The typical Indian MIL (and mother, too) is quite a complicated person. An Indian MIL from Mother India itself has a lot of cultural baggage, and it is YOUR JOB to try to understand where they are coming from.
The Indian MIL of that generation (50+yrs) will have sacrificed so many things for the family as a whole - her own independence, her own natal family, even her career, not to mention many of her hopes and desires. As an Indian woman, they are expected to sacrifice and think nothing of it. For a traditional Indian woman, their needs come last, and they may have lived that way their entire life. That is why they complain so much - it's because they believe their lives are out of their control. Are they really out of control of their own lives? They may have been their entire lives...they most likely lived in a joint household with so many people to take care of before themselves. Many women of that generation believes she is not worthy inside and lacks confidence (a result of patriarchy - women are inferior, men are "a gift from God"). At the worst, she could have been treated like a slave by her inlaws and had to work her ass off everyday, until her inlaws died. Many women look at becoming a MIL as a chance to never work again - because being a MIL is the most powerful position in a household - and the cycle continues... Even within the Indian family dynasty, sometimes the only time a woman can express dominance is towards another (younger) woman in the family - hence the drama between MIL vs DIL, or SIL's. Way back in the olden days, a woman could not even decide what to cook/eat for lunch - the exact ingredients/measurements were given to her and she was to cook whatever they told her. Women nowadays have many more freedoms, but we are still dealing with a generation that is conservative, not to mention a traditionally patriarchal culture (India). Many MIL's want their DIL's to suffer like they did, so they can understand what they went through. But many MIL's also want to stop the cycle. And YOU can help stop the cycle by understanding your MIL's past, empathizing with her, and forming a new, healthy relationship. Especially if you're a foreigner - you have this chance to start fresh because you're not Indian (in that way, foreigners have it easy because they can pick and choose what traditions work for them)
In the Indian family dynasty, the wife is often referred to as "the
keeper of the flame" (which means keeping traditions), so naturally
with the introduction of a foreign DIL & the possibility of a half-Indian
family...is a lot for the MIL to digest. Indian MIL's are notoriously
stubborn and hard-headed - and the mere addition of a foreigner tells
her that she's going to eventually have to adapt to her DIL too - even
if it is as small as explaining Indian customs (that she's never had
to explain before), or as big as celebrating Christmas. Having a Western
DIL is going WAY out of her comfort zone...it's uncharted territory
for many elder Indian women.
Not only that, but many conservative Indians care too much what other people think (a very Asian mentality). All of her friends and family are going to be asking constant questions about "how it functions"...forever! Not to mention getting stared at like crazy when you're out in public. This was extremely uncomfortable for my MIL as she is naturally quite shy. It was very hard for her because everyone in the neighbourhood, family and friends know me since I'm the only foreigner that ever existed in this group (even in the freakin' neighbourhood!) Not to mention, it was extremely awkward for her to explain that we were secretly engaged, living together as an unmarried couple abroad. She got so much judgement from others that she refused to discuss me and called me "Madhavan's college friend" (which irritated the crap out of me!) even though I had his name in Tamil tattooed on my arm, that everyone gossiped about! Oh yes, not only are we a South Whindian couple, but we are both totally tatt'ed up...notorious, I tell you!
AFTER you get married, you can really focus on building an open relationship with your MIL. It is easier than doing it before you're married. When I got married, I felt like I unlocked the key to my MIL's heart. I was finally like a daughter to her...after so many years of waiting around, like a person banging on the door outside a locked house. It felt great and well-earned.
-What was your relationship like with your MIL?
-What were your duties and responsibilities as a DIL?
-What did you struggle with as a DIL coming into your inlaws house?
-What was your relationship like with your SIL's?
-What did you have to sacrifice as a DIL?
-What can I do for you around the house?
-What makes you happy? (Hobbies, interests OUTSIDE family)
-What irritates you? (you can learn this by listening to the constant complaining!)
- hard exterior but soft heart
- passive aggressive
- sacrificial martyr
- likes to complain
- can be controlling / possessive / territorial
- cares about family reputation
- can be manipulative
- can be competitive for son's affections
- may always say "no" at first; or disapprove (being persistent can break through this)
- ask her to tell you stories of her childhood, her natal family, her grandparents (get to know the ancestors)
- phone her often & tell her about daily events in your life (inclusion)
- send her gifts (books, beauty products, perfume, movies ...bribes disguised as attention really does work!)
- try different international cuisines (this will help her find new discoveries in eating non-Indian food - try Mexican vegetarian food)
- give her books to read about other intercultural families (Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth is a great one)
- watch TV shows together & discuss (news programmes, Satyamev Jayate, Sasural Genda Phool, Real Housewives shows - anything that gets you guys talking)
P.S. The MIL/DIL relationship is a women-only arena. DO NOT get your husband or FIL involved. Don't complain to them. Men just don't get it... (Women, and especially Indian women, are too psychologically complicated for men's tiny brains to handle!!!)
*****You have a better chance with your Indian MIL if she has a good marriage with her husband. That way, her needs will have been met through her marriage and she won't put unhealthy attachment/investment on her children. If a son is the ONLY source of attention/affection for the MIL then you're going to have serious problems!!!
At the end of the day, this is the woman who has given you her son. If she didn't exist, your husband wouldn't exist. You have to appreciate her, at least for that.
Many Indian women of that generation have had difficult lives. There
was always some kind of struggle for them, some kind of hardship - you
can tell just by looking at their faces. Respect her struggle. Empathize
with her as a woman.