Me, You, and Your Mama Too.

September 2, 2010


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.


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.



She loves you. She'll just never tell you. Thanks for making me laugh & cry in the space of about a minute. Love it.
There really is no solice in knowing that this happens to so many people.  Ugh!
fantastic piece! so many of us can relate....and empathize with you. cheers to you lady!
Good post.  I think that mother-in-law reactions are different depending on your gender.  My mother-in-law loved me - i think she liked me better than my wife. My wife's parents lived with us for 5 years - it was my wife and not me who couldn't take it anymore.  As I wrote here, I heard that is fairly common.
Nice piece but I would like to say that this happens in other cultures too. I have a Mexican mother-in-law that acts just as you have described. My brother-in-law has called her out several times when she's crossed the line and said hurtful things to his wife, and just like your mother-in-law, mine too plays the victim and acts hurt. She says exactly what's on her mind and doesn't think before she speaks. She criticizes constantly and lets you know when she disapproves. Her way is always the right way, your way is always wrong. She knows your kid better than you do. She's a control freak. Now that there are grandchildren in the picture, she gets called out on her behavior more often and warned to think before she speaks but she just doesn't get it. She knows her words are hurtful but the excuse is always the same--"I just say what I think". When she says rude & hurtful things to her daughter-in-laws, its because she supposedly considers us her children too, and since her children know how she is, we should suck it up and accept her for who she is! One last thing, my mother isn't an immigrant but her parents are. Her now ex-husband wasn't around much when the kids were growing up, he says it just got harder and harder to come home to her because she was such a bitch. Her true colors came out the night she shot him in the leg after he came home late and she tried to pick a fight, he refused to get into with her. After 10 years, I've learned to let things go. Its hard sometimes but at the end of the day, I refuse to let her run my life and if I dwell on the shit she does and let it keep me up at night and stressed out during the day then I'm letting her run my life. 
To the author: Believe me, Asian parents don't have a lock on being overly critical all the time---I'm African-American and my mother is like that--a damn control freak and too damn critical--she was like that when I was younger, but the older I've gotten, I've simply gotten tired of hearing the same shit again--I haven't spoken to her in nearly 6 months, and neither has my sister. Basically,my last encounter with her ended up badly, so I just said, "F**k it," and stopped callling or seeing her period. And, yeah, she could be overbearing as hell,too. Bottom line--you need to tell your mother-in-law that while she is in YOUR house, she needs to get the hell off your back, and if she dosen't like it, too damn bad---nobody's perfect, not even her, and her issues with her own history are NOT yours---plus that's no justification for dogging YOU out all the time. If she isn't helping to pay your bills, helping to look after your children, or helping your spouse out with anything, then she needs to shut the hell up, because it's not HER home, it's YOURS and you need to make that VERY clear to her. Seriously,life is too short to be putting up with that kind of bulls**t from ANYBODY, your mother-in-law included, no matter what culture you're from.  If she can't handle that, then tell her she can't come to your home anymore because you're not trying to hear none of her s*** today. You're not obligated to put up with her simply because she's your mother-in-law. If she can't learn to respect you in your own home, then she needs to stay the hell away from you AND it, period.  Establish some boundaries with her. Another thing--if she's such a know-it-all, tell her to run your household for one week if she really thinks that she can do any better than you!  Hope these suggestions work out (if you're interested enough to try them) and make you feel better,because nobody needs any extra stress in their lives, for real!