The secret club of married Indian women

Every Indian woman enrols into a secret and yet not-so-secret club once she gets married. It is called ‘the club of mother-in-law problems’ and the enrolment is almost automatic!

It is like a secret code – one that you get access to once you are married. You will even see random women, those who have met each other for the first time at a party finding a safe space, a corner where the husbands are not within earshot, and dive deep into sharing some of their deepest feelings towards their mothers-in-law or recalling incidents of how they had been treated by them.

While it is understandable that two close friends or a group of friends would share with each other what their mother-in-laws are like, but for relative strangers to open up to each other may be attributed to a belief that it is likely that seven out of 10 married Indian women will have some unresolved and persistent issues with their mother-in-laws or vice versa.

Photo by Gokul Barman on

While the list of mother-in-law problems is varied, sometimes whimsical and bordering on weird, and at other times full of annoying issues arising from deeply rooted problematic attitudes towards what a daughter-in-law’s place in the family is all about, one theme seems to come up almost always. And that is, a large majority of Indian women experience some form of unpleasantness from their husband’s mother. The degree, of course is varying, and I do not know whether it says something about the nature of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships in general or is something peculiar to Indian culture and society. Now that unpleasantness could stem from a sense of not being liked or welcomed into their new families or it could go deeper with sensing a hostility from their mother-in-law, or the pressure to conform to their mother-in-law’s way of life and beliefs.

I remember meeting one of my neighbours in Reading, UK for the first time. As she came and introduced herself and I made both of us a cup of tea, and some pleasantries were exchanged, she started sharing her experiences, almost without any hesitance or any prompting.

It was as if it was implicit that I would understand like any other Indian woman would have in my place, and not be surprised or outraged by what she had to say. And that I would never mention these things in front of her husband. That much was a given.

“Ours was a love marriage,” she started, “and my in-laws thought my husband could have done so much better. My mother-in-law in particular found me to be too dark, below their standards. And every time they come and stay with us, she makes life so much harder, complaining, expecting too much from me, finding faults and never ever praising me.”

I nodded, my heart and mind flooding with empathy. Her experiences weren’t what one would call unique or exceptional and however appalling it would sound to someone who wasn’t Indian or Asian, it wasn’t exactly unheard of in an Indian context for a woman to be judged on the colour of her skin. Or the fact that it would be made obvious that she wasn’t “good enough or good looking enough” for the husband’s family.

And this is not to say that Indian mothers-in-law are an epitome of everything bad or evil. There’s so much to be gained if you have a healthy relationship with your mother-in-law – they are doting grandmothers, a powerhouse of knowledge and tips that they can pass on to you, keeper of family recipes, rich with life’s lessons and experiences and so much more… Some Indian women go on to build long-lasting, meaningful relationships with their mother-in-laws – a relationship based on mutual love and respect. In fact, I would be doing a disservice here if I were to say that all married Indian women only crib or complain about their mothers-in-law. Those who have benefited from kindness, support with raising children/childcare and have been welcomed into the family always make it a point to share these positive experiences.

Yet, a lot of Indian women talk about their mother-in-laws and their experiences with them in less than complimentary terms. It is a complex issue and what the women are doing by sharing of their stories goes beyond the letting off of steam. In part, it is acceptance – that some inherent fault-lines exist in the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship, and it is in part also a yearning for change – that perhaps a generation or two from now, there would be positive change.

In the meantime, these confidences, these conversations continue.

Take for example, an ex-colleague’s wife that I had also just met for the second time. She quickly took me into confidence when I went to help her in the kitchen, revealing to me how my colleague’s mother treats her.

“My boys were sick and we had to take them to the doctor. My mother-in-law insisted I take them on my own asking me not to trouble my husband for these things. These things? These are our children! And she wants to know everything! What we cook, how much we spend and in particular, how much he spends on me.” She knew that in spite of me being her husband’s colleague and friend, I would understand and that I would have empathy for her experiences.

A childhood friend once shared with me, albeit laughingly and in good humour that she would never shift back to India because it meant that she and her husband would have to live with her in-laws or the in-laws would move in with them.

“I love my independence and I cannot for the life of me go back to those years where we had to live together. She is nice but she has her rules and I was expected to follow them – be it how we ran the house or the kitchen. I could never bring in any change, even if it was minute one and that bothered me. Living away from India has been wonderful because though they come and visit us, they can never stay with us forever and now I get to set the rules. I cannot go back to a life of being the submissive, subservient daughter-in-law ever!”

Another friend shared how her mother-in-law grew jealous of her after she got married to her husband; her husband and her had dated each other for quite some time before tying the knot.

“She began to act in a strange way. Little things like not liking it if my husband shared something about his day with me. She started copying everything I did – from my hair colour to the kurtis I bought – no matter the age difference between us and our different body shapes. Trying to cut me out of conversations or ignoring me altogether when we sat together as a family. Finally, I had enough and we moved away from India. It was impossible to stay together; there was so much stress and tension on a daily basis. We had to put distance between us,” said my friend over a long-distance phone call.

Photo by Efaz Kabir on

Some of these issues may appear trivial, but it sets the tone for a lot of Indian brides – a sort of precursor of things to come and how their relationship with their husbands’ mothers will be in the longer run.

And as I discovered while doing a story on adoption, the tales of the Indian mother-in-law have traveled across the world.

I was talking with this accomplished American woman – an adoption advocate and adoptive mother herself, and she suddenly asked me – “Do you have a mother-in-law?”

When I said yes, she went on to explain her bewilderment when she first married her husband (an Indian) and her mother-in-law’s instant dislike and shoddy treatment of her.

“I thought it was because he had married a white woman. Later as my circle of Indian friends grew, I realized it wasn’t so. It was simply because I had married her lovely son! Any woman would have fallen short and no one was good enough for her son. I know you will understand – all Indian women do; my American friends cannot fathom this phenomena or why I would put up with this,” she exclaimed.

Of course, I understood. And while we quickly got back to the story I was doing, her story remained with me as well.

Move forward to this party that I attended in Ireland, where the men for some reason were gathered in the living room and the women cloistered in the kitchen.

“My mother-in-law treats my parents with contempt and disdain. I could at some level, accept her dislike for me, but when it extended to my parents, I knew I was never going to have any real affection or respect for her. My mother-in-law has made little effort to try and get to know me as a person; is uninterested in anything I have to say, and largely ignores me. I tried for a few years to improve our relationship but ultimately gave up. Our relationship now is superficial and seemingly cordial. There are undercurrents of mutual resentment and I have come to accept it for what it is,” shared a guest at the party; breaking the ice for other women to share their stories.

Another chimed in – “I was okay with my mother-in-law’s dislike of me but when it came to our children, I stood up for myself. I mean, she never gave me anything – not on my birthday, anniversary or special occasions and I took it in my stride. But she started doing the same for our children and would also make disparaging remarks about me in front of the kids. That’s when I found my voice.”

The husband of the host entered the kitchen to refill a platter with just-fried-steaming hot and puffy puris and on clue, all the women changed the subject.

It was so quick, so natural, this changing of topic – you would think it was a bestseller play on Broadway that they had practiced for for years.

Once the husband left, the women continued for what they thought was a safe time, to talk about other things.

Then one of them picked up a hot puri, punched a hole in it with her finger, and as the steam was let out, she laughed – “Maybe we all should meet one day without the husbands? What do you think? So many of us haven’t got the chance to tell our stories and all of us have a mother-in-law story!”

The room echoed with laughter. As the host turned the knob to turn off the gas, and took the platter of a fresh batch of hot puris and asked us all to move to the living room, she turned around and said, “Do you think our mother-in-laws were all hiccuping back home in India? We have been talking about them for hours!”

“They will have a glass of cold water, and let’s have our hot puris,” one replied and the motley party started heading to the living room, the secret club dismantled for the time being.

But a moment alone – at a park, at a party, in the kitchen, or a coffee date – and the club can be live again, ringing with a hundred stories.

I am hoping this club would soon fade away to obscurity, and my hope for this lies in the fact that several of the women in this club are mothers to young, soon-to-be teens boys themselves. I am hoping when the boys grow up and bring their partners or brides home, the mothers would be amazing mom-in-laws, having known what it feels like to be treated indifferently or unpleasantly. Plus, it will be a brand new world by then!

But till we are kinder and better versions of ourselves, this club will continue to exist. And with it perhaps another one too. I am guessing this other secret club is called – ‘the club of daughter-in-law problems?’

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