The First Lady

Arguably the most important person in the husband’s life and thereby in one’s married life – the ‘mother-in-law’ whom I’d like to address as the First Lady of the house!

I’d heard much about my MIL (mother-in-law) before the wedding – but of course soon realized that nothing can ever prepare you enough to face the real deal! Having grown up in a nuclear family, I was quite unprepared. My notions of a joint family, living with in-laws were ideological in nature – mostly derived from fiction, gossiping friends or the telly. Therefore the expectations set were in most cases unrealistic!

My MIL wasn’t too happy with me as her son’s bride-to-be, mostly because I was a Christian and therefore unsure of the ways of a Hindu household. She was uncertain about my ability to settle into their tradition bound set-up. Every year the extended family came together to celebrate Durga Puja in their native village and everyone pitched in to help – would I be able to fit in? Would the others be able to accept me? As a couple we had decided that I would continue being a practicing Christian and not convert – how would the extended family react to that?

To my credit, I was instantly liked and appreciated for my efforts at the Durga Puja. I wore sari the Bengali way and did everything I was asked to do – making chandan (sandalwood) paste, stringing a garland, giving away prasad (puja offering). I did it because it was an important part of my husband’s life, because I knew that the onus to fit in rested with me as my acceptability into the extended family depended on how I carried myself during those five days.

MIL had grown up with her own prejudices about Christians – and in fact once quite innocently asked me if I could speak in Bengali! At that point I thought it was funny since I was a Bengali Christian and so could definitely speak in my mother tongue. But, was it really funny? After all I was more comfortable conversing and expressing my thoughts and feelings in English rather than Bengali. English was unconsciously the first choice of language when interacting with relations and extended family. Was it any wonder then that she was skeptical about my grasp of the language?

Soon after the wedding when my MIL was travelling, I went about re-decorating the house – the sitting room, kitchen, dining area. This was my home now and I wanted to make MIL happy. I was looking for a pat on the back for a job well done as I thought the re-decoration made the house look even more spacious and welcoming. Two days later after MIL’s return, I came home from office to see that she had changed everything back to what it was earlier! I was taken aback and couldn’t figure out why she’d done that. She didn’t say anything to me for days and then one day unable to stand the silence any longer I asked her. She politely commented, ‘this is my house and since I’m the one who mostly uses the kitchen and dining area, I like to keep things the way that suits my convenience.’

For a long time I was angry and hurt because MIL had in no uncertain terms told me that this wasn’t my house and that without her permission I shouldn’t change anything. What I failed to see and accept then was that it was indeed her home – one that she had painstakingly made her own with years of hard work. How could I, who had just arrived, want to change all that? I didn’t need to do any house work since she took care of everything – shopping, cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Why did I then need to change the set-up which she found most convenient? And more importantly why didn’t I ask if she needed my help without just assuming that I could make a difference? Today, years later I understand her sentiments as I too get upset if anyone makes any changes in my home, my own set-up!

MIL loved to dress up and wear jewellery while I always liked to be just presentable – I would dress according to the occasion and wore minimum jewellery. In the initial years there would always be a war of words as my MIL wanted me to wear practically every piece of jewellery I owned or was given! I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like the understated subtle look I preferred. During one such argument she openly told me ‘I can’t dress up the way I want to because of you. There is no way I can wear jewellery as I will look over dressed in comparison to you. People will say that I have kept all the jewellery to myself and not given you anything!’ I was aghast as that hadn’t crossed my mind but I guess her sensibilities dictated that she be forced to tone down because of my ‘subtle’ fashion statement! I understood that but somehow just couldn’t bring myself to do as she wanted – it still continues to be a bone of contention between us.

When I look back, as advised by the article in Times of India, Bond with your mother-in-law, I too had tried to be polite if she picked on me, tried to please her when she asked for my help, tried to mask my feelings by putting myself in her shoes to figure out why she behaved the way she did, tried to build a rapport by being open about my feelings and sometimes I also resorted to humour to lighten the situation. MIL too in her own ways failed trying to mould me into her ‘ideal’ daughter-in-law.

I complained to my husband whenever I had an issue with my MIL which was almost every other day! I still remember the night when in frustration he burst out, ‘you’re always complaining about her and she’s always complaining about you. Where do I go? Why don’t you understand that I’m hurting the most trying to balance between you both?’ He sounded miserable and for the first time it struck me that in our own ways we were making his life a living hell. That night I vouched that I wouldn’t complain to him again. Of course, I wasn’t successful but did try to keep my opinions to myself. I dealt with it the way I knew how but this in turn led to even more trouble. My silence was viewed as arrogance. In my attempt to avoid conflict I had in turn allowed everyone to assume the worst about me.

When my husband was offered an opportunity to work in Mumbai I was super thrilled – it was a means to escape the ‘respectable’ way – it meant living away from my in-laws without having to create a scene. Unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I thought it would. My in-laws and extended family taunted that I had broken up the family while my husband too felt pressurised that he had to leave his home for me. When I heard this I was devastated as in no way was that my intention – more so I had quit my job believing the move would make our lives better, there would be no visible conflict and it would definitely be a good career move for my husband.

Years later, I still carry that burden but believe it has worked out for all of us. The love that was almost at break-point was resurrected and we found each other again in the new city. Professionally my husband’s done extremely well, his view of life changed and today he is a better man. My MIL who had her own issues to deal with realises some of my worth (I’d like to believe!) when she sees us together, sees that her son is happy or compares me with her other daughter-in-law. With the birth of my daughter I’ve truly understood the meaning of being a mother and the innate protectiveness one feels when someone else tries to take my place – somewhere it’s helped me understand my MIL better.

Books, articles, researches, discussions about how to deal with the MIL are freely available but no one really teaches you how to ‘live’ with one. That is something that we each have to figure out on our own as every “mother-in-law – daughter-in-law” unit is unique with their own sets of baggage, needs, outlook and expectations. The “son” is as important to both parties but one has to acknowledge that the mother is the first woman in his life and he’s grown up being moulded by her. For some it’s difficult and ego battles are inevitable while there are others who have been able to live in harmony. There aren’t any easy answers but only those that one can find for themselves on their own – those that suit them and their situation.

In my case what is most important today is that we have each made peace with the situation. We’re still in touch, my daughter spends quality time with her grandmother, we’re together during Durga Puja yet we have our own separate lives.

Are we happy? I know I am.

This post was featured in BlogAdda’s Tangy Tuesday Picks on 26 November 2013