Thursday, 15 January 2009


i've been hearing some awful stories about mothers-in-law lately. mothers of sons, that would be. no doubt there are plenty of wonderful mothers-in-law out there (of whom i do hear about), and no doubt there are some who are nasty to their daughter's spouses too (who somehow have thus far escaped my notice, but i know you're out there!).

but let me get back to the first category. mothers of sons, who give the wives of their sons all kinds of hell. i'm not talking about violence here (though i'm sure that happens), but more a kind of demanding attitude. it's like no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, it's never enough for the prince they have given birth to.

some recent examples of expectations:
- "once my son comes home from work, he shouldn't even have to get a glass of water for himself"
- "so what if you're feeling too tired to go out; if he wants you to go, you should go"
- "those chapatis you made 10 minutes ago are stale now, make some fresh ones" (this to a working woman mother who gets no help with the housework)

there's plenty more where that came from. and i just don't get it. how can you stop seeing your daughter-in-law as a human being? how can you not care about her health and well-being, but only care about that of your own offspring? it's just bizarre. the funniest thing (well funny in a tragic sort of way) is that the mothers themselves had usually had horrendous treatment from their own mothers-in-law, and are thus devoid of sympathy. that's right. they think "oh she has it so easy compared to what i had to go through", so try to make it that much tougher.

whatever. there are, of course, daughters-in-law that fight back. which tends (in these cases) to lead to a pissed off husband, as well as the whole rest of his family, and so her life is more difficult rather than less. or she could leave. if she hasn't been conditioned from childhood against leaving and has been brought up to believe this is her cross to bear. she may just not want to break up her family, or she may not feel able to cope with trying to survive on her own. it's just ugly all around.

being a mother of daughters, i can never become this kind of person. though no doubt i could be an awful mother-in-law to the husbands of my girls, should i so choose. hopefully i won't so choose, but if they find misogynist husbands who won't help around the house & with the kids, it'll be very difficult. very difficult indeed!

as i said at the beginning, this post is a result of stories i've been told recently, and i'm wondering why i don't hear so much about awful fathers-in-law. in the situations i've outlined above, the mothers-in-law have either been widowed, or their husbands seem to be very much in the background. maybe fathers-in-law who have a nasty streak save it for their sons-in-law; and since i don't know any guys that would be confiding their family troubles to me, i don't get to hear about it.

but the things i have heard do disturb me, particularly when i see young mothers with shadows under their eyes and with little support. it shouldn't have to be this way.


Carol said...

This doesn't match up with my family experience. My mother and sister-in-law (my brother's wife) were very close and mutually supportive. They got on extremely well together.

Deborah said...

But it does with mine, 'though I get the NZer-of-European-descent version of it. My sister-in-law and I form a little support group whenever either of us have to deal with our mother-in-law. Her attitude is one of treating us like servants, all under a veneer of being pleasant and nice and friendly, albeit in very patronising manner.

In the last few years I've started to refuse to do the "women-work" in the family, and I leave it up to my partner to call his family, stay in touch with them, remember birthdays and all that. It's very empowering.

Julie said...

My own mother-in-law is great, but I have definitely seen what you describe happen to others. One particular mother-in-law I can think of plays extreme favourites with her grandchildren, favouring one set (her daughter's children) over another (her son's children), which the son didn't really notice but had a very detrimental impact on the daughter-in-law. (I hope that made sense)

My father's mother died when I was very young, and I have no idea what she was like to my mum. But I do suspect that rifts within the family that have continued far past the generation they originated with might have influenced the way she treated Mum. Grandma's experience as a woman spurned and divorced much against her will, for another woman, may have coloured her reaction to my mother forming a relationship with Dad, because Mum was a divorcee with a child. I'm just speculating, but so often there is a depth to the problems in a family that isn't immediately obvious even to insiders.

The ex-expat said...

The Suit's mother loves me to bits but that might be because she loathes his ex wife. She has a good relationship with her other daughter in law.

Actually the situation you talk about reminds me a bit of the situation in Korea. Eldest sons in particular are to be avoided because of all the family obligations that go along with it. I had a relationship end because the parents found out I wasn't Korean and that was never going to be able to take care of their son. I think they did me a big favour.

stargazer said...

carol, as i said at the beginning, i know there are wonderful mothers-in-law out there, and it's good to hear the positive stories as well.

since most of you are mothers, do you ever think about what kind of mothers-in-law you are going to be? for your daughters as well as your sons? i'd just be interested in hearing...

Giovanni said...

In certain cultures (including mine) the servitude of the daughter in law to the mother in law was firmly enshrined in the marriage bargain. My own grandmother lamented to me once that she had been a daughter in law, but never a mother in law, and I couldn't understand what she meant (since in literal terms she had been both) until my mother explained it to me: she had been a servant of her mother in law, but by the time she became a mother in law herself, the culture had changed and there was simply no way she could expect to demand those services herself.

Could it be that the behaviours you describe can be explained in part as (unconscious, subconscious) cultural relics?

stargazer said...

yup, absolutely. and not relics either. this is living cultural reality, as of now. not so formal an expectation as what you describe used to happen in italy, and the servitude required is to the son, not to the mother.

Julie said...

Gosh, I hadn't even thought of myself as a future mother-in-law!

I'd like to think I wouldn't have harsh expectations. My parents only had daughters, and we both married men they like immensely. I'm not sure what they were like with my sister's boyfriends, but with mine they were always friendly and welcoming and didn't communicate any disapproval. It wasn't until about two years after the end of a particular relationship that I found out my father had strongly disliked that boyfriend. So my role models have been pretty good I hope!

Julie said...

Thinking a bit more, I wonder how the dynamic differs in same-sex relationships. Obviously there are often situations where parents don't accept the partner because they don't accept their child's sexuality. But more and more that doesn't seem to be the case. So what are the expectations I might have of a future son-in-law?? No bloody idea!

muerk said...

I've seen Bollywood movies with this theme.

stargazer said...

you've seen bollywood movies? tell us more!

and most of the bollywood movies in the 60's had this theme. not much these days though, buth then i hardly watch anything from bollywood anymore.

stargazer said...

oh, and wasn't there a jane fonda & jennifer lopez movie on this a couple of years back? monster-in-law IIRC.

the Scarlet Manuka said...

My wife gets a bit of this from her own parents, as her health prevents her working the second shift. They haven't come out with it directly, but she used to get all sorts of impractical encouragement in that direction. I also got heaps of credit in a way which implied that she wasn't keeping up her end of the bargain. It's not that they blame her, so much as feel that their team hasn't done its part - they'd chip in a lot more themselves if we didn't find it disrupts our coping routines.

My in-laws are generally progressive, and would strenuously deny that they thought a woman's place was to pamper her husband, so I take this problem as an indication of how strong the socialisation has been. I do think that it is fading in NZ, which is good.

And since you asked about Fathers-in-law, I would say that there is often an expectation that you provide well for his daughter. I won't claim that it is quite so strong as the expectation on wives, but do note that there are clear gender lines and suggest that mostly the women talk to each other about their sphere and the men theirs. Which must make same-sex relationships complicated, as Julie noted.

Cactus Kate said...

That's ok girls never fear.

Women like myself are shagging their husbands while these women spend all day and night bitching about the poor woman my age who married their son.

I could write a book about the complaints I get from husbands on exactly the same topic - nagging about what the daughter in law is like to compensate for the fact that the in-law is a boring old trollop.

Giovanni said...

Women like myself are shagging their husbands while these women spend all day and night bitching about the poor woman my age who married their son.

Okay, I may be following you here. Stress on "may".

I could write a book about the complaints I get from husbands on exactly the same topic - nagging about what the daughter in law is like to compensate for the fact that the in-law is a boring old trollop.

Okay, now you've lost me: who's the in-law? the wife of the husband who's doing the complaining? the husband's own in-law?

I'm going to need a diagram!

Anonymous said...

I have also married into a culture with strong female hierarchies and my husband is his mother's only child, no less. However, maybe it's because we have always lived at some distance from the in-laws but I don't resent any of this, I wish I could do more to support my mother-in-law. She has spent her entire life supporting her extended family and my husband and I feel like while I am youngish with some energy it is right that I should do things that would help her to take it easy. We send some money to them each month but she still has to have a part-time job and I am hoping my husband or I will get a pay rise soon so we can send more and she won't have to work.

When she gets older it is quite likely we will have to move back to my husband's home country so that we can take care of her and take on responsibilities like looking after the family graves etc, this is slightly daunting but I appreciate that this is something that will just have to happen.


muerk said...


I've seen heaps of Bollywoods. I'm a regular fan (so is my husband). My favorite movie and soundtrack is "Om Shanti Om". I listen to the music as well as watch the films :)

Oh I wish I could see Ghajini on the big screen. Although to be fair, I don't live in Wellington or Auckland where they screen Bollywoods, and I can't speak Hindi and it's unlikely to play on the big screen with subtitles.

The film I'm thinking of is one with Jonny Lever, "Beti No. 1".

Here's the IMDB synopsis:

"Durga Devi has three sons, Ram, Laxman and Bharat. She wants a heir to carry the family name forward. Ram and Laxman are married and have so far only produced girls, much to their mother's disgust. So when Bharat marries Priya, she is expecting them to have a son. But Priya delivers a baby girl. Anticipating the mother's anger, they hide the gender of the child initially, and subsequently; switch their child with another male child, thus giving rise to more conflicts."

It's a comedy, but it's also a very pointed attack on horrible mother-in-laws.

I studied Hinduism and Sanskrit at uni. All my boys have Indian middle names. We have Jasvindar, Chandra, Ramanujan, and Keshev.

stargazer said...

wow, that's pretty amazing. as i've said, i don't watch hardly any bollywood anymore - i got fed up with some of the stereotypes, particularly against non-resident indians who are portrayed as not culturally pure nor nationalistic enough (see bride & prejudice for a wonderful example, oh mr kohli), amongst other things. one of which is that they very rarely portray mothers-in-law in a positive way - they've been a common female villain in the past. balance is all that i ask for!

but, i actually watched a bollywood film this month with ashwariya rai and ajay devgan called "raincoat". it's definitely worth watching. it's quite slow & a bit heavy going at times, and yet quite a sweet story with a lot of subtext. nothing to do with inlaws though!

muerk said...

I've seen Raincoat. It's a very good film, but not one to watch when you need a lift. It's beautifully acted though.

One of my favorites is Devdas. I also like Chokar Bali. I ended up buying some of Rabindranath Tagore's writing because of it.

One movie I didn't like was Race. There was no obvious good guy, they were all selfish and bad. And the music and dancing wasn't that hot either. I just didn't like any of the characters. It came out last year.

Julie said...

Earlier in the week I heard a woman complaining about how she had sore muscles because she'd done some gardening at her son's house, and the son had said he would dig the holes but he didn't. But the fault was not the son's, it was the daughter-in-law's as she didn't help, and being five weeks pregnant is not an illness or anythiing. Sigh. I asked why the son didn't just dig the holes as planned and apparently it was because he didn't have a spade.