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The Tightrope Artist

Illustration by Shoshana Levit

 Life's a balancing act when you're a mother-in-law

My mother vehemently detested her mother-in-law. She ranted and raved about her after every visit. Her outbursts made me feel bad, as I loved my grandmother. The woman who became my mother-in-law was young and vivacious when I first met her. I was sure that we would get on fine. Although she always meant well, over the years she often got on my nerves. And now I am a mother-in-law and can't help wondering what my children's spouses must say about me behind my back. I want them to know that I am fond of them, respect them and value them. I want them to be happy. But can I be sure that I am not guilty of some crime? Are all mothers-in-law guilty?

Those of us who manage the complicated role well are hidden in the shadow of our wicked sisters. Nobody mentions the good mom-in-law. The overbearing nuisance wins the spotlight. I think that it's time to shake off the age-old vicious stereotypes and find our own identity. For a start, the label "mother-in-law" is an archaic mouthful. Many of us get into this role without the law being involved, when our children and their partners live together. We have to fashion a new look, a post-modern update for our problematic role.

The guilty mother-in-law still thrives worldwide, in real life, fiction, and in cyberspace. Her crimes range from selfishness and rudeness, through nosiness and interference, to victimization and physical harm. In New Delhi, Tihar Jail's "Mother-in-law Wing" houses about 100 ladies.

In Afghanistan some young women prefer to burn themselves rather than bear daily fights with a foul mother-in-law. The Japanese shutome is convinced that her daughter-in-law is incapable of being a good enough wife for her darling son. The Jewish mother-in-law is overpowering, obnoxious and meddling. The French belle-mère is a euphemism. The Andean swira expects her daughter-in-law to cook for the whole household. And the Chinese mother-in-law has the reputation of being a jealous bully.

Jokes, tales, proverbs, riddles, songs and curses all throw light on the mom-in-law enigma. Well-known Yiddish advice to a mother-in-law, the shvigger: "Remember always the three S's: schweigen, schluken, schenken." (Keep silent, swallow affront and give gifts.) But if the mother-in-law doesn't talk, she shakes her head so that everyone knows her opinion. The British admit that the atmosphere at home may become "as cold as a mother-in-law's kiss". "Mother-in-law's tongue" (the snake plant), and "mother-in-law's cushion" (the golden ball cactus with thousands of prickles), form symbolic Mother's Day gifts. The former has a long leaf with a very spiky pointed tip – a sharp tongue. If eaten, the poison in the leaf causes painful swelling of all the mucous membranes, so that it's impossible to talk (and eventually to swallow or even breathe). This plant is hardy and doesn't die easily, like some mothers-in-law.

Cautionary tales abound. The biblical book of Ruth is probably the oldest mother-in-law tale. Naomi's husband and both her sons die. While one daughter-in-law walks off to start a new life, the other, Ruth, stays to care for Naomi. Naomi is bitter and complains of her suffering. She is selfish and manipulative. She gives unsolicited advice to her daughter-in-law, even in intimate affairs. She wants a grandchild and she fosters the baby when eventually it is born: "A son is born to Naomi!" the neighbors say. Imagine how Ruth feels about that. In all these respects, Naomi shows me how not to behave now that I am a mom-in-law.

Geoffrey Chaucer (14th century CE) based his Man of Law's Tale on another ancient legend. Here, a good Christian girl has two mothers-in-law. In the first part of the story, the mother-in-law is the power-greedy, vengeful queen who casts out her son's wife. She is a "well of vices… the very root of iniquity, a virago". The second mother-in-law explodes venomously with the arrival of her grandchild. She is "a serpent hidden in femininity… confounds virtue and innocence through malice". Both women refuse to accept the outsiders whom their sons have chosen for their wives. The second one rejects her grandchild as well.

I often read Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Princess and the Pea to my children without thinking about its message. The queen tests the princess with a pea, to see if she's good enough to marry her son. The girl passes the test; her bruised body proves her fragility and her delicacy. The tale reflects the age-old stereotype of the nasty mother-in-law and the helpless daughter-in-law, revealing the marginalization of the men in family drama.

In Perrault's 17th century French version of Sleeping Beauty, the handsome prince marries the lovely girl after waking her with his kiss from her 100-year slumber, and they have two children. The rest of the story was rightly cut out of our children's books. In the original version, the prince becomes king, goes away to war, and leaves his young family with his mother in the castle. She orders her cook to kill her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law and to stew them in her favorite mustard sauce, and then she eats them up with relish. But one day the evil woman hears happy voices, and discovers that the cook has tricked her; the three are alive and hiding in his home. Her son arrives home just in time to save his young family and throw his mother into the boiling cauldron.

Most of us choose the person with whom we fall in love, but have no choice as we tumble into diagonal relationships. Bound together by a common love, we fumble in triangular situations. The geometry of kinship becomes even more complex in our era of separations, divorce, and remarriage, aged and infirm parents, single mothers, step-children, gay and cross-cultural marriages. We turn into matriarchal spiders in the center of an intricate web - the family - and hold on to every thread. Faced with this tricky new role in mid-life, we may follow our own mother-in-law's example. Or, more likely, we may be determined to learn from her only what not to do. But even when we try hard to do it right, we can be very trying.

The sacred teachings of the world's great religions that we must honor our parents-in-law like our own parents, also recognize the problematic nature of in-law relationships. As in every good partnership, in-law relationships need a lot of work, constant adjustments and adaptations. We have to accept each other to get along together: ideally, we talk to each other, eat together, visit each other, celebrate together, give each other gifts and help each other out as the years go by. When a baby is born, delicate bonds between in-laws change. We don't have to love our in-laws, but we can show respect, by listening, understanding, praising and forgiving. We have to practice diplomacy. We can look for goodness and make an effort to avoid hurt. There is little point in our hoping for our in-laws to change. But we can learn to get along with them.

A mother-in-law is always on a tightrope; she has to watch her step to stay on top. Her job is a balancing act. But I believe it's not impossible to do it gracefully. I, for one, keep trying. 



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