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.

——————————————————————————————————————–

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)

——————————————————————————————————————-

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.

——————————————————————————————————————–

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.

——————————————————————————————————————–

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.

——————————————————————————————————————–

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/

Advertisements

Letting Go of Past Wrongs

Guest post by wordssetmefreee

A couple of weeks back, I received an email from J1289 that described some of her difficult /abusive childhood experiences. As a child, she was constantly blamed for things she had no control over. She was belittled, compared to others unfavorably, manipulated and controlled in ways that were a clear abuse of parental authority. She went out into the world, began to question and re-think many childhood misconceptions, and began to form a different (more coherent) view of the world and herself. Despite the abuse, she re-built her self-esteem, a remarkable feet considering many adults (who haven’t suffered abuse) may go through their entire lives without a clear sense of who they are and what they want.

But, how does one forgive those that let us down? How do we forget their meanness, their ignorance, and their selfishness? These lines from her email really stood out for me –

I do admit I have those horrid memories I have suffered in the past come back and it’s hard because you feel so alone in your thoughts, and think it’s only you.  It fills me with disgust, anger and hatred towards my family members and want to cut of relations with them. Sometimes it gets to me so bad that I have no idea how I can keep it in since I cannot vent it to anyone.

Experiencing abuse can leave scars that are difficult to erase.

Not everyone undergoes abuse – but many people face difficult, painful situations at some point in their lives, when they have been wronged in some way. We may have been betrayed by a close friend. We may have felt abandoned by a loving family member, when they failed to stand by us in a crisis. Someone we looked up to may have let us down, disappointed us. Such experiences can be unsettling and hold us back from seizing happiness.

It is common to harbor feelings of resentment, perhaps even hate, against those who were supposed to love us and be there for us. Over time, these feelings begin to take a toll on us. Negative thoughts can eat into a big part of our day. Our experiences begin to influence how we interact with others. We may find it hard to trust other people long after these harsh experiences. We may be wary in relationships, fear emotional intimacy and have difficulty forming deep friendships.

So, how do we get past our past? Simplistic advice such as ‘forgive and forget’ or ‘the past is past’ is not very helpful. Other nice sounding but unhelpful advice includes –

  • “forgiving is a choice”
  • “don’t cling to negative feelings”
  • “you can’t change the things that happened to you”
  • “it’s not worth it”
  • “you need to move on”
  • “put your energy into something that helps you”
  • “anger and resentment are unhealthy”
  • “start on a clean slate”
  • “focus on the present”
  • “change the things you can”

Let’s think for a minute about why this is not helpful. ‘The past is past’ sounds hollow because the opposite is true for the one who suffered in the past. For this person, the past IS the present. The past continues to haunt. It has shaped who he is today. It continues to shape current interactions and relationships.

‘Forgive and forget’ doesn’t make much sense either. How can we simply forget? We can’t just erase certain memories from our minds. They’re still there, whether we like them or not. How can we just forgive? Someone did something wrong. If you examine their actions today, they are still wrong.

And yet we know, all of us, that it is not healthy to constantly harbor negative feelings, to let past wrongs have a hold on us.

So, how do we free ourselves from this pain? How do we lighten our burden?

There are several things we could do to help ourselves –

Understand the past

Yes, this requires us to remember the past rather than forget it. Understand what exactly happened. Was it emotional abuse? Was it abandonment? Betrayal? Humiliation? Disappointment? What exactly happened and who is responsible for what? What was the other’s role in it? What was your role in it? If you were a child, you did not have any control over the situation. If you were an adult, you did have a role. This is not victim blaming, it’s trying to understand how you came to be victimized.

Acknowledge the past

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the past, acknowledge it. Burying it does not help. Acknowledge the fact that you were wronged. Remember how you felt – fear, shame, sadness, anger, pain, guilt – we try hard to bury these feelings, but the minute you acknowledge and accept them, they begin to become less burdensome.

Forgive yourself

Although it is irrational, we tend to blame ourselves (on some level) for the bad things that people do to us. Children often think it is their fault, when they are abused. They must be “difficult” or “bad”, and they deserve to suffer. There is no such thing as a “bad” child. Here, the responsibility rests with the adult, never with the child.

If you were abused/wronged as an adult, forgive yourself because you did what you could, given what you’ve been given. Not everyone is born assertive or spirited. Many of us learn assertiveness through experiences. Very few of us are lucky enough to have strong and supportive role models. Abusers also know how to tap into people’s vulnerabilities and cut off their support systems. So, give yourself a break.

Don’t erase pain

Pain is undesirable and we would not wish it on anyone. However pain has a role to play in our lives. Just as physical pain acts as the body’s warning system and protects us, emotional pain, when handled with the right perspective, helps us grow. It makes us stronger. Pain makes us understand what is really important. It simplifies things. Pain reminds us of the things we love and value. If you have gone through a lot of pain in the past, it may always be there inside you. You can never erase it completely. Therefore it is important that you use it to become stronger and more connected with yourself and others.

Separating your current self from your old self

A curious thing begins to happen if you have taken an honest look at your past, acknowledged it, and forgiven yourself. You begin to feel a separation. You begin to observe yourself objectively, like an outsider. You are able to finally separate the past from the present. That was you then and this is you now. This separation creates distance. You still remember the past events but the feelings associated with those events are less intense.

Let’s take a detour here and consider the example of an ordinary setback, removed from abuse, betrayal, or anything deeply traumatic. You are 5 years old and you just broke up with your best friend. You came home and cried as if your heart would break. For the next few days, you did not play with anyone at school. You stayed in your corner and sulked. By the end of the week, you were neither sad nor happy; you just went about your day in a cynical way. By the following week, you even laughed at something goofy someone did. By the end of the following week, you probably made a new friend. The anger and hurt may still be there. But alongside some positive feelings (new hopes, possibilities) crept in unnoticed and pushed the hurt into the background. Years later, you may even recall the good times you had with this friend you broke up with.

Our minds are interesting – they are geared to both remember endlessly and forget quickly. What we remember and forget depends on a complicated set of parameters such as our own nature, our perception of the event, our age, the context, the people involved, our feelings towards them, and our state of mind. What we remember also depends on what our conscious mind chooses to suppress in attempting to protect us.

Applying the ordinary setback and separation you experienced at age 5 to a more traumatic incident -as you begin ‘separating’, you will be able to recollect the incident without the same intensity, without the gut wrenching pain that you felt during the event or for many years following the event.

Being able to recollect a painful experience without the same intensity of pain is the first sign of freedom from the past.

Change in perspective

Separation leads us to start seeing ourselves differently (we are no longer victims, we feel more in control) and therefore we begin experiencing things differently. We now know what to look for in people. We are more trusting because we are more confident of protecting ourselves in relationships. We get better at drawing boundaries but we also get better at breaking through constraints and self-imposed limits.

Seek positive, affirming people

It is helpful to surround ourselves throughout these stages with strong, positive, supportive people. People who themselves have struggled with something but have come out strong make the most valuable friends. Avoid people who are insecure or tend to be dismissive of your struggles. Love (from a close friend or family member) can be a powerful healer.

Embrace nature

We use the expression “natural” to describe a picture of someone being unselfconscious or just being in the moment. A lot of our stress comes from being disconnected from nature, and therefore from ourselves. Pain has always been a part of the human experience but nature was a refuge, a haven of solitude that healed us, one which we are getting farther away from.

Nature can be your best friend. Take a walk in the woods. Spend time gardening. Hike up the hills and watch the world below. Nature is both calming and invigorating. Observe a tree. Notice how the branches are asymmetrical. The texture varies dramatically from the rough bark to the smooth leaves. Nature is imperfectly beautiful. Nature reminds us of our humanity and helps us accept our weaknesses.

Nature changes so imperceptibly that it is impossible to just sit there and watch the leaves turn red in fall. It is impossible to find the exact moment when the sky begins to lighten (just like one’s healing). Yet, you know these things will happen, with time. Thus, nature imbues us with patience and the confidence that time heals.

Seek new experiences

As you begin to trust people more and as you begin to enjoy your own solitude more, seek out new experiences. Travel if you can. Experience different cultures. Try something you’ve always feared. If you are uncoordinated like me, try a salsa class. If you are uncomfortable in water, take a basic life skills swimming class. New experiences challenge us to keep growing and evolving – and when we keep evolving – are we not moving ahead, are we thus not separating ourselves more and more from our painful past?

Forgive those who wronged you

Ah … the final step to freedom! Forgiveness is supposed to be one of the hardest things to do. Especially when the person who has wronged you does not realize it or admit it. But if you have gone through all of the above stages, forgiving someone is a natural progression. The stages may take months or years depending on the intensity of the pain inflicted, your vulnerability at the time, as well as your perception of the incident/phase. But once you’ve understood the past, achieved separation, undergone a change in perspective, and opened yourself up to new experiences and people with trust and confidence, you’ve gone a long way in healing yourself.

You are now strong enough to forgive. You begin to see the person who wronged you as being human rather than evil, as ignorant rather than malicious, as limited rather than insidious.

Remember, we are not forgetting our past, but we are finally able to look at it with different eyes, more perceptive eyes. It is no longer a raw, painful wound, but a scar that will always remind us of how far we’ve come. A scar that affirms our strength, so we can continue to go places.

Please share your struggles and experiences with letting go of past wrongs, disappointments, failures, disillusionment, and other painful experiences.

Ragging Culture

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

In the following case, do the people who ragged the student understand that what they did is inherently wrong (let alone understanding that it’s a crime)?

http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/Student-Attempts-Suicide-Family-Cries-Ragging/2015/02/04/article2651563.ece

And yet another case where the parents think their son was ragged and tormented and consider his death suspicious (not an accident):

http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/nujs-student-falls-to-death-parents-allege-foul-play/

In the above case, I wonder if the student shared with his parents that he was being tormented? If so, did they listen? Did they take it seriously? What specific actions were taken to curb the ragging/bullying?

Bullying is a universal problem. In the US, we deal with it in high school and the earlier part of undergraduate college. In India, we have the added problems of lack of recognition of bullying as a crime (both in homes and colleges) and improper (or lack of) law enforcement.

There is a third very important factor specific to our society – the hierarchical/power culture that pervades through many other abusive relationships (rich versus poor, elder vs younger members of family, groom’s parents vs bride’s parents in weddings and post-wedding life, upper caste vs lower caste, land owners vs farmers, upper class vs laborers, well connected vs man-on-the-street, politicians versus common man), and we can almost see this naturally extending to the campus arena – seniors versus juniors. Once again, respect is demanded for no logical reason. Respect is taken, not earned. Appeasement is seen as the only way to peace and being left alone. Fear is mistaken for respect and power drives the relationship.

I’ve known people who consider ragging as “part of life” or a “milestone in the journey to adulthood”. Some have referred to it as “character building” and a “rite of passage”; others consider it “harmless” and “fun” and for these, ragging seems to bring back nostalgic memories of their student years.

My cousin graduated from the Naval Engineering College at Lonavala about 15 years ago. The first summer he came home, he was unrecognizable. He was gaunt, bone thin, and developed a skin rash that could only be attributed to stress. During ragging he (along with others) was put through unbearable levels of physical pain and mental humiliation. He came close to quitting a few times but somehow pulled through.

But after he got married ( a few years later), when his wife asked him if the ragging at NEC was as bad as she had heard, he shrugged and replied, “It made a man out of me.”

Ragging, on the other hand, portrayed as amusing or hilarious in popular movies like 3 Idiots and Munna Bhai hasn’t helped either.

Ragging is a form of abuse, period. It can be emotional, verbal or physical. It involves repeated, possibly aggressive, humiliating, or manipulative behavior that is deliberately aimed at asserting power over another individual or group. It is harmful to the physical and emotional well being of students, something that any educational institution by its very definition, should be concerned about. In some cases, it can be violent and result in injury or death. Regardless of whether it is mild or severe, it should be treated as unacceptable.

Ragging, bullying, hazing – this destructive behavior goes by different names and takes on various forms around the world.

But it makes one wonder what goes on in these people’s minds? What are they thinking when they insult, humiliate, or harass someone? I’m on the PTA for my son’s high school and bullying is an ever-present concern at the meetings. We’ve had 2 incidents this year, one of them was milder (inappropriate language toward a gay student), but the other involved consistent, deliberate, and elaborately planned out harassment by a group of people toward one student (consistent because the victim remained silent for a longer period before complaining).

In general, education, awareness, strict law enforcement, and counseling definitely minimize/reduce the problem to some extent. There is no doubt in any student’s mind (at my son’s school) that bullying is wrong/unacceptable/illegal.

However there is another side to bullying, one that educational institutions have little control over – the student’s home environment. Despite the education and awareness that is routinely dispensed at the school in the form of talks, fliers, help lines, seminars, text alert systems, counseling, and assertiveness training, bullying still happens. Why? That’s because we don’t have complete control over the environment that creates bullies. How much of bullying happens because some children/youth grow up never learning that it is a serious crime? How many of them have heard it being referred to as something that is “part of life” or a “rite of passage”? Or things like “boys are by nature aggressive” or “boys don’t cry” or “conquer or be conquered”? How many of these children grow up being bullied by the adults who raise them?

We can only look at the behaviors of bullies and find some common underlying issues. Numerous studies indicate that most bullies tend to exhibit the following traits:

  • lacking a sense of control over their own lives
  • anger that is not dealt with constructively and often misdirected
  • low self-esteem
  • may have witnessed violence or aggression at home
  • may have seen power being used unfairly at home
  • may have been bullied by others
  • lacking in empathy
  • lacking in remorse
  • may have experienced harsh, physical punishments at home
  • possibly exposed to only win-lose situations and have seldom seen win-win relationships
  • insufficient or inappropriate socialization during childhood

And then, there are the passive bullies, the ones who don’t initiate the bullying but quickly join in when someone else gets it going. They seem to exhibit the following traits:

  • herd mentality and lack of strong opinions
  • hungry/deprived for attention
  • low self esteem
  • looking for someone ‘superior’ to latch on to
  • tendency to exhibit hero worship and unquestioning loyalty
  • lack of identity and the need to belong

There is a third group that is worth looking at – people who witness bullying. By silently watching a crime, they are knowingly or unknowingly encouraging it. A study titled “Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders” published on athealth.com concludes that “bystanders create the illusion that the bully has the support of the majority and this perception perpetuates a culture of bullying”. These people tend to –

  • not want to get involved and generally don’t take a stand on anything
  • may not connect the dots (if it’s him today, it could be me tomorrow)
  • may not see bullying as a crime and believe it is amusing
  • may be less empathetic
  • may not have been taught self-respect and individual rights in their home environment

What can colleges do to deal with ragging/bullying besides developing a strict code of law and enforcing it?

  • The first thing that comes to mind in terms of solutions is to have a zero tolerance policy or ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ against bullying behavior. But this does not necessarily solve the problem entirely. Bullies have a way of seeking out victims off campus or on social media, via smart phones or in cyber space.
  • It is therefore important for an educational institution to work on the bullying person (or persons) as an individual. Counseling may be needed for the person engaging in this behavior to see his actions as not only criminal but as genuinely wrong and hurtful to others. Counseling may also explore the underlying issues of the individual and find positive ways for him to relate to others and develop acceptable coping mechanisms for issues that cannot be easily resolved.
  • I don’t know if we have counselors at colleges and universities, or if they are trained to guide and support students in addressing their emotional health and development, but if we don’t, we should definitely work toward that goal.

A University of Albany study that examined the relationship between parental aggression toward children and the children’s behavior states that “Parents who may displace their anger, insecurity, or a persistent need to dominate and control upon their children in excessive ways have been proven to increase the likelihood that their own children will in turn become overly aggressive or controlling towards their peers.”

While we need laws against ragging/bullying and we need proper ways to enforce them, preventing bullying behavior primarily begins at home. We need to ask ourselves what we are teaching youngsters in our own homes.

On the communication front –

  • Are we using positive communication to resolve differences with our children and with each other (spouses)?
  • Is the communication style used by parents straightforward and assertive or is it manipulative/sarcastic? Words can often be used in punitive, damaging ways in the form of labeling, veiled threats, and ‘ harmless jokes’ that perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Are we listening to our children when they are angry with someone? Are we showing them ways to resolve their conflicts in acceptable, legal ways?
  • Are we able to handle our own anger at our own problems in a mature and responsible manner?
  • In conflict situations, are we addressing the problem or resorting to personal attacks?

On developing trust and self esteem –

  • Do we trust our children when they complain about abuse? Have we taught them how to stand up to any form of abuse – verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual? Do we take their reports of ragging seriously?
  • Are we helping build their self-esteem by recognizing their strengths and supporting them with their challenges?
  • Are we instilling confidence in them so that they don’t feel the need for approval and/or belonging from the wrong sources?
  • Are we allowing them to develop their own identity so that they don’t feel the need to put someone down to feel superior?

On power play –

  • Are our children engaging in arguments with the sole purpose of ‘winning’ or are they engaging in discussions with the intent of learning?
  • Are we creating a democratic environment at home, with room for different ideas and viewpoints? Are children able to express disagreement without fear? Are they able to express disagreement without shouting or getting abusive with parents?
  • Are we refraining from using intimidation and aggression in the form of a loud voice, physical punishments, and threats?
  • Are we using our power as adults and parents wisely and fairly?
  • Are we showing respect to our children and earning their respect rather than expecting unquestioning obedience?

On values –

  • Are we respecting people of all cultures, communities, and backgrounds both in our words and actions? Or do we make casual racist remarks or put down people based on their caste, color, gender, orientation, or economic status? Do we subtly convey our hatred or mistrust for the ‘other’? (Children pick up on their parents’ prejudices even when they’re not overtly stated.)
  • Are we teaching them what constitutes a crime? Do our children understand that taking away someone else’s right to be educated in a safe, non-threatening environment is a crime?

The above strategies are helpful not only in preventing children from growing up to become bullies, but also in preventing them from becoming victims of bullies.

Again, it would not be entirely wrong to claim that the emotional well being of children is a low priority in traditional hierarchical families and expecting our existing parenting philosophy to change drastically is wishful thinking. However, cynicism is not the answer. I think identifying and defining the problem is the first step and a prerequisite to awareness building and finding solutions.

Bullying gives people a sense of power. It’s up to us to create and promote democratic environments (both at home and educational institutions) that don’t function on the power principle, and instead operate on awareness of individual rights, mutual respect and boundaries.

Please share your experiences with ragging and ideas on how we can change the culture of ragging.

Edited to add: A Boy’s Courage in the Face of Cowardly Bullying:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/autistic-teenager-beaten-up-by-bullies-makes-them-watch-20minute-video-about-autism-10368201.html