Years ago, I remember learning of the joint family system – not through my own family, but, rather, from a Satyajit Ray film, which depicted a young bride, largely in servitude, scorned by her in-laws. Such was my first impression. Meanwhile, my backdrop was New York City, and, what I would now characterize as glorification of autonomous young Americans, defined primarily by their own earning power and alleged independence of thought, action and spirit.
But, the world is not black and white. Plenty of New Yorkers live with their mothers, well into adulthood, many of them quite happily together with their spouses. This is no Oedipal Complex, as we were taught by the Freudian psychologists, but instead the simple act of caring for those who need extra help and trying to live in harmony. Likewise, there are countless Generation X and Y-ers in our midst who, while perhaps not living alongside their parents, are dutiful sons and daughters.
It is, however, unfortunate that first impressions remain, and, at times, blind us. I admit to having been blinded, for years. My own mother-in-law, who is exemplary in her conduct, mashaAllah, moves frequently amidst her many children. We have hosted her and will inshaa Allah continue to do so. At times, however, my own cultural reference points, including an ingrained sense of value based on earning power and social autonomy, prevented me from recognizing the blessing of hosting, particularly one’s mother-in-law, keeping in mind that the relationship with a mother-in-law may be inherently different than that with one’s own mother.
In this two-part series, we will look at different aspects of interacting with one’s mother-in-law, starting with……
Need I say more? Most of us have our own way of provisioning, preparing food, cooking, and, yes, often times, cleaning up. Even those of us who work outside the home, generally have a sense of possessiveness when it comes to our kitchen. How is it possible to share this turf with one’s mother-in-law? How may you transform potential turf war into harmony? Following are some possible tips, for the kitchen and other aspects of your life as well, learned through experience. It should be noted that they apply more to a ‘modern’ setting where a husband and wife may live independently and are subsequently joined by the mother-in-law(for a short or extended period), than a more ‘traditional’ set-up where a daughter-in-law moves in with her parents-in-law. Furthermore, of critical importance is the fact that while there is no requirement per se of a daughter-in-law to serve her mother-in-law, kindness and respect are expected, and Inshaa Allah any service given will be rewarded by Allah .
- Create as clear an organizational scheme as possible so your mother-in-law may navigate the kitchen. Let the spices be accessible (and legible, particularly for families with two languages under one roof). Ensure you keep a range of food, and regularly ask your mother-in-law whether you have the foods she may require (especially if there is more than one cultural cuisine).
- This same principle may be extended to the other communal areas of the home as well. Are pens, pencils, books, puzzles all accessible? May people move freely and comfortably through the home? Is there a designated communal prayer area? Any communal quiet areas? A garden? Gardens have the potential to provide great joy to young and old(er) alike, and provide a way for us to work both collaboratively and independently; different plots may be identified or agreement could be reached about a common plot.
- If there is any underlying tension in the home, consider undertaking these organizational or re-organizational activities together (such as the spice reorganization noted above, and even ensuring a place where pens/pencils may be readily found, yes, these details make a difference). These activities are also best done when there is less time/work pressure, possibly over a weekend, so that you have more buy-in from all parties involved.
- If you are the lead cook, set a menu so that there is always ample food, but also be open to new dishes and new flavors. Although it may not come naturally, particularly for those of us who have been reared to be more socially autonomous, seek input, and, if she is keen, invite your mother-in-law to contribute dishes as well. Furthermore, even if you are the lead cook, try to learn as much as possible, and consider this period primarily as one involving lessons in humility. The kitchen is also part of our deen, and there are important life lessons that take place there.
But there is a lot of life (and lessons) outside the kitchen, as well. Inshaa Allah, we will highlight some of these other areas in the next part of this series.
One final thought in concluding this part: although it is a material world and we are seemingly rooted in the dunia, it is important to constantly remember, especially amidst any perceived trials of family and in-laws, that nothing really is ‘ours’ per se, not our home, for which we may hold the deed, nor our kitchen wares; not even, our ego. In the end, everything belongs to Allah , and to Him we will return. On some level, it really is that simple.
Please share your suggestions below!
Continue to read Part 2 of this series.