I am Ayesha, 29 years old, mother of a 4-year-old son, Ayush. We live in a joint family and my husband is in the family business. My problem is that my mother-in-law is constantly interfering in all my activities. I could take it as long as it affected me, but it has now started to affect my child also. She constantly criticizes me in everything I do for my son. As a result, he has also started to devalue me and recently hit me. At that time, also my mother-in-law supported his behavior. I have become extremely irritable because of this factor. My husband is constrained as he cannot move out of the joint business and cannot protest against his parents.
What Ayesha is describing is a typical case of an interfering grandparent and mother-in-law. While most of them are a great comfort, a few of them have to be controlled. The faults of the mother-in-law are so apparent that perhaps you might not think it worthwhile to discuss them. However, an exaggerated situation makes it easier to see factors that might not be obvious at all in a more ordinary situation. However, when the quarrel is between two people, the parents may be unwittingly playing some part in the conflict, even though they may not be the aggressor. Often the main problem for Ayesha is to stand up to her interfering mother-in-law. She does hold her ground in some respects, but that she is surrendering too much is her tone of reproach and hurt feelings. Whether she wins or loses each argument, she seems to end up feeling the victim. This is not wholesome. Ayesha is afraid to hurt the feelings of the mother-in-law or afraid that she will make her angry. The mother-in-law is sharp in taking advantage of the Ayesha’s sensitivity. The parents who do not have enough confidence in their convictions or who get easily hurt or who are afraid of making the grandparents angry are a perfect victim for the grandparents who are overbearing and who know how to make the other person feel guilty. Any tendency of Ayesha to submit to the mother-in-law’s insistence encourages the mother-in-law to be still more dominating. In addition, Ayesha’s fear of hurting the mother-in-law’s feelings makes the mother-in-law shrewdly threaten to have her feelings hurt on every occasion. Ayesha does not know how to get out of it. As the months go by, she learns to do what all of us do when the pain seems inevitable – to get some perverse satisfaction out of it. One way is to feel sorry for us, to dwell on the outrages we suffer and enjoy our own indignation. Another is to tell of our torture to others and to enjoy their sympathy. These painful satisfactions tend to sap our determination to find a real solution. They become permanent substitutes for real happiness.
What can you do?
How can the parents who have been submitting to their parents extricate themselves? It is not easy at first, but it can be done gradually with practice. Remind yourself that you are responsible for the child and you have to make the decisions. A father should never side with the mother-in-law against his wife in an open argument between the three of them. If he thinks that his mother is right, he should loyally wait to discuss it when he is alone with his wife. The most important step for an intimidated Ayesha is to realize very clearly that it is her own guiltiness and fear of angering the mother-in-law which make her a target for bullying, to realize that she has nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of, and to develop gradually a thicker skin so that she can go her own way without feeling uneasy. Perhaps Ayesha might have to blow up at the mother-in-law to gain her own independence. Most people who get imposed upon too easily have trouble learning to take a firm stand unless and until they feel thoroughly outraged – only then can they let loose with justifiable anger. The trouble with this system is that a dominating mother-in-law senses that Ayesha’s unnatural patience and her final explosion are both signs of her timidity and both these signs encourage her to resume her bossing and needling again. However in the long run, Ayesha will be able to hold her ground and keep the mother-in-law at bay when she has learned how to speak for herself right away, in a matter-of-fact, confident tone, before she gets angry. The calm assured tone is usually the most effective way to convince the mother-in-law that Ayesha has the courage of her convictions. When the mother-in-law insists on arguing, she should try to act only mildly interested, refuse to argue and change the subject as soon as politeness will permit. All these amounts to refusing to be put on the defensive, refusing to let her feelings be hurt, refusing to be hurt. Of course, when there is a clash of personalities, the opportunities for differences of opinion are endless. In addition, there are many sides to any theory of child rearing – the real question is where you decide to strike a balance. When you are mad at someone, it is part of the fun to exaggerate the differences between your viewpoints and battle on. If you detect an area of possible agreement, you shy away from it. In addition, there have been extreme changes in the child-rearing practices in the past twenty years. It requires extraordinary flexibility on the part of the mother-in-law to be able to accept them and to be able to stifle her anxiety about them. Ayesha should also place some ground rules for her mother-in-law and explain them gently to her. Ayesha should tactfully remind her mother-in-law that she is not a parent; so, it would be wonderful if she is a loving, delighted listener and hold back on advice. Ayesha should be consulted about treats, gifts, and indulgences ahead of the interaction with Ayush. She should also respect Ayesha’s efforts at discipline. She should not undermine Ayesha. She should not tell Ayesha what to do, especially in front of Ayush or criticize her in sensitive areas. Of course, you will want Ayush to be raised perfectly, but your criticisms of your children’s parenting can do as much harm as good – or more – for you will undermine their self-confidence. As a mother-in-law and a grandmother, she can offer much more valuable things – comfort, love, experience and a sense of strength and stability.