By Bandana Upadhya
What do you think of the possibility of us trying to be friends? Is that pushing it a bit? Ok, how about if we just get to know each a bit better, maybe start from the beginning?
It has been almost three years now since we began our official relationship. We were thrown into the deep end, with no prior experience to draw from. Yes, you were an existing mother and I an existing daughter, but we were suddenly expected to construct a new motherly-daughterly-bound-by-law relationship. This relationship was unfamiliar, ambiguous even. There was no contract to sign, no consent sought, or consideration given. The relationship was imposed upon us. Me, I was reluctantly participating in the relationship. The thing is, reluctance often leads to resentment and resistance. That is where I was at. Perhaps you were too.
Can I ask, were you given any advice before we embarked on this relationship? Were you told it may not be straightforward? Even if you had, I guess you would not necessarily tell me about it. Me, I was given plenty of advice. Well, one advice, repeatedly, from a relatively young age. Other than being told that my mother in law will most likely be unhappy with me because I was too “outspoken” (which is funny because I have been anything but that in our relationship), I was given specific advice about how to think and behave like a daughter in law. Of course, no one accounted for or cared about the kind of woman I might grow into when giving this advice. I assume it does not matter, the kind of daughter in law you are expected to be seems to hold no bearing on anything else you might have achieved.
The advice was: “treat your mother in law like your own mother”, with many adding, “after marriage, she is going to be your new mother”. What an unhelpful and dangerous advice. I mostly ignored this advice; sometimes even tried to argue it. However, as is always the case with childhood exposure, it found a seat in my memory centre, waiting to make an appearance in the future. So, when I had to face you and felt out of my depth, I welcomed the advice I had spent all my life detesting. I started forcibly generating feelings of love and affection for you. It was difficult because you were essentially a stranger to me, but of course, I persevered. I tried pleasing you at any opportunity (real or imagined). I was relentless in wanting to be liked and accepted by you. I thought I had to read the lines in between your words to understand your needs. I thought I had to ring you or be near you all the time. I followed you around the house, in case you needed me to do something. I could not relax. I dare not relax, as I relentlessly strived for your approval.
Despite the effort, I was putting into this self-created game of ‘please like me’, I found myself losing terribly. I was exhausted from the hyper-vigilance that had become normal. I yearned to feel relaxed in your company. I could not work out whether you liked me or not. I could not work out what our relationship was meant to look like. I started worrying more than usual. I started getting frustrated and impatient. I started to lose sight of who I was.
I hope you believe me when I tell you that outside of our relationship, I was strong, expressive and empowered. I was able to keep a clear head, make complex decisions and even stand up for myself when needed (well, sometimes). Thus, there was a growing conflict between how I was behaving around you and who I always believed myself to be.
Alongside all of this, I was trying to settle into married life generally. I was trying to figure out what it means to be a wife. I was trying to get my head around the fact that I missed my parents so much. I was attempting to heal from all the losses I had endured while simultaneously trying to weave together a new sense of self-identity. I was trying to figure out my position in the family you seemed to be heading up. I was trying to find physical and psychological space for myself in your home. I had little energy left and was annoyed to have to work on our relationship too. I wanted it to be easier than it was.
When I observed you, I noticed that you were also struggling. After all, it was your first time too. You also seemed undecided about how you wanted to be around me. Maybe you were trying to figure out how you felt about me or what it means to be a mother in law. You seemed nervous in my company, anxious even. You seemed conflicted about whether to treat me as someone you have known all your life or someone who is a guest in your house. You seemed eager to please too. You seemed lost and – please forgive me for saying this – insecure about your own role and position.
At the core of all this, I believe, was a man. A man you called your son and I called my husband. One helpless, confused, loving man. I am trying not to laugh but, oh boy, he did not know what hit him. It was about him all along. I could have been the most perfect, or the least perfect. You could have been the kindest or the meanest. It didn’t matter. It was all about occupying maximum space in his mind. I feel as though we were subconsciously fighting to claim him. Was it the case that you lost him, and I gained him? I am guessing here, but it feels like maybe that is what you thought, that I had taken him from you in some ways. Had I?
I think it’s common for married women to develop a habit of telling their husbands what to do. I can’t remember how and when we slipped into such a pattern of relating. The other day he asked me whether he can have some cheese before dinner. I replied, “why are you asking me? Do what you want!” – I snapped at him harshly, even though I meant to say I am not sure why I am being asked permission in this way. What came first I wonder, his child-like behaviour towards me or my motherly behaviour towards him? Perhaps I made him feel like he had to ask for my permission. I wonder if I had unintentionally taken up the role of his mother, and therefore made you feel like you have lost that role? I wonder if I gave you the impression that I had replaced you and thus contributed to your feelings of insecurity? But here’s the thing, no matter what impression I have given or the way I seem to behave with him, I really don’t want to mother your son. He already has a mother. He has you.
The problem for us is that while we both privately struggle with our relationship, we have very different ways of showing it. That might be a personality thing; our own individual style of dealing with inner conflict. I seem to choose silence and you choose noise. Neither of us manages to say what needs to be said though. Neither of us reveals our true feelings. You go on making yourself be heard, perhaps as an attempt to re-discover yourself or to assert your previously established power. I continue to slip into the background, determined to make as little ruffle as possible. Both styles, of course, are dysfunctional. You see as human beings, we are not at our best when we feel distressed and insecure.
Don’t you think we are both just trying our best here? From my perspective, I want you to see that I am doing the best I can, given the circumstance, given the fact that I am really struggling with it all, given my lack of experience. If I want you to see that in me, it is important that I see the same in you. I need to remember (as many times as needed) that you are also doing your best from your end of the deal. Marriage between two people shifts all the surrounding relational dynamics; the impact travels way beyond the couple. It is unhelpful for everyone to take on the victim role. We all need to change in some form or another, whether we want to or not.
Can I, therefore, request that we deconstruct the relationship we are supposed to have and construct a version that suits us both, a version that takes account of both our needs and insecurities? I am not sure what the end product might look like; perhaps that does not matter as much as the means with which we might get there. Let’s start from a point most relationships start. Let’s get to know each other, as two individuals, who have no other relationship other than the one we will co-create?
Before we get to the ‘how-to’, let us sort out the logistics: you are not my mother, you are the mother of my husband; I am not your son’s replacement mother, I am his wife. We should be respectful of these differences. I need to be mindful that I do not parent my husband; he is a fully grown-up person and does not need my guidance. He may need to do work from his part in making effort towards both relationships, but in ensuring that the boundaries between them are not blurred. You may wish to be mindful of how you are with your son. Every parent needs to let their child go off to do the ‘adulting’ stuff at some point, and currently, that involves paying attention to his role as a husband. You may have to say goodbye (psychologically) to the relationship you used to have with him and negotiate a new adult-to-adult relationship with him. It’s OK to be sad about it, it’s OK to even cry about it. It’s a life cycle that must be passed.
This leaves us with how to be with each other. For now, let’s agree to treat each other with kindness, empathy, and positive regard. Love may grow over time, or it may not. Fondness may emerge over time, or it may not. Either way, let’s keep going. Let’s keep trying our best, and let that ‘best’ be a little better each day.
**Disclaimer: I, Bandana, have written this article from my perspective, drawing mainly from my interpretations and feelings about certain relationships. I have tried to be careful about disclosures as much as possible to maintain some degree of privacy on behalf of other people that I want to remain respectful of, though I may not have achieved that goal very well. I have written about my experience not to cause any offence but with the humble hope that it helps someone else in a similar position make sense of their experiences**