Living with the In-Laws

Mothers can be a complex issue for married couples even if they are from the same culture. When the husband and wife are from different cultures, those differences can be even more extreme.

We are a mixed-culture family. I am Chinese, my husband, John, is Canadian, and our son Jaden is a Canadian citizen, but has lived his entire life thus far in China. We have, of course, had our share of cultural conflicts and disagreements, but the biggest source of difficulty has been between John and my mother. In fact, he’s told me that he’s afraid of her… The woman who raised and nurtured me.

In an effort to help me understand, my husband once wrote a letter to me about my mother, trying to explain his feelings towards her. From my perspective, my mother is a fabulous, hard-working, loving and caring lady. Since John and I started dating, she has been treating him as her own son. She often puts a nicely peeled apple or pear in his hand, without asking him. She has voluntarily sacrificed huge amounts of her time to help us with raising our son. Without her, things would have been far more difficult.

John sees it differently. In his words: “I do respect and appreciate all the things she’s done to help us, especially you (Charlene). I know that you would have had a far more difficult time with her pregnancy, birth and the first two years of child-raising without her. Because of her, our son has been engaged almost every minute that he’s awake…playing games, interacting with others, tinkering with his toys, etc. No plopping him in front of a TV to do the babysitting.”

“However, there are huge cultural differences. For example, you mentioned her peeling an apple or pear, then giving it to me. The thing is, she never asks me before she starts if I actually want it. She just does it, and then I am obligated to take it because she’ll be offended if I don’t. A great many of the other things she does to ‘help’ us are done in exactly the same way. It doesn’t matter if we want it or not. She does it, and if we don’t appreciate it, she’ll get upset (even if it wasn’t something we wanted her to do).”

“But probably the most difficult thing for me is that she tells us what to do, even for minor things. I discovered one day that I could no longer hang my towel in the bathroom (something we’d been doing for years) because she’d decided she didn’t like it. I was told then when responding to my son, I should do it the way that she said to do it, or I would risk offending her. My own mother stopped telling me what to do when I was 18 years old…but my mother-in-law still feels obligated to control vast swaths of my life.”

“I understand that, from her perspective, this is how she shows her love and concern for the family, and I do my best to put up with it. But it’s not something I think I will ever get used to or enjoy.”

“And being afraid of her? Yes, I’m afraid of her! Afraid that anything I do, no matter how innocuous or harmless it seems, could set her off. I get down on the floor to play with my son… I get shouted at because he’s going to get dirty (on the floor she cleans every day), and I’m not being a good father. I think that Jaden has already figured out that he and I can have more fun when grandma isn’t around.”

As John explained this to me, it helped me understand somewhat, but my perspective is still different. Yes, there are times my mother drives me crazy, too, but she’s given so much for virtually no personal benefit. If she does something for us without asking us, it is because she wants to demonstrate her thoughtfulness, and it is simply good manners to accept it, even if it isn’t something we really want. If she wants us to hang our towels in a different place, why not do so? It’s a tiny inconvenience, compared to the inconveniences she faces every day in helping us.

I do appreciate that while John will often complain to me about these things, he rarely complains directly to my mother. I wish that he’d make more effort to talk with her about daily life, but I also understand that there are both language and cultural differences.

There are certainly problems, but I think we still do better than many other families, where relationships with the in-laws can be absolutely disastrous. It’s far from perfect, but it’s far from a disaster.