The ‘curse’ of the mother-in-law?

01.01.2020 11:43
Celebration of a traditional indian marriage with bride, indian woman wearing festive clothes and groom, mother in law and father in law, friends and family on December 01, 2012

There are "shrewish" wives and "henpecked" husbands. But as caricatures go, none can possibly beat the domineering and duplicitous mother-in-law.

The comics, quipped British author GK Chesterton, have "drawn the worst mother-in-law a monster, by expressing the fact that the best mother-in-law is a problem".

Stereotyped as a "control freak", the Indian mother-in-law is also the butt of unkind jokes. Since most women here move into the husband’s home after marriage, the relationship they forge with their mother-in-law is crucial. And their lived experience sometimes contributes to the mother-in-law’s dire reputation.

So the Indian mother-in-law is often seen as the antithesis to the eternally suffering mother in Bollywood films. She’s a commanding figure, wresting power from her daughter-in-law, and keeping a firm control over her son and the joint family household. She was the subject of India’s longest-running TV soap with a winding name which translated to "Because the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law too".

Now, the Indian mother-in-law is the subject of serious academic research, possibly the first of its kind.

In 2018, researchers from Boston and Delhi spoke to 671 married woman, aged 18-30, from 28 villages in the district of Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, a deeply conservative, bustling northern state with a population the size of Brazil. (Sample sizes are typically dependant on budgets and decided by "power calculations", which tell us the minimum sample size needed to detect certain changes in the data with a high level of certainty.)

The average woman sampled was 26, while her husband was 33. The majority of them were Hindu, and lower caste. Some 60% of the households owned farmland. Nearly 70% of the women lived with their mothers-in law.

Researchers quizzed the women about their social networks — relatives, friends — outside the home. They were asked how much influence did their mothers-in-law exert on the formation of their networks? What were the resulting effects on their autonomy, access to health services and care-seeking behaviour?

What researchers discovered somewhat blurred the line between legend and reality.

They found women living with their mothers-in-law had limited freedom of movement and ability to form social connections outside their household. More mobility would have helped them get more information, build peer companionship, gain self-confidence and boost aspirations. Also, the decisions they took related to health, fertility and birth control would be informed by these networks.

But nearly 36% of the women sampled had no close friends or relatives in the entire district; and 22% of them had no close friends or relatives anywhere. Only 14% of the women were allowed to go alone to a health facility, and only 12% were allowed to visit homes of friends and relatives in the village by themselves. Beside her husband and mother-in-law, an average woman interacted with less than two people in Jaunpur about matters important to her.

Researchers sampled two groups of women — those who lived with their mothers-in-law and those who didn’t — and compared the average number of close friends and relatives they had. "Close peers" were those a woman interacted with about health, fertility and family planning.

They found that a women who lived with her mother-in-law had 18% fewer "close peers" in her village. The mother-in-law restricted her social network by not allowing her to visit places alone "in an attempt to control her fertility and family planning behaviour".

Sometimes the mother-in-law would want more children — more sons specifically — than the daughter-in-law desired. Some 48% of women assumed that their mothers-in-law disapproved of birth control. If the woman’s husband was a migrant worker, the mother-in-law exerted more control over her movement and interactions, mobility, autonomy and decision making.

"The findings suggest that the mother-in-law’s restrictive behaviour is ultimately driven by her preferences and attitudes about fertility and family planning… Women who have fewer close outside peers are less likely to visit health facilities to receive reproductive health, fertility, or family planning services, and are less likely to use modern contraceptive methods," the researchers from Boston University, Delhi School of Economics, Northeastern University and Boston College say.

Most young married women in India’s villages talk with few people other than their husbands and mothers-in-law about their personal affairs or private concerns. The women sampled in the study reported less than two friends or relatives in Jaunpur itself. An average woman in the US reported having at least eight close friends in a 2004 Gallup poll. Since only 33% of women in India own mobile phones, long-distance communication is also restricted.

It is not that living with the mother-in-law has no benefits at all. Studies have found her presence can be beneficial for women in some aspects, like health during pregnancy. But broadly, researchers believe, the presence of the mother-in-law significantly erodes women’s autonomy.

No wonder the researchers named their paper Curse of the Mummyji, a tongue-in-cheek phrase coined by the Economist magazine in a 2013 article on Indian mothers-in-law. That piece had ended on a more optimistic note. "The tide is in bahu’s (daughter-in-law) favour," the magazine wrote, referring to the rise of nuclear families. But in India’s teeming villages, change is glacial.

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