Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Being "THE" Mother-in-law | The Good, Bad and Ugly

A friend of mine delivered a baby boy. As the good news spread among friends and family, the congratulatory words started pouring in. Some wished the couple for becoming parents. Many expressed their joy and happiness that the couple was blessed with a “son”, and a few expressed their emotions by telling her “Congrats! You’re going to be “THE” Mother-In-Law”. When I first heard this, I laughed. And so did my friend. So “You’re going to be “THE” Mother-In-Law. Just what kind?” I asked her. “I don’t know what kind, but not the kind of my Mother-In-Law” she said. We laughed about it!

A couple of days later I met another acquaintance (who has a son of marriageable age) and I observed behavioral changes in her. She appeared to be more serious, grumpy-faced, and uptight – which is not her usual personality. During idle-chat I asked her if all was well. I gathered that she is preparing herself to play the part of a mother-in-law! “In our community the mother-in-law has to be a certain way, so I figured it made sense to start preparing to be that way” she said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Another good friend of mine recently became a mother-in-law. Soon after her son’s wedding, she lost her spouse. She was broken. Her son and (extended) family meant everything to her. And I know for a fact that she put a lot of effort to bond with her daughter-in-law. Unfortunately, it never happened and her daughter-in-law made every effort to maintain a distance. It hurt my friend deeply and she asked me “Is this about me? Or it is about my daughter-in-law? Why can’t my bahu understand that family is all that I have left, and the relation with my son means the world to me?” I did not know how to respond.

I had it tough, so I don’t want my daughter-in-law to have it easy. I’ll do whatever it takes to make her life tough” said one mother-in-law. And another wise old lady I know said “Don’t call her daughter-in-law. She is like my daughter. I will do everything in my capacity to love her, accept her and make her life beautiful”

I’ve also seen (up close and personal) "THE" mother-in-law publicly criticizing and condemning her daughter-in-law. No matter how good she is and what she is doing, the mother-in-law will find some fault – from the daughter-in-laws dress, to food, to habits , to style, to family, to upbringing, to education, to value system, to name, to personality, to skills, to communication, to expressions, etc.. It amazes me how some of these women can find always a point of critique , and be so vocal in their public expression of the same. Too many friends have been deeply affected (mentally / emotionally) by these rebukes. Many of them feel humiliated, insulted, hurt and deeply embarrassed that they lose their self-confidence or start believing these factoids to be true. For e.g: A very good looking friend of mine got married into a joint family set-up where the mother-in-law always told her “I don’t know what my son agreed to marry you. Your features are lousy. You are so fat, dark-skinned and don’t look appealing”. At first she ignored these comments. But when she heard them every day, she started believing it to be true. Her spouse was silent during these discussions. That only re-enforced this belief system. She became so negative and depressed that she even started avoiding social gatherings. Fortunately, her family / friends sensed something was amiss, and helped her tide through the phase.

Looking at my own friend’s network, I observe that almost all my married friends have been influenced in some way or the other by their mother-in-law. I mean if you are in India, marriage means marriage of two families. So your in-laws are bound to be an influence in your life – You cannot escape it! In some cases the influence has been positive and many married women are at a happy place – Like someone I know discovered her love for cooking through her mother-in-law, someone else was introduced to music and art because of her mother-in-law, someone has a fashion designer in her mother-in-law, some have found their philosopher and guide in the mother-in-law, some have a friend in the mother-in-law, some has a teacher / Guru in the mother-in-law. Such tales are far and few though!

In most instances there is some “negative” emotion from both ends – be it disappointment, bitterness, animosity, hurt, jealousy, insecurity, etc. – and I’ve seen these emotions in the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. Many times I wonder “Why?”. I mean a women should speak up, stand up and support another woman, but many times women tend to be each others “frenemies”.

Below reasons emerge as strong causes:   
  • Dealing with change in the family with the introduction of a new member – this means change in lifestyle, everyday routines, habits, priorities, interests and time. Everyone needs time to adjust and adapt
  • The “power equations” change – when the mother-in-law does not know how much power and control she will continue to exert on her son, and the daughter-in-law trying to exert her influence on her spouse / family
  • Fear of future, and need to set precedence today – The uncertainty of what the future will entail, and how everyone starts the relationship today will set the way for the future
  • Need for respect – one of the key aspects of marriage and relationships is the need to be respected. The thing about respect is that it needs to be earned. The other thing about respect is that its definition and manifestation is changing. So earlier, respect was a function of age. Respect meant you don’t question. Today, respect is really a function of how someone perceives you. And how they respect you is very personal to their value system – so it may feel right to the daughter-in-law to question age-old traditions which don’t seem logical or make sense.
  • The “Love” equation has more variables – There are indeed many types and ways to love. The mother’s love has its own defining characteristics, but so does the love between a couple. So the need to find a “love” equation with more variables, but yet balanced enough to keep things intact is important
As I sign-off, I leave with one parting thought | It takes effort from everyone to make a marriage work – the man, the woman, the mother-in-law. And the father-in-law plays a part too!

What do you think? Leave a comment to let me know…

First published on WomensWeb

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