The problem with the mother-in-law

Shoba Narayan

Jan 8, 2011


Two women who love the same man is hardly the recipe for a friendship. I speak not of extramarital affairs or bigamy, but of the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In India, where I live, this misunderstood, maligned “saas-bahu” relationship dominates the collective psyche. It is the stuff of television soap operas and is as much an emotional clich√© as the stepmother is in the West.

Men have it easy in this respect. Their relationship with their in-laws is somehow not as fraught as a woman’s. Sure, some men can’t stand their mothers-in-law, but for the most part, they are able to deftly deflect the intimacy that this particular relationship demands from women.

It is different for the wife, at least here in the East. She is viewed as the “keeper of the flame”, as my mother-in-law calls it; the upholder of tradition. With this duty comes responsibility; and if you happen to be the kind of woman who’d rather go out and earn a living, this enforced responsibility leads to resentment, mostly at the mother-in-law who monitors the flame-carrying.

As a new bride, I started out being wary of my mother-in-law. She has a strong personality and has worked all her life. She has travelled the world in a sari, wearing the nose ring common to Tamilian Brahmin. She has, in other words, stayed true to her traditions even while attending conferences in Mexico or Indonesia.

This is different from my generation of Indian women. We adjust. We wear western clothes when we go abroad, slip into easy Indian salwar-kameezes for everyday errands, and pull out our silk saris for weddings. We act and react differently, depending on the occasion. We carry this chameleon-like quality not just to our wardrobes but also to our relationships. Rather than view the mother-in-law as a worthy foe to be treated with formal respect, we try to befriend her. Whether that works depends on both women, but the mother-in-law sets the tone. She is the older, more experienced mistress of her domain. It is her duty to welcome the new bride to her home and traditions. If the mother-in-law continues to dominate the household, power struggles ensue – for the keys to the home and to the man’s heart. But if the mother-in-lawgives the new woman room in her son’s life to grow and flourish, there may be room for two women in home and heart.

I’ve seen both situations in my family. My aunt became widowed at a young age. When her only son wed, she made it clear to her daughter-in-law that she intended to continue running the house. Her son, a doctor, withdrew to his clinic. The mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law slugged it out. Harsh words were exchanged, secrets kept and two granddaughters caught in between. All this happened under one roof, as is the case in a Hindu joint family. As I watched the two women make snide remarks to each other during my visits, I would think, “Boy, this wouldn’t ever happen in New York or London. Why can’t one of them move out?” But neither one did. The web of the Indian family was perhaps too strong.

In the West, my friends called their mothers-in-law by their first names, not “Ma” or “Mummy” or whatever term their husband used. The informality of western relationships allowed a tentative friendship to flower between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. That said, I have western friends who cannot stand their mothers-in-law. Why is this relationship so complicated? It goes back to my first sentence.

Shoba Naryan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

Subscribe to my newsletter