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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Clash of Civilisations

This is a Mother-in-law post.


A Woman With Male Chauvinist Beliefs
I have known my mother-in-law for 30 years. Until now, I see the trees but not the forest. I address problems but have never taken a helicopter view to sum up the macro level dynamics that lead to micro level clashes between us. I see reason to blog about this because it might actually help other women in my situation.

Grandma is a woman of her times. She is a woman with male chauvinist beliefs. Women are worth less than men. Her own daughter was neglected in favour of her son, my husband. When I gave my daughter into her care, my daughter developed emotional issues arising from Grandma's very obvious favouring of my son. These emotional issues underpinned The Daughter's poor academic results. Back then, my poor daughter scored in the bottom 25% of her cohort until I stepped in to resolve these issues, whereupon she went straight to the top in cohort.


Feudal Notions of the Matriarch VS Daughter-in-Law Relationship
In line with these subconscious beliefs, Grandma's mental model of a daughter-in-law was one that made sense only in feudal China. Grandma's view of a MIL was one of an all powerful matriarch who could order the daughters-in-law about, and freely dispose of all said daughters-in-law's possessions (including dowry and children). This probably made sense in an era where the matriarch of a wealthy family controlled all family resources. In those days, daughters-in-law were illiterate and the only way to prove their worth was to render service to their MIL, and thereby gain favour.

30 years ago, I did not understand this.

I simply found it puzzling that Grandma would go into my room, take one piece of my jewelry and then lend it to her sister without even asking me first. It was NOT jewelry that her son gave to me. It was a piece that I received from my own family. From Grandma's perspective, everything that belongs to her son (including his wife and all his wife's belongings) is hers.

I never understood why Grandma insisted on having her own bedroom in my HDB flat when her own 5 room HDB flat was within shouting and gesturing distance across the HDB carpark. Since she insisted, I gave her own bedroom. That was the biggest mistake of my life. Ensconced in her bedroom, she proceeded to take over my home entirely. She said that she disliked the way I had disposed the furniture and moved it around to suit her tastes. She did not like the spot where I had placed my kitchen condiments, and also moved those. She told me that my brands of soya sauce were not good, and proceeded to replace those too. If I told the helper to fry kang kong, she would go into the kitchen and tell the helper to fry bayam, not kang kong.

I felt like a guest in the apartment that I owned. I had no say in the home whether it pertained to my children or my furniture.

Since I was working full time, I mostly gritted my teeth and suffered in silence, except for the few instances where I thought she had really gone too far. When she proposed to mediate a quarrel between my husband and me, I told her bluntly that we were quite capable of conducting our marriage without her help.

To me, I was asserting my rights. However, from her world view, in the few cases where I did lay down the boundaries, I had impinged upon her rights as the matriarch of the family. What little I did to protect my rights, she experienced as a violation of hers.

Save My Family
Then, my children started to show dysfunctional behaviours. Little Boy only had eyes for Grandma. Grandma possessed him entirely, body, heart and soul. Little Boy hated his sister and absolutely detested his Father. The Daughter was in the bottom 25% of the cohort and was convinced that she was not loved. I came home from work to a whining daughter, a helper who complained about MIL and a MIL who complained about my daughter and the helper. Only my son could do no wrong. I looked into our joint future and I saw a loser daughter, a spoilt son and contentious relationships all around.

No way!

I tried to manage by working more from home. It was futile. My household and my little family were in a mess, even as I strove to please everyone and do the right thing...
- Convince The Daughter that she was loved.
- Repair the relationships Little Boy had with his father and his sister.
- Allow Grandma to occupy space in our little family unit to the exclusion of me.
- Discipline Little Boy (because The Husband held me responsible for how spoilt his son was)

The dysfunctional relationships had gained momentum. Grandma did not understand what I was trying to do and acted in ways that undermined my efforts. To reverse the momentum successfully, I needed her out of the way.

I prayed very hard. God sent our little family to the USA, where I had 12 months to do the emotional labour I needed to do, to root out the dysfunctions in my little family. Once I had repaired all our relationships, we came back as a united family and then Grandma found that it was hard to monopolise Little Boy's affections. The Daughter also knew that I was her rock. It took 2 more years to get Little Boy to like his father but I had already laid a good foundation which was relatively easy to build on.


Maintaining Boundaries
However, I became wary of MIL. I feared that if she continued to intrude into our lives, she would undo all that I had done. So, I took back the bedroom I had given her, explaining that I needed a personal study room. She would still come over every day but there was a limit to her intrusion because she had to go home to sleep.

Then, we moved into a penthouse duplex. She vigorously demanded a room in our house. In order to avoid an all out quarrel, both The Husband and I listened silently BUT did nothing. MIL cried real tears because she felt that her rights as a matriarch were being seriously violated. She was a matriarch without a place in my home, and thus, she was no longer in a legitimate position to control my little family. She was as if bereft. Me, I was puzzled at her emotional response. I did not understand why she absolutely needed a bedroom in my house, when she owned a 5 room flat 5 bus stops down the road. It was really puzzling.

It did not stop her from trying to assert her rights as matriarch. At first, she came over daily and would tell me that my toilets were dirty and needed washing, my pineapple tarts should go into the fridge. One day, I bluntly told her that she should govern her own home 5 bus stops down the road, and leave my home to me to manage. Privately, I thought to myself, "I have a Masters degree. Surely, I can be trusted to decide when to wash my toilets." Again, she was as if bereft. I had impinged on her rights as matriarch of the family, deserving of obedience and blind respect even in the smallest things.

Over time, she came over less often (3 times a week). She complained that it was because she did not feel at home in my home. Privately, I thought to myself, "Thank goodness for that! If you feel at home in my home, I know I will again feel like guest in my home."


Moving In Together Again
Then, we moved into a semi-detached home. By then, MIL was getting on in years. She really wanted to live in the same house as us. On the ground floor, there was space to build her a mini apartment of 1000 sq ft with her own kitchen, living room and bedroom. To get from her apartment to my home, you have to go outside. I made it very clear to her that she should leave me to manage my side of the house without her interference. Else, I was prepared to move out of a landed home and into a condo. She would then have to move back to her own HDB 5 room flat.

This worked for 5 years. However, we had still not addressed her world view. She still feels wronged. Lately, she has started complaining again that this is her son's house, and she should be allowed to do what she wishes where she wishes. She should be allowed to manage the helper as she sees fit. She should have free access into even my bedroom when she wishes. When I left the house, she would come over and tour our bedrooms, telling the helper that this is her son's house and therefore hers. She commented that perhaps I would be more compliant if she had more money, which made no sense to me.

My reaction was violent. I had a major meltdown and actually suffered 2 hormone crashes. I crudely told my husband, "Perhaps we should invite her to watch us have sex in the bedroom she claims belongs to her, by dint of it belonging to you."

The thought of having her dictate my every decision and action was no longer tolerable. I had experienced it for long years and had developed a psychological allergy to it. My reaction escalated into 2 panic attacks and 4 days in bed. No no no! I will not be chattel again! Why should I be chattel? I have a bloody PhD!

I had thought that I was being a good daughter-in-law to let her have her own self-sufficient apartment in my house. I thought I was being a good daughter-in-law to make her kefir every day and almond milk every now and then. I give her home grown veggies regularly. I do hospital duty. Over the years, I have gifted her with diamonds, opals, ovens, vacuum cleaners, spray mops and air purifiers. In my will, it is specified that should I die before her, this house cannot be sold until she passes on. Living in my house means that she has income of $2000 a month from renting out her HDB flat.

Yet, she still thinks she is badly treated.

Now, I realise that it is a lost cause. Only total ownership of me and mine will satisfy her. To satisfy her, I must be prepared to take on the position of chattel. I will never do that. Why should I?

She is not a bad person. She is simply a woman with values from a bygone era - where women had no rights and no wealth, except what they had through their son. Think about the Empress Dowagers of China. They held power insofar as their sons had power. MIL claimed rights and power through her son, my husband. For a better idea of how this translates into practice, click HERE.

If I were illiterate and non-wealth generating, I suppose that I would HAVE TO be compliant and have no sense of me and mine. This is the position that many domestic helpers and foreign workers are found in. Employers impinge on workers' basic human rights all the time. For those who treat their helpers like less than human, think on the fact that not 50 years ago, many daughters-in-law were in the same position.  There is no way either of us can come to an amicable solution because to uphold her rights, is to deny me mine. To uphold my rights, is to deny her hers.

I wish I had had this moment of epiphany years ago. I would have saved myself so much heartache from trying and not getting appreciated. Henceforth, I know there is no pleasing her. I am not able to give her what she considers rightfully hers, without denying myself what is rightfully mine. I will do what I can and not expect any appreciation at all.

It is not my fault. It is not her fault. It is a clash of civilisations.

I am very grateful that in my country, women have rights as men do. I am aware that there are still places on this earth where women have no rights at all. I am also grateful that my husband finally understands how much aggravation I have borne in 3 decades. He understands chiefly because he now has a high achieving daughter starting her journey through life, and he does not want his daughter to go through what I went through.

Finally, my husband is prepared to defend my rights.









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