November 28, 2011

Mother in Law or Monster in Law? An Exercise in Self-Improvement

By: Jennifer Kumar

With the intense hold some mother in laws have over their sons, wives often feel they have tied the knot with their mother in law and not their husband (as so rightly depicted in the image attached to this article). Mother in laws the world over have a bad reputation. Mother in law jokes abound. The unfortunate truth is that jokes have a kernel of truth in them. But why do mother in laws have such a bad name?

Rather than explore specific cultural details which are slightly different from culture to culture, I will state for the record I have seen mother in law problems in the two cultures I am familiar with- India and America. One truth in these problems rises from the mother not wanting to let go of her son and the other from deeply held societal and traditional conventions.

In a nutsell, these mother in law problems are more or less a learned behavior. Growing up, young girls constantly get messages from their mothers, aunts, cousins, friends, neighbors and the inevitable media on how to be a ‘good mother in law.’ Besides getting messages from females, girls get messages loud and clear from the males in their lives about the gender roles and the standing of a mother to a son and a wife to a mother in law. Nothing seems to be challenged. It’s conventional. It’s traditional. It’s just the way it is.

But does it have to be?

To this, I say a resounding NO.

Of course not all mother in laws are monster in laws, but to date in India and US when problems arise between husband and wife, the husband may want to talk to his family while the wife secretly prays her husband avoids telling his mother. She just doesn’t want to hear it yet again from the mother in law who most of the time is sweet but at other times positively monster-ly.

When a female is a mother with a son she swears she won’t be like all the mother in laws before her. She won’t be like her mother in law. But she feels guilty. Aren’t all those women good too? They are in my family, why should I shun them? These women forget that it’s not the person who’s bad if we shun the bad behavior- it’s just the behavior that’s bad.

The first step is identifying the bad behavior. This can be quite easy. If a mother in law (hence forth MIL) mistreats a daughter in law (hence forth DIL), the DIL should note down- mentally or physically in a notebook. Note the behavior and how it made you (DIL) feel. Remember more than the behavior, it’s the feelings that we want to avoid instilling in future DILs. But, at the same time to change the outcome, the path that initiates the outcome needs to be changed. This takes much self-reflection and being in the moment on terms of the DIL when she become a MIL to do. Plus, she will have to remember decades back on the behavior and the resulting feelings. This is the purpose of referring back to the notebook. It’s not to relive the bad feelings and memories but to refresh these things as a catalyst to do different. To BE different.

All this is not an easy process. We need help through this process because it’s not always easy to see our behavior for what it is – objectively. Not even our own family or friends can be so objective. They have a stake in it too. If others in the family see us change, they may resist it. They may challenge us on why do we have to be different. Just do as all the MILs in our family have done for generations – mistreat the DIL in any case, she’s expecting it.

Of course any DILs dream is to have a caring, supporting MIL who doesn’t mistreat her and always side with her son. After all her son and her are a partnership, and all of them together are a family. There must be a different way. And, of course some DILs get the dream MIL and become suspicious. Or the DIL gets a monster-in-law who reads this kind of article, reflects and attempts to make changes to create better relationships. Yes, at first the DIL will be skeptical of such change. The DIL may even wonder if the MIL is plotting against her or looking for something from her. But, the DIL also has to be patient and if the DIL sees the MIL taking constant and repeated efforts to DO and BE different this will be the living apology and testament she needs to realize that true change can happen and MILs can actually be like a second (or in some cases, first) mother.

Thank you for reading.

Image in this article is from The Hindu, November 27, 2011. This article is inspired by the article that accompanies that image, No Space of her own for the Daughter-in-Law.


  1. You're right, breaking tradition is not easy but it can be done. Not all MIL's are bad, even if they have some bad habits. We just have to learn to understand them and try to see things from their perspective in order to learn to live with them (whether physically live with them or just put up with them on occasion when we visit with them). It can be done.

    One example, mine, can be found on my blog. It took me a year to figure out it wasn't an issue with me, it was something much bigger. Bridges can be built across the cultural divide - between different countries or just different household cultures. You can read my post here

  2. Thanks for your feedback WB :)...
    Thanks for sharing your link because it ties in so nicely with this topic and your cross-cultural adjustment and learning living with an Indian family.

  3. i dont belive this fact till now! that a women is women's enemy, but this is the fact........... bocz i have realized it.. and specially mother-in-law's. They are jealous, torch-our each moment...........

  4. Simi sounds like you have personal experience in this area. Usually experience in this area does not leave us with a positive feeling. I hope you are doing well. Sending best wishes for healthy relationships.
    Jennifer Kumar

  5. What you write is true but you are missing the reason WHY a Desi son would be overly enmeshed with his mother into adulthood. Its because of the mother's misplaced emotions. She has her son stand in for her husband even while her husband is still alive. All of the affection and attention that she is supposed to get from her husband, she expects her son to provide her. This is emotional incest.

    Any woman who has an emotionally and physically exciting life with her husband will not expect her son to play surrogate hubbie.

    If you notice many Desi couples, they are platonic. There is no spark there, no romance, no excitement. The wife looks for fulfillment from her son to the extent of even getting jealous when he buys his own wife a gift and not her. She will ask, "where is mine?"

    Why is she asking her son this and not her husband?

    Because marriage is still seen as a "duty" in India, and particularly amongst older people, you see this total lack of chemistry between Desi couples and that results in the mother looking for sexual polarity from her son.

    Don't get me wrong here. I'm not talking about sex, I'm talking about sexual polarity.

  6. Thanks for sharing your views. They are giving me a lot to think about.


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