The Mother-in-law Question

Mansi, one of the readers here, asked the following question:

“We all know that in almost 100% of the cases:- mother in law and daughter in law clash – why is this?  Please do a post on this.”

Mansi’s question appears as a comment in this post:

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/relationship-with-mother-in-law-an-email/

I will answer the question the way I see it.  I would welcome others’ thoughts, experiences, and perspectives.

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In a patriarchal system, women take up positions of inferiority.  The girl child, teenager, and the young woman is taught or coerced into the following during the formative years(the opposite traits I’ve listed in parentheses):

  • unquestioning obedience (versus reasoning, questioning, analysis)
  • acceptance of fate or destiny (versus proactive problem solving)
  • a sense of weakness, vulnerability (versus strength, confidence)
  • inferiority (versus a sense of equality)
  • shame in one’s body (versus seeing it in neutral, biological terms)
  • shame in the pursuit of pleasure (versus seeing it as a natural human trait)
  • no personal interests or hobbies or achievements (versus encouraging personal accomplishment)
  • assigned pre-ordained roles (versus having choices)
  • constraints on the smallest things (versus having daily freedoms like going for a walk safely, taking the city bus safely, going to college safely, going to work safely)
  • constraints on life decisions (choosing whom to marry, choosing whether to marry or not, choosing not to stay in an unhappy marriage)
  • permission seeking fit for children (as opposed to adult freedoms – permission to visit parents after marriage, permission to work, to not have kids yet, or to not have kids period)

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Some of the above have changed with times, primarily:

  1. education and careers – girls and women now pursue these – but even here the context remains vastly patriarchal – do they have control over their paycheck – do they know how to spend, save and invest their money – do they have the freedom to work where and when they want in a field they choose, the freedom to travel for a job – do they have the supports needed at home to succeed at work or do they carry the triple burden of work, home, and kids
  2. some of the other factors mentioned above have changed for some families (who raise girls as humans that are allowed human joys and weaknesses, and granted equal rights) but remain true for the vast majority to different degrees.

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So, what happens to girls and young women raised with these traits?  They develop low self esteem.  They have been constantly told of their lack of worth and they begin to believe it.  Not just about themselves but about all women.  Their gender is the dreaded gender, they are the unlucky ones.

The all-pervading misogyny is internalized by women.  Different women react to this in different ways.  They develop coping mechanisms such as –

  • judging other women (partly because they genuinely believe women should be judged, society has given everyone the right to judge this group of human beings, but partly because they see themselves in other women.  “She is a lazy stay at home mom who watches TV all day.” because they’ve heard this comment over and over again and unthinkingly repeat it.  Or, “she is too selfish and not a good mother, look at her, travelling so much” because this is another stereotypical comment that they’ve heard over and over again
  • petty competition – women in a patriarchy must compete for male attention to win a few crumbs of freedom – putting other women down has a concrete advantage
  • becoming a martyr – in a patriarchy, you can either be a Goddess on a pedestal or evil incarnate – ordinary human traits like ambition and pleasure in women become evil – self-sacrifice is considered virtuous.  Some women engage in self-denial and sacrifice to feel rewarded by the families and societies they live in.
  • passing the baton – the teaching of these “feminine” rules and traits strangely falls upon women – victims create more victims in the process – women are taught early on “to be a good example to their daughters”.  Every time a woman doesn’t toe the line, her parents and her upbringing are blamed.  There is an entire cannon of virtue that needs to be passed down the generations – and some women assume this role whole heartedly.

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All of the above come into play in the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law situation.

The mother-in-law belongs to a generation of women that have been denied an education, the right to work, the right to choices.  They have been raised with low self-esteem and their most ardent sacrifices have been barely acknowledged.  They have never enjoyed the companionship and respect of their life partners.  Rather they served their lords and received nothing of worth in return.

The typical difficult mother-in-law is not an evil woman – she is an ordinary woman reacting to the above factors related to her upbringing.  She is coping in her own way, trying to find in her own distorted, sad way – some kind of path to perceived happiness.  All her life she’s been controlled by other men.  So she sees control as the singular thing absent from her life.  She tries to exercise control over the one person who is in the lowest rung of the patriarchal ladder – the daughter-in-law.  She fails to realize that genuine happiness comes from control over one’s own life, not control over another’s.

That said, there are mothers-in-law who understand where the problem truly lies – with the patriarchal set up (and not the “bad” daughter-in-law).  Even if they did not live a life of fairness, the better adjusted women (those who’ve developed a healthier response to a difficult life) may obtain happiness by breaking the cycle and treating the daughter-in-law with fairness.  They may themselves have more freedom in their later years – having developed an awareness of their rights and an assertiveness that comes with age and experience.

The mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law problem is not a women versus women problem – it’s a problem created by patriarchy.  The need for male privilege creates the need for female inferiority.  When inferiority is made systemic right from birth and reinforced right through old age, it breaks the psyche and can have extremely unhealthy emotional consequences resulting in unhealthy coping behaviors.

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Here are 2 posts that may shed further light on this:

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/the-men-in-our-lives/

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/a-woman-is-not-a-womans-worst-enemy-patriarchy-is/

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26 thoughts on “The Mother-in-law Question

  1. One reason I feel is –
    there are so many things about our mother’s behavior which we find annoying. We tell her that, have a small fight on it maybe. And we forget it. But same thing we don’t do with mother in law. We keep those things in our mind for longer time.

    Like

  2. priya i want to understand this whole psyche and situation very clearly.
    so i will ask you the part i did not understand completely.

    why is the daughter in law considered the lowest in patriarchal heirarchy?

    is it cause everyone else in the family is ladke wale ( ladke ki ma , ladke ka baap, etc ) and the new bride is ladki ??

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    • The girl child is unwanted. She is the burden and the slave. She is the paraya dhan in our culture, where we fast, pray, and sex select for a male heir. The d-I-l is the dreaded girl child, hence she is on the lowest rung. Hence her parents have a lower status.

      Other cultures give the girl child other titles but misogyny pervades every culture. In ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy, women were not much better off than slaves. They were the property of men and had very few rights. Aristotle said “women are defective by nature”. The same story repeats in other cultures. Women were the property of men until recently in our history.

      While girls and women have been seen through misogynistic eyes in all cultures, in our culture, it especially applies to the d-I-l’s situation because we continue to have joint families – and even families that are not joint families behave like them with the lines of control still in place.

      In other cultures like Western culture, people do not have joint families or closely controlled nuclear families – hence women don’t suffer at the hands of in-laws – but they face misogyny and sexism in other spheres – at work, in the media, etc.

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    • @mansi,

      DIL is not the lowest in the patriarchy. You are talking in singular, nuclear family. Where there are two or more DILs they are not all on the lowest rung. The MIL is a DIL before she becomes a MIL. In patriarchy women rise to power gradually and generationally.
      MILs not only socialise their own children but they have to train the new incoming women in to family status appropriate behavior (who to talk to, when to do what…) that is done through rituals and customs. So basically DIL is a new born to the conjugal family rather teenager that needs chaperoning and monitoring.
      The retaining of the daughter-in-law into total subordination is an essential part of her transition from the natal to the marital home. Over time she’ll graduate and become her own person once she has her own kids married. But she’ll still remain an outsider to her cohorts who are the birth members of her conjugal family.
      But practically she remains a baharwali (outsider) until her death. She attains a permanent membership after a ‘shradh’ (offerings to the dead) is performed in her name.

      Desi Bahus: Gladiators in an Arena
      https://girlsguidetosurvival.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/401/

      https://girlsguidetosurvival.wordpress.com/2009/11/28/desi-in-laws-wedging-a-psychological-warfare-against-bahus/

      https://girlsguidetosurvival.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/desi-mothers-in-law/

      Peace,
      DG

      Like

  3. Beautiful post, you’ve examined every angle so well. Your conclusion hits at the heart of the matter – this is NOT a woman vs woman problem. I see so many women talking (very stupidly) about how women only friendships don’t survive, how mother in laws and daughter in laws can never get along, how women are catty etc. I guess its just easy for some people to generalize and parrot back what they’ve been told, rather than use their brains for a change.

    Another (somewhat controversial) point I would like to make:
    I believe that in quite some cases, the whole MIL problem starts due to a lack of intellectual stimulation. I’m in no way putting down the role of a homemaker, but a life largely spent cooking and care-giving, with no outlet for creativity or educational achievements can make a person obsessive and petty. This leads to fights over how the DIL is not cooking properly or folding the sheets right or some such inane household triviality; which, for the MIL, is unfortunately of gargantuan importance, because that has literally been her identity, her career, her vocation all her life (not by choice).

    Women were never allowed an opinion on politics, finance, science or current events. Any excellence in the arts was also curtailed – you can dance, but no public performances etc. Even today, I know a lot of young women who think its okay for them to be uninformed about things, simply because they’re female. Women are supposed to look good. period.
    This society-enforced dumbing-down is bound to cause frustration and sheer boredom, leading the mind to create problems, to pick up on petty issues and distort them.

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    • True … all that pent up energy, all that unexplored potential needs an outlet … and it can all find an ugly vent.
      Imprisoning a living, breathing, thinking human being to rote, mindless, thankless tasks and constrained life when they are wired as human beings to be free, inquisitive, exploring, creating – can have two possible undesirable effects – either we tend to shut down/tune out or …. lash out at someone.

      Liked by 1 person

    • @Anita,
      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.

      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.

      https://girlsguidetosurvival.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/desi-mothers-in-law/

      Peace,
      DG

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a question to ponder on, Good attempt at answering.
    I don’t even have an answer. but i guess patriarchy is at play, along with a healthy dose of possessiveness, ownership, etc., etc., And never acknowledging your kids are adults…

    its a land mine for sure .

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  5. Priya I hope am not bugging you with my constant questions.
    But I still do not understand one part.
    I did a lot of research and reading into this whole matter.
    As to how and why the girl child started being viewed as a burden .

    From what I gathered after LOT of research h is that our culture was not like this to begin with .
    Men and women had equal status .

    But somewhere down the line .
    Came the question :- that when husband and wife get married : in order for them to live together : one has to move to other s house .
    Cause inbreeding ( marrying sisters and brothers ) has genetic disadvantages .

    Now came the question who will move to who s house .
    I am talking about how all this started .
    And since women are the more noble out of true two genders : it was concluded only a woman is capable of accepting strangers as her family .
    So this custom of bride leaving her home to stay with guy s family started.

    Then came the problem that maika and sasural could be in different states ( far off from each other ).
    Which would further limit how often girl would be able to visit / help her biological family .
    And then came this mindset that the girls biological family give birth to her , invest money , emotions , effort , time in raising her , feeding , clothing , educating her :- but they hardly get anything in return for all that as she moves away to a different house and even if she earns :- that money goes to a different house .
    Her labour, efforts, time go to a different hous .

    Hence she started being viewed as a burden .

    MY QUESTION IS THIS :- but for the boys house :- she should be considered an asset instead of a burden .
    Cause her biological family spend money on her education and everything :- yet it is the boy s family who gets to reap the rewards without investing in her education and upbringing .
    Even if she is not working :- she is younger than the mother in law .
    She is more energetic , healthy :- irrespective of weather she is working in the house or outside the house :- the boy s family benefits from her labour , effort , time , energy .

    LOGICALLY :- that should make her an asset in sasural and not a burden .
    And of course if she is earning :- then also sasural benefits only .
    If she’s providing elder care :- sasural. Emerita from her .
    If she s giving birth in order to carry on the lineage : sasural benefits only .

    Disclaimer :- I am NOT saying a girl child is a burden in any manner .
    Not in her maika . Not in a sasural .

    I am just trying to dissect the whole situation to try to understand why people perceive the things they do !!

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    • To answer your question about – why does a woman who provides so many services to the man’s family seen as a burden (rather than an asset) –
      The Americans like to say – there is no such thing as free lunch.
      In other words, everything must be earned.
      A woman providing these services is unfair and undeserved by the people exploiting her. When you get something you haven’t earned, you lose respect for it. You take it for granted.
      Also, the woman coming in to join the man’s family is not by her choice. Since she has no choice, this gives the man’s family power over her. They know her parents will not take her back if they throw her into the street. Either she was denied an education and skills needed to support herself or there will be severe emotional consequences (isolation, stigma, labelling/branding) that she fears. This gives them power over her.
      Absolute power corrupts. She continues to go down in their eyes and they treat her with disdain and contempt. The oppressed are also hated by the oppressor. This is the greatest irony.

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  6. Another question priya .
    Honest to god , not trying to eat your head .
    Just trying to understand something logically .
    Thankfully I was not raised with gender based discrimination attitude .
    Hence everything that followed in sasurAl is beyond my comprehension and understanding .

    Hence the need to find logical answers.

    As you mentioned daughter in law is the dreaded girl child .
    If in laws hate the girl child so much .
    Why do they go looking for a girl for their boy in matrimonial advertisements , newspapers, online websites .

    If they TRULY think girls are a burden .
    Then why spend soooooo much effort in searching for a girl for your boy to marry in the first place ???

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    • They are looking for a girl because it is/was like getting a free slave to service the clan’s needs. The son’s sexual needs and the extended family’s cooking and cleaning needs, and the need for (male) heirs. Privilege is possible only when someone else does the work. Who will do the work if the lords are sitting on their posteriors ordering around people? The women of course. Hence they are needed.
      This is traditionally speaking.

      Of course this is changing with women’s education and careers. In rural settings, you may see a more obvious, blatant form of slave recruitment through marriage.

      In more educated circles, these dynamics play out more subtly. For instance, a daughter is “given” a good education and the opportunity to pursue a career, but when she has problems in her marriage such as abuse, she receives no support, not even from her parents, who want her to “make it work”, maybe even at the cost of her safety and emotional wellbeing. A woman leaving a bad marriage threatens the whole system that thrives on slavery. In such cases, under the façade of fancy degrees and fast cars, a woman is still very much a commodity, a vehicle for male heirs, devoid of fundamental rights and freedoms.

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  7. This is interesting:

    I agree that the way way one’s MIL is, or in fact how any one person behaves is due to some influence of the past. I can understand how my mom’s family is due to their past (they went through a lot, as with other people). Education also plays an important role. However what boggles me is that despite being highly education, many women still act like that typical Mother In Law and treat their daughter in laws not so kindly. You would think that they would know better despite having a lot of knowledge, but they still do it, perhaps it’s a cultural norm?

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    • Maybe it depends on the education? If the education is in specific subject such as physics or banking – meant to build a career – it is entirely possible to possess that without giving up patriarchal thinking.

      If the education was more to with critical thinking, questioning norms, understanding fairness and oppression – things you normally don’t learn in school in India – but imparted by parents or close friends who themselves have questioned the norms – then this type of education (which is not a degree but more of a general awareness) helps change things.

      This is why “highly educated people” still demand a dowry, a BMW, and a wedding reception at the Taj, all paid for by the bride’s family. This type of education fails to make a dent in patriarchal thinking.

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  8. thank you desi girl too and everyone else for your input.
    and time.
    i reallllllllllyyyyyy needed / wanted to understand their psyche.

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  9. Kudos for a very incisive post. The very fact the focus is always on the mother-in-law tells us how oppressive patriarchy is. How come the father-in-law never comes into picture? or the husband? I used to get asked by guys – “hey you, see, it is only a woman, the MIL, who always demands dowry”. And being 2-faced – pretending to be anti-dowry while not taking a stand actively. And they imply in a sinister manner that this alone is reason enough to oppress women – in a “women asked for it because they are nasty/jealous/mean” kinda way. I think it is a bizarre titillating spectacle for the guys watching us in cage fights for the crumbs they throw.

    I used to be dumbfounded when they bring up this argument but in the more recent years I learnt to call their bluff. How so? A guy said “you women can’t get along, b*&ch against & tear each other apart”, reg MIL-DIL battles in a joint family. I replied ” yes sir, we women are selfish, jealous, can’t adjust blah blah. You guys ,OTOH, are so awesome. How about living with in-laws, adjusting and teaching us uppity women a lesson that we never ever will forget? Common..”. Reply? Still waiting to hear from him & others.

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  10. Thank you for this Priya. I am the LW mentioned in the post. I had to come down to India and stay with my in-laws for a few days and I realized things are so much easier for me now that I don’t actively make any effort to make this relationship work. We are cordial to each other but I don’t explain my behaviour/decisions to her and go about my life the way I want. I also respect the fact that my mother-in-law though shows no genuine affection for me actively, goes out of her way to make it easy for me to work from home by keeping my 4-year old occupied and bringing me homecooked meals. I am currently enjoying the peace that comes with having control over one’s own life and actions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are welcome and thanks to all who responded and helped you grapple with this question.
      It’s wonderful to know that you are not worried about making this work, are able to make your own decisions without explaining, and also have a cordial relationship with her. It also sounds like your m-I-l is enjoying her grandchild.
      All the best to you and your family!

      Like

  11. Rule 1 of Patriarchy: A Woman is not allowed to have power on her own, but is completely allowed to bask in the power of the man in her life. A queen consort is a powerful person because she is married to the king. Ditto – First Lady.

    The man of the family is the son of one and the husband of the other. So both women want to use the special attachment of their respective roles to be their trump card.

    Solution: Don’t act like he is a star and you (and she) are planets. Be a star yourself. 🙂

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    • Great point! Women in patriarchy attach themselves to men of power to obtain it by indirect means since a direct means has been denied to them.
      Agree with your solution in terms of – having this mindset being important – BUT – if women are not given direct means to power over their own lives (by being denied meaningful education, freedom, safety, careers, an equal upbringing, support structures to fall back on during rough times, fundamental rights and proper law enforcement), they will continue to rely on indirect means.

      Liked by 1 person

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