Edits at the bottom.
Disclaimer -- The following article is compiled from firsthand experience and hearsay (i.e. gossip and advice) and is intended to be only a guide. For once I am not laying down the law.
When I first got sucked into the world of mommy blogs, one of the reasons I bonded so strongly with all the mothers out there furiously typing away in secret snatches of time was that most of them had a complicated relationship with their parents-in-law too. It's no secret that I have plenty of issues with V's parents, and they with me. But over time, and aided by A Bhablet (and my own mother who gives me very sane advice), things have reached a fairly promising state. I don't think my mother-in-law and I are likely to hold hands and walk off into the sunset any time soon, but we may just manage to rub along during the hours before without actually feeling homicidal towards each other. So, going by what worked for me, and taking into account everything I've heard from my parents, friends, relatives and fellow bloggers, here is how to survive your induction into a new family:
1. Never forget that you are a daughter-in-law and not a daughter. You may be given the same love and spoiling as a daughter receives, but your duties and the interpretations of your actions will always be different. Which I think is a good thing. Daughters-in-law have much to do in imbibing traditions and passing them on to the next generation, teaching the kids how to treat their elders, looking after aging parents-in-law and giving them a security that only sons' wives can give.
2. When the criticism starts, put a brave face on it. Confide in any one person who can be trusted to let you pour your heart out and then do nothing about your woes, but do not tell the world (i.e. more than that one person). In my own case, my mother heard me out patiently and obviously, worried quite a bit about the situation. But to her credit the only two times I have heard her say something even comparatively derogatory was when she thought V's mother was more concerned about her ego than her son's happiness and when it was felt that V's parents didn't show enough interest in The Bhablet. Even then, when I told her about later progress, I think she was even happier than I at the change.
3. This sounds so retrogressive -- but put your heart and soul into learning the ways of your new family. I came from a family where everybody is constantly poking their nose(s) into each other's business(es) and I hated it, but I was also used to it. The unconcern V's extended family showed towards me was a bit of a shock. I was used to being invited over and warmly received all over the place as my parents' daughter. V's family always seemed happy to see me but they never invited me, they never asked to know much about my life. It has taken me a long time to realise that this doesn't mean they hate me. They are like this only. They are a vast family, and used to interacting regularly only with small units.
So yes, alongside learning to cook to please the menfolk also learn what not to say in front of which aunt, which families not to call over on the same day, remember their children's names and what they all do. Even if you don't do puja (like me) learn to help out at one, if puja is a big deal in your new family.
4. When the going gets rough, don't expect your husband to do anything about it. This was the hardest part for me. I could have dealt with criticism much easier if V had stood up for me. Actually, I believe there would have been less criticism if he had stood up for me in the first place, as I did for him in my family. (I told my family to back off, to wait and watch and then comment. Since I managed to browbeat them into actually doing this, they discovered that they quite like him far sooner than they would have otherwise.)
But V had his reasons for keeping quiet. Like almost all other men, he wanted to stay out of 'women's fights' and hoped that we would resolve the problem on our own.
I lost a lot of ground waiting for V to stand up for me. I lost my trust in him and a lot of faith in myself (Why would he speak up for me? Was I not worth it?)
In retrospect, that was just silly. I should have known that in such situations men are best off doing ostrich impersonations, since that is what my father usually does too.
5. Retain your individuality. This does not clash with point 3, actually. You are the person you are. You are bringing your personality, your talents, your prizes, your knowledge into this family and you are enriching them as much as they enrich you. This is so easy to forget, but if only we can remember this, dealing with difficult in-laws can be compared to dealing with difficult bosses -- testing but not the end of the world and certainly nothing calling for a divorce. Remember what you are worth, even if you have to write it out on a piece of paper and carry it about with you, and if you never lose sight of that, everybody else will also recognise it one day. My day hasn't come yet, but I'm hoping if I work hard enough at it, it will get here.
6. Put away all the bad memories and refuse to go through them. Sometimes forgiving and/or forgetting is just not an option. I don't think I will ever forget all the things V and his parents put me through. And while I remember, I don't think my forgiveness will be very thorough either. But I can refuse to brood on those times. They happened, yes, but other, nicer things are happening now. The better times only began once I started forcing myself to let go of the bitterness, little by little. V is the man he is, better and worse. So if last year I saw the bit I didn't want to accept, this year has given me my Joe back.
And my in-laws are old people. It is their prerogative not to change if they don't want to. On the other hand I gain at least as much as they do by reaching out, by letting go of the past. I gain a happy V, a spoilt Bhablet and some measure of acceptance in that family. So it's not about who wins and who loses. If your in-laws lose so do you. And you can only win if they win too. Think about that.
And before I end, here is a joke that became less than funny last year --
Overheard, one woman telling a crony about her son-in-law and daughter-in-law:
Oh, my daughter-in-law is so lazy, she actually asks my poor, hard-working son to get her tea in bed in the morning. But you know, my son-in-law is such a treasure, he gets my daughter tea in bed every single morning!
Edited to add the following:
Mona adds a point I had thought of but forgot to put down, and I'll make it number 7.
7. Avoid family fights like the plague. We are all opinionated (why else would we blog?) and we all want to step in when we think we can be of help. But it never fails to rebound on you. To quote Mona, "because you're still always an outsider, you can't get away with siding with one member or saying something about another. they can and WILL collectively gang up on you. its like instantly they forget why they were upset with their brother/sister/parent and remember that you just dared to criticize said family member."
Before you label it as yet another form of in-law prejudice, think about your own sister-in-law. Would you take kindly to her criticising your brother in front of you, even when you know she's right? You may keep quiet, but at some level you resent it.
Sur Notes also adds a point.
8. You have an incentive for all this giving in, all the insults you accept. At the end of the day, you discover strengths within yourself that you didn't know you had. And unless you are very unlucky, I'm told that these trials by fire do draw your in-laws closer to you in the end. Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi, don't you know?
9. Some in-laws are just so alien to our systems, it may be impossible to fall into their ways. The only way to deal with such a situation is to practise the old adage of live and let live. You don't like the way they do things? Ok, but keep quiet about it. They must have done something right to produce the man you married, right? It's their genes at work creating the man you love. Try to find him in them. This helped me when I was really down, thinking that V's parents couldn't care less about The Bhablet. V is really fond of babies, and he gets that from his mother. I needed to focus on that. Because long ago, way before things soured between us, his mother and I once spent a happy evening playing with a friend's baby.
They may try to push their lifestyle on to you and Katy showed me how to deal with that one... smile a lot, politely, say yes, a lot, and go right ahead and do what you want to do. After a while they get the message and leave you alone.
10. Argee also made a lot of sense when she pointed out that problems immediately acquire a new perspective when they involved in-laws. Keep that in mind and ask yourself if the issue would be so distressing to you if it had been your own family instead. If you couldn't reach a solution, would you not have let it go for your own family? Can't you do it for your husband's family as well? I know this is much harder than it sounds. I personally have so many issues with my own family, thinking along these lines doesn't initially make me feel any more conciliatory. But yeah, if I substitute parents for family, then I do know that at the end of the day I would give in to my parents sooner than keep fighting them. Because they have already accepted so much for me.
Now, having been pushing the whole compromise angle all this while, how exactly does one go about it? Personally, it took me a few months but I managed to figure out what I was willing to cave in to and what I would go down fighting for. I refused to change my name (V couldn't care less and I don't mind being called Sunayana Niyogy. It's just that I'm Sunayana Roy to me and want to always be.) I fought to wear the clothes I wanted to wear. I'm usually careful to suit my clothes to the places they go, so yeah, when we visit relatives, especially in-laws, I usually wear sarees. It helps of course that I'm very comfortable in them. But I want to be able to walk around in my spaghettis when I think they are appropriate. I wanted to have my separate bank account, to be able to meet my friends, male and female whenever I wanted. To be allowed to eat as much or as little as I like, to eat only what I want to. To go out whenever I need to. V gets all these things as a matter of course and I cannot imagine my life without them.
But I was willing to learn Bengali properly, to spend time learning to cook in their style, to do household work, even clean bathrooms. I have a fetish for clean bathrooms and the brother-in-law is disgusting in his bathroom habits, so I preferred to clean up each day than put up with the disgust. I was willing to be polite, even friendly to their friends, notwithstanding my actual opinion of some of these friends, and I was willing to take on family responsibilities. I tried to keep track of relatives and tried to remember stuff about each (no mean feat, I assure you). I was willing to not have too many late nights, and to not come home reeking of ganja/cigarette smoke or alcohol fumes. (This was pre-Bhablet, remember.)
In the end none of that mattered because V's mother somehow got around to thinking that V and I were moving into a place of our own (a 5 min walk away) only because I wanted to entice him away from his family. Not because there was a baby on the way and I couldn't stand the thought of having a baby in a room which didn't even have enough space to hold all our (V's and mine) combined clutter. Sometimes you cannot anticipate all the reasons why they will hate you.
But you can rise above it. I didn't and it took me many long, fraught months to start mending the relationship. It created unimaginable troubles between V and me. I use to scream out at him that he could just go please his mother and divorce me as she had wanted, because I truly felt unwanted and unloved. It's hard to be hated so strongly, and I don't believe V ever understood that. He understood that I was deeply unhappy but does he understand that whatever relationship is built now will be built over those foundations?
That's basically why I wrote this post. My mother gave me great advice and a shoulder to cry on when I needed it the most, but I could have done with other friends of my own generation telling me how they coped with it. In retrospect I accept that the only way to resolve the problem lies in bending and giving. Because once they understand that you are not challenging them, it becomes a little easier to bend and less is demanded.
Even then, things don't change overnight and I wouldn't want to give you the impression that such a volte face is likely. My mother-in-law fell violently ill with a bad stomach attack yesterday. My father-in-law was out of town and it fell to V's brother to hold the fort. V stayed the night over and the presence of her two beloved sons seems to have helped a little. I tried to stay in the background after a while because I realised, at times of crisis such as this, without being precisely an outsider I'm still not close enough for her to want me hovering around when she is ill. I'm ok with running for medicines, taking decisions, arranging food, but I'm no good at holding her while she is throwing up, sitting quietly beside her while she sleeps, coming up with ways to make her feel better. I tried my best but none of that came naturally and I don't think a sickbed is a great place to practice my PR skills, so I did my stuff from the sidelines. It helped that the glow that lit up her face when V held her hand faded when he left the room and there was only The Bhablet and me. I accept this state of things and I know even this is better than I would have imagined a year ago, when even entering their place was unthinkable. So yeah, baby steps are the best one can hope to get, but baby steps do lead to bigger, better things.
So I tell myself.