There’s a universal stereotype that mothers-in-law are generally overbearing, obnoxious, or unattractive. They’re usually pictured as someone who considers her daughter-in-law unsuited for her son. Have you seen the movie Monster-in-law by Jennifer Lopez? It speaks everything about this “battle axe” stereotype.
You must have heard the saying that “you cannot be happy while your mother-in-law is still alive”. It dates back to the Roman times. Author Juvenal included it as a joke in his 6th Satire and it picked up its own life ever since. Some mothers-in-law take offense with this joke while others shrug it off. But other daughters-in-law take offense too, given that someday, it’d be applied to them.
Arguably, some cultures have more difficult mothers-in-law such as the Jewish or the Indian mother stereotypes. But regardless of culture and race, manipulative mothers do exist. What’s important is your ability to stand your ground and to prioritize your spouse once you’ve decided to seal your marriage covenant. After all, in-laws are but only one of the challenges of an interracial marriage.
The Offbeat Couple
Mr. and Mrs. 4B are married for almost 4 years and are currently residing in the United States with their dog, Chini. You can learn more about their challenges and joys at The Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu blog.
What makes your marriage offbeat?
I am from the upper Midwest of the US and Mr. 4B is from Maharashtra, India. I am a Roman Catholic and Mr. 4B is a Hindu.
What made you end up in an interracial/interfaith marriage? What was your motivation in deciding to marry someone of different culture and faith?
At first, we didn’t even think about it; it was just love. As we became more serious about our relationship, we saw how similar our life goals were. Even though we are from different places, we also have similar values. We both wanted adult lives that were different or better than our parents’ lives. For example, I would like to live a more stable, organized life than my parents (fun, creative, sensitive people with no planning skills or financial sense) and Mr. 4B wanted to have more freedom to make his own choices in life and express his creatively, which was not part of his childhood. Our life together is an odd mix of both that searches for a happy medium. We both value education very highly, we enjoy nature and the outdoors, and we laugh at the same things.
Tell us about the wedding. Did your different religious and cultural background affect how you planned the wedding?
The wedding was kind of terrible. To start with, we were turned down for a Catholic wedding. I didn’t have anything big in mind—no giant white dress or a reception where drunken relatives would do the chicken dance—but the religious part was important to me. The priest we talked to said that we should really only have one ceremony. As my mom put it, “He was saying that when you’re married, you’re married.” So, I didn’t get to have any part of the wedding that was about my religion or cultural tradition.
The actual wedding took place in India. I refer to it as my mother-in-law’s wedding, since it was actually about her. We were not allowed a role in planning the wedding. At the time, I was mostly just confused, wished someone would have told me what was going on, and left out of the loop both culturally and linguistically (i.e. Me: “What does this mean?” Husband’s Cousin: “What do you mean?” Me: “What is the significance of this thing we’re doing?” Husband’s Cousin: “I don’t know. You just do it. You have to do it.”). There were lots of egos at work (MIL, aunties, uncles). As my husband put it later, “They could have done the whole thing without us there and they wouldn’t have even noticed we were missing.”
In retrospect, we look at the wedding as a hurdle we had to jump over. When people ask us about the wedding, we often say that since our marriage survived that wedding, we will be able to get through anything.
What are your biggest challenges (as an interracial couple) and how do you solve them?
At first, we were very bothered by the staring. No matter where we went, people looked at us, which was something neither of us was used to. We lived with a sense of constantly being on display. We still feel it sometimes, but over the years, we’ve learned to do the yes-I-know-you-are-staring-at-me-but-I-am-going-to-look-right-past-you look. When an old Indian auntie stares at us for more than one minute, we turn on the PDA so she’ll turn away.
Our biggest challenge is probably Mr. 4B’s mother. Most couples in our position deal with in-law drama from one side or the other. I think a little disapproval of mixed-marriage is common even in parents who are kind-hearted, rational, and generous. My MILis a very difficult person with some major control issues and severe paranoia, so our problems with her extend well beyond any expected cultural differences.
The expected cultural problems were: disapproval of Mr. 4B marrying outside of his caste, religion, and language region, and the need for his mother to understand that Mr. 4B had chosen to live in the U.S. rather than be a “good boy” and return to India. We understood how hard it was for her to have to re-imagine her life without the daughter-in-law she wanted, but neither of us really expected the screaming, the drama, or the strange accusations she continues to make against me.
We have been to see a counselor to talk about the MIL issues. We went before our most recent India trip so we could talk about my fear of MIL’s outbursts and Mr. 4B’s feeling of being caught in between us when his mother lashes out. It has taken a long time, and I am still dealing with overcoming fear and resentment of my MIL, and trying my hardest to forgive her and feel sorry for her rather than fear her. The counseling, though not something that Mr. 4B felt good about, at least gave us a base line for what was a cultural difference and what was pathological behavior.
I am very lucky compared with many women who have difficult MILs, because Mr. 4B does not put up with too much bad behavior from his mother. When his mother makes a baseless accusation against me or interprets my behavior as being “out to get her,” he calls her on it.
Are there any marital issues that come up due to different religious background? How do you address them?
Because I grew up Catholic and continue to struggle with cognitive dissonance required of a person who wants to both remain faithful to the Church and to live in the modern world, I have a lot of guilt. A lot of guilt. I don’t think Mr. 4B really understood how much guilt I have around sex, missing mass, or even my somewhat liberal social views until a few years into our marriage. It is very hard for him to understand how deeply ingrained Catholicism is in me, so he has been known to accuse me of Stockholm syndrome or tell me I’ve been brainwashed.
The recent sex scandals within the Catholic Church led to some pain in our household. For me, hearing about the priest in Wisconsin who had molested more than 200 deaf and hearing-impaired boys, and the terrible cover-up at high levels within the Church, caused incredibly different reactions in the two of us. I sat down on the couch and sobbed. To me, the news was like hearing that a relative was a child-molester and that other family members had hidden the person from the law. Mr. 4B was angry at the Church, but also a little angry and bewildered at me for staying in the Church.
I try to be very respectful of Hinduism. Every time we’ve had a basil plant (tulsi) next to the shrine in our kitchen, it was a plant I grew. I try not to put anything that doesn’t belong near the shrine. At first, I even worried about the protocol of cleaning the shrine or the idols. These days, I am less neurotic. I had a period during which I tried to learn a lot about Hinduism, but I met with a lot of dead ends. I don’t really go into the Hindu temple anymore either, as it tends to just be an exercise in being stared at.
We both have our superstitions and little rituals that make us comfortable, whether it’s my saint medals or the Ganesh idol on our dashboard. Those tend to be the things that show up on a daily basis.
Did you ever encounter people who frown upon interracial marriage? How did you deal with them?
In the part of the U.S. where I’m from, it is generally not OK to say overtly racist things, but we do get the occasional xenophobic comment. For example, when my mom told some of her co-workers that I was marrying an Indian, the statement was met with a lot of “Oh, no, she shouldn’t marry one of them. I heard about this woman who married a man from country X and he went back to his country and took the kids.” We’ve also had a few comments about how one of us is going to have to convert to the other’s religion. If not, these people say, our kids will be “messed up.”
In the part of India where Mr. 4B is from (Maharashtra), there are a few people who pride themselves in their xenophobia. They even have their own political party and have a lot of influence on the psyche of some disaffected people. These people tend to belong to Shiv Sena or other parties that believe in keeping non-Maharashtrians out of Mumbai. (The US parallel would be the Minutemen or the English-only movement). We’ve had to sit through several lectures from older men who belong to these parties and espouse these xenophobic ideas. One man openly mocked our marriage and basically called Mr. 4B a race-traitor. Because of social rules about politeness to older people, especially men, we were required to just sit there and take it, even though we were seething.
How did your in-laws and extended families from each side react to your interracial marriage?
My parents both really like Mr. 4B, but in the beginning, my mom made me make sure that Mr. 4B was not already promised to someone else. She had heard horror stories about men dating Americans for fun and then leaving them for arranged marriages. She didn’t want to see me get used, so she insisted I get an answer to that question. After Mr. 4B came to visit them, they had no worries.
My grandmother, who is a bit of a drama queen and who likes attention, called me and said, “I’m worried that he is going to take you away.” I had to explain that these fears were unfounded.
I already wrote a little about my mother-in-law, but clearly the situation there is pretty unpleasant. I think that when Mr. 4B left India, she imagined that he would come to the US, finish his graduate degree, and then return to India, marry a nice Maharashtrian girl, and live with his mother for the rest of his life. Then, when he got a job here, she imagined he would work in the US for a while, make some money, and then go back to India. I think she still blames me for stealing her son away from her, even though he had decided long before we got married that her idea of his life was not what he wanted.
I think that a lot of the comments I get from her as wells as from my husband’s aunts and uncles comes from a deep insecurity about themselves. They are so insecure that they need validation at every level to prove that Maharashtrian culture is better than any other. There are several “lecture uncles” that I can count on to give me a speech about the superiority of Maharastra or India on any subject from food to women’s rights to dogs. Ever since an uncle got mad at me, in all seriousness, for teaching Chini her commands in English instead of Marathi, I’ve realized how ridiculously insecure he was.
What are the benefits of an interracial marriage?
I’m being slightly facetious here, but people always remember us. If one of us goes somewhere or does something alone, we are not particularly memorable. When we go somewhere together, we stand out.
I think that we have both had to become secure and confident in our own beliefs and values. If we both came out of the same culture, we might just do certain things without questioning their value or understanding why we were doing them. When we have a choice between two ways of doing things, we get to make a choice about what works best for us.
What compromises are required in order to make your marriage work?
Hmm…well, I have to figure out how to become neater and tidier. That has been a big difference that we need to figure out! Mr. 4B grew up with servants, so the house was always clean. My mom gave up after my brothers hit their teens, so I am not good at keeping things neat or organized.
I’m trying to learn Hindi, which really requires compromise from both of us. Mr. 4B’s mother tongue is Marathi, but he also speaks Hindi and can understand Gujrati and Punjabi. I only speak English, along with the smattering of Spanish that many Americans can manage. Mr. 4B, along with my MIL and all his extended family, would prefer that I learned Marathi. Unfortunately, there are no resources available to learn the language. As a compromise, I’ve decided on Hindi. Most of the extended family can at least follow it, so it is a compromise language. It is not my mother tongue or theirs, but it is a language we will (fingers crossed!) someday be able to use to communicate. I’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to learn Hindi, and Rosetta Stone is the most helpful resource so far.
Another compromise area is the extremely long and extremely invasive mother-in-law visits. Most of the Indians we know here think it is perfectly reasonable for their in-laws or parents to come stay in their one-bedroom apartments of three to six months at a time. Mention that to an American, and they will look at you like you need a lobotomy. My MIL’s visits are extremely unpleasant for all involved, but they assuage my husband’s guilt about his obligations to his mother.
When we get a house, we hope to get one with a basement that can be converted into a small suite (bedroom, bathroom, sitting room for soap-opera-watching) where she can have her own space when she comes to visit. Maybe this will mean some considerable expenditure, but I hope it will help things go more smoothly.
If children come, of which culture (and religion) do you plan to raise them?
Our children will grow up in the US, so they will be Americans, but we want them to value and understand both cultures. We hope to send them to a Hindu Sunday school, but also to take them to mass every weekend. I am working hard to learn Hindi, so I hope that we will be able to raise them with some knowledge of the language (Mr. 4B still holds out some hope for Marathi, but without a Rosetta Stone Marathi edition, I don’t see that happening!). I look forward to having our own house someday and decorating for Diwali and Christmas every year. There are little things, like hanging paper stars from the eaves of the porch or making rangoli on the sidewalk that I hope will be delightful memories for our children. While our kids will grow up eating the foods that Mr. 4B and I grew up enjoying and the foods that we discovered together, I hope that we will be able to eat dinner together every night as a family, which is something I experienced growing up and want to pass along to our future kids.
What’s your favorite way of spending time together?
We enjoy a lot of time outdoors and on the road. We go camping whenever we can and go for long hikes with the dog. We also like to go for long car trips and explore the countryside, sometimes while listening to an audio book together. We love having the dog. Some of our best moments are just spent cuddling with her in bed or cuddling with her on the couch. When we go to the dog park or go for a long walk, it is always as a group, so dog time becomes our family time.
What are your secrets in keeping the romance alive?
Honestly, we don’t have a lot of romance in our lives. Over the years, I’ve adjusted. Maybe this is an area where I’ve become more Indian. I’ve stopped expecting any romantic gestures or expecting a good response when I try to make them, and that’s OK. I’ve learned that stability and the little every day things that are a done out of love are his way of letting me know he loves me.
What advice would you give to those who are planning for or are new to an interracial/interfaith marriage?
Well, in retrospect, I would not recommend being as much of a push-over to in-laws as I have been. Stand your ground on what actually matters to you, and let the little things slide. Don’t give into the idea that respecting your spouse’s parents or culture means letting them call all the shots or have their way every time. Your partner fell in love with YOU, not a version of you that tries to live up to his parents’ ideas.
I married a man who has a crazy mother, but he is also a man who knows how to stand up to crazy. If you are thinking about entering an engagement with someone who cannot say no to his or her controlling parents, you may need to re-evaluate your situation.
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