Like so many others, I too had believed that the much hyped tug-of-war between saas and bahu was primarily an Indian phenomenon but NO, I was wrong. The bitter tussle between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law has been widely prevalent in the West for a very long-time. It had also been a ready fodder for sitcoms, jokes and skits. The mother-in-law jokes have been the easiest ways for stand-up comedians to evoke cheap chuckles. Quite a few books and number of articles, and even editorials in prestigious British and American newspapers, on this vexed problem have appeared over all these years. A website too is a big hit.

IN India too, this problem has been prevalent for a long, long time. However, it was brought into greater limelight in recent years when serials such like “Kyunki Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi” on TV channels became big hits particularly among the women viewer, and this clash of egos between the two most important women in a household became ‘Kahani ghar, ghar ki’.

Many studies and much research has been done in the West about the causes of this continuing friction between a mother and her son’s wife. A study by a Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter shows that more than 60% of women sincerely felt that friction with their mothers-in-law had caused them long-term stress. On the contrary, only 15% of men complained about their mothers-in-law. Apter’s Study further showed that most common flash points were routine issues such like child care, housework and minor points like whose job it is to do the ironing.

A common flashpoint is the difference between the approach of a more experienced matriarch and obviously less experienced daughter-in-law. At times, there are ethnic and religious diversities that further accentuate the friction level. Her study also showed that two third of women said they felt their mothers-in-law were jealous of their relationships with the sons. On the contrary, two third of the mothers-in-law felt excluded by their sons’ wives. In short, this is nothing but a difference in perception and perceived bias.

What exactly then is the root cause for such a chronic friction between the two most indispensable women in a family? One is the mother of the young man and the other his wife and mother-to-be of his children. They both dearly love the same person and his well being is closest to their respective hearts. The two women occupy their respective cliché in the family that neither can replace nor displace the other. It is not the case of one being “the other woman”, and as such there should be no cause whatsoever for any conflict of interest, jealousy, rivalry or competition between the two women.

Unfortunately, no sociological or psychological studies have been done in India on this long standing and widely prevalent discord between mothers-in-law (MIL) and daughters-in-law (DIL). If there is any, at least I am not aware of it. However, the marriage portal had undertaken a few years ago a study on this perennial issue that showed that over 64 per cent of women preferred to live away from their parents-in-law and start their own nuclear families elsewhere. Lack of compatibility, need for privacy and compulsions of job requirements have been the major reasons for such a decision. In such a nuclear family, the daughter-in-law naturally becomes the numero uno.

For the past three or four decades, a large number of young Indians have moved abroad for higher studies from where they did not return home. They preferred to stay on there for better opportunities and found in course of time, cushy positions and even acquired the citizenship of that country. The mother-in-law in such cases becomes a distant relative. However, the long distance is not the end of the problem. Mothers-in-law do occasionally visit their sons sometime as nannies for their newly born child or for a vacation on other occasions.

Instead of feeling happy and proud at the high professional position that her daughter-in-law has come to occupy in a reputed corporate, and the respect that she has acquired among her peers and the circle of friends, the mother-in-law’s in-built jealously resurfaces for no rhyme or reason. She feels jealous that her daughter-in-law lives an independent life, drives her own car and makes her own decision. Instead of being the queen mother that she is at home in India, here she is merely treated as a guest, worse an appendage, and not even consulted about anything. In a sense, she feels completely ignored and somewhat neglected.

Habits die hard. In many cases, mothers-in-law carry with them their habits of nitpicking and fault finding when they visit their sons abroad. In a specific case, a mother-in-law had gone to the extreme in finding fault with everything that her daughter-in-law did that the poor girl had had to resort to the extreme step of committing suicide. And that was the end of a happy family. Such wounds never heal. Though and fortunately that was an exceptional case but it did underline the injurious impact of nitpicking and fault finding.

WHAT then is the solution to this chronic and age-old imbroglio?

It must be noted that there are several instances of both mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law happily living together more as friends than as in-laws. It is merely matter of give and take

When a daughter-in-law arrives at her new house, she is a total stranger and also the house and its environs are alien to her. She must immediately address her mother-in-law as Mummy rather aunty and father-in-law as Papa than uncle. She must also reverentially touch their feet. This is the first step that breaks the ice. It is then for mother-in-law to reciprocate her gestures. In most cases, the bahu gets warmth, love and affection in return; she is given her own space in the household.

Take my personal example for instance.

I stay with my parents-in-law and take immense pride in calling them Mumma and Papa. They are doting parents who have happily accepted me as their own daughter. It took a two-way mechanism to make this work, but it just came naturally since we sincerely wanted it to work in our favour.

Happily, I have been able to develop an excellent rapport with my mother-in-law. I visit my parents as frequently as I want without my MIL nudging me about my responsibilities. In fact, there were quite a few busybodies in the family who found it absurd and even mustered courage to even taunt Mamma. The best part in this story was, it never affected her and nor did it change her outlook about it. She proudly said that she had made me a part of her family. I may falter in my role, but she stands like a rock besides me and keeps leading by example.

There are many examples like mine where MILs and DILs live like mothers and daughters and that makes everyone happy in the family. Then, why can’t all MIL-DIL duos live happily ever after? Is this a myth? No, it is not a myth. It takes skills and a bit of effort on the part of both to make it a reality. Remember, it takes two to tango. The skills I am writing about are not something unusual. These are all usual practices that we should follow in every relationship.

PRIMARILY, give it some time. DILs and MILs need to give sometime to understand each other’s background as well as personality. If a DIL was a super pampered princess who never had entered the kitchen at her Mom’s place, MILs need not complain. Similarly, if MIL wants you to help her in the kitchen that is an alien space for you; you must instantly do it as if you are learning something new at your workplace. Working in the kitchen either independently or with your mother-in-law or a domestic help will certainly make you independent and more nurturing. And it is something that you should feel proud of.

Two, DILs need to accept MILs as their own Moms. If your Mom would scold you for some perceived or a real fault and can have mood swings due to stress, you should understand and appreciate if your mother-in-law does the same. If you want her to pamper you the way she does her son, be prepared for a few blows too. Her son does not feel offended and neither should you. Likewise, a mother-in-law too must treat her son’s wife like her own daughter. If your DIL has mood swings or is just sad or even behaving irrationally, take out some time and talk to her with love and care instead of going on an ego trip. After all she is also like your child. Try to understand each other and empathize.

Three, your mother-in-law has lived her life and taken her decisions on her own. She is the backbone of the family. She is who she is because of the choices she has made in the situations that she had faced. You too will have your journey. Do not think of being as important as she is. She is the maker, the doer and the deciding force – not a competition. Likewise, if your daughter has a ‘say’ in the family’s affairs, you should not feel offended if your daughter-in-law too offers an opinion. It just shows that DIL now feels very much at home in her new home. After all, now this is her home too. MILs also need to accept that DILs too can have passions and ambitions, and supporting them in their dreams is equally their responsibility as it is of her husband. Women CEOs would not have been who they are if their MILs said, “aadmiyon ki tarah office ko importance mat do, ghar sambhalo.” DILs on the other hand, need to do their wee bit and share some responsibilities of their MILs too.

Four, MILs will have to treat their DILs as their own. ‘Log kya sochenge?’ and ‘samaj mein aisa hi hota hai’ is all futile. DIL is now like your own daughter. Do not let outsiders decide your relationship or the fate of your family. Do not do things or expect her to do things to pacify the outside world. One should keep changing with times. Move on with time.

Customs, beliefs or thoughts that have no logic need to be left behind. You are the backbone and it will be an amazing experience to have DIL become your own. Treat her like your own and take a stand for her. People will always have an opinion. What matters more is what keeps the family happy and not the outsiders.

Five, stop customizing each other forcibly. We humans learn through examples. Talk with each other and explain your point of view. MILs and DILs can evolve together as a team. Imagine the power of wisdom of age and novelty of youth amalgamating! I have helped my MIL to become a cool gadget freak and she has taught me to be a loving and caring irrespective of my own mood.

(The writer is a Dehra Dun-based motivational speaker and life skills trainer.)