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Do we set up our girls to fail at their relationships with a parent-in-law with a social narrative of monsters-in-law who they can never reconcile with?
Last weekend, I was talking to an old acquaintance from work. After chatting about “How’s life” and “Did you catch that new movie,” our conversation drifted helplessly toward the territory women are chided for championing: life with your in-laws and its associated perils.
My acquaintance was describing how her in-laws’ house perpetually felt like a Big Boss set. She was constantly watched.
Interestingly, she said her MIL never made any comments in criticism of her actions. She had the freedom to do as she pleased, which included ordering in food whenever she fancied and waking up late on weekends. That seemed a reasonable enough arrangement.
“So, what makes you feel watched?”
“See, it’s like this. My mother-in-law never tells me not to wear jeans. I even wore a cocktail dress the other time when my husband and I went for dinner. But…”
There it was. The but.
“But somehow, I always feel uncomfortable when I wear something too Western in front of her. I can sense that she’s judging me.”
“Has she ever said anything about your dress choices? Scowled, made a face or expressed her displeasure non-verbally?”
“Um no…but as I said, I can feel it. It’s like when I put up my feet after a working day and watch TV, instead of helping her in the kitchen. I would never feel uncomfortable about that in my mother’s home. But here, I am judged for any liberties I take.”
She made me wonder: are daughters-in-law genuinely judged heartlessly for ‘taking liberties’? Or does this perceived judgment emanate from within the daughter-in-law? How much of our performance anxiety in our in-laws’ homes stems from paranoia, conditioning we’ve been subjected to ever since we reached ‘marriageable age’?
To be fair to women, getting married and moving into a new home is indeed a monumental change. If she moves into a joint family, there are, all of a sudden, new relatives, new meal timings, new people to observe her when she emerges from her room in the morning. Even if she lives away from her in-laws, there are phone calls and get-togethers (and WhatsApp groups!), where previously private subjects like lunch menus and clothing choices can occupy centre stage. Amidst all this, the in-laws are almost certain to seem a little intimidating and distant, unless they go out of their way to make her feel at home.
Interestingly, while the feeling of I-need-to-embrace-this-stranger extends to the in-laws too, the burden of such embracement often falls on the woman alone. A woman is the homemaker, the one who must love her family members, the one who must hold them close to heart.
It is a mammoth task. It is not something that can be accomplished overnight.
It is something that cannot be accomplished at all if she is constantly warned about her behaviour as a married woman and told that her husband’s home requires her to be responsible, hardworking, caring, a perfect cook, a masseuse, a charmer, and 1,233 other things.
It is now that a longing for her easy-going, cozy home floods her mind. Her home where she was required only to be happy.
Her mother, the woman who brought her into the world, wiped away her tears on the first day of school. Her father, who cried in secret when her forehead burned with fever and cried openly when she got into the car after her vidaai. These new people in her life may be understanding and loving, but can they ever replicate the ease she feels among people she has known since birth?
Her in-laws haven’t seen her at her worst; they do not know who she is from within. These things come with time. But how many of us are willing to give in-laws that opportunity to become truly our own?
I am a believer in marriage. To have someone to be your partner for life, beside you when the sky falls, holding your hand through the good times and bad — it is a relationship unlike any other. However, I will admit that I too have held (and probably still hold) some preconceived notions about being judged by my in-laws. While some of these notions I have found to be true, several have been unfounded.
I think we, as a society, need to stop stressing our women out about “You can’t cook. What will happen when you go to your in-laws?” About “You wake up at noon. What will your MIL say?” About “Your in-laws are not your parents and you can never be yourself in front of them.”
She is getting married. It is a happy reunion of souls, of families. The people involved may grow to become as thick as thieves, making it hard to discern boundaries between ties of blood and marriage. Or they may never become too close and be forever conscious of things that are okay for daughters but not daughters-in-law.
Neither scenario is in our hands, exactly like a lot else in life. I wish we would all give each other a fair chance before forming notions and passing verdicts.
Image source: YouTube
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