Saturday, September 23, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Why Does the Mother-in-law Occupy Such a Huge Mindspace in the Indian Psyche?
By Aruti Nayar

NO where in the world does the relationship between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law occupies so much mindspace as it does in India. This is because in India, unlike other places, it is a highly contentious, volatile and nuanced relationship. This trunk relationship occupies a lot of social space and its ripple-down effect colours many intertwined lives. Perhaps, it was because of the fact that a woman's place was confined to the four walls of the house that she had to define herself within that limited sphere. She, therefore, appropriated whatever was in "her territory". It included the son and (as an extension) whatever was his. Very rarely did she see the son as an individual in his own right. He was an extension of her own hopes, desires and dreams. His life was part of her own. This tendency to extend the boundaries of her own life to encompass her children's (especially male) life as well made her take on a larger role in guiding, directing and controlling. That this steering could become interference did not occur to her. She did not separate her life from that of the children.


Illustration by Sandeep Joshi

In fact, even before a girl reaches marriageable age, the spectre of a demonic mother-in-law who will make life a living hell for her is brandished before her in order to browbeat her into submission. Often family and relatives say : "Just you wait and see . . . these habits won't do in your mother-in-law's house." The girl, therefore, has a image of a harridan or a virago set in her mind much before she takes the saat pheras. The mental image the young girl forms is that of an adversary and an opponent who has to be battled, countered and checkmated. Real and heard anecdotes, coupled with folk wisdom, jokes, caricatures and cartoons all flesh out this image of a mother-in-law whose sole purpose in life is to either wreck the bride’s peace of mind or prevent her from being happy. Sometimes, so over-powering is this bias that she does not even think of giving her mother-in-law a chance. "All mothers-in-laws are vicious," she is convinced. Period

It is this image that prevents a woman from relating to and interacting with the most important woman in her husband's life on a one-to-one basis. Very rarely does a woman enter this relationship in an open-minded manner. So loaded and almost like a "keg of gun powder" (as one young bride puts it) is this combustible equation that very rarely does the young woman also sense the apprehension and the insecurity of the older woman. It never occurs to her that the older woman might be unsure of how her equation with the son will be redefined now that an "outsider" was entered his life. Perhaps it is the seemingly harsh and exacting attitude that puts the girl on the defensive. As Ira, a young bride, says, "Every reaction and action of mine is being put through a microscope. All the while I feel I am on trial. I myself have started doubting if I can cook, keep house and rear children well enough? I always seem to be falling short of expectations."

It is this tension, brought about by high expectations and the consequent resentment and refusal to be constantly judged, instead of just being loved and accepted, that creates a see-saw relationship. The home becomes a battleground where each of the women fights either a cold war or a war of attrition and subversiveness. The husband (and son) is a helpless spectator. Very often, he either abdicates all responsibility or waits for the conflict to resolve itself or sort itself out magically. He often refuses to actively mediate and strike a balance to help forge an understanding between the women. The key to the conflict is often with this weak-kneed, faint-hearted knight (without an armour!). Very, very rarely is the man proactive and mature in his handling of the problems and helps to smoothen out all the wrinkles in a relationship before it stabilises into a pattern.

If he wants to, he can help define this contentious relationship and create a bond based on healthy respect. For this, he will have to be a man and very few Indian boys are men. They do not have very many problem-solving abilities - it is either flight or evasion. They are often at sixes and sevens when confronted by any inter personal dissonance within the family. If only they took the initiative to make life easier for themselves. Minor irritants metamorphose into full-scale volcanic eruptions and what many couples do not realise that their own relationship will not stabilise unless they resolve tensions. A volatile relationship between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law reflects the inability of the husband and wife to actively address the contradictions in their own equation. This is bound to affect other areas of their life.

Very rarely does it occur to the daughter-in-law, who is all keyed up and tense, that some of her own anxieties and apprehensions might be mirrored in her mother-in-law's emotional state. If she tries even a wee bit of empathising, she can ensure a more open relationship with less friction. Whether the bride is staying with her or not, the fact remains that an effort to integrate into the family will have to be made, even at the cost of her ego. She will require a lot of sensitivity and tact and, most of all the ability to step out of her own shell.

The entry of a daughter-in-law usually coincides with a woman's 'change of life'. Due to certain biological changes (menopause) and the resultant physiological and psychological consequences, she is vulnerable. Often, trying to cope with this change of life makes her irritable and short-tempered. Even at the psychological level, trying to cope with the empty-nest syndrome is an effort for the older woman. She finds herself becoming redundant without active nurturing, a role she has defined and constructed her identify around.

The children, who needed her so much during the growing up years, don't seem to need her all that much any more. Her husband is absorbed (even obsessed) with his career and, while he moves up the career ladder fast, has interests that preclude her and children. He hardly connects with her during this vulnerable phase.

Here comes newcomer, a veritable intruder, who occupies so much of emotional space and time of her son's life. Who knows she might alienate her son? Who knows she might enthral him so much (because she is young and pretty) that he might stop being a respectful, dutiful son? These and many related questions plague her mind.Take the example of Sudarshan Walia, who was excited at the prospect of gaining a daughter, ''but my daughter-in-law made it clear that it was just the husband she was concerned with. 'I haven't married the family', was her retort. And believe me it hurt. ''I feel I've lost my son'', she bemoans.

The son, whom she has lavished so much of love, affection and care on all these years, and revelled in his growing up, will always be a little boy for the woman who brought him into the world. He will be someone who needs tending, feeding and pampering. He will never be seen as a man with autonomous desires, identity and independent viewpoints. She enjoys his dependence on her because it reinforces her role as a nurturer. The fact that he might not need this is a prospect she does not like to entertain. If the mother-in-law too were to reorient, modify and redefine this static relationship, it might save her a lot of tension. Very few mothers change their ways of interacting with their sons when they marry. At 30, a guy might just need a different sort of handling from what he did when he was three. The equation occupies so much of social space because all the involved individuals have a grievance, real or imagined.

As a matter of fact, so volatile and touchy is this equation that even seemingly balanced, rational and even-tempered women start getting worked up and holding forth. Shipra, who had a nightmarish time with a tyrannical mother-in-law, is still haunted by the atrocities she had to undergo a decade ago. So much so that she refused pointblank to put up with insults and demeaning remarks when her two daughters grew up. She insisted that she would not stay with her ma-in-law even though both of them lived in the same city. Her husband had to rent out a house because Shipra was sure she would end up as a sick woman if she was forced to live under the same roof with her ma-in-law. She did have her way, but friends knew that any time she would just take off and relive all the years of trauma and torment recounting each detail minutely. So even if there was physical distance between them, her mother-in-law had never left her mind, so to speak.

This obsession and preoccupation can even translate into psychosomatic ailments. A headache, free floating anxiety, stomach cramps and even an asthma attack can be triggered off by constant tension that this tug of war brings in its wake. The mother-in-law, as it were, personifies a stimulus that evokes a particular response. She ceases to be an individual, but becomes a symbol of hurtful experiences, lost youth, loss of intimacy between the spouses. Worst of all, she exposes the chinks in the armour of your knight in shining armour.

You don't forget that he who you love so much, and for whom you have left your family and friends, could not protect you or even act as a shield when your self-esteem was being torn into shreds. For a young bride on the threshold of an exciting new would, dreamy-eyed as she is, intricacies of interpersonal relationships are far from her mind. She is the spanking new heroine of the plot she has constructed and woe betide anyone who plays spoilsport. Anyone who mars this dream world is indicted for life. While she does not pause, think or analyse, the same is true of the ma-in-law.

Ironically, the very same woman who wants an independent-minded husband brings up a son who is clinging. She enjoys his dependence upon her and lavishes all love and affection without letting go. She forgets that he, too, some day, will be somebody's husband. Or saas bhi kabhi bahu thi.


For the MIL

wThere is no substitute for love

wRespect cannot be demanded, your behaviour can command it

wRemember the time when you were young, unsure and tremulous

wTry and enlarge your sphere of activity and don't focus too much on children

wTry to let go of your son and accept the fact that the young couple may not include you in all activities

wThere is bound to be conflict but how you resolve it will speak for your wisdom

For the DIL

wThere is no substitute for respect

wRemember that you too will be old one day and will need emotional support. Try to understand her insecurity and fear.

wTry and build bridges and not make walls

wYour husband will be unhappy if you create conflict and force him to take sides

wAccept the fact that he has other roles and duties to perform

wRemember how you tolerated your mom's criticism. Give her the benefit of doubt