In December of 2008, a study was released that showed married women in Japan who live with their in-laws are at higher risk of suffering a heart attack. Another study released last year confirmed that in-laws were one of the leading cause of divorce among Indian, Chinese, and Malay couples in Malaysia. But I'm sure this idea has a wider reach and can be applicable to many married Asian American women who have close contact with their in-laws.
We just got through a particularly rough visit with my mother-in-law. It isn't just that nice comments don't come easily to her. I've been dealing with that with my own family my entire life; I can live with it. It's that everything that comes out of her mouth when I'm around is a commentary on everything I'm doing wrong as a mother and wife, and she compulsively nitpicks the way my husband and I parent our daughter. Criticizing is such second nature to her that she doesn't even realize she's doing it. While my husband is not afraid to go to battle with her for me, she has a tendency to act incredulous and hurt whenever we tell her that she's offended us (which, during her visits, can be daily).
The Asian monster-in-law is actually a well-known motif, as evidenced by this Ikea commercial.
I have found a little bit of solace in the fact that this issue is not exclusive to my experience. I called my mom to vent during my mother-in-law's visit, and she told me about the many times my aunt was sent to the hospital for chest pains during her mother-in-law's visits. And a quick search on "Korean mother-in-law" turned up this gem on Stuff Korean Moms Like:
One time I didn't wash a dish (yes, one dish) that I used at my ex-boyfriend's house and his mother called me a whore, and yes, he called to tell me.
This may be a cultural issue -- Disgrasian has explored at length the judgmental and overbearing nature of Hardass Asian Parents, so it's not hard to imagine the burden of marrying into a Hardass Asian Family. But daughters-in-law shoulder a special burden -- and for Asian American women married to Asian American men, there is a surprising cultural gap that can be difficult and confusing to bridge.
As second-generation women, we grow up with our parents' cultural traditions, but we're also told that we are growing up without the patriarchal baggage of our parents' countries of origin. Has your mom ever told you that women back home had it much worse? Then again, my mother-in-law seems to hold me to a much harsher set of standards than she held for herself. And it's not uncommon for double standards and different gender politics to be employed in the same family by the same set of parents, depending on whether it's their sons' interests they're advancing or their daughters.' I've even heard of Asian moms encouraging their daughters to out-marry just so that they may avoid dealing with sexist expectations from both Asian American men and their old school mothers -- which overlooks the possibility that sexism can exist in interracial relationships.
The monster-in-law is a seemingly universal trope, one that crosses cultural lines. Hell, Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda starred in a movie all about it.
In any case, dealing with in-laws is dicey. Some women fight with their mothers-in-law hard and often. Some would rather shut up to keep the peace at home at the expense of their own health. And some women are driven to divorce because of their in-laws. Ideally, we recite our vows to one person and we promise to love that person for better or for worse. But how are we supposed to deal when our partners' parents are over-involved and over-opinionated?
I've asked my husband for some insight, something to help me understand where his mom was coming from. At first, the only consolation he could offer was that there was no pleasing his mother -- in her eyes there would always be something wrong with me, and she would like any woman better than the one he was with. But this afternoon he delved a little deeper. "Sometimes immigrant moms are just resentful of what they had to go through," he noted. After all, I'm not the one who left Korea and married a white guy from the midwest who would end up being an absent dad. While absorbing my mother-in-law's criticism isn't exactly a walk in the park, it isn't quite the same crap she must have dealt with when she was raising my husband.
As for how I cope? I let her speak her piece, I nod and smile, and go back to the way I've always done things after she leaves. While I spend at least one night of each of her visits locked in a bathroom and sobbing, I try keep the peace at home and remind myself that she does things out of love for her son and her granddaughter. And while I may be telling myself an outright lie, I also like to tell myself that she probably doesn't hate me.