Are you married? Then you would have encountered at least some degree of the menace called Motherinlawism. Motherinlawism is such a common occurrence all over the world that most teleserials in most countries harp about it. A casual conversation with any woman will eventually lead to lamentations about how cruel a woman the mother-in-law is and all the atrocities that she unfeelingly commits.
From simply finding faults with the daughter-in-law to outright murder, mothers-in-law especially in India are known for all their bizarre behaviour. And it is not even that uncommon. Almost all of us have seen or heard of at least one such mother-in-law who seems to behave as if her only mission is to make life miserable for the daughter-in-law. But the point to ponder is why does this mother-in-law character behave so mean? She is also but human, then what makes her behave so odd?
Let’s just take a random look at various mothers-in-law and scan through their behaviour patterns…MIL X loves her son very much. When the new daughter-in-law walked home, she ‘forgot’ to take the arthi that was part of their religious custom. she watched every single move of the DIL and criticized her for each and every thing….she snubbed, slighted and scathed the girl at every turn and when the girl’s face crumpled in sadness, she even complained to her son that his wife was being rude and making faces at her. She felt the girl was no match to her wonderful son and cribbed no end to everyone about darling son’s misfortune in marrying this bad specimen of womanhood. She feared this girl would not feed her son properly; that she would give away his shoes and ties to her male relatives; that the girl would try to dominate her son and ruin his life. The son got so influenced by his mother’s whisperings that he began to suspect his wife of some foul play and began to ill treat her. As expected the marriage landed in some hot soup.
MIL Y was one another doting mom who loved her son. Although her son was well past his thirties, in his mother’s eyes, he was still a baby. She always fretted over him, feeding him, caressing him and generally keeping the umbilical cord completely intact. She was so fond of him that she could not bear the thought of sharing him with another woman. Therefore the son’s wedding got ‘delayed’ as the mom could just not find ‘the perfect girl’ for her oh so fabulous son. But the relatives were constantly worrying about the son’s advancing age and kept making snide remarks about the boy’s long unwed state and what that could potentially imply. And the son urged the mom to find a girl for him, ‘if only to take care of his parents in their old age’. After much reluctance the mother complied and let the boy get married to a girl of her choice. But she just could not stand the sight of the girl. Every single thing that the girl said or did irritated the MIL no end. To add to her worries, the son started being affectionate with his wife, and that was something the mother could not stomach at all. She started falling sick, breaking into tears, accusing the son of forgetting dear mother who had ‘sacrificed a lot and suffered so much to make him the man was today ’and going behind a bloody upstart who no doubt was only after his money’. The mother’s constant lamentation wore the son out. He started feeling guilty about being with his wife. And each time his mother accused him of being ungrateful, he quarreled with his wife for no good reason. When the girl tried to explain her side of the story the MIL pronounced her to be argumentative. That made the son angrier with his wife and he began battering her. Naturally the marriage broke and the MIL expressed relief that she had saved her son from the clutches of “that arrogant girl.”
MIL Z is another such loving mother, who thought the world of her son. Her son was a successful professional and she was very proud that it had been her hand that had rocked his cradle. Since she rated him very high in terms of his worth she expected the ‘lucky girl’ who would marry her son to bring a fabulous dowry, worthy of her darling son. The daughter-in-law came with a modest dowry. Since there were no other takers for her son, who for all his academic success was not much of a looker, the MIL grudgingly accepted the girl into the family. But she made sure that her son never slept with “girl who was fit to be only his servant”. She kept the couple separated for the most part and made sure she was physically present when the couple was together. She categorically told the girl, “he is very busy with work, do not expect him to fuss over you…” and kept tabs on the couple. She poisoned the son’s mind, telling him constantly that the wife was not to be trusted, that she had married him in spite of his looks only for the sake of his money, and that she would pilfer all his possessions and pass it on to her parents. The son became so paranoid of his own wife that he started reading her dairy, checking her purse and tracking her e mails to know what she was up to. Not surprisingly the marriage was on the rocks.
With this random sample of MILs X, Y and Z it is obvious these women love their sons way too much. And there is no greater tyranny than love. For these mothers expect from their sons not just some ‘love me back,’ but dutifulness, security and gratitude in exchange for all that she does for him. Now that is where the problem starts.
Any mammalian mother on the face of the earth toils a lot for its offspring. For that matter all human mothers all over the world struggle through a variety of hardship to bring up their children and give them the best possible life. Admirable though her parenting is, in genetic terms there is nothing selfless about a mother’s toils. In fact all the efforts she puts in raising her children are purely selfish at the gene level. For only if her children survive, will her own genes thrive and spread. And so it makes complete genetic sense that the mother toils hard to provide for her kids. She is doing it to spread her own genes. But the son cannot spread his mother’s genes all on his own. He needs a sexual partner.
If only the son could mate with his own mother, her goal will be fulfilled, they get to spread their genes and she gets to keep a firm hold on her darling son. But nature, society, law and tradition do not permit the mother-son mating. Because, such incestuous in-breeding can pool together diseased genes. So it makes better genetic sense that the son out breeds with an unrelated woman with a different set of genes.
Had this son been just a daughter, the mother would not have worried so much. She would happily get the daughter married to a man with a different set of genes and breathe a sigh of relief, because the daughter is not a beneficial investment. Until quite recently daughters were not well favored because they were economically a very unwise “no returns” investment. Daughters had no traditional mandate to provide for their parents. Although in terms of genetic sense, daughters also spread her genes, the son is a much better investment because he not only spreads genes but also has the traditional responsibility of providing for his parents.
Today we live in a modern world where women have their own properties and income. But until very recently women all over the world had had no right to hold property or income. That made women helpless and dependant on their men for their financial need and the security that it gave. First it was the father, then it was the husband and finally it would be the son. So the son is not only a gene-spread vehicle, he is also a retirement plan, an insurance for old age financial care. And so it is that mothers are more attached to their sons. And they loathe sharing this son with another woman. Especially because this newcomer would share the son’s resources, but without contributing to the making of the same. That makes the mother feel a deep sense of injustice. As one mother-in-law picturesquely put it, “I planted that tree and my daughter-in-law enjoys its fruits, how unfair!”
Also the wife character has two special extra powers over the son. She could provide the two most important things that a mother can never compete in – sexual companionship and baby making. Sex being a powerful bonding ritual, it makes the partners feel committed to each other. Once the partners get thus bonded, the son might side his wife and that makes the mother feel insecure and jittery. And so, the same mothers who feel so relieved to see the daughters leading a happy sex life, feel irritated and disgruntled to see their daughters-in-law reveling in sexual fulfillment. For a sexually content daughter could potentially bring home the resources of her doting husband, that is an economic gain. Not to mention the genetic gain of spreading some genes in the process. But if the daughter in law is sexually active, then it is a potential loss in the economics department, although the genes may be spreading in the process.
Above and beyond all these dynamics, if the mother in question had to herself the attention of her own doting husband, who continues to support her emotionally and financially, then this lady does not mind her son’s closeness with his wife. Her positive experience with her husband makes her benevolent and magnanimous; she would then not consider the daughter-in-law a threat to her survival. And such mothers-in-law turn out to be angels and fairy god mothers.
But those ladies, who have had the misfortune of being married to poor providers and emotionally callous husbands, turn to their sons for support. And when this son marries and brings home a wife, the mother feels insecure. An insecure mind knows no reasoning. It turns possessive, jealous and malicious; it tries to wrestle the son away from the wife and would stoop to any level to achieve its goal. This leads to Motherinlawism and macabre crimes against daughters-in-law.
In a way, Motherinlawism is actually a kind of test for survival, to check the smartness of the son. A smart son, who understands the workings of his mother’s mind, will try to fulfill his filial duties, without compromising his own genetic spread. He would reassure his mother that he will forever be there for her, make sure he keeps her financially secure and give her emotional support and moral courage. With his mother’s anxieties thus assuaged, the smart son would then proceed with the purpose of his life, by spreading his genes and making sure he has a harmonious relationship with his wife. By balancing both these roles, the son proves he is fit for survival and sure enough, his genes spread.
But sadly, if the son is not smart enough, he could get entangled in the mess of Motherinlawism and end up being a loser. If he leans too much towards his mother, he would make a wonderful son but a terrible husband and a miserable father. If he leans too much towards his wife, he would fail in his duty as a son and set a very bad example for his own children. This imbalance proves the son is not quite fit for survival and in most cases, his genes do not spread. In the end, as always, it all depends on how smart the man is and how deftly he handles situations. Nature though is impartial and neutral; it only lets the best genes survive.