will breed contempt in paternal side of the family. Men are also not good at relationships. Brothers seldom have tight friendships like sisters will often have and they will always have sizing and competition undercurrents. Even when the relationship between brothers is cordial, they will not meet regularly especially if there is no agenda on the table. This means that if their wives are not friends then their children will be spending more time with their mothers and her side of relatives.

On the other side, sisters tend to be relational so maternal relatives are bound to fall in line. The uncles may be domiciled in one place but aunties are scattered all over but they tend to be close. Visits and meetings are pre-planned which gives people the benefit of putting their best foot forward. People will depart before stepping on each other’s feet.  

The glue of paternal side of the family is supposed to be the women married there. They come from diverse backgrounds and usually pigeon hole their in-laws even before knowing them well. All this happens when the men are providing beyond their immediate families, oblivious to the fact that his relatives have been labeled. The labeling is often in the high expectations put on paternal relatives especially if they are viewed as economically endowed. 

The other destroyers of the little good that might exist are polygamy and a mother being widowed while her children are still young. This is where most of bile is bred but it is not a lost course. I know someone who returned to his father’s family, a father he did not burry because of the conflict that arose before he was buried.

Relationships are work, even with your own children. Paternal relatives are not evil, more is always at stake, we also tend to have a high expectation on them and more often we go to them with a formed opinion. Pulling back the negative perception takes more of courage and emotional fortitude. The walls must be brought down before meaningful engagement can be built and someone has to make the first step. This is a big challenge for our “cut off all the toxic people and self-love” generation. This is something the fathers must do then get more engaged. We are not relational but it is something we must do to for the sake of our legacy.  

“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies” – Desmond Tutu. (

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