Mirror Magazine

3rd February 2002

The Sunday Times on the Web















Joined by love or by law?

By Laila Nasry
  • Tips for first meeting your mother-in-law
  • Tips for would-be mothers-in-law
  • Tips for would-be daughters-in-law 

  • When Tara* married Sanjeev* the youngest in his family, she found her mother-in-law to be a total control freak who was very possessive of her son. " I resented her," Tara recalled. "She always had the final say in everything and in a way she was competing with me for his attention." 

    She completely took over the kitchen and would always lounge in the sitting area and I felt I was being confined to my room. I didn't have my space."She completely took over the kitchen and would always lounge in the sitting area and I felt I was being confined to my room. I didn't have my space."

    To top it all, she came to live with them after four months of marriage. "I felt restricted. I couldn't put my arm around my husband while watching TV nor could we have a proper fight." The mother-in-law's omnipresence made Tara feel claustrophobic. "She completely took over the kitchen and would always lounge in the sitting area and I felt I was being confined to my room. I didn't have my space." 

    When the kids came along things worsened, her mother-in-law always accusing her of being a bad mother. "She always thought I didn't care enough for the children. That was because I used to not force food down my children's throats when they didn't want to eat." 

    Tara felt her m-i-l was from the old school that believed that a woman is expected to do everything. And the fact that her husband was far from the domesticated type didn't help in the process. "I kept telling her things are different from your time but she didn't see it that way."

    Michelle Premachandra has a totally different story. "I think I have the world's best mother-in-law," she says terming their relationship as "excellent". Letting us in the secret behind her success she says, "I let her do what she likes." Her mother-in-law in the three years spent with them re-decorated her house, at times cooked dishes additional to the meal prepared by her and Michelle had no problem. "As long as she didn't make me do it." 

    Her friends thought her crazy to give into the whims of her m-i-l but Michelle saw things differently. "I don't let it bother me. Besides if I can make allowances for all my mother's faults why not for hers. It doesn't cost a thing. After all she is my mother by law." 

    When it came to raising children Michelle handled her m-i-l with tact. "She would expect me to bring them up the way she did her children but being strong Christians we (her husband and herself) always followed the Bible and she couldn't exactly say anything." 

    Where did Tara go wrong and Michelle get it right? Or is Michelle just one of those one in a million people who simply got lucky? What about those who play it safe with an 'arms length' relationship?

    "We have the perfect 'hello, how do you do, I'm fine, thank you relationship," says Harshini. "I'm civil and cordial to her and so is she in return." The primary reason that Harshini can maintain such ties is because her m-i-l does not stay with her. "The kids and I visit her once a week or sometimes once in two weeks while my husband goes every other day in the evening after work."

    Married for five years, Harshini still feels like a guest in the family, something she says which works to her advantage. "People are nice to their guests. It's when you are too familiar that there's a possibility of you getting bossed around." The lack of family bonding obviously not creating a void.

    "I never take my problems to her. Nor do I discuss any of our family matters with her. My husband is fine with it so I have it easy. I don't know whether she prods and pries with my husband but not with me. We just announce decisions. It's when you go to consult that there is opposition and fault finding."

    Having heard so many 'horror stories' about m-i-l's Harshini says, "Initially I was afraid to get close to her. But it seems to have worked out for me." However she conceded that she will never know whether she is missing out on a closeness which could have been workable. 

    "How is your mother-in-law'? is a question frequently asked of newly wed brides or brides-to-be. And often answers are given by the interrogators themselves. They recount experiences of m-i-ls who check what their sons are being fed by inspecting the pots and pans while they cook on the stove or making snide remarks about the son chipping in with the household chores and helping out with the kids saying that she didn't bring him up to do all that.

    The role of a mother-in-law is a misconstrued one, for often they are perceived as green-eyed monsters who are jealous, possessive and sharp tongued, put on this earth to give daughters-in-law a hard time. But there are an equal number of mothers-in-law out there who plan surprise parties for their sons together with their daughters-in-law and give them the recipes of their son's favourite dishes. 

    Much depends on both the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Never having got into an argument with her m-i-l, Michelle strongly believes that a lot depends upon the mindset of the d-i-l. "I would like to believe that whatever they (m-i-l) do, they do it out of love. After all I'm married to her son and my children are her grandchildren so she must be having our best interests at heart." 

    So is this whole issue of wicked mothers-in-law a myth? Does the root cause instead, lie in a clash of personalities? If that is the problem why then is it that fathers-in-law and sons-in law have no such problems? 

    Strong bond

    Anne Abayasekera who has counselled countless couples regarding this issue says the reason as she sees it is the strong bonding between sons and mothers. "Most often the mothers have a problem of letting go. They can't accept the shift in loyalty where the first priority of the son should be his wife."

    "This is a very common problem," she says tracing the strong bonding to the son's growing up period where attachments are formed. "Some sons, in cases where the father is dead, sleep in the same room with their mother until they get married." Mrs. Abayasekera strongly advocates that this should be avoided. For that is where the possessiveness takes root. 

    However much depends on the son. He must give his wife the assurance that she comes first with him. "Some wives are not sure about it and it is then that they feel threatened and there is friction between the m-i-l and d-i-l." 

    Further Mrs. Abaya-sekara says that though he is caught up in the middle of it all and is torn between the two women he loves it's important that he takes a firm stand in certain situations. "If the mother is interfering in the up-brining of the children then he must put a stop to it." 

    This has been a remedial step in the case of Tara. Initially when they clashed Tara would walk off in a huff or keep it all within her and grumble to her husband later. But Sanjeev always made his own decisions, which Tara says, helped in calming the situation. "If he thought it right he would openly side his mother, whilst on another occasion he would openly take my side." 

    Two years down the line the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship has improved. "Primarily because she doesn't live with us any more," says Tara. Though Mrs. Abayasekera could not recount marriages breaking as a result of a strained relationship between m-i-l and d-i-l she recalled countless on the brink of separation. 

    In such times she is of the view that even the most drastic steps must be taken to save the marriage. "I'm not saying that a mother should be put in a home all the time, but it's alright to ask her to leave and make alternate living arrangements. 'You can say sorry but it's too stressful to have you. But we will visit,'" she said. 

    Nevertheless as Tara conceded having a m-i-l around can also have its plus points. "I was able to work and further my career. I never felt guilty about leaving my children because she was always there and would genuinely care for them." 

    You may find all sorts but a little more love and tolerance on both sides can work wonders.

    Tips for first meeting your mother-in-law

    • Be yourself
    • Dress smartly but decently
    • Act warm and friendly. Remember you can't get into her good books immediately. 
    • Pay genuine compliments (if you enjoyed the dinner, say so).
    • Don't try to show that you know her son better than she does. 
    • Try not to dominate conversations. 

    Tips for would-be mothers-in-law

    •Don't treat your daughter-in-law as an outsider. Welcome her into the family.
    •Don't cling too much to your son. Learn to let go. 
    •Don't crave too much attention for yourself or try to compete with your d-i-l in that aspect. 
    •Do things to advance the happiness of the couple, not to diminish it. 
    •Don't make demands on the couple, like they should visit you every Sunday. 

    Tips for would-be daughters-in-law 

    • Remember your love for your spouse should extend to his family. 
    • Be more sensitive to the needs of your mother-in-law. 
    • Live on your own. 
    Don't make it hard for your husband by creating situations where he has to make a choice between you and his mother. 
    • Be patient and accommodating. 

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