It’s your everyday middle-class Indian home. A young couple, married for a couple of years, are waking up to a rainy morning. The wife cuddles up to the husband for a quick peck before pushing him out of bed first – she takes longer in the bathroom and prefers going second. Suddenly, his mother comes into the room and slides into their bed saying, “I thought I’d just lie here with you for a while. I didn’t feel like sleeping alone on such a day.” As the couple lie frozen still, she cuddles into the blanket and proceeds to sleep there for another hour or so. The trend is followed for several weeks – the mother comes into the couple’s room earlier and earlier each morning – until the young bride can take it no more and goes to meet Dr Reena Nath, family counsellor in Saket, Delhi.
“That kind of intimacy between mother and grown son sounds weird at first but in an Indian context, it may not be,” says Dr Nath, citing examples of grown men, sometimes fathers themselves, putting their heads in their aged mothers’ laps in affection every once in a while. The problem – like the chicken and egg – begins when the mother was a bride herself, married to a man who is unable to relate to her. “Many women don’t have an emotional outlet once they marry, often moving to new cities after the wedding. The young wife’s devotion is then poured out on to her baby when he or she is born.” That’s when the intimate relationship begins, as Dr Kushal Jain, consultant psychiatrist at VIMHANS, Delhi, puts it, between the mother and her ‘love object’.
There’s a sense of closure when a daughter marries and moves away from home. But when a son gets married, there is no natural break-off point, Dr Nath points out. “Even the son feels torn.” Some Indian men continue to be so dependent on their mothers that often, “mothers even go about buying their married sons’ underwear. In India, it’s not considered unhealthy or abnormal,” she says.
Even in arranged marriages when the bride is of the mother’s choosing, adds Dr Jain, there can be a conflict of personalities or disappointment over having to share her son. “Her love object has been taken away. She feels a sense of loss, which leads to depression and finally a struggle to regain that object,” he explains. “But, often, the person creating trouble is not the one experiencing the pain.” So while it’s the mother-in-law whose emotions are playing havoc here, it’s the young bride or even the groom who must bear the brunt of it.
In most cases, possessive and intrusive mothers-in-law are insecure and lonely. In the case outlined above, the father-in-law had just passed away, and the mother did not like sleeping alone in her bed after 34 years of companionship. In another case, a woman who ran a department of 40 people in a large company gave up her job to stay home after her son got married. The change affected everyone badly as she had a huge gap in her life, which inevitably led to clashes in her relationships.
Further, living in a big city comes with low social availability of a suitable peer group. “The mother-in-law needs close friends, family, cousins and sisters to divert her negative energies. In small towns, this is possible,” says Dr Jain. He talks of religious festivities, kirtans and so on, that keep the older women busy and socially occupied as very positive diversions.
He also calls for some patience and understanding from the younger couple in such matters. “Hold your horses for some time before blowing up in indignation. It is better to give in initially, and be accepting and kind, to help the relationship in the long term. Sooner or later, the mother understands,” he says, cautioning against overdoing it: “At the same time, develop the ability to say ‘no’ respectfully. Give logical reasons, clearly specifying what has bothered you about the other’s behaviour.”
Dr Nath suggests making symbolic gestures of ‘handing over’ such as in the Hindi films of the seventies and eighties, when the mother-in-law gave the keys of the cupboard to the new bride. “That sort of gesture was healthy, positive. Nowadays, mothers-in-law don’t hand over the keys. The home continues to be their kingdom.” Even little gestures can go a long way, such as encouraging the couple to go on dates alone; moving new furniture to their room; demarcating a space in the house for family socialising and leaving bedrooms as strictly private areas for the couple; allowing public display of affection between them, and so on. Dr Nath also suggests self-reflection on the part of the new bride: “Understand the practice of affection in the new family. Don’t brush it off as weird. Think back to your own family – how do the men express their own affection toward their mothers? – before judging your husband and his mom.” A little sensitivity from all sides is called for.