Losing your home twice over!

A random conversation after lunch one afternoon amidst three daughters-in-law (DIL) revealed a startling truth. The youngest amongst the three stated, “mera ghar kahan hain?” (read where is my home?) She continued, “my parents tell me that my husband’s house is my home now while in different ways I’m made to feel like an outsider in that house. So, I really don’t have a home to call my own!”

There was much sadness in her voice. For a moment, there was silence as each one of them felt the same way.

Second DIL added, “I’ve been brought up in a home where girls are revered. We were loved, taken care of, educated and allowed to take up any job or travel on work. Our every whim and fancy was taken care of. That same house (in a way) wrote us off after marriage saying that the property will always have to stay within the family and so would only belong to the son. Even after marriage we would be taken care of, if needed but we would have no say in the family property.”

So, the third DIL, wondered aloud, ‘then what is home? What does it mean to us, as women? We all have daughters, what should we teach them?’

Home is defined as the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. But home is so much more than just a place to live in! It’s where you run to in your hour of need, fear, anxiety. It provides you solace and peace of mind. It protects you from the harshness of the world, allows you to be yourself, takes care of you. It also provides a sense of belongingness and identity.

The second DIL continued, ‘after a really long day at work, I returned home to take care of my cranky 2-year-old daughter. I was very tired and happened to leave my clothes in my mother-in-law’s (MIL) room and forgot to remove them. Instead of simply telling me to do so, she took a picture and forwarded it to her son on Whatsapp and said, “look at what I have to deal with. I have to take care of her clothes also. Does she think that it’s my responsibility to do her work?” One fleeting moment of tiredness led to an evening of unrest at home.’

The third DIL concurred, ‘I have to constantly remind my MIL (in different ways), that this isn’t only your son’s house, it’s mine too! Along with your son, I pay an equal amount of the EMI!’

There is a deeper power play that happens within a home. It’s about control, asserting one’s existence while negating the other’s. It’s also a way to keep women from becoming too comfortable. Being a guest in your own house ensures you’re always living in uncertainty.

One may opt to live separately after marriage instead of moving in with in-laws, but the fact remains that it’s not recognized as your own house. Most often when in-laws come travelling they tend to instil a semblance of their own value system and rules into your home as if they have the right of way and believe that their son wants the same. It’s not mandatory of course, to ask for permission.

It’s generally accepted that the MIL behaves the same way she was treated when she was a young bride. But isn’t this explanation too simple?

When bringing up daughters’ parents tend to do everything in their power to give them a happy childhood within a loving home. They empower them to create their haven there and yet these same parents when marrying off their daughter, retract from that logic saying your husband’s home is your home now! How does that help? And the icing on the cake is that they feel that their daughters are “lucky” to have a place of her own (read husband’s house). Really?!

Yes, there are men who strongly believe that their wives have equal right to their homes too. They’re life partners and as such building a life time of togetherness does call for sharing everything equally. But there are also men who listen and understand a wife’s lament, agree to her sentiments yet simultaneously listen to every word their mother’s say. Is it only because they don’t want to get caught up in the crossfire and don’t want to be seen taking sides? Isn’t that explanation equally simple too?

So, what’s the solution? Should girls be encouraged to become established in their careers, become financially independent, buy their own place (no matter how big or small, how far or near) with their own money before they marry? They might put it up on rent or sell or keep it locked up. But at least they’ll have a place to call their own.

Or should girls be taught to ask for their rights as they deem fit – either at their parental home or in-laws. Women are taught to be strong and independent, then why take away their basic right to a home?



Moving Out

Are Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek moving out of the Bachchan residence?

Recently read this article about possible friction between Aishwarya Rai and her mother-in-law and felt compelled to write about it as it brought back memories.

news agency highlighted “…for 6 years now after their marriage, they have been part of a traditional Indian joint family. As Mr and Mrs Bachchan Junior, they have lived with Abhishek’s parents Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, celebrating Diwali, Karva Chauth and birthdays together.”

In yet another, Abhishek Bachchan is seen denying this as a rumour. I’m not here to question their decision or to pass moral judgement – but it’s interesting to note that pretences continues to be a part and parcel of almost every other Indian marriage! Whatever the truth why does one feel compelled to deny, perhaps a simple truth? Why is moving out frowned upon so much? Why isn’t it acceptable that a couple for whatever reason may want to live on their own?

In most instances, even today moving into the family home is tradition, a natural progression for newly wedded couples. Sometimes I feel that it is the fortunate few who skip this step if they happen to live in different cities. Just hope someday this becomes a choice that is openly welcome. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the norm since there are families who adapt well, find enormous emotional and infrastructural support during emergencies and crisis and live together in harmony while there are others who are compelled to stay together because of business, financial or personal reasons.

Marriage is a new phase, a new beginning for every couple including those having a love marriage. When I married it was assumed that we would be living with my in-laws. It was a natural turn of events and at that point in time there was no need or reason to exercise the choice to live separately. I knew and accepted that the onus to adjust, compromise and integrate into this new way of living had to be mine as I was marrying into the family. It was a complete change for me – new home, new set of parents and family, new lifestyle, different customs and eating habits while for everyone else nothing drastically changed in their lives or lifestyle except an additional new person joining them.

I had known my husband for 7 years before our marriage, yet; even then it was a life changing experience for us learning to live with one another. Today, after being together for almost 19 years I can openly say that had we continued to live with my in-laws we would have definitely parted ways. And in case we hadn’t I’m certain that we would have become two very bitter people. It was a challenge learning to live together as a couple but even more challenging was learning to live with the in-laws!

Like the Bachchans, living in a traditional Indian family, we too celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, puja together. The problem occurred when it was assumed that we would want to celebrate them with the same set of invitees, the same way, and every year! There was no option to do it any other way. I know for a fact that to my in-laws it was simply tradition to do it their way; it never stuck them that we could perhaps want something different. But on my part, it felt like an obligation. Why do people automatically make a judgement call if a couple want to do their own thing during such occasions? Specifically citing that for six years the Bachchans celebrated together, did they want to insinuate that in future if they lived separately they wouldn’t want to do so? In my case, I would have happily invited the same invitees like my in-laws but perhaps have been happier to be given the ‘choice’ to do so!

Expectations to conform was too pressurizing for me to cope. Like many newly wedded couple, I wanted my ‘space’ – both physical and emotional. I wanted to feel free to lead a lifestyle that I was not only accustomed to but also one which I wanted to explore and experiment with my husband. But my marital home belonged to my mother-in-law. She had practically spent a lifetime making it her own after her mother-in-law passed away so there was no way she wanted any changes when I came in.  I did enjoy freedom from domestic chores and kitchen politics as I didn’t have to do any of that but still didn’t want to conform to my mother-in-law’s lifestyle.  I wanted to have my own. Seemingly I was always allowed to do as I pleased but the subtlety with which displeasure was shown was very skilful. I was frustrated and angry, sometimes gave in, coped, fought, struggled and then just gave up on being able to live in peace with my sanity intact.

Moving out was the only choice I had but one which was totally unheard of in my marital home – it was not only unacceptable but morally wrong to even think about it. Although I had entertained the thought at length it just wasn’t a viable option for us till my husband was offered a job out of town. It was a way out – an ‘acceptable’ way out of a difficult situation. Even then, it was frowned upon for a long time. People assumed the worst that I had broken up the family and taken their son away. No one even for a moment openly accepted or acknowledged that perhaps for professional reasons this was a wise decision.

Of course I must add here that the couple should be in unison when wanting to move out or else the blame game can get ugly at a later stage. I bore the burden of breaking up the family for some time till I forced myself to stop thinking about it. I refused to hurt anymore. It was a difficult phase but today we’re happy. Simultaneously my husband has always been well aware of his responsibilities and duties as a son. Distance has made no dent there. He’s never shied away from that and I’m proud to say that I have never been a spoke in the wheel when he’s wanted to reach out to them. I behaved that way not only because I loved him and wanted him to be happy but they were an important part of his life and I had no right to question his commitment to them. Even on occasions when my opinions differed or I’ve been uncomfortable with his decisions – I’ve told him how I felt and we’ve discussed at length but in the end I respected the fact that it is his family he is caring for.  It wasn’t my way to prove my in-laws wrong or show them how big-hearted I was, to me it felt natural. I believed that we might not live together but we were still part of the family.

controlThat to me is the true essence of family life. A sense of togetherness, as a family is crucial as it has wider long term impact on everyone’s life.  A successful marriage needs a nurturing environment. It also needs patience and tact to deal with different personalities under the same roof. If one feels differently and is unable to negotiate this minefield of complications then instead of creating a scene, being bitter and back-biting, its best to come to a truce and maintain separate homes.

I strongly feel that the issues which majorly gnawed at me when I lived with my in-laws seem minuscule non-issues now. Living separately has brought a healthy distance between us. This in turn has also allowed us to assert our own individuality. Today when we get together sometimes I’m happy to do their bidding since I know that it’s temporary – we will soon be going our own ways. Simultaneously I’m open about my opinions if I don’t like something and having lived separately for some years now they have come to accept it.

While writing this post I received an email from a friend who too was in the same situation years ago. He writes (I quote), ‘…read your posts, somehow, I find a lot of similarities my wife faced with her in-laws. We did manage to get out of the morass by me securing a scholarship to study abroad. We too were on the brink of breakup, but survived and prospered by our flight, just like you. Will complete 45 years of bliss together next year’.

Moving out doesn’t mean something is wrong with the family. It doesn’t mean one has failed to do their duties or is being disrespectful. Nor does it mean that they are bad people. Moving out is definitely NOT the end!

My friend’s email is an affirmation that moving out is sometimes the best option and does work wonders.

The First Lady – Part II

Since I’ve received so many shares, likes and feedback to the post The First Lady, I thought I should add a sequel to it.

As I’d highlighted every “mother-in-law – daughter-in-law” unit is different and each have their own ways to deal with their situation. I’d like to share some experiences that my close friends have had with their mother-in-laws (MIL). The intention here is not to question if they’re right or wrong – it’s simply to say that they dealt with their situations to the best of their abilities, judgement and the only way they knew how – that’s exactly how it should be. You experiment to find if it works or not. You assume and you might be right but in most cases you’ll be wrong, much like my first experience with my MIL.

Immediately after the wedding, having moved in with my in-laws, I had assumed that this was now my new home and went about re-decorating the house.  I wasn’t wrong to assume that – it was in fact my new home but what I’d failed to understand is that the initial few days was a testing time for everyone. Everyone at home including my MIL was trying to figure out how I was as a person, how they should react to me, how would I adapt to their life and way of living, how much leeway should they give me knowing that I had come from a nuclear family, with a different religious background. I should have ideally given it a bit more time like my friend’s wife did.

They were married in 2007 and since our families were close I’d visited them quite often. Mashi (my friend’s mom) kept the house a certain way – I didn’t like it but it was home to them. I always found it unkempt – even with things in their place, it felt as if something was missing. Even when the house was painted and decorated for the wedding nothing changed. This year in August when I visited them I was pleasantly surprised. My friend’s wife had drastically changed the entire look of the house! She sold some old furniture, bought new ones, and re-arranged the set-up making the house look amazing. After years it looked fresh and inviting. I loved it and I was reminded of my folly. She had taken years to develop a great rapport with her MIL, slowly taking care of her needs and everyone else’s in the family. It wasn’t something she did because she felt she had to, like it was her duty – but she did it because that’s the kind of person she is – someone who loves to include everyone and live for others. Today her MIL is totally dependent on her and was full of praises about how she had transformed the house.

Yes, she too had assumed that this was her home now but she was prudent enough to understand no one likes changes – the best changes are those that happen over time, so slowly that you accept them as natural outcomes.

Another friend who lives independently with her husband and children doesn’t get along with her MIL but in times of need (whatever it might be), they are dependent on her even more than their son! She regularly calls them, is aware of all their troubles, always accompanies them for check-ups and hospital visits – she’s also taught them how to use Facebook! Is she more tolerant or is that just a role she plays? I know her as someone who derives her strength and reason to live by stretching herself for others – she can mend a situation without thinking about herself. Does that make her well-adjusted or a martyr? Whatever it might be the open lines of communication between her in-laws and herself makes all the difference in their relationship.

Another friend lives with her MIL – she’s a homemaker and between the two of them, they take care of the two children. I always felt that they were the ideal “mother-in-law – daughter-in-law” duo till one evening she opened up about the issues she was facing with her MIL. I was taken aback more so because when you saw them in public and even when we visited them at home, you could never sense any tension between them. Nor did their interactions seem put-on. They were genuinely nice and civil to one another. That opened up another interesting aspect – whatever their worries and issues it didn’t concern anyone else but them!

MILs are generally made out to be she-devils but more often than not they’re simply women who too are trying to deal with their situation the only way they know how! Suddenly there is a new addition to the family – someone younger, with a stronger hold on her son and a mind of her own. As an open minded new-age MIL she has to be more accepting and cover up her own insecurities about her changing world. Similarly the daughter-in-law too sees a senior and stronger experienced woman within an established set-up. She’s as insecure about this life changing experience – will she be able to befriend her MIL, will she be accepted, will she fit in?

At times like this ideally one should be calm, believing in themselves and their abilities, no point in repeating the pattern of how they (either the MIL or daughter-in-law’s mother) as young brides were treated – unfortunately that’s not how things work. On either side, there is always a long line of well-meaning friends and family waiting to support, guide or stoke these insecurities! As Shobhaa De in her book Spouse: The Truth About Marriage reaffirms when co-existence is inevitable it helps to mark out the territories, define and share domestic duties, treat each other with respect, giving one another time to get used to the family and way of life. Although dealing with the one common factor in between – the son / husband does lead to some natural emotional outbursts – possessiveness, jealousy and competition – unnecessary power games help no one.

My friend’s wife who is loved and accepted by her MIL, is openly praised by her for changing the way the house looks – even today elicits moments of unhappiness for her MIL. Her MIL feels upset when she sees her son return home to first talk to his wife before her. As his mother she sometimes feels like he doesn’t love her or need her as much. Yet she is unable to take it out on her daughter-in-law who genuinely is a nice person. Now that’s one crazy situation to be in!

Being senior and more experienced, it is the MIL’s responsibility to make the first move. She should remind herself constantly that her daughter-in-law is entering a new zone and needs support, reassurance. After all her reactions and behaviour can establish her expectations from her daughter-in-law and reaffirm how she would want her household to run. Similarly the daughter-in-law too should rethink her own attitude. No matter how independent or ‘advanced’ she might be – she must accept and acknowledge her MIL’s position in the family.

The best way therefore to broker acceptance and peace in the family is to define expectations, be open about feelings, adapt to the rules of the family and wherever possible meet each other halfway.

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