Friday, April 8, 2016

Ask Firangi Bahu: "My Indian Mother-in-law hijacks my kitchen & dictates what we can/cannot eat!"

(Img via Michael Hull)

Sharing a letter from a reader...

"Dear Alexandra,

I came across your blog as I was desperately seeking answers on how to deal with a resistant Punjabi MIL. I'm also a firangi bahu myself of about 6 years, of mixed Asian descent but have lived in the US for over 10 years (so I'm extremely westernized). My Indian MIL isn't a bad person at all and I do not dislike her either but I do feel like she oversteps her bounds whenever she comes for a visit.

First of all, both my husband and I are extremely independent. He's lived in Europe for 6 years and I, in the U.S. for 10 years before we met. So naturally we have grown to be self-sufficient and resourceful, more so me than him but that's just a gender difference.

My MIL likes to stay for more than a month every visit which put undue strain for me as a wife since I'm an extroverted introvert, in that I need alone time to recharge my energy and having long term guests is extremely exhausting for me. Hubby says she's just visiting because she wants to spend time with us...but honestly, more than 2 weeks is an overkill, especially when hubby is at work all day everyday.

And to compound the issue, my MIL is extremely resistant in that she only wants Indian food. Never interested in trying other foreign foods especially when we go out to eat. She insinuates that I'm lazy if I don't cook but as we know, cooking for 2 can be even more wasteful when leftovers are not finished. We live in Asia, where cheap hawker centers are abundant and for us non-vegetarians, we eat anything and everything!

She also hijacks my kitchen and basically takes the role of alpha in my house and dictates how to run my household as soon as she arrives. She forbids us to eat meat in our own home on Tuesdays even though we are non-vegetarians. To me, that's crossing the line.
My main issues are:

1. Hijacking of kitchen and treating our home just like her home.

2. Wanting visit us sometimes longer than a month.

3. When cooking, for example, after mixing aloo for aloo paratha, she doesn't wash her hands and simply touches anything and everything else with dirty hands.

4. Using my floor rags for my kitchen counters and to wipe dishes after I specifically informed her of the colour-coding and kitchen system (cross contamination).

5. Not being careful with kitchen counters and hot pans (we rent) so we are always extra careful. MIL has burned a spot on our kitchen counter and the wood has bubbled and we are moving out soon to a different place. I'm just really hoping the landlord won't notice..

6. Used iron on the bed and burnt my brand new white sheets!

7. She insists on helping with laundry when I have plans to work from home, and then I have to stop what I planned to do to fold the laundry because as a guest at my house, I don't expect my guests to do my laundry... (overstepping of bounds)

8. Insists on cooking and eating only Indian food and starts the pressure cooker almost daily at dawn...keeps sharing stories of how she used to wake up at 5am daily when she was younger to prepare food for her family, insinuating I'm lazy. The thing is, we have no kids, hubby doesn't eat breakfast and even though you could feed him literally anything, I feel like being in an interracial marriage, we should eat a variety..not just Indian food daily. I don't hate Indian food..I have to be in the mood for it...for any food for that matter..

9. Keeps showing her distaste in my eating-out habits. In my city, you can get a plate of chicken rice for less than $5 (US $3.50~) so it honestly makes more sense to have take-out food rather than cooking...especially if we are strapped for time.

10. Has such an unfounded sense of patriotism and that the Indian culture is far superior...for example, once we were watching a movie and it was showing a college graduate having problems with moving back in with her parents. My MIL then remarked that western parents don't love their children because they send them away at 18 to college...I was speechless and rather appalled.
Now she's visiting again soon and I'm already feeling stressed. Speaking to hubby is honestly pointless. He takes their side automatically. I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own home when this happens. It's such a tough position to be in as a DIL when the son takes his mom's side only by the default fact that she's given birth to him and that I honestly don't know how to proceed without stepping on anyone's toes. But some days I just wish he can be more direct with his parents (mom especially), the way I'm direct with mine (direct, not rude)'s like he feels he is obliged to bend over backwards for them and it doesn't help that they innocently guilt-trip him since he's been away for a very long time himself. It's also very internally frustrating for me because now I feel like a bad bahu for not obliging them...but to what end I supposed to change myself to suit their needs and preferences.....?

I'd like to reiterate that I don't hate my in-laws at all. In fact I don't think they're nasty like some of the stories I've heard, but I just think that when you're a guest at someone's home, behave like a guest. Don't overtake and overrun them in their own home, always saying your way is better or your Indian culture is better than my mixed that too much to ask....?

Extremely distressed"


Dear readers, what advice can you give to this fellow bahu? What would YOU do?
How can she find ways to peacefully co-exist with her MIL?
What do you do when your husband takes your MIL's side?
How can they make the MIL feel welcome without overstepping boundaries?
How do you deal with Indian elders who preach that Indian culture is the best and only way?
Have you dealt with something similar? Please share your experiences...


  1. Hello,
    First when someone stays longer than 3 days at your place, they're no longer a guest. If any guests extends his/her stay for more than that period the host is no longer obligated to look after their needs, whatever they may be.
    Second, both mine and my husband's parents are considered family regardless of whether they live with us or not. This is how it works in my culture. According to that my mother in law taking over my kitchen to cook shouldn't bother me in the least because if I don't like her cooking I whip up my own meals and also wouldn't force her to eat my dishes.
    Third, you need to ignore all the stupid cultural advices sent your way. "They are like that only". Why the heck are you even getting bothered by them? You shouldn't let it get to you, sorry that's the only option. They will throw more advices your way if you start showing signs of getting distressed or bothered by it. Try to keep yourself very very busy like reading in your room if you don't have a full time job. I'm an introvert too like you and house guests used to bother me a lot initially draining me of all my energy, but you have to realise that she is his mother. She has a say in his life too, and you have to learn to respect that. I know it all sounds ridiculous but I learnt it all the hard way. She has no right to interfere in your lifestyle and the next time she does that very politely ask her to stop doing it, and in case she does it again be firm and tell her you won't tolerate it. Tell her that it isn't about her way or the highway. Stand up for yourself if you feel you're getting cornered and the best way to deal with Indian cultural advice is to get logical. Most of indian customs and traditions are absurd and ridiculous and only logic and common sense can triumph such idiosyncratic practices. One advice has helped me immensely in dealing with husband's parents. Treat them and behave with them the way you'd want your husband to be with your own parents. Also on what accounts does your husband take their side? This is something you have to resolve by talking it out with your husband. Why and how it is affecting your sanity. I think you need to work on this one first, only then everything else will work out in your relationship.

    1. @sue

      traditions are part of our life. You do do not have them perhaps that is why they seen ridiculous to them.

      In India a son's home is not different than one's own home. It is in western societies that you make these demarcations. Please do not lampoon Indian culture. your culture is nor superior to ours. These are cultural issues and should be sorted out amicably. at least the writer does not hate her mil as most comments are advising her to do.

    2. Hi Sue,

      Thank you for commenting.
      1. I don’t quite understand why the 3-day rule on guests/not guests status. I personally think and feel that anyone who doesn’t officially live in my home, comes for a visit, regardless of length is considered a guest.
      2. Both our families are considered families too - there really is no distinction. However, the difference between you and I is that my mother in law cooking in my kitchen bothers me given that she does indeed try to enforce her system and her ways into my kitchen and this extends beyond the rest of the house. This is the essential issue that is driving me nuts!
      3. I’m not bothered by their cultural advice at all - I simply let whatever I don’t personally like or agree with “go in one ear and out the other”, although I think that excessive advice, especially when opinions are not asked/requested, can be seen as an insult. Even my own mother knows better than to cross that line.
      4. I realise that he is his mother but as far as she having to have a say in his life, I think that I cannot agree with. Simple question: what happened when we have kids in future? Will his mother dictate and ‘have a say’ in how we choose to bring up our children?…
      5. I don’t completely understand the context and what you meant by “treat them and behave with them the way you’d want your husband to be with your own parents” — care to elaborate on this. (I understand what the sentence means but I just cannot picture your context)
      6. On what account does my husband take their side? Well, he has a ‘fallback’ reasoning of “they only visit us for a year….so that’s why she must stay for a month” for example..


      — LW

    3. @anonymous which of the commenters are advising to hate her mil? How can you even use advise and hate in the same sentence? Traditions aren't a good thing if it is at the cost of discomfort of the person observing it. It doesn't matter whether they're customs of the east or west. It is not worth it.

  2. First of all, you are not being a bad bahu at all because some of the comments you made have been made by so many other Indian women.

    Sorry to say, but your husband is being a typical Indian guy by conveniently refusing to deal with his family and taking their side without even considering yours. Basically, he is one version when his parents are not watching and another when they are.

    My first route is always communication. Pick a date and time and discuss in detail on how you feel with your husband in a non accusing manner just like in this letter. If this bothers you, he must be willing to take 5 concrete steps to deal with his mom. She will not listen to you. When you say anything, it will be an issue especially considering your pecking order in her mind.

    Second, ask him how he would feel if your parents did the same to him the way his mom treated you.

    The typical answer for a lot of these situations is "they are like that only". Well, if they ever bring up your characteristics, I would say, "I am like that only too." And it is true, you cannot change your MIL. So, stop trying.

    Do you parents live in the same city? I am guessing they are. To make it tit for tat, maybe you should get your mom to stay over for longer periods of time and sometimes even clashing with your MILs stay. Or go and stay over at your parents house when she is here to get the point across.

    I think, often, foreign DILs try quite hard to be accepted into their Indian families. Give up the need for approval or acceptance from your MIL. Don't give a shit if she gets up at 5 or what she feels. She can think whatever she wants and you should tell her that you won't change based on her opinions. If you don't want to cook, don't. Eat out. If she wants, she can cook for herself. Of course, you can offer for her to join you. You want to eat meat, it is your house, eat it in front of her. If your husband tell you not to, you should ask him if he follows this when his mom is not in town.

    I think the problem lies with assertion of boundaries. Next time she comes, lay down the house rules point wise and write it on a paper. The key is to be calm and neutral (very difficult) and not raise your voice and not to get pulled into the emotional blackmail or tears or any drama. Don't engage. Handle it like you would a kid. Throwing a tantrum does not make you change your rules. You just keep reinforcing the rules at every point you can. Being firm and consistent will win out.

    Can you guys offer to book her tickets? Like, in a way we don't want you do the work, we will do it for you kind of a way? Then, book it for her for 2 weeks.

    Send her to some activities at the Gurudawara. Let her spend her time with other old aunties. Often old people like her are bored with nothing to do.

    For the pressure cooker, just take the whistle part and hide it in a locked place if it bothers you at 5 in the morning ha ha.

    Put some hand soap in the kitchen sink and remind her to wash hands. It is easy to skip if you have to go to the bathroom to wash your hands. Kitchen sink not so much.

  3. You are alone, interfering parents are common from one end Asia to another in 1 form or another. For Chinese, you have the girls mom dictating and commenting on her daughter's husband's earnings and living with them for the sake of the kid etc. Traditional societies are the same all over.

    Also, forgot to add in, there are 2 schools of thought on how to deal with this: progress bit by bit or all in 1 clean shot. Bit by bit method seems to work but my observations are that it is not that effective. I go by my husband's method - shock therapy. Put it all in one blast. Often old people, are so used to being obeyed and not questioned, naming the unwritten rules and then breaking them, shocks them and they will learn to accept it like all other shocks in life. Bit by bit, just extends the emotional drama and tears on both sides.

  4. Hi Ladies,
    Thanks for some of the comments. I just wanted to clarify a point. When I say 'she hijacks my kitchen', I do mean that she really hijacks the entire kitchen and not just my stovetop where she chooses to cook. She will literally demand that we buy groceries meant for onoy indian vegetarian cooking and will 'kick aside' my western spices for example. She will also rearrange tge layout of my kitchen to suit her needs and comfort. It also extends beyond the kitchen -she will teach me how to grocery shop as well, for example, we usually just buy a bag of pre-packed tomatoes at $2+ per x grams but she'll insist on us selecting the tomatoes one by one saying that we save about 10cents....and these tomatoes are exactly the same quality. Basically it's kinda like she's on a power trip when she visits. It may seem trivial to some ladies but when small little things like these add up, they do compound and would irritate even the most understanding and respectful individuals.

    There's soap next to the kitchen sink. We live in a cosmopolitan city and just to give you all a better picture, my kitchen looks like a typical modern western kitchen with built in appliances and modern fixings. My entire home is decorated modern, Ikea-style.

    Hope this helps.

    -- LW

    1. Damn. I've been living in my MILs house for almost 5 years now, and this sounds kind of similar to my situation. Except Im in their house not my own. I can get along with anyone but one word or look from my MIL and I can be in a horrible mood for hours. I unforunately dont have any advice to offer you but just know you're not the only one. This is a common feeling :(

      Luckily my husband hates his mom too lol, planning on buying a house of our own soon. And although I encourage him to spend time with her (I dont want to be the "home-wrecker firangi bahu") he's said he doesnt want to tell her where the house is. So thats something to look forward to lol.

      Really sit down and have a chat with your husband about your feelings and why you need him to at least defend you. Dont make it a "my side or her side" thing. Maybe do it from the "if this improves we will all get along better and enjoy her visits more" perspective.

  5. I think all this is very normal for Indian ladies. For us, kitchen is a major almost "living" part of the house. Kitchens can and will get messy when you really really cook. A proper chefs kitchen is also messy. I do not mean unhyginic but just messy. But at the end of the day when all cooking and eating is done, i think this is all fine.
    Even indian girls find thier MILs taking over a pain. But at the end of the, it is a symbol that they care about you and your husband. Otherwise no one would bother leaving the comforts of their home and kitchen to cook in a foreign kitchen for "foreign" people. Take it positively and you will get use to it.
    But you can make it clear to her that after all cooking is done, the kitchen must be left clean. And help her out in this area if she needs it.

  6. This is kind of funny to me in that one of the main things I have learned with my husband's family is that they are not a guest, they are family and they like to be part of the family. Enjoy the food that she cooks while she is there, especially if you don't normally eat that kind of food. My mother died last year and my mother in law and my husband decided that what better way to show their love and to comfort me was to come and stay with us for five months. :) It's not worth the tension to be upset about things. It's better to just let things be and communicate your love and appreciation for her help. It will be much easier with your mother in law and your husband. Of course you will not agree with everything that each other do, but instead of being offended show her how wonderful things are and how much you appreciate her teaching you. She will be very happy and proud of you and her son and tell her friends how kind and wonderful you are. :)

  7. My MIL behaves much the same way, but I think you have to look at things through her eyes, not your own. In Indian culture a son's home as the same as your own house, it would be considered rude to treat it otherwise. My suggestion is take your MIL's behavior as a compliment that she feels so comfortable she treats you like an Indian DIL. It is a way she shows you and your husband her love. BUT also because she is not a guest, she is "living with you" while she visits, you are not required to eat Indian food all the time or do other things you might otherwise do out of politeness to a guest. If you want different food, bring it home or cook it and eat that. She sounds like a decent person, I'm sure you can figure out a way to share the home while she visits.

    P.S. A one-month visit is nothing! My in-laws visit for 2-3 months at a time. Others I know visit for 6 months.

  8. My MIL was the same , God bless her soul she passed away a few years ago......
    When I lived in India and it seemed I would have a nervous breakdown I took my hubby in confidence and joined a hobby class and that way I wasn't around the house all the time for her to stress me . Thankfully in our case also she only visited fir a few months so I could claim my house after she left ......
    Later when we were living in Australia and she came over to visit us I just pretended I had overtime or other work commitments and came home very late , most of my friends knew I was escaping her and offered me their house for a few hours to hide away from her ...... I don't know if that was the best way to deal with it but it did avoid a lot of stress and drama in my life and saved me from mental breakdowns.....
    Also realise it is a very hard place for husbands as they are sandwiched between two women they lot he most perhaps......whenever my husband would side with me my MIL would go in her emotional blackmailing mode and it was so hard for him .......
    So take your hubby in confidence , let him know how hard it is for you and try and work out a compromise .....
    I even used to go visiting my parents those times as I would put it how it was great that she could take care of her son and house and help us so I could have some nice time with my own family and visit them and avoid an ugly situation ...... It worked in our life and hope it works in yours. Good luck !

  9. Umm, no. Hell no. It's YOUR home, she's a visitor in YOUR country. It's her job to "adjust". I see a lot of "advisors" here saying the MIL considers her son's home her home and so you should "adjust". It's your home as well and she doesn't get to micro-manage you and ignore your wishes and values.

    Firmly and politely take a stand with her if your husband doesn't. If there's a yappy little dog that walks into your home and keeps nipping your ankles and growling, you don't have to "adjust", just as you don't need to put up with blatant boundary-stomping by your MIL. Sheesh. I wonder which century some of this advise comes from.

    - Indian DIL

  10. I hear you sister! I have almost exactly the same situation as you. I am Australian and my husband was raised in India for 20+ years before moving to Australia, and we now live in Asia. We are both very progressive thinkers on most topics, but MIL is out of bounds territory even if it’s not logical. We have been married for 7 years, and honestly each time MIL comes to visit it gets a bit easier but it’s still not perfect.

    It also sucks a lot of emotional energy for me each time she comes to visit because I know she is coming for 2-3 months, and I feel that I am losing a piece of my independence. I know when she is around, I still will be respectful and polite but I need some me time. One of the first things I do, is I go for exercise, this helps me stay sane. Maybe you can pick up a hobby, to give yourself some ‘me time’ while she is around, such as Yoga. My western friends still don't comprehend that she is staying for months at a time, but now I have just learnt to let it go…they will never get it.

    My MIL also hijacks the kitchen. For the first 3-4 years, I hated this and it would also really annoy me. I felt when she did this, it made me look really bad and I wasn’t contributing to the house. She would also rearrange everything, so I could never find what I wanted. Now what I do is before she comes over, I make sure I have her spice containers ready, and give her shelves in the pantry. This then helps alleviate any stress in the kitchen, and she can see we can both cohabitate. She is now also curious looking at sometimes what I am cooking, because as nice as her food may be I can’t eat Indian food every day. We also sometimes just tell her don't cook, we are going out for dinner. This has been learnt the hard way, where she has made food, and we still went out for dinner. It’s her choice at the end of the day, and she also needs to show a little flexibility. Maybe take her out for Mexican or Thai food?

    The hygiene topic is a HUGE issue with me, and this is where I have had to put my foot down and it has taken years, and sometimes tears to work through this issue. She will use my cleaning rags to cook parathas and put it in the roti container. This would freak me out, and as many times as I told her to not to do this she didn’t listen. This is where I did get my husband involved, and it took the right moment and I was very calm and impartial to help him understand and then tell her. She also would cook without the vent, and I would wake up with my house smelling like paratha’s. It’s not that hard to press a button is it? Again, I had to pick my moments, but she now knows that I would appreciate she follow these humble requests.

    If she wants to do the laundry or any other household chore, seriously it’s not worth the pent up energy, just let her do it and say thank you. I used to fight it as well, but honestly it’s not worth it. It is only for a couple of months each year.

    Ignore her kitchen stories, I don't think there is any bad intentions behind them. It’s what she knows, she is most proud when she is taking care of the family. I once confronted my MIL about similar comments, and asked her why is she telling me this, does she we want me to get up early to cook. I work full time and it’s not something I grew up doing. She said no she was just having a conversation, and retreated pretty quickly. If you are offended by her other comments, try and have a discussion about them to help her see other points of view.
    Good luck :)

  11. I'd side with her on point 5 and 8 alone. Being the Indian DIL and having travelled to US a few times on office work, I'd like to say the houses are completely different from what I've been used to. Indian homes have stone slabs on the kitchen counter( you can dump all the hot pans you like and they wouldn't burn). I did make the same mistake in the US and quickly corrected myself. So what I'm saying is, it's a genuine accident.

    For 8, being Indian, I can't do without my food. I'm sorry if that sounds rude, it's just that I can't live without it. But 5am is unnecessary. Just the "need Indian food" unfortunately is. ( yes it's why can't you try a different culture, y r u stuck with Indian food ? - but yes Indian people are and I am so glad your husband isn't this way)

    For the rest of it, it sounds like she's a person with no boundaries. This sucks. My MIL is the very same and I hate her for it! Lucky you, you have to put up with a month of it every year or so. I'm lucky when I get a month off the torture ( a month is a blessing - I get a weekend off every 6 months IF I'm lucky)


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