The Saas-Bahu Saga (Part 1)

By Fr. Joshan Rodrigues

Rev. Fr. Joshan Rodrigues
Fr. Joshan Rodrigues

“Father, my daughter-in-law is my gold! Bhangarachi Sunn! She takes such good care of me, bringing me my medicines from time to time, she looks after the home. She makes it a point to come ask me for advice for important things. I must have done something good to deserve a daughter-in-law like her”….and then I woke up with a start. It was only a dream! This vivid love of a mother-in-law for her daughter-in-law (we shall refer to them as MIL and DIL henceforth for the sake of brevity) had caused me to perspire a bit. I wiped off the sweat and headed down for confessions.

The first one up was an elderly woman in her mid 60s. “Father, I haven’t confessed for a long time. My husband pushed me to go to confession today. He’s right there. He will come next. I told him that I will only go if you go too, since you have far more sins on your head than me!” …and then after a few introductory utterances, she launched into a list of her DIL’s faults and sins. I sMILed to myself. This was more like it…the faMILiar world that I was accustomed to.

The pertinent and ever-lasting topic of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships was something that I would have eventually tackled sooner or later in the course of my ‘Musings’. Let me insert a caveat right away before I begin. The ‘In-Law’ wars as I like to refer to them is not universally applicable to all such relationships. Nor am I being a male chauvinist in writing about the opposite sex from my clerical pedestal.

The ‘In-laws’ are at the heart of every married home, and both of them make great sacrifices to carry family life ahead. Their contribution in running the family hearth is far more than those of father-in-laws and son-in-laws who tend to take a more passive approach. Surely most MILs and DILs do live in perfect harmony with each other and therefore this should not be generalised. However, the ‘In-Law’ wars do exist and no one can deny that. It is not an issue of two women hating each other, rather it is an issue of two women coming to terms to the new situation in their lives.

Simon Peter is famously said to have denied Jesus because he had healed his mother-in-law. On the Indian front, how else does one explain the immense popularity garnered by the TV series Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu ti?

The show’s popularity thrust Smriti Irani to fame and political fortune. However, the show’s title was extremely telling. Quite often, in the good old days, women who had suffered under the harsh gaze of their MILs, went on to repeat the same attitude with their own DILs. A classic case of one woman giving grief to another.

Today, with couples living separately from their parents in their own homes, this tends to be much less, though the acrimony still tends to continue. And through all this, the men folk watching from the sidelines (who for the love of God cannot fathom why things have to be this way) choose to remain silent for obvious reasons.

By now, you must be thinking what have I to contribute to this discussion? I have said nothing new so far. Permit me to share a few thoughts on how MILs and DILs can learn to love each other more.

When I asked a few of my married friends the solution to this unending problem, they told me that a mother-in-law must learn to see her daughter-in-law not as an outsider, but as her own daughter. Fair enough I thought. Many catholic websites also tended to give the same advice, but I don’t tend to agree with this idea completely. Could it be that she is actually treating her like a daughter, which is what is leading to the problem?

Daughters, did your mothers always treat you with kid gloves? Did they never correct you, admonish you, scream at you and when you were younger maybe even gave you a little ‘pasting’? Did you never have arguments with your mother when you were growing up? Of course you did, because your mother was ‘mothering’ you. She wanted to see her daughter grow up into a beautiful, disciplined woman with values (just like her).

I know of a woman in the US who when she came back from her honeymoon, found her whole house unpacked and put in order, everything in the right place. Her MIL would come unannounced to check up on them, help clean the house and even do the laundry. Obviously, she was doing this with the right intentions, thinking that it was her duty to help out the new family. But the DIL despised the interference by her MIL in her life. She wanted to do things her way around the home, put things where she wanted to. And she was justified in her thinking, but she misunderstood her MIL’s intentions. This too was just two women looking at the same thing from two different perspectives.

So if you expect your MIL to treat you like her own daughter, maybe she is doing just that! Even though her son is now married, her instinct as a mother is not going to go away. She has spent decades directing the family life and doing things a certain way. Do you expect her to change her instincts all of a sudden? Of course not! That would be against human nature.

When I look at the Bible, the first mother-in-law was Eve. But she had the unique distinction of not having had the experience of being a daughter-in-law. Also, her daughter-in-law  happened to be her own daughter, since as the Jewish Midrash says, the sons of Adam married their own sisters. How did that turn out? We do not know, since the Bible says nothing further on the subject.

I feel that a mother-in-law must treat her DIL much more than just a daughter. She must treat her as a woman like herself to whom she is giving a great gift – the gift of her son, flesh of her flesh, bone of her bones.

At the Nuptial Mass, this famous tract from Genesis is often read – “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This is a happy moment for a mother as she sees her son becoming a man and forging his own family. But have we paused to think about the mixed emotions she is feeling as she hears these words?

In order, for a man to be joined to his wife in one flesh, he has to be torn away from the flesh of his mother, whom she nurtured in her womb for nine months, and to whom she gave her own flesh and blood. She now has to accept that she is no longer the most important woman in her son’s life. She has to hand over something that she has delicately nurtured and cared for many years, to another woman. This is one of the hardest moments in her life.

In a way the MIL and DIL relationship comes with a built-in conflict: two very different views of the same man. One woman will always see him first as a man; the other will always see him first as her child. Someone told me that in today’s time of love marriages, a mother-in-law doesn’t always get to choose her daughter-in-law. But the DIL does in a way choose her MIL when she decides that her son is the right man for her.

In essence, a MIL must present her DIL with a gift – the gift of a man, whom she has fashioned. This must be done with love, seeing her DIL as a fellow woman who will continue the project that she began. She must not see her DIL as someone who has taken away her son, but as a collaborator in the family project. And she would always do well to remember her own days as a daughter-in-law. (end of Part I)

To be continued…(The daughter-in-law’s perspective will be discussed in the second part as well as a few practical and spiritual suggestions to improve your relationship with your in-laws.)

PS: I welcome your comments below on this topic. My views are subjective and all MIL-DIL relationships cannot be put under the same umbrella.

Read 10 Steps To Improve Saas-Bahu Relationship (Part II)

Fr. Joshan Rodrigues is from the Archdiocese of Bombay, India. He is currently studying Institutional and Church Communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. Travelling, reading and social media are his passions. His drive is to make Church teaching more accessible to younger audiences and he holds G.K. Chesterton, Bishop Robert Barron and the Venerable Fulton Sheen among his role models for this task.

Also do read Musings In The Catholic Land