Most married desi women I know have expressed their discontent with the interference from their in-laws at some point of their life. Some feel this encroachment on regular basis as they live in joint families and those living in nuclear families in different cities still claim long distance remote control effect on their lives. There are numerous desi blogs and forums where women are discussing these issues and seeking support and solutions from one another. Some members suggest paying back in the same coin using tit for tat tactics because most spouses do not rise to the occasion and protect their wives. This makes me wonder if this passive aggressive behavior will remedy the situation or will just push a person into a spiral of emotional turmoil.
The mother-in-law problem is not unique to India/South Asia even in west women report this problem. What make it different for South Asians/Indians are our family structure and social economy. The lack of alternative structures of social support and old age care makes it inevitable for conjugal families to check any development of strong affection between the newly married couple. The fear of loosing economic support from sons makes rest of his family act in funny ways to disturb his married life. Instead of acting from love and kindness towards the new bride they target all their energies in dislodging her even before she is settled. Desi women feel trapped in these murky waters because the premium placed on marriage and lack of other support structures prevents them from leaving.
The other reason of this family feud between female conjugal kin is related to the lack of opportunities to power. In desi communities men have more power outside the homes but senior women within the homes have control over the lives of children, younger men and incoming women. The women who have lived timid lives blossom into dominant figures once their sons attain adulthood. They not only emotionally manipulate their sons but also have the ability to instigate the sons against their fathers to avenge the injustices mounted on them during their youth (refer Dilip Kaur Tiwan’s Sahitya Academy award winner Eh Hamara Jiwana). Such behavior is not limited to house wives even professionally successful mothers-in-law resort to such tactics. One may wonder why professionally successful women need to act so mean towards their daughters-in-laws. The taste of absolute power over another person is exhilarating; also it speaks volumes about a person self doubts, low self esteem and mistrust for the sons they raised.
Emotionally abusive and manipulative MILs have low self esteen and are alway busy in keeping up with the Jones. They live their lives in bitterness. They are unhappy most of the times so all they exude is unhappiness. They are drama junkies, they’ll create a scene about anything under the sun, even if something happens in Mrs. Sharma’s home it becomes about them. Every thing is about them. If you said you gained weight they’ll tell you they gained more than you. If you said you were slim in your youth they’ll contend they were slim to the extent of emaciation. Their need for attention and assurance is never ending and exhusting for people around them. Their loved ones are trying to buy peace from them at all costs. They try to keep this species of MILs calm and contended. But it is never sufficient. When a DIL comes this burden falls on her and other family members too feel now it should be DIL’s job to serve MIL and keep her happy.It becomes easy for them to exonarate themselves from this responsibility and pile blames on the DIL for MILs displeasure. It is not that the circumstances have made MIL critical and unhappy rather they chose to act so. They are pleasant and good when they want to be. Their most time is spent in drama so even when they are genuinely normal it is hard to believe and one may fear what may trigger another dramatic attack.
These MILs claim to love their sons and want them to be happy. Th eir formula of happiness for their son does not include his wife. When ever the son is feeling normal in his married life they get a panic attack. Their dialogues are- “Something is happening to me. My heart is sinking, I am dying.” “I feel I’ll die alone you will not care for me in my old age.” Religion is another tool in their arsenal, they claim to fast or pray for the long life of their sons. My friend Anu’s MIL fasts every full moon day for the health and long life of her son. If there happens to be an invitation for a party on the fullmoon day she’ll prepone or postpone the fast. The food becomes more important than the health of her son. The sons of such mothers harbor secret hatered for womenkind especially their mothers but are unable to verbalize it as it will be considered sacreligious. So they turn this hatred to their spouses in the form of emotional, verbal or physical abuse. If they ever stand up for their spouses their mothers’ start with “I gave you birth…” These sons have not learned to cope with this regular drama so when they are confronted with some marital issue their response is usually fight or flight. When they fight they become their own mothers and when they resort flight they become arctic pole. The daughters of such mothers are true copies of their mothers, drama junkies and codependents. They create a lot of drama to get what they want. They also create hardships for their sisters-in-law. If they are married they’ll create hardships for their spouse just like their mothers. This is the reason you feel overwhelmed even if you are with just one family memeber. Also it is family pattern to act alike.
Not all women are powerless at all times and not all men are powerful at all times. The ideal of unquestioned generational reverence is one of the ways to maintain hierarchy within families and allocate power to women over other women and younger men. This helps in checking women’s revolt against male dominance in every day lives and in public sphere. This anticipated power at certain age acts like a carrot for women to strive for becoming a mother-in-law.
There is another rare species of mothers-in-law who are supportive of their daughters-in-law. They not only love them and help them in developing a bond with their husbands but also raise their children. Some of these rare specie MILs are committed to making it better for their DILs as opposed to their own MILs and others in this genre are relatively secure with who they are, they do not have to make another person feel bad in order to feel better about themselves. Such MILs are calm and contended with their lives. They live their lives peacefully and know their boundaries. Even when they disagree with some thing they have a functional way of addressing the issue than creating a drama. If you find such a MIL please respect her and appreciate her.She does not need anything from you other than respect affection and kindness. Tell others about her so that they are motivated to be like her.