I discovered Madh Mama’s blog and have been gorging on her posts. It’s beautiful blog about being in a cross-cultural marriage. Her post on how to survive a visit from your Indian in-laws struck a chord with me. Spoiler alert: It is not an Indian in-law bashing post. Rather, Madh Mama’s empathy, ability to forgive and thoughtfulness really touched a chord in my cynical and jaded heart.
Did it make me think I could do the same? Unfortunately not. I’m just not that nice. And my early attempts to pretend to be that nice person resulted in me becoming even more resentful and sulky. Which is when I decided to resort to who I am which is someone who is standoffish with people who are mean to me.
My mother-in-law is not as horrible as some of her Indian counterparts. I understand now that when she is insecure, she starts talking Malayalam and gets bitchy. It’s easier if she’s being bitchy about me in Malayalam which I do not understand, though I can sense when a person is being snarky about me even in languages I don’t understand. My mother in law was sometimes kind enough to translate her bitchiness into English for my benefit.
Knowing the possible reasons for her bitchiness did not take the edge of it for me, because hello I was insecure too. I was acutely aware of my shortcomings as an Indian woman who was incompetent around the house, particularly the kitchen.
I went through a brief phase of being overly nice to my mother-in-law, and found that she then upped her expectations of me. The whole thing became really difficult to sustain. My mother-in-law and I have little in common, and even less when one person tries to take the opposite stance just to be bitchy, so forcing a friendship was not going to happen because I am bad at forced friendships with people my own age and who I have much more in common with.
Things got easier with time, and thankfully we had the benefit of distance. My sister-in-law is of the opinion that it’s better to have more interactions because then you are just forced to find some common ground but I think this works only for certain kinds of people – social and outgoing people and those who value pleasing others, possibly both. People like me might just get rubbed the wrong way too many times and then cut off all ties.
My problem was that I had a hard time articulating even to myself what the problem was. I didn’t really speak to V about it because chronicling the numerous jibes felt petty, and I was still smarting from the one or two times he didn’t stand up for me (though he has one other occasions). Also, because other people have worse stories, I felt mine did not justify my attitude.
Then one day I realised it’s enough. I don’t have to excuse someone being bitchy to me just because other people have it worse. In fact, I do excuse it to some extent. Because they are my husband’s parents I continue to meet and be cordial with them. But I didn’t have it in me to do more than that.
And it wasn’t like the husband was bending over backward for my parents. He does the minimum pleasantry stuff and everyone think he’s wonderful.
I definitely think that when I had children – not to mentioned the prized boy child – my in laws reactions to me changed. Finally, I proved my worth. And tangibly, when I visited them with their kids, I was suitably busy looking after the kids. This approval made me feel comfortable enough to actually volunteer to do some work in their house. Of course, then there is the typical expectations being raised, so I have to handle this carefully.
If I’ve given you the impression that it’s all acrimonious between my mother-in-law and me, it’s not. She doesn’t really snark at me much and I don’t bristle around her much. Taking a step back actually helped me navigate the relationship more than taking a step forward. There are times when I will go the extra few inches (if not miles) for my MIL because I’m not a horrible person, but mostly, I play the backstage role and tend to urge the husband to do something special for his parents. He tells me I should do it myself, but hey, he’s their son.
One thing I realised when reading Madh Mama’s post is that it’s easier to articulate one’s experience of one’s in-laws visiting as a cross-cultural encounter when the marriage is between and Indian and a non-Indian. But the fact is that within India there are cross-cultural marriages, like mine, too. I had been warned that my in-laws were going to be much more conservative than I was used to and I didn’t quite believe it because my husband and his sisters are so liberal, but it turned out that while my parents-in-law are less conservative than their peers in Kerala they are way more traditional than anything I was used to.
However, because we are both Indian and Christian, I could not articulate it to myself as a cross-cultural problem, apart from a straight-up patriarchal one, which it was.
On the other hand, I think being in a cross-cultural marriage has some advantages for a daughter-in-law, if you have a supportive husband and don’t depend on your in-laws materially. In-laws would love to ‘convert’ you to their culture so they can look good to their friend’s circle that was giving them grief over the fact that their child married outside the community. My observation, though, is once they get over the disappointment that you are not going to be that malleable, if you’re up to the mark they can excuse your poor performance as a DIL to themselves and their friend’s circle on the grounds that you don’t know any better because you’re not from the culture. I’m happy to be seen as the incompetent one, as long as noone hassles me about it. Being a top-class Malayalee DIL was never on my agenda anyway.