Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Foreign Daughter-in-law DECODED: fears of having an Indian Mother-in-law


A few months ago, I wrote about the typical fears that an Indian MIL has about welcoming a foreign DIL into her family. On the flip side - just as an Indian MIL has her fears, so does a foreign DIL...

Anybody who has any Indian friends or any connection to Indian culture will know that the Indian MIL is the most feared character in the household. Oftentimes, if you tell people you have an Indian partner, one of the first questions will be "How's his mother?" The horror stories of the Indian MIL are far reaching - even reaching to the West. Everybody knows somebody who has an absolute nightmare of an Indian MIL. Forget the foreign aspect of it - even Indian girls are scared of having an Indian MIL!

So, for many foreign girls, the anticipation of having an Indian MIL and trying to build a relationship with her is daunting...


What are the fears that foreign DIL's have about having an Indian MIL?
For this post I consulted my other Firangi Bahu's...

1) We want her to genuinely LIKE us

Of all of the DIL's I talked to - ALL of them said they just wanted to "be liked" by their MILs. What does "being liked" mean? It means that you have developed a friendship and that your MIL genuinely likes you, like a friend. 

In Western families, girlfriends are invited for dinner, major holidays, and encouraged to develop a friendship with their future MIL's before marriage. Girlfriends are always treated as future spouses by the family and are not kept secret. In Indian families (especially conservative ones) it is the opposite - you can only develop a relationship with your MIL after marriage. Not to mention, 99% of the time, the Indian MIL will initially say "no" to having a foreign DIL when your spouse tells her about you. This initial "no" can build resentment in the foreign DIL and it can strain the relationship before it has even started. The foreign DIL will be thinking, "What does she mean by 'no'?!?! She doesn't even know me yet!" Building a relationship with an Indian MIL takes TIME. It takes years, and it is often awkward at first - as both the DIL and the MIL work out their cultural differences. (Note: the major cultural differences are the concepts of formality, respect, and rudeness)

2) Language 

Many of the Firangi Bahu's have Indian MILs who either do not speak English or have very limited English. This can be a very unfortunate setback to the MIL-DIL bond. If you don't speak the same language as your MIL, chances are you will have more miscommunications. The only way you can get around this is if you learn how to speak your MIL's language, or get somebody to accurately translate for you. (Note: as you get older, it becomes harder for someone to learn a language - which is why I recommend that the DIL should learn the new language)

My own MIL speaks English well, however she had an insecurity about her English, despite being "convent educated" (Catholic school educated). At first, she did not feel comfortable speaking English to me because she was scared to make a grammatical mistake or something. Similarly, a lot of the aunties in the family refused to speak to me because they were insecure about their English skills. At the time, I felt they were being rude to me, but in reality, they were just insecure about their language skills (which I could not care less about!) In the years of building a relationship with my MIL, she has loosened up a lot and now only speaks English to me. I feel as though her English has really improved because that is how we converse all the time. She has also picked up on many of my colloquial (generational) English phrases, like "it sucks", "ohmygod" and "what the hell"!

Another thing that was a problem was my English accent. Indian elders who do speak English are taught old-school British English, so my Canadian accent was practically like a foreign language. I also slur my words and do not have good diction. I think this added to my MIL's initial insecurity about her English. Not to mention, Indians have different terminology - "good name" (given name); "curd" (yogurt); "rucksack" (purse); "hotel" (restaurant); etc.

3) Respecting our personal freedom

A Western woman is typically raised with a lot of independence and personal freedom - oftentimes moving out of their natal home by their 20s (at the latest!), traveling, the freedom of education and having whatever jobs they want. There is little input from parents regarding our life choices - and if they don't approve...well, we don't live under their roof anymore! For a Westerner, independence means not having to ask anyone's permission to do anything. And not caring to even ask - that is true personal freedom.

Probably the biggest cultural and generational difference between a Indian MIL-Foreign DIL is this concept of a woman's personal freedom. It is a patriarchal mindset that the women must look after the kids, that the man must earn the most money, or that the woman must prioritize her family and her home, above all else. Nowadays in India, there are more working mothers than ever and motherhood is being redefined by our generation - you can be a mother, and family-oriented woman, who has a career of her own. However, men raised by these patriarchal norms are slow to change. There is still an absence of Indian stay-at-home dads, and a recent survey showed that Indian men are some of the worst in helping out around the house (Although I'm sure this will be very different with our children's generation) (Note: Many Indian men who step outside the box - by marrying a foreigner - are typically more modern in other ways, like helping out with housework, etc)

Each woman has a different concept of what personal freedom means to her. For some, it is having the ability to pursue a career after having children. For others, it is going out to do something (meet friends, beauty parlor, bookstore, going for a walk, etc.) without having to ask permission. And for others, it is conversing with a member of the opposite sex without getting frowned upon.

4) Being overprotective of their child

Indian mothers are fiercely protective of their children, and quite often overprotective. They believe they know best - all the time - even better than their children. That means that they will certainly feel like they know better than "the new addition" (their child's spouse). 

It is common for the Indian MIL to baby their children - for life. This can be quite off-putting to witness, for a foreigner who has been treated as an independent adult since childhood.

A common problem in the MIL-DIL relationship is having feelings of competition - for attention, for time, and for whose advice the spouse will follow. If there is no Indian father-in-law figure, sometimes the MIL will develop a more co-dependent relationship with her son. And as we all know, in Indian society, the son is like a God and treated like a "golden ticket" for life.

Your Indian MIL might constantly side with your spouse, or even interfere often, and in the worst cases - intentional marital sabotage. A way to get around this is that both spouses need to set boundaries with the MIL - don't create a place where she can interfere. Do not discuss marital problems frequently.

In many Indian families, being overprotective of your children is a way of expressing deep love. So if you have the chance to develop a close relationship with your MIL, she may become overprotective of you as well!

5) Criticism

One of the main problems that firangi bahu's run into with their MIL's is the seemingly constant criticism. However, in the elder's defense - complaining is really an Indian elder national sport and should not be taken personally.

In Western families, people tend to criticize when they see something wrong and they want you to change it. In Indian families, people criticize as a way of having a discussion - as a way of commenting. So, for a Westerner, it sometimes feels like we just "can't do anything right" or "can't live up to their impossible standards".

Indian MIL's are masters of their own household, and tend to be quite stubborn. They have a particular way of doing things - whether it is cooking, or dressing, showing affection to husband, or taking care of kids. As a DIL, if you do anything different than the way they do it - you may be criticized (unintentionally).

Both my inlaws are masters of criticism but I have wisely learned from husband-ji - "in one ear, out the other"! I don't take it personally anymore. But in the beginning of my relationship with my inlaws, I did take it personally - mainly because I just didn't know them well enough. With Indian elders, you have to recognize that the criticism comes from a place from love - although it can feel controlling or mean-spirited.

6) Will she get to know our culture too?

Familiarizing yourself with Indian culture can be an intense process - it is just such a different way of life - eating, family relationships, expressing affection, not to mention language...it can be all-consuming. Many firangi bahu's struggle with trying to find a happy medium between both cultures - or "How Indian do we become?" We want to learn about their culture because we want to learn about them and where they come from. (Although husband-ji is more Westernized, he is still 100% Indian at heart) Not to mention, Indians are quite set in their ways (especially regarding food). No matter what cuisine we eat, husband-ji needs to eat at least 2 cups of  rice before going to bed! So it is usually the foreigners who have to "adjust" more. Even though we live abroad, I still consider our home to be "an Indian home" due to our lifestyle.

Finding that happy medium between both cultures is a lifelong practice. Sometimes resentment can build if your Indian MIL refuses to learn your culture too - it might be waaaay out of her comfort zone to go to an English movie, attend a yoga class, or even eat a non-Indian cuisine, for example. It can create a barrier - or it can feel like we are always doing everything the Indian way. It takes time, and a lot of encouragement. Also, elders are typically more stubborn.

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Having an Indian MIL is uncharted territory for both the MIL and DIL, as well as the Indian spouse, and for both respective families. You will face both generational and cultural differences, but the bond you can develop will last a lifetime. 

Have patience, enter the relationship with no expectations, and understand that it will take time to get to know her.

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What do you think, dear readers? What were your initial fears about having an Indian mother-in-law? How have you worked through them?

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19 comments

  1. I love your posts about this topic. I've had some struggle too. We cant get along because she is everything what you've described, and I'm not an Indian and been chosen by her. Yes, I admit I made a huge mistake while visiting her. I woke her son up in the morning, because he slept late (we slept in different rooms). It was almost afternoon already, but still apparently a very bad mistake. I got to know she was very upset about it. She ended up kicking me out from the house the next day because she thought that someone could think that she had kidnapped me and she'd end up in a trouble. Can you imagine? It was horrible, but luckily now I can laugh about it. Sadly something much worse came along later. So my biggest fear is, how far she can go by emotionally blackmailing my husband because of me. She can't hurt me so I don't care but I hate to see my husband suffering.

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    1. In times of struggle with the inlaws, it is the hardest on the husband who is trapped in the middle. On one hand whoever he supports, the other will feel like he is deserting them, and on the other hand if he stays neutral then people will want him to take a side. It is hard, it has to work itself out naturally!

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  2. I'm still struggling with fear number one! I wish I had the audacity to even start being fearful of numbers two through five. I hadn't even thought of fear number six... You have brought out the fear in me madh-mama!

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    1. Hahahaha....don't worry, my MIL is all six combined but I still love her more than anything! :)

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  3. Very thankfully my mother-in-law is not overbearing or overprotective and she lets us live our own life despite living with them at the moment. She and I have the language barrier because she doesn't speak any English, so our conversations consist of one word sentences. I personally struggle with #6, feeling "too Indian" - probably a blog post for another day :)

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    1. I have heard from other masala wives that a MIL who doesn't speak English is a blessing in disguise :)
      Number 6 is definitely something we all struggle with, it is a fine balance and a work in progress!

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  4. I have read your blog for some months. It's very interesting.
    I'm French (sorry for my English) and I'm learning hindi to better understand Indian culture. Some of my classmates have an Indian husband/wife and they're learning hindi to speak with their in laws. I would like to know if you have learned some words in telugu/tamil in order to speak with your in laws ? Sorry if my question is intrusive.

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    1. Thank you for reading and welcome!
      My FIL is Tamil and my MIL is Telugu, and sometimes they all speak Hindi! I have tried to learn all three, I think Hindi is the easiest to pronounce, followed by Telugu, and Tamil is definitely the hardest. I have taken Hindi classes at university but have struggled with finding a proper teacher. I can follow a conversation in all three languages but I can only respond in English, so I am okay with that for right now. I am hoping to pick up more words as we teach our daughter, I'm going to start doing flash cards with her soon since she is talking a lot!

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    2. @Alexandra

      What language would you teach your daughter. I think english which would be the natural choice. Tamil is an extremely difficult language because it has little connection with Sanskrit. Some claim that Tamil is older than Sanskrit. Its grammar is also different. Other languages of India are derived from Sanskrit so there is some connection. You will find similar words in Bangali, Marathi, Gujrati, Punjabi etc.

      But, I think Hindi is wonderful to understand India as a whole because it pretty much covers up bollywood and most of the northern states and also southern states of Andra Pradesh and Karnataka which have sizable muslim population due to prolonged periods of muslim rule. But, tamil nadu is a different ball game because I have heard that in Chennai people get offended if you speak Hindi. They feel that Hindi is all about north indian domination. Tamil Nadu was also the center of violent anti-hindi agitation in 1960s. This trend is slowly spreading to different parts of India.

      You may also be interested in knowing about the north east of India where people have entirely different culture from the the rest of India. These people have oriental looks and more close to the Chinese.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_India

      https://www.google.co.in/search?

      q=north+east+india&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=2n9bU7vjJc7LrQf0qYGQDg&sqi=2&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAg&biw=988&bih=629#q=north+east+india+people&tbm=isch

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    3. @anonymous - English is our main language at the moment, but she also speaks some words in Italian, Spanish, and Chinese! She picked up Mandarin at my friend's house :D
      Kids are like sponges when it comes to language....
      And then when she goes to school, it is mandatory that kids learn French in Canada.
      Hubby is insistent on her learning Tamil, however he is hardly speaking to her in it...lazy fellow! So I doubt she will learn too much until my inlaws stay with us permanently.
      I think Hindi and Telugu are easier though, but he is insistent on Tamil.

      Yes, I'm well aware of Tamilians being snobby about their non-Hindi speaking, especially the die-hard Chennai folk! Even coastal Andhra people refuses to learn Tamil. It is like the French Canadians in Canada who refuse to speak English!
      In Hyderabad, everyone speaks Hindi though....I personally think Hindi and Telugu are easier. I have the same feeling about Hindi since it is the national language - would be easier to know if she wants to travel around India when she gets older.
      We will see....looks like I have my work cut out for me, I will have to get my Indian language books out again! I will be learning along with her :)

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    4. @Alexandra The anti-Hindi thing, as I understand it, is a pretty tangled topic. It involves language as a core part of identity, language identity politics (these are not the same thing), caste politics (of course), probably race politics too.

      And let's not forget that North Indians can be as bad as South Indians / Tamilians when it comes to asserting superiority through language.

      What a headache!

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  5. I totally get the Canadian English thing - sometimes it feels like I struggle to communicate in any language haha. Yesterday I asked for basmati rice and the girl corrected me with basmaTI, yeah, we're both speaking English here... Oh I need to start speaking more crisply - it just feels weird to my Canadian tongue.

    I lucked out with my Indian MIL - she is a funny, loving, tiny little mountain woman. She doesn't even speak Hindi but my dear husband is teaching me a bit of Garhwali which fortunately shares some vocabulary with Hindi. Our communication looks more like a game of charades than a real conversation but I learned quickly that physical comedy can always generate a laugh, which is good. Being able to laugh at myself is a skill I'm definitely getting lots of practice at. I'm pretty sure the whole family thinks I've got some pretty strange habits but it's the new normal and they don't seem to worry too much about it. It's probably a good thing that I don't understand everything they say lol.

    Great blog by the way, I'm going to try your Aloo Masala Capsicum tonight.

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    1. Awwwwwwwwwwww that is so great! Lovely to hear!
      Thanks for reading! xo

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    2. @Alexandra

      Here is Russle Peters making fun of India, American and Canandian accents. I never thought that Canadians had different accent. I thought they spoke just like Americans. Maybe it is just like India and Pakistan, same language (Hind/Urdu) but slightly different accents.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uLqrtRnrHw

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    3. @anonymous - Russel Peters is so funny, once we saw him live.
      When I first went to the USA for college, nobody could understand my Canadian accent. They thought I was from Europe! When I returned to Canada on vacation, everyone complained that I was speaking too loudly, hahaha!

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  6. sometimes I feel I will never get along with my mil I feel trapped and uneasy in the house and I miss my freedom. her constant comments are getting to me and I think i'm internalising to the point I feel one day I will burst. how do you deal with a mil who constantly gives sarcastic comments on how she doesn't know how I trapped her son into my web and into marrying me. I feel like she will never approve and just wants to control everything :(

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    1. First - don't LET her control you, and don't take anything personally. Most likely, her sarcasm is hitting the wrong spot for you. So when she says that you "trapped her son", say something funny back like "OH YA AND HE LOVED IT" LOL ;)
      If you miss your freedom, then go out and do something for yourself - and don't feel guilty about it. I know this because I need my alone time too :)

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    2. the day came over the weekend where I burst- it was not pretty for anyone- lets just say I now know we will never get along and now I know exactly what she thinks of me - this weekend was one where I felt like I set myself up for life of misery- not with him but her. - feeling totally blue.

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  7. Omg, I'm so happy that I could find out your blog dear!

    I'm inside a interracial relationship about one year now and I'm really passing for somethings that you had described. Of course not totally, 'Cause we are boyfriends yet...

    My Fiance told to his mom that he loves me and wants to get married, She has knew me before and we had talked good, I even was calling her auntie and she was really funny and sweet, however I felt that she is going away from me after she realizes that her son wanna merry with me.

    I'm always doing everything to understand the Indian traditions and culture... Anyway it is still difficult, and we do have problems with my accent also... really Canadian and sometimes no understandable to my MIL.

    Thank you for share your experiences and light up our lives with yours great posts!

    Kisses and hugs from Brazil.

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