Though the relationship has inspired countless TV serials and novels, nothing comes close to the drama it generates in real life
A close friend who has been living with her in-laws for almost 10 years said the other day: “So, I read on the internet that if you re-arrange the letters in ‘mother-in-law’ you get ‘Woman Hitler’.” The company of married women griping against their mothers-in-law roared with laughter. How many of us have had coffee table discussions and telephone conferences with our confidantes starting with “So my mother-in-law said the other day...”? On the flipside, mothers-in-law have their own litany of complaints against their daughters-in-law, unceasingly dropping hints about the disappointment that they turned out to be and sighing over how things were different in their days.
The complex and unresolved tension that this notorious relationship poses to both mothers and daughters has been the subject of countless books, movies and TV serials but no fictional depiction comes close to the drama it generates in real life. Listen to any daughter or mother-in-law and there is an acute dearth of uniqueness in the complaints coming from either side: she goes to her mother’s house too often; his mother wants to cut me off from my own family. She neglects the children for her job; she wanted an educated, working daughter-in-law — why have her priorities changed now? She refuses to mingle with the family; his mother gives us zero privacy.
But there are some who claim they’ve faced unheard of situations. “My mother-in-law accompanied us to our honeymoon,” says Amina* who has been married for five years. “I don’t have a single memory with my husband which isn’t tainted by her unpleasant presence. She is like the other woman in our relationship — the other woman I can never compete with.”
Rabiya*, a mother of two, says, “The key is to put your foot down the very first day. My mother-in-law re-arranged my room in my absence in the very first week of my marriage. I could either have stayed quiet or done something.” What did she do? “Without raising a fuss, I told the servants to put every single thing back the way it had been,” she smiles. The strategy worked in Rabiya’s case but those with strong-willed mothers-in-law will tell you that turf wars are long and debilitating, and are rarely settled in a single battle. While mothers-in-law may have a hard time giving their bahus personal space, daughters-in-law may resent their lack of control over how the household is run. And this situation can persist for years, with grievances piling up on both sides.
But 40-year-old Amara who has been married for almost 20 years has a different tale to tell. Her husband is usually away for business and she shares most of her domestic life with her three children, one of whom is an infant, and her mother-in-law. “I think she is more of a husband than her son,” she says. “We’ve become so used to each others company that I can’t even go buying groceries unless I ask her to come with me.”
Things weren’t always like this, she explains. “There was a tooth and nail fight to bring peace to the house,” she says. “My husband is an attention-seeker and so is his mom. When I first got married, I stuck out like a sore thumb in this perfect family of four sisters and one brother.”
Amara* thinks that it was her refusal to whine and cry that helped her turn things around. Rather than brushing things under the carpet, she addressed each and every issue. She thinks that most daughters-in-law start off with a victim mentality which is why they are unable to change things in their household.
The other side of the story
Mrs Asfandyar*, a widow from Karachi, brought up her only son as a single mother but when he married his class fellow, she wasn’t able to cultivate the relationship she had hoped for with her daughter-in-law. “I’ve been bringing her presents from the day they first got engaged: clothes, jewelry, cutlery, everything. But I’ve never seen her use any of it. Either the dress is not her colour, or the cutlery is too expensive for daily use. I believe she passes them on to her sisters — there has to be a place where everything goes!” says Mrs. Asfandyar.
While most daughters-in-law call their mothers-in-law constant criticising machines, the latter resent the secretive behaviour that ends up isolating them from their sons.
Zahida* thinks her daughter-in-law has a superiority complex which makes her reject everything coming from her mother-in-law. “My son asked me to help him furnish the guest area in his farm house. And guess what? Most of the things that I brought were taken away and changed within no time. I felt so insulted; it was like I have bad taste. She even said that their children should share her father’s surname after my son’s because it would give them a sense of identity — a complete identity. Imagine!”
Saima*, who likes to introduce herself as a proud grandmother of 15, says she has an amazing relationship with her husband and wished all her daughters-in-law did the same but “unfortunately, today women are too wrapped up in themselves; their husbands and children are secondary.”
“I have nothing against my daughters-in-law,” she shrugs. “I had just hoped they would be more attentive to their home and children, and less into shopping and socialising.”
Although she calls herself the head of the family, she blames her sons for not putting their foot down as far as her daughters-in-law are concerned. She contrasts their lives with her own; as the wife of the eldest son, she had responsibilities towards her parents-in-law and her husband’s seven siblings. “My mother-in-law never let him out of her sight. He would be her chaperon to family gatherings while I was the eldest bhabi, baby-sitting his siblings. Against that, my daughters-in-law are lucky to have someone like me as their mother-in-law.”
The saga continues
“I love my husband to death but I can never make myself like his mother even remotely,” says Samra* unequivocally, crystallising the sentiments of many a woman. To her, the worst part of the day is the morning tea which she takes with her saas when no one else is home. Though she strives to make conversation and politely agrees with her opinions, she keeps waiting for the phone call from her sister which comes at noon everyday and brings the ordeal to an end.
“I have a mother to love and she has her two daughters. Who are we fooling? Any woman who says she is a daughter to her mother-in-law lies!” says Samra*.
Although fathers-in-law usually keep their distance from volatile situations and refrain from actively taking sides in this relationship “mine is like the long-lost sister my mother-in-law never had. The two gang up against me and my husband like we are a pair of teenagers,” says Samra*.
So is there a solution to the impasse? While some saas-bahus may have found the ideal balance, most testify that the relationship is a source of daily stress and advocate disengagement and distancing.
“I will soon be in my 40s and more concerned about my children’s education, marriage and house,” says Samra*. “The energy that I have now will leave me and I want to have fun rather than trying to please my mother-in-law.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 21st, 2013.
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