The feud between mother and daughter in laws is a tale as old as time.

We’ve all likely heard stories of how mothers may feel threatened by another person coming in to take their place, particularly in the lives of their sons.
The “monster-in-law” then makes her daughter-in-law’s life miserable, for daring to take her dear son away from her.

However, there is an added complexity in immigrant families, and in particular in multi-generational households, that exacerbates this dynamic to varying extremes.

To put it quite simply, it is commonplace and almost expected for mother-in-laws (MIL) to treat their daughter-in-laws (DIL) poorly--if not to make their life a living hell.

MILs often put extreme expectations on their DILs, ones that they would never place on their own sons or daughters, and are constantly raising an invisible bar that their DILs, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to meet.

As easy as it is to place the blame on individual mothers who perpetuate the cycle, we also have to take a step back and consider the surrounding factors that lead to this in the first place.

In this context I am speaking particularly about the South Asian experience from a  hetero-patriarchal lens, although it is possible to draw parallels with other immigrant communities.

Oftentimes, because arranged marriages were the norm for our parent’s generation--love, romantic connection, and healthy relationships weren’t necessarily discussed. In many cases, survival was the main focus, and couples did not have the time or luxury to focus on building an emotional connection. Men were often the breadwinners while women fulfilled both emotional and household labour, including tending to their children. 

In the physical and emotional absence of their husbands, some mothers then pour all of their love, attention and energy onto their children, and due to the sexism that is commonplace in South Asian households and relationships, sons are the main beneficiaries of this. 

I spoke to Registered Clinical Counselor Pamela Sangha, about how this toxic cycle impacts all generations of the family, and how women get the short end of the stick.

“It's literally just patriarchy, this problem. It's not an evil mother-in-law's fault. There really isn't an evil mother-in-law,” she said.

“It's just the trauma that she's endured. And she doesn't know how to be emotionally open, because she doesn't have those vulnerable conversations with her husband, and then half of the time she's having them with her son [instead].”

This creates a situation where mothers are not only relying on their sons to provide them with the unconditional love they don’t receive from their husbands, but also creates a dependency, whereby sons depend on their mothers for what they can do for them. 

“Most of the time, there's these dependencies that are created by moms,” said Sangha.

“You should not want to create dependency, but that's what Indian mothers do. It's like, ‘you're gonna rely on me, this is how I feel a sense of control.’”

Sangha added that this almost dictates how mothers feel they can give or receive love. They are valued not for who they are, but through what they can provide to their husbands and kids.

“She doesn't feel [love] because her husband doesn't give her that. So she doesn't have the ability to know that there's unconditional love. So she views it as conditional,” said Sangha.

“Then she starts adding conditions. She starts doing the cooking and the cleaning and the nurturing and all of these things.”

Subsequently, we condition brown men who are then looking for partners who can fulfill similar duties to their mother without asking for much, if anything, in return. 

Thus, the cycle continues. 

The mother-in-law then feels threatened because she feels that the love for her, which she already saw as conditional, is being taken away.

She then blames the daughter-in-law, who she projects her insecurities onto. 

“Within our culture especially, there's this very bizarre treatment of daughter in laws,” said Sangha.

“But it's because of that insecurity, because you had all of your son's attention for all of this time.”

In this scenario, sons often don’t intervene because they don’t wish to upset their mothers, or because they also benefit from having not one, but two women mother them. 

This continues the cycle of transactional relationships and often makes it difficult for couples to unpack and dive into what healthy love is, because it often comes with conditions, which is what they learned from their parents.

“I think that fundamentally, this conversation has to start with young men,” said Sangha.

“I think that men should go to therapy, and I think men should really stop pushing down all of these things, and I think they should look at women as individuals instead of looking at their mom qualities.”

If we don’t have these conversations, the cycle continues into perpetuity. 

Men are emotionally unavailable to their partners because they never saw any emotional connection in their households, and women lose in every single scenario--both as mothers, and daughters.

Women are expected to audition for love and validation from both their partner and their partner’s family, without anyone ever stopping and asking them what they need out of the situation.

Changing this, according to Sangha, also requires young women to be firm in what they tolerate and settle for.

“They can't just keep having emotionally inept partners who just aren't willing to have these conversations because their dad never had these conversations.”

“Women and men need to individually do their own work in order to draw these boundaries in order to have successful relationships that aren't repeating the same patterns of our parents and our grandparents.”

And although immigration and intergenerational trauma impeded on the ability to delve deep into this, it’s never too late to start to look at how we can each individually break these cycles.

“I think that we, as a culture, really need to reshape the way that we look at how we love people. Because [right now], it's conditionally.

So is it really a monster-in-law who is the root cause of many of these ills, or do we need to reconsider the bigger picture and who is complicit in and benefits from this imbalanced dynamic?

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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