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If I had a son, and I became a mother-in-law, this is what I would tell myself – that it is his life to make the choice, and I must welcome his partner with love.
“I miss India a lot,” she says, “but the one thing I am grateful for, is that here, I am away from my mother-in-law. We live on our own. I wouldn’t give this up for anything.”
How many times in the past seven years or so, have I heard this statement – phrased one way or the other? Countless. It could be a party where the women are huddled together in the kitchen, perfect strangers meeting for the first time, or a friendship which is actually cemented by shared experiences of mothers-in-law that are either too difficult to live with, or too interfering, or too jealous and insecure of their daughters-in-law.
The stories that I have heard have quite a varied range. Of course, I am aware that these stories are all one-sided. These are only the daughters-in-law speaking. There’s no representation of the mother-in-law’s viewpoint here.
However, there’s something to be said for the commonality of experiences that Indian daughters-in-law seem to share. It also says something for Indian families, the dysfunction of it all, if the women are running away, seeking escape in faraway countries just so that they can escape their in-laws.
It also says something for the future of Indian families. If the experiences of Indian daughters-in-law continue to be the one wherein they are treated as ‘the other,’ what incentive would they have to invest their time and energy into building a relationship with the mother of their husband?
While it is difficult to pinpoint any one, singular reason why this relationship is so complicated, and each relationship has its own nuances, perhaps a few pointers might help ease some of the strains?
I do not have children. If I had a son, and if he were to grow up, I would want to remind myself of a couple of these things. Just in case, I was turning into the proverbial Indian mother-in-law myself.
I would like to tell myself:
In normal circumstances, my son (children) will outlive me. It is therefore important that he spends his life with someone whose personality and companionship he enjoys.
It is for him to seek his life mate. It is not for me to make that choice for him, or to be disparaging towards someone who has his heart.
If I am lucky, I may get along with his wife. I would love it if she and I can share a cup of tea, a meal together – if we are in the same town, that is. That she finds a welcoming and comforting space in the home that I have set up and that I am welcome to spend a weekend or two at theirs. If I get on her nerves or she on mine, I have to remember, that it is they who have to spend their lives together, and that is what is important and not whether I and her are a good match.
Oh yes, I spent a good chunk of my life raising my son. A lot of sleepless nights, changing dirty diapers, nursing him through fevers and poxes. And now he has a woman in his life. He spends a lot of money on their life together. And this makes me jealous and insecure.
But wait, when I set up my household with my husband, didn’t we do just that? Build our life together? And all those sleepless nights and dirty diapers – the daughter-in-law’s mother must not have escaped those either? My experience isn’t unique or exceptional when it comes to motherhood, right? Anyone who chooses to bring a child into this world does the best job one can in raising that child.
And if I continue to be jealous of the attention and love that my son bestows on his wife, I only have to look back at my own life. Didn’t my husband buy me gifts – big and small – in stealth, for the household, for me, for us, because he was aware his mother got a tad upset when he spent money on such things?
I will, therefore, offer my help and opinion, if I am lucky enough to be asked. I will help choose the title of a book he wants to gift, the colour of a stole, or simply rejoice in what he brings home for his wife.
How many of us have genuinely tried to know each other as people, as individuals? Have had conversations where we asked questions, really listened to answers?
If I had a son, and he brought his girlfriend home, and who would later become his wife, I will try and get to know her. What does she like? Does she prefer books or is she more of a cinema person? What’s her favourite colour? Has she watched something interesting lately that she may want to recommend to me?
It’s simple and yet so difficult. Having conversations that matter. Even if you can spare one hour every week, where you talk to each other – about days at work, a meal that you have loved, a funny video that you have watched, a book that you have read – it matters and makes a difference.
Sometimes you spend a lifetime together and you realize with regret and at times with bitterness, that people that you call family have never taken the effort to get to know you, or appreciate you.
A daughter-in-law is a new addition to your family. Get to know her. Get to know each other.
You know, I don’t mean this in a forced way. But there are just so many countless examples and experiences I have heard over the years – where there’s never been a compliment forthcoming from the mother-in-law.
Can you really spend decades together and never find one opportunity to compliment the woman in your son’s life, the woman who is now also family? A good haircut, the colour of an outfit she bought, something that she may have achieved at work or at home? A good photograph that she clicked perhaps?
If we cannot bring ourselves to compliment the people around us, those people will start distancing themselves from us. No one wants to feel invisible. If we don’t celebrate the parts of their personalities that need to be celebrated, they will seek and make their family elsewhere. They will choose to spend their time and energy where they feel wanted and appreciated.
I may not get along like best friends with her parents, but they are now family too. Her parents are my son’s parents-in-law. They will always be his family and I must understand that.
It will be for me to work out a family tradition – a lunch or dinner every couple of months, where all of us sit down and eat together. Like a family. I cannot have the daughter-in-law warm up to me and our family if I am not welcoming, cordial, and friendly to hers.
Now this one is hard. But I will try.
All of us love to offer our opinions. And it is difficult not to offer them when it is someone remarkably close to us. Our siblings, children, nephews or nieces.
But over the years, I have learned, that there is wisdom in listening.
Try and listen without the need to offer your opinion. And offer your opinion when someone seeks it and try and also not be offended when they do not follow what you said.
And this is perhaps the last one – but what ‘inheritance’ do I want to leave behind for my children?
When I say inheritance, I talk about the inheritance of memories that we all carry. And I want to think about what sort of memories do I want to leave them with. If they are always going to remember me with that twinge – that I was horrible to them, then it says something for the kind of family we were.
That doesn’t mean that I have to go out of my way, or change who am I, just so that they remember me and our time together fondly. If I am kind, patient, and loving towards them, and this includes being all of that to my daughter-in-law too, they will bound to have some happy memories of me, of us, and of our time together. What good will it be for me or them if all we have are bitter, unpleasant memories?
And therefore, I will strive to be fair and kind, nice and supportive in my relationship with my son and daughter-in-law, and by this, I will ensure that I leave behind some really happy memories.
These are just a few of my thoughts. Happy to know what you would do if you become a mother-in-law and also happy to hear what a mother-in-law would have to say to the line of thoughts above.
Image source: a still from the film Maine Pyaar Kiya
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Prerna Shah is a media professional, a happy wife, and a much-loved daughter. She
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