Thursday, August 15, 2013

The psychology of the Indian Mother-in-law

(My MIL, 25 years ago, before she was a MIL)

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.

Indian MIL's will feel extremely hesitant and awkward to build a relationship with you before marriage, especially if you are foreign (we scream "divorce"!!!) Building a relationship with them is a PROCESS and you have no choice but to be patient. Your efforts will eventually pay off  because in Indian families, respect is earned from the elders, not just simply given for free. Many Westerners can be discouraged by this, and bitterness can build.
A Western MIL will typically form a friendship with you before marriage, regardless if she thinks that you will be a permanent member of the family. She will not be as involved, in fact she is typically more detached. She is there if you need her, but in Western families, there is a clear set of boundaries and a respect for personal space. Many Westerners are not used to their Indian MIL's helping out all the time, and can find this "too aggressively involved" for their tastes. A Western woman will have grown up thinking that she is in charge of her life and household, and many get discouraged when they realize that you're going to have to SHARE that role with your Indian husband's mother...if not now, then eventually.
(Respect the mother/son relationship)
Indian MIL's are a completely different ball game. The concept of boundaries do NOT exist in Indian families. When you marry an Indian, you marry the whole family. They view marriage as a merging of two families, not just two people getting together. Not only that, but when you marry an Indian man, you belong to their family and their family should be given the top priority. Indian MIL's are extremely protective of their children and it is crucial to get off to a good start (do everything their way first - then bend the rules later). They can continually baby their children for life. (Example: when my MIL first came to visit us, she mixed husband-ji rice/pickle and fed him by hand! I nearly vomited that she was hand-feeding him at the age of 30!!! But then she fed me too and I thought it was really sweet. But definitely not for every single day...I'm a grown woman here....hahaha)
(Feeding me is ok...but only once in a while!)
As a Westerner, you're not going to be the subservient DIL that your MIL always dreamed of. It will take a lot of patience on both ends, but the effort will HAVE to come from your side - not theirs - in the beginning, at least. Many old school conservative Indians will have trouble adapting to the change so you will have to do most of the "cultural work". Besides, if you are a foreign girl, you are marrying into THEIR family - a complicated Indian family dynasty. If she is the mother of a son - she will put her son on a pedestal and think that she is important just because she has a about "little emperor" syndrome!!! Many Indian parents see their children (especially sons) as an emotional investment because they are expecting to be taken care of in their old age by the eldest son. The umbilical cord is never cut...

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)

(Maya at 10 weeks - future roti eater!)
For an Indian MIL, the merging of cultures can bring up a lot of concerns. They will be wondering what, if any, cultural customs that you will be keeping/losing within your family; how the Western DIL will adjust to being in the Indian family; how you will take care of her son, and most importantly - if you will be taking your son away from her, his family, and his culture. I consulted my MIL on this issue, and she said that they typically fear that the introduction of a foreign wife who will lead the son astray from fulfilling his responsibilities to his family - making the wife a priority over the parents. She said the concerns are based in fear and inadaptability - because if the son gets a divorce then the MIL will get blamed by family, friends, and society.

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 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's uncharted territory for many elder Indian women.

(Us getting stared at by other Indians again!!!)

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.


The best way to try to understand your MIL is to try to ask questions about her background. That way you can create a safe, open place to get to know each other. And knowing more about her will help you understand her behaviour. She may not reveal everything right away, but just keep asking (I still haven't learned all of the family secrets, even after 7 years! But I'm getting there, thanks to my excellent eavesdropping and persistent questions!)
Important Questions to ask your Indian MIL:
-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!)
Personality qualities of the typical Indian MIL (positive & negative):
- loyal
- loving
- emotional
- involved
- helpful
- knowledgeable
- hard-working
- influential
- nurturing
- hard exterior but soft heart
- people-pleasing
- passive aggressive
- sacrificial martyr
- very emotionally dependant
- protective of children
- likes to complain
- overbearing
- can be controlling / possessive / territorial
- cares about family reputation
- bossy
- can be manipulative
- can be competitive for son's affections
- may always say "no" at first; or disapprove (being persistent can break through this)
(We are big foodie's...when we get together, we gain 20lbs each!)
Ways you can win over your MIL:
- ask her questions about Indian culture (and her specific regional culture)
- ask her to tell you stories of her childhood, her natal family, her grandparents (get to know the ancestors)
- ask her cooking questions / let her teach you how to cook / compliment her cooking
- watch movies together / take her out to the cinema
- go for walks together in nature
- always find a way to include her
- don't get in the middle of her relationship with her son = don't compete (you won't win!)
- don't openly disagree with them (disagreement=disrespect)
- treat her son like the "little emperor" that he is (don't be afraid to show affection to him in front of her - they secretly love this)
- ask her for advice on anything - friendships, life, her son, caring for your baby (this will make her feel included and important)
- 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.


    My mother told me that one of her patients son married a western women. They told her that the lady addresses her in-laws with their names instead of "athayya" and "mammaya" (MIL and FIL). Also she heard that the in-laws were supposed to call ahead and plan before they visit their sons house.

    These two were so bad for my mother. I understand the first one. I hate addressing D's dad with his name. I feel less respectable, but I have to follow their culture. About calling before- I told my mom everyone does that in US no matter if it is Indian/ non-Indian.

    I think small things like this make it difficult for older generation. They have not been exposed to different culture, so they are less flexible.
    Indian parents like to be free at their children's house and they worry if that would be possible be with foreign DIL/SIL. Because western culture is known for not living with parents especially in their old age.

    Recently got some advice from an American guy married to an Indian woman. As a father of 4, he was telling us about his experiences as we prepare to be parents ourselves. He admitted to having felt out of place within the context of his wife's Indian family and how sometimes she seemed to prefer the presence of her mom over his. And that he had not expected, at 40, to be told what to do by anyone.

    However, at the end of the day, like he said, it was his wife's family that was there when they really needed help with the birth of multiples. They left their lives behind, stayed back one after the other in a foreign land where they were completely dependent on the very people they had come to help, for an entire year. And he said that while he'd like his kids to learn many American traits, he felt like this idea of being part of a family, of doing things for your family just because and being there for them as much as you can - not just as much as is convenient to you - is something he wanted his kids to get from their Indian side.
    Now I know that not all American or Canadian families will not help their kids with their grandchildren and also not all Indian families will help with the same. So certainly this is a generalization. But broadly speaking, this is the big difference in the cultures. They expect because they also give. That has always been the way.
    And that's why I love how you say that as the person marrying into an Indian family, it is good to try and understand their side and win them over before finding the right balance and the right lines to draw.
    Hi sister - this was a nice post and I tried many of the techniques you mention here but nothing really works with my MIL. It is her way or the highway after 6-7 years and I'm over it. I am now refocused on doing things that I am OK with instead of habitually trying to please her. The MIL has UNQUENCHABLE desires... so I recommend a more self protective approach. See my comments as S_Bee on the following blog post featuring an all too common and unfortunate topic.


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