Mother-in-laws typically get bad press. Popular culture pretty much anywhere in the world portrays the mother-in-law as some sort of archetypal villain who remains hell-bent on making the life of her daughter-in-law as miserable as possible. Naturally, this is an exaggeration, although I have little doubt that many women will be emphatically nodding away while reading this. May I take this opportunity to remind the vast majority of sisters, that you will one day, God-willing, assume this pejorative mantle and therefore a little sympathy and humility for all mother-in-laws, no matter their “crime(s)”, would not go amiss. I must confess that it may seem a little strange for a man to be writing on a topic such as this, but I am sure you will agree after reading further that the man, who is son, husband and son-in-law is in a most interesting position for commenting on this area. A caveat however that my analysis of what is often a ‘complex’ relationship between mother and daughter-in-law will necessarily be limited for that very reason. I cannot hope, without devoting a significant portion of my life to the task, to achieve a thorough and comprehensive exposition of this topic, but as I intend it only as food for thought, the reader will have to suffice with only a partial analysis of a complex issue.
While never having consulted any form of census or statistic on the matter, I feel that I am on safe ground, anecdotally speaking of course, when I say that most people have immense sympathy for daughter-in-laws (DILs) and their mothers. There is a particular moment, certainly in Pakistani weddings, just before the happy couple climbs into the car to be whisked away to start their life together, that the inevitable and much anticipated moment occurs when the bride and her mother hug and begin to cry. The mother-in-law (MIL) who will typically accompany her son and future DIL in the car, lays a hand of consolation on the shoulder of her counterpart and tells her that she will look after her daughter as if she were her own. The mother of the bride at that moment starts to sob even louder, suffering in the knowledge that having once been a DIL herself, she knows what her poor child has to look forward to. Indeed, even guests and onlookers are by no means neutral bystanders, their sympathies are firmly aligned with the suffering of the bride and her mother, who are viewed as tragic heroines in the saga of life that is about to unfold.
Mothers devote their lives to their children unconditionally. Ok, well most mothers do. They nurse them from a young age, they clean them, cook for them, feed them, stay up long hours with them when they are unwell, drive them to matches, to tuition, arrange activities for them and support them through the difficult periods of their life. In the case of the groom’s mother, what most people miss when they consider her the ‘luckier’ of the two MILs is that she, after having spent the last two decades watching, guiding, helping and supporting her son, has to accept a girl walking into his life and achieving a privileged exclusivity over him that only until the day before belonged solely to her. She realises that she will no longer be the primary recipient of any news in his life, whether good or bad. She realises that when her son makes plans about his life, he will no longer consult with her, not initially anyway, but with that practical stranger who now holds the keys to her son’s mind. While it is obvious to point out to the groom’s mother that her own son came into being through her union with a man who also had a mother, all rational thought and logic is simply irrelevant in front of the raw and emotionally charged state that the mother remains in, until she can come to terms with losing her son, because that, in essence, is what has occurred. One might respond and sensibly suggest that the process is no different for the bride’s mother who has equally lost out, but I would like to propose that while there are clear similarities between both, there are also significant differences that we cannot ignore.
Now it is true to say that whether a girl or boy marries, they are both leaving their families and forming another unit; in that sense, both families suffer a sense of ‘loss’. Traditionally speaking, the feeling of absence is expected to be more profound within the girl’s family, because she leaves her home to live with her husband and most probably in the house of his parents (well almost certainly in London with the state of house prices and rent!). The girl’s eventual transition to her husband’s home however, while unquestionably challenging, is somewhat ‘tempered’ by the fact that she and her parents have been mentally preparing for this moment for quite some time now and, arguably for her parents, since the time she was born. So, while there are and must be tears on the wedding day, her parents’ mental preparedness for their impending ‘loss’ means that they eventually learn to cope with their daughter’s absence.
The mother of the boy however is in an entirely different situation. While her counterpart begins a new life exempt from the responsibilities of direct motherhood, the boy’s mother at a more advanced stage in her life has the difficult and arduous task of having to build, negotiate and form a relationship with a previously unknown but now integral member of the family. Complicating the process of developing this relationship is the mother’s sudden and unsuspected sense of loss and disempowerment. Despite having lived in her own house as the matriarch, typically used to having access to her children without restriction, she must now contend with and get used to the idea that her married son’s obligations and allegiances are divided. Society has always primed her to believe that she is the one who gets to keep her cake and devour it, however, unlike her counterpart who is resigned to not having her daughter in the house any longer, she ‘sees’ her son every day, but in reality she sees less of him all the time. The newly-wed groom is naturally interested in spending time with his more recent companion and they are inevitably found spending most of their time in their room or going out together. The half an hour he may have spent with his mother once upon a time talking about what happened in his day, telling her how his manager has been giving him a hard time, or how congested the tube was because of works taking place on a particular route, however mundane or trivial those conversations may have been, post-marriage, they are now replaced simply with “Salām”. Men fail to realise that the moments they spent with their mothers, even if they were by way of routine or habit, are ones that their mothers begin to miss, contributing ultimately to that sense of loss. It is in this perfectly normal and healthy development of relations between the newly-weds that the boy’s mother can experience an unsettling feeling and, in some instances, even feel a little threatened.
Some weeks, months or even a year into the marriage, the groom’s mother is in a perpetual state of disquiet. Her situation is one that most readers will have experienced in their lives at some point of feeling particularly miserable without being able to pinpoint the cause. A state of anxiety creates cognitive dissonance and prevents her from being able to think clearly, however, it seems inescapable that her current predicament is rooted in the arrival of the new DIL. The now significantly reduced verbal and physical contact between mother and son is not taken at face value and understood for what it is, simply the newly-weds getting to know one another, but is somehow misunderstood as the DIL trying to pull her husband away from his family. An innocent mistake of the DIL forgetting to complete a request is conceived as wilful disobedience. A spate of take-away dinners is indicative of a reckless spendthrift. Difficulty in managing only one child receives little sympathy from the MIL who raised several children single handed without the modern luxuries afforded to the mothers of today. The list is tragically endless and the DIL, even if she never heard a bad word from the mouth of her MIL, is only too aware of the awkward silences, the facial contortions, the light hearted put downs, the less than enthusiastic way her MIL introduces her to her friends, the avoidance of eye-contact, the disinterested tone with which her MIL speaks to her own mother and other such pejorative cues, which naturally cause her to begin to distance herself from her MIL. Suffer as she does, the DIL only naturally begins to put some distance between herself and her MIL. This only exacerbates the issue by confirming the MIL’s ‘suspicion’ that she is a bad penny which tragically, yet inevitably, creates a vicious cycle.
The idea therefore, that the MIL can in any way be a victim of situation and circumstance will probably have some DILs who have not yet become MILs hurling abuse at me through their electronic devices. It is far easier to simply adopt a culture of blame, find a scapegoat and feel better; that, after all, is what homo-sapiens do best. Being of Pakistani origin, I have admittedly devoted significant man hours to watching Pakistani dramas where the villain is almost always the MIL. They typically start off with the MIL making the life of her DIL miserable, only for the series to conclude with the beautiful character, patience and perseverance of the DIL eventually overcoming her MIL, who ends up begging her DIL for forgiveness. Drama or theatre as an art form used to express an idea or a set of ideas can be extremely powerful, but playing out dramas to simply embarrass MILs or future MILs into behaving better with their DILs borders on the myopic and irresponsible. The MIL is simply shown as being wicked, deceitful, destructive, manipulative, uncaring, arrogant, but there is never any analysis about the cause; why does the MIL behave in that way to begin with? ‘Enlightened’ thinkers and activists are attempting to change culture and free DILs in the present and future from suffering any further oppression from their MILs; to empower them and disempower their oppressors. In their attempt to do so however, are they simply swinging the balance to the other side? Do they believe that the very causes which give rise to the issues discussed will simply evaporate or disappear? What might happen is that MILs, now mindful of the type of scrutiny they are under, will attempt to bottle up the feelings that they cannot understand. Is it indeed possible that this could potentially lead to mounting resentment and hatred which continues to simmer under the surface until such time that it cannot be contained?
This is not a plea to let MILs undermine and abuse their DILs, not in the slightest. What it is, however, is a call for all to consider and examine the possible causes that lead some women to behave in the way that they do and to help deal with those causes where possible. For some, menopause could be a contributing factor. In others it could be that having been full-time mothers, now freed from parental responsibility, they begin to suffer from anxiety and depression stemming from the feeling of being worthless and unable to contribute positively to their family unit. It could indeed be multiple factors culminating to produce the type of behaviours in the MIL that I have previously discussed.
It is difficult to imagine that any mother would wish to intentionally cause her son difficulty and upset by initiating problems between him and his wife. If the distress and anxiety of her son were to be manifested in a way that a mother not only understood, but felt his pain, she would change every fibre in her body to save her child from even the smallest trifle. Unfortunately, men seem to poorly communicate their feelings constructively and especially those who are still relatively young. If such problems between MILs and DILs do arise in the household, the young man often finds himself caught between a rock and hard place leading to one of two choices. He will either side unfairly with his mother or his wife and, in doing so, will slowly erode the relationship with the opposing party or, what ‘seems’ to be more common among the current generation is to ignore both sides until the problem gets to a point where, no longer able to deal with the mounting anxiety, his frustration is released inappropriately.
At this point there will be a desire to read some wise words directing people to do x, y, z to resolve all these issues in a few sentences. It goes without saying that if the matter was that straightforward, I would probably not be writing this piece. The advice can only be general, because the specifics of every family’s circumstance will vary. All the main parties in the family dynamic must play a role and I address what each could/should do in turn.
To the father-in-law, your responsibility is to ensure that you remain as neutral as possible. You must recognise the challenges that all members of your family will go through, existing and those who have recently joined. You must not sit as judge and executioner, but more as a conductor who, having analysed and understood the different personalities in your orchestra, must direct them to achieve familial harmony.
To the newly-wed groom, a position I held some moons ago, I would advise you to take your spouse into confidence about the potential difficulties that could arise with your mother and ask for her understanding. This does not mean under any circumstance that you will side with your mother unfairly and ignore your wife, but there has to be a gradual process of moving from the first woman in your life to the second. Sudden change is not tolerated well by people and so the time that you used to give your mother, if at all, should be maintained and exclusively for her so that she feels she still has importance in your life. Your job is to merge the two women together in friendship and some of the ways in which you could achieve this is by making open and clear gestures of seeking your mother’s advice, approval and making a point of sometimes giving her the good/bad news in your life first. This will all contribute to securing her confidence with you and eliminating any negative feelings towards your spouse. The efforts that your spouse makes, if she does so, should be recognised and rewarded with respect, honour and a commitment to fulfilling her needs to the extent of your ability. It is a two-way street; if you expect your wife to make sacrifices and she does not feel that you are a source of support for her, she will eventually and undoubtedly break down and give up. Finally, ensure that you communicate well. Never bury your head in the sand and hope for problems to ‘go away’, as they rarely do and only increase in their intensity. Never listen to one side of an argument and assume the other is at fault and always be ready to seek advice and support from elders.
To the newly-wed bride, the one who has moved away from her own house to devote her life to a man she hardly knows and to live amongst an entirely new family, the greatest burden, but inshāAllāh reward too, falls on you. The role of women as homemakers and teachers of the next generation has been so utterly undermined and trivialised that there seems to be little incentive for women to carry out this critical role. It is women who have the temperament to build homes, keep families together and patiently bring up children.
In my own case, I owe a debt of eternal thanks and gratitude to my wife, who, understanding the importance of all relationships will often remind me to visit my elderly grandmother on a regular basis. Consumed with work and my own family, extended family members are often overlooked, but it has been her constant reminders and encouragement to visit relatives, as well as her willingness to build relationships with them that has earned her significant respect and much love. Unfortunately, younger women in the West have been brought up in a climate that does not always promote these ideals and values, so when they join a family, they do not understand how to build a home. They seemed to be concerned solely with their own husband and their own needs. They may have been told by friends and even by family I daresay not to roll over and become a doormat for the ‘in-laws’, but whilst I agree that no one should be reduced to virtual slavery, the bride is the new member of the family and must establish her position there, and such is human nature: the more that she cares for her ‘in-laws’, if she’s married into an ‘educated (in morals and values)’ family, the more her in-laws will care for her. Hard-work and compromise are two important factors in a successful marriage. The hard-work initially is to build your place. Build it by being a support to your husband in growing the love between him and his family and to do that you must become an integral member yourself. There is no cheerleading from the side-lines, becoming part of a community is to immerse yourself and be a willing participant.
To the mother-in-law, like your DIL, you are also entering into the difficulty of having to negotiate terms and understandings with a woman who will take over the care and attention that you used to lavish on your child. He will turn to her, find solace in her, feel comfort in her and spend his free time devoting attention to her, while in the background, the one who gave up her life for him watches as another benefits from the fruit of that hard-work. Your DIL is as much to blame as you were when you married your husband. It was society in all its wretchedness that made you feel that somehow you would feel on top of the world when your son got married, but the truth is that you have mixed feelings and when the temporary euphoria of the wedding and the parties subsides and a sense of emptiness becomes deeper and more profound, you must resist the temptation to lay those feelings at the door of the innocent. The truth is that your burden is not too dissimilar to your DIL’s. It is a trying time for the both of you, but instead of competing for the love of your son, a love that you already possess, building trust and eventually love with your DIL will leave you in profit of another child. Your DIL will be young, from a different generation, possibly from a different culture, different background, different understandings and all this increases the challenge of creating bonds of affection, but only you can create the fertile environment that will allow the seed of happiness to grow and blossom in your household. My mother often says that being a mother never stops and so as you took it upon yourself to create a home, an environment where your children would feel loved, protected and could thrive, open the same home for your DIL and take on the responsibility of inducting her with love and honour, in the same way that you would wish for your daughter’s MIL to do with her. Your role is to make her part of your family, not to compete with her and keep assessing her competence as a wife and mother.
I ask Allāh to bless this effort if it was sincere and for people to benefit from it if nothing else but as a point of reflection. I pray that Allāh grants us all the tawfīq to be able to examine our own souls and challenge the very worst parts of our behaviours that could be a cause of anxiety and distress for others. Finally, I ask Allāh that He join our hearts in love and affection for His sake. Āmīn.