One day, as I sat in a coffee shop of a book store, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the inevitable - their daughters-in-law. Being a daughter-in-law myself and a keen observer of human nature, I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation.
“My daughter-in-law gets angry very fast,” said the lady in the red sari. “She doesn’t like to be criticised. She will immediately answer back if I get angry with her.”
“Who wouldn’t,” I thought.
“My daughter-in-law is very sweet that way,” said the other lady in green. “Even if she feels hurt by something I say, she will keep quiet and not argue.”
I rolled my eyes.
Hearing this exchange brought back unpleasant memories of elderly aunts in my family telling me about how their in-laws would taunt them about their various ‘flaws’ but they was forced to take it like good sports because that’s what good daughters-in-law/wives do.
In Indian society, there are many (too many!) tangible and intangible qualities that a daughter-in-law is supposed to possess. Besides the obvious ones like being from a good family and having a career, a wife or daughter-in-law should be able to cook well, do laundry, manage the household, stay within a budget and raise the children well.
In addition, there is an unspoken expectation that the girl will blend well with the husband’s family and a big part of this is being good-natured about accepting criticism - both valid and needlessly rude.
This saintly quality supercedes all other qualities, even if nobody will openly acknowledge this fact. A daughter-in-law who will openly put critics in their place and stands up for herself is nobody’s idea of ideal, even if she might look like Aishwarya Rai, earn in seven figures and cook like a cordon blue chef.
It took me a long time to realise that subtle and downright rude comments by relatives that are meant to cause pain are not a part of married life but actually a form of emotional abuse. Till then, I accepted them and actually felt quite proud of myself for putting up with them, thinking that it made me a strong person. It didn’t. It made me lose my self-esteem and self-confidence. It made me lose focus of my goals and aspirations. It made me constantly value other people’s happiness over my own, a very dangerous pattern to fall into, because it almost guarantees unhappiness.
Women get so used to these subtle putdowns that they don’t recognise them and don’t know that their self esteem is slowly being eroded. A career woman will doubt herself when criticised for not paying attention to home and family. A housewife will feel inferior for not contributing financially to the household. A woman who’s great at cooking will not be appreciated but will be criticised for keeping a messy house. Men are seldom subjected to this kind of negativity.
The day that I noticed that I was constantly irritable with my own children was the day I realised that I needed to make a change in my life. I didn’t want to be a critical person, but being critical seems to be an integral part of Indian relationships and wives and daughters-in-law get the worst of it.
Family shouldn’t be about trying to mould people into perfection. It should be about love and acceptance. A home should be a soft place to come back to when the world is tough, not someplace to run away from!
Funnily enough, it was my children who taught me how to deal with random putdowns. Whenever they are faced by criticism that they feel is unwarranted, they just smile and continue doing whatever they are doing. If they dislike someone, they just ignore that person without answering back, while keeping a smile on their face so that the other person does not feel bad. This actually works. I tried it myself. People get tired of criticising when they feel it’s having no effect. I am a much happier person now. Everything that I do today, I do it because I consciously want to and not because I got brainwashed into it by constant criticism.
Divya Nair Hinge, on similar lines, believes women shouldn’t be racing to be everything to everyone and do every job on offer.