Many people know me through my personal blog as being “the Indian Mother-in-law guru” – a role that I’d never imagined that I’d be. But, it is true – I’ve married into a traditional Tamil Iyengar family, my husband & I have been together for 10 years, and I live in a joint family peacefully with my in-laws in Canada.
It wasn’t always so easy for me – I struggled for years to be accepted, I had fights and misunderstandings with nearly every family member, and yet somehow through all of the difficulties, I’ve made it out on top.
As soon as I started dating my husband, I had a feeling that his mother was going to play a big part in our relationship. He was the eldest son, and they have such a close connection to each other. My husband has always taken care of his mother emotionally and they are both equally protective of each other. Their relationship as a mother and son is sacred. Now where did that leave me, as a wife? As the unexpected Firangi Bahu?
My mother-in-law grew up dreaming that she would be the one to pick her son’s bride, and that they would share the same culture and language. That dream went up in flames when we showed up on her doorstep in Hyderabad, in the middle of the night – her son with the (white) woman that he declared he wanted to marry.
Accepting me as a daughter-in-law was facing a future that was completely unknown. Not only did we have generational differences, but cultural and linguistic barriers as well.
Getting close to your Indian mother-in-law is very much like dating a woman. What do women want? As a woman, you should know yourself – to be pampered, to be respected, to be included, to be encouraged, and supported to pursue your dreams.
Here are some tips that I’d like to share of what really worked for me:
1) Contact her often.
The most important thing you can do with your Indian Mother-in-law is to find a way to INCLUDE her in your daily life. I was very conscious of the fact that my mother-in-law’s worst fear was to have her son move to a foreign country and never hear from him again. When we lived in different countries, I would phone her frequently to try to keep her updated on our daily life. I also used to send her a lot of pictures of her grandchild. How much you contact your in-laws is up to you – whether it be every day, every few days, or once a week – it’s whatever you feel comfortable with.
2) Learn her family recipes.
Cooking together is a great bonding experience – one that requires no translation and has no chance of misunderstanding. My mother-in-law expresses her love to her family through her cooking. I used to watch her make all the recipes and write it down so I could try to make it on my own. It is a great opportunity to learn secret family recipes, which in India differ so much from region to region and from family to family.
3) Know her favourites.
Every few months, I used to send my mother-in-law a care package – mostly a lot of books since she’s a big reader. She also has a thing from jasmine/rose perfumes and purses. It’s always exciting to get mail packages, especially in this lazy digital age and my thoughtfulness did not go unnoticed. In fact, my father-in-law used to get jealous! As a woman myself, I see how my mother-in-law pampers everyone else yet hardly ever gets any appreciation in return. I can’t cook nearly as well as her, so this was my way of showing my love to her.
4) Encourage her to pursue her interests outside family.
My mother-in-law always dreamed of being a doctor, yet her dad refused to invest in her education because she was a girl. It has been an unfulfilled dream of hers, and although I’ve been encouraging her to try to go back to school, she thinks her life is over at age 55. This is common in many Indian women of that generation – they were not given as many freedoms in men, they were never encouraged or invested in, and childcare fell solely on them – which means many had to give up their careers, or they couldn’t soar as high in their jobs as they had the potential to. This is a disservice to all women.
My mother-in-law sacrifices so much on a daily basis for everyone else that I make it my personal mission to think of ways that she can focus on herself and her own personal goals. Although I appreciate her help with her grandchild, I did not bring her to Canada to be my nanny. Is there a hobby your mother-in-law enjoys? What’s something she always wanted to do? Even if it’s something like helping out the local temple with festivals, it’s important for them to get out of the house and form a sense of community and interests outside of family.
5) Respect means different things in other cultures.
In Indian culture, respect is a big one with elders. But in Indian families, respect means something different – you don’t openly disagree with an elder, especially in public or in front of other people. In the West, respect means that everyone’s equal and everyone’s voice is heard. I find what really works with my Indian in-laws is that even if I disagree with them, I just nod my head. It keeps the peace.
6) Don’t sweat the small stuff–forgive
This is the most crucial thing I’ve learned – it’s important to forgive people – especially family. Everyone is going to make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and hurt each other – intentionally or unintentionally. That’s just life. It is important in relationships to let things go and move on. Resentment is like poison and it destroys relationships. Your in-law’s are your husband’s parents and they are going to be around for a long time – so you really have to learn to let things go, no matter how hurtful they are. If I did not forgive my mother-in-law for the hurtful things that she has done, I would never be able to have the amazing friendship that I have with her today, and vice versa. People should not be villainized forever for making a mistake. You have to think of the bigger picture – the long road.
Forming a good relationship with my Indian mother-in-law has been one of the most important things I have ever done. After 10 years, she has become my best friend, and I feel like I’m married to her as much as I am to my husband. I am grateful for her guidance, and her irreplaceable friendship.
What are your tips on building a relationship with your mother-in-law? I’d love your thoughts!
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