The Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law Dynamic in South Asian Households
Updated: Oct 6
Will We Ever Get Along?
Author: Dr. Navneet Kaur
Growing up in a South Asian household, I often heard comments about what I would be expected to know once I’m married. “If you don’t make round rotis then your saas (aka mother-in-law) won’t accept you,” or “if you don’t learn to do proper tharka (veggie base of all Indian cooking), then you won’t be fit for marriage into a good family and your saas will be ashamed of you.” Being a perfectionist myself, I initially tried very hard to make sure my rotis were fluffy and perfectly round, and the tharka I prepared to have the perfect balance of salt, pepper, and masala.
Then, as I began high school, homework and extra curriculars took more of my time and my need to make perfect rotis and tharka fell by the wayside. I became more focused on increasing my GPA and perfecting my tennis skills, rather than how much masala to add. And throughout this time, my mom continuously would try to make me focus more and more on household work than tennis – because my tennis skills were not going to increase my “marketability” for a good suitor when my time to marry came along.
I resented the notion that my value for my future-in-laws would be as a maid and cook in the form of a daughter-in-law. I resented it then, and I still resent it now. After all, why do I need to be “well-educated” if all I’m to look forward to is to cook and clean for others?
So, I fought against it. I would try to get away with the bare minimum in household chores (often to detriment of them being put on my little sister – sorry about that by the way <3) and make excuses that I have more homework than I actually had, all because I didn’t want to be defined by the shape of rotis I made.
When I thought about this expectation to know how to cook and clean perfectly and asked why it’s so important, the reasoning I was often given was that it will make my saas happy. Why is it solely my job to keep her happy? Why is that it is MY responsibility as the bahu (daughter-in-law) to make sure that SHE was happy? Isn’t happiness subjective, and therefore impossible to invoke in another person consistently and with accuracy??
And then, I thought about all the stories I had heard of arguments and fights between a saas and bahu, i.e. so and so’s bahu is so disrespectful and insolent that her saas cries every day; or her saas was so controlling she would only give her bahu one meal a day. The stories were mostly (if not all) horror stories about the interactions between mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws.
Why didn’t I hear about the pairs of MIL/DIL’s who got along? Even when I turned on the tv, put a Bollywood movie on, or listened to some Punjabi music, the message was all the same – you will not get along with your mother-in-law. It just isn’t meant to be, it’s a relationship that will forever be an issue in your life for one reason or another and you’ll eventually hate each other.
Then I realized something.
Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law don’t get along because we’ve been conditioned NOT TO. Our entire lives we are told that we will not be good enough for our mothers in law. That there will always be tension in the relationship, and you will never really like each other.
So, what do we do?
Do we try to convince our mothers-in-law of our worth? Do we say screw it and go and live our best life? Or do we try to find a comfortable middle ground between these two? And if we want to find a middle ground, HOW do we do that?
I’ll tell you exactly how – with family therapy. I know, I know – getting a brown family to sit down and do therapy is impossible! And I’m here to tell you – no, it’s not!
Learning how to communicate with each other so when conflict arises, it can be better handled, is NOT impossible.
Learning to understand each other’s relationship expectations whether it be saas/bahu, husband/wife, sister-in-law/sister-in-law etc, is NOT impossible.
All it requires is people open to the conversations, and open to making changes where necessary. It requires a mutual goal – having a well-functioning family.
In fact, I’ve worked with so many different South Asian families already, helping them change unhelpful dynamics so they can function better and still stay true to our culture.
With this, and the changing the expectations for our own kids, we can create a long-lasting, much-needed change in our culture.
Disclaimer: I know this dynamic doesn’t occur in just South Asian families, so whether you’re brown or not – let’s work out the issues between you and your partner’s family together. Learn more about services offered.
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