Graceful Coexistence: Living Peacefully with Your Elderly Mother in Law

Recently, a couple sought advice concerning their elderly mother, who resides alone in Bilaspur. The daughter-in-law dominated the conversation, not letting the son speak. The 83-year-old mother-in-law is a CKD patient, alert, but challenging and strongly opinionated, according to the daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law expressed concerns about the mother-in-law’s desire to move in with them, citing her difficulty living alone. And doesn’t want to be in a nursing home. She firmly stated, “I won’t let her stay with me. She loves to stir drama between the family. What would you suggest in this situation?”
While difficult mothers-in-law are often discussed, as social gerontologists, we want to emphasise that labelling is somewhat unfair. Media, through soap operas, often portrays mothers-in-law negatively, impacting societal perceptions. When these mothers-in-law age and become dependent, some daughters-in-law can turn unfriendly. We’ve seen many cases where supposedly ‘nice and kind’ daughters-in-law mistreat infirm mothers-in-law who can’t defend themselves. It’s not just mothers-in-law who can be difficult; daughters-in-law can be too. This article explores the idea of “toxic” daughters-in-law, suggesting they harm about 1 in 10 relationships between husbands and their parents. In later life, many mothers face issues with their daughters-in-law, sometimes leading to relationships that can’t be fixed. We offer advice for both sides.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

In the home town of Bilaspur, Sudheer found himself at crossroads. His elderly infirm mother, filled with the warmth of nostalgia and a desire for companionship, expressed her wish to move back to Bangalore with him. Long years ago, her husband retired from IISc, and Saroja Devi reminisced Bangalore days. However, Anupama, Sudheer’s wife took an opposing stance fearing the serenity of their home will be disrupted. Not to blame Anupama as she had previous experience.

Caught in the emotional tug-of-war between the woman who had given him life and the one with whom he had chosen to share it, Sudheer grappled with a thorny dilemma. The family dynamics were reminiscent of a ship navigating treacherous waters, with Sudheer as the reluctant captain, torn between the comfort of the known and the uncharted territories of familial discord.

Anupama, who is working in the publishing, cherished her independence and treasured the sanctity of her personal space. To her, having Sudheer’s mother permanently residing with them felt like an intrusion, disrupting the delicate balance of their lives. Anupama, too, had her story. Her resistance stemmed from a deep-seated grudge towards her mother in law because of the tortures meted out to her earlier when she was young.

“Previously, she used to stay with us for a minimum of three months, expecting me to serve her throughout. In the early days of our marriage, unemployed and naive, I played the perfect ‘meek Bahu,’ catering to her every whim. Despite my efforts, she disliked me. When I secured a publishing job, my days became peaceful, intentionally returning home late. I ensured minimal interaction with her. With my husband’s fortnightly travels, I struggle to endure her company. Now, she’s weak and wants to settle permanently, which I can’t manage and I oppose. Let her stay in a care centre. Especially with our daughter in the crucial 12th year of her studies, it’s impossible.” Anupama shared her version, providing some background.

In this tale of familial clash and internal strife, Sudheer was the reluctant protagonist, torn between filial duty and spousal allegiance. The journey ahead was uncertain, and the resolution hung in the balance, much like a ship caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

From SarojaDevi and Anupama, let us go to Carolyn and Janet, another M-I-L and D-I-L story. This time we will share a letter from the mother-in-law, Carolyn.

Dear Sir,
I have two sons and a daughter. I have my younger son with his family living upstairs in ‘my’ house. Other son and his family live couple kilometres away. My daughter is settled in US with her family. My husband passed away couple years back. Since then I live alone with my maid servant. I’m 84 years old and I am healthy to that age. I consider myself as a very good Christian person. I’m pretty independent and carry out my chores with the help of my maid servant. Myself and my husband worked in Brunei for 32 years and we returned to India and though we belong to mangalore, we decided to settle in Bangalore for reasons of good weather conditions.

My problem is made complicated by my younger daughter-in-law who is very arrogant, disrespectful and very rude to me every chance she gets! All she sees is the negatives about me! Seeing this attitude, even my grandsons have no love or respect to me and treat me as a stranger. I’ve tried so hard with her, but get stomped down by her every time. There is no point in telling my son about this because he knows what is happening and turned a blind eye. Though he stays in the 1st floor, he hardly meet me and I’ve given up.

There is a historical blunder which every elderly parent must be privy to. My husband out of love or sheer ignorance, gave both my sons with two two houses and never wrote anything in my name. Thus he made me ‘homeless’ at this advanced age, but luckily I have some savings. Of late, I’ve even thinking of going to a old age home, that way I’d be out of their lives, she’d love that!

Sir, you’re the first person I’ve sought help from. You must be wondering why I didn’t tell this to my elder son. He is equally hen-pecked and the elder daughter in law is another wicked lady. Luckily both daughter-in-laws never like each other, just jealous; thinking ‘I’m smarter than you”, syndrome. Then the next person is my daughter who is outraged by this treatment of both brothers, says that she cannot mediate. She blames me and her dad for the blunder.

I’m sorry Sir, my letter got so long. I can write a book on all the mean things she’s done to me all these years! My friend from the church told me that you run a care facility. Can you take me ? Can you help me ? I’d sure appreciate it if you can call me. Regards, Carolyn D’silva. (97875 xxxxx)

In a county where sons are deeply attached to their mothers, unable to bear a word against them, it’s disheartening when wives manipulate their husbands to turn against their families. Many sons, seeking an easy way out, side with their wives, avoiding family politics. Carolyn faced her son’s indifference, knowing he assumed they weren’t getting along because of her.

“My daughter-in-law, once a friendly neighbour, became my son’s wife in a love marriage. She used to visit my house often before the wedding, and despite cultural warnings, we welcomed her due to our long acquaintance. However, post-wedding, she transformed. She influenced my son to start a new business, causing a significant loss to our established family business. Despite the heavy loss of my aged husband’s lifetime earnings, she shows no remorse. Now, my ‘Gujarati Bahu’ acts as if she owns our house, and I feel powerless due to my son’s inability to confront his wife,” shares Kalaiaarasi with a heavy heart.

Usually we don’t receive letters by post these days and this one letter is after a long time. Since we deal with the nuances of ‘old age’ on our day to day practice, we come across many such toxic relationship between daughter-in-law and husbands parents. The day after receiving the letter, we reached out to Carolyn aunty, engaging in a lengthy conversation. She expressed fear while talking, suspecting her daughter-in-law might be eavesdropping, as is the usual practice whenever she receives a call on her landline.

The current conflict arises from Carolyn and Janet being embroiled in a serious situation with an impractical solution due to their unwillingness to compromise. Janet insists on welcoming stray dogs into the compound, feeding them, and letting them sleep there, causing a nuisance for Carolyn who dislikes the dogs. When Carolyn expressed her discontent, Janet responded with, ‘This is my house. I’ll have a kennel inside. Make peace or move out.’ Feeling humiliated, Carolyn tried to complain to her son, but he advised her not to escalate the issue.

The age-old truth persists – issues with in-laws are widespread. Blending individuals from diverse families and backgrounds inherently comes with challenges, demanding a conscious effort from all sides for a smooth journey. Difficult daughters-in-law add an extra layer of complexity as they serve as the gateway to our relationships with sons and grandchildren. When disgruntled, they can create heartbreak with far-reaching effects, often leaving sons powerless to intervene. Husbands find it challenging to change an unhappy wife’s opinion about his family, given their primary allegiance. It’s often advisable for husbands to respect their wives’ wishes rather than going against them. In many cases, husbands may take the children to visit grandparents, even if the wife opts to stay home. Unfortunately, there are instances of daughters-in-law being so spiteful that they refuse any contact with their husband’s parents.

Hear a few genuine grievances from daughters-in-law:

‘My mother-in-law comes over once a week to spend time with my son but uses that time to point out what I am doing wrong.’

‘Most of the time, when we visit my in-laws, whether at their house or a restaurant, we end up covering the bill, despite being on a limited budget, and they never even pretend to offer.’

‘Every time I bring up something that my in-laws did or said that bothered me, my husband immediately defends them and makes excuses for their behaviour.’

‘My in-laws only visit our house once a year, yet they expect us to spend all our vacations with them. It frustrates me that we never have the chance to get away as a family.’

When the son formulate an equation for co-existence and harmony.

Sandeep, a senior software analyst frequently traveling worldwide, is married to Ranjini, a school teacher and professional Carnatic vocalist. Sandeep’s 76-year-old father, Umanandan, recovering from open heart surgery, initially stayed with them in Bangalore. However, witnessing the struggle of his son and daughter-in-law, juggling work, filial duties, and parenting two teenagers, Umanandan proposed living independently in a retirement home. Though initially reluctant, both son and daughter-in-law agreed, realising it would provide better care and alleviate loneliness.

Ranjini continued bonding with her father-in-law, surprising observers with their connection. When asked about the secret to his family’s harmony, Sandeep revealed that before marriage, he set clear expectations with his wife and parents, prioritising their well-being. He emphasised the importance of avoiding passive husbandry, asserting that husbands should not succumb to difficult wives, as breaking family bonds out of hatred is unfair.

According to Sandeep, men should take responsibility for conflicts between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, firmly stating that both parties need to resolve issues without him taking sides. When a son emphasises his mother’s importance, the wife usually becomes more accommodating and obedient, fostering understanding and harmony. This approach ensures a healthier dynamic within the family.

You son is no longer your son alone. He is husband and a father too. Advice to all mothers.

Here’s some advice for mothers-in-law: You can only change yourself, not others. As a mature person, don’t view your daughter-in-law as a competitor for your son. Remember, it takes two to tango. Once your son gets married, accept that you are no longer the top priority or the most important woman in his life. This doesn’t mean you can’t be close, but your role is to support their union rather than cementing your maternal relationship.

Reflect on your own experience when you joined the family as a young daughter-in-law. If your mother-in-law competed with you, remember the hurt and conflict it caused. Avoid repeating such situations with your son and daughter-in-law. In your younger days, you are in the best position to be a positive influence, even when your personalities clash. With declining health and energy, winning a ‘war’ becomes slim. As social gerontologists, we worry about mothers facing pent-up anger from daughters-in-law in later life.

Not all mothers-in-law are like the notorious ‘Saas’ in the TV serial ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,’ but it’s undoubtedly a challenge to live your remaining years while having a mom-in-law to answer to. Some mothers-in-law treated their daughter-in-laws poorly or even subjected them to abuse. Can we expect such daughters-in-law to acquiesce?

In their youth, many never thought they’d need care in old age. I encountered Radhika Aunty’s daughter-in-law at our skilled nursing home’s gate, delivering a packet. When asked to visit her mom-in-law, she replied bluntly, ‘No. I’m just a courier for diapers and medicines. Rajesh is out of town. We’ve never had a good relationship, and let it stay that way.’ It’s a caustic response. Radhika Aunty’s daughter-in-law, Veena, refuses to forgive and reconcile, revealing a deep-seated animosity. When I mentioned Veena’s delivery, Radhika Aunty responded from her bed, ‘It’s my husband’s money. I don’t want to see her. She’s a ‘nalayak buddy makalu,’ a useless girl. I wrote her off long ago.’ Some mothers carry grudges to their graves.

In old age, will people regret mistreating their daughter-in-law? In private, some of them admit their mistakes. Karthikeyan is one such person.
‘I truly regret it. If we had treated our daughter-in-law better, our old age might have been enjoyable. Now, with our daughter-in-law and grandson distancing from us, we feel abandoned, worrying about the lack of support. It’s too late; the hardships we imposed on her are deeply rooted in her heart,’ apologises 78-year-old Karthikeyan. Regret arises, realising that a simple apology could have set things right in everyone’s lives.

Obligation to care your in laws is part of the institution called marriage

Regardless of how you feel about your mother-in-law and father-in-law, providing care to another person (or even two people) is a serious challenge. As a family member, and as a daughter in law, you may be pulled into the vortex of caregiving eventually. Being a family caregiver doesn’t always stop at caring for your own ageing parents. Your spouse’s mom and dad often look to you for care, and some of you take on this responsibility without hesitation. Reality is your in-laws are your spouse’s parents and your children’s grandparents. We don’t assume every mother in law - daughter in law is like Radhika- Veena; most often, we love them, or at least like them. In more difficult cases like Veena’s, relationships with in-laws never really blossomed or have been downright impossible to cultivate. Is it our responsibility to care for our ageing in-laws no matter how we feel about them? We say, YES.

Before we answer the above question, let’s hear out Gina. Gina Chandy, a pastry chef of a well known hotel chain, provided care for her former in-laws long after she and her husband had divorced. “As strange as it might sound, I cared for my ex-husband’s parents for six years- 8 years after our divorce!” she explains. “I had a good relationship mostly with my former father-in-law because he was a wonderful grandfather to my daughters. Unfortunately my former husband inherit no genes from his parents, his pursuits are booze and women. My caring journey was not easy as I have two school going kids so this responsibility of two aged in laws was wholly unprepared for. Though there is no legal obligation to me, still I feel obligated because these aged parents are a wonderful couple and it’s no fault of theirs.”

Perhaps Gina’s decision is considered highly unlikely, but many people provide care for their spouse’s parents. Deciding whether to pitch into care for your own in-laws is a highly personal matter that must include a variety of factors that are unique to your own lifestyle and family dynamic. Obviously, if you are a partner in a solid marriage and a member of a tight-knit family, then banding together and caring for your in-laws would be normal, at least to a certain level.

Determining whether it’s harder to care for in-laws or your own parents lacks a definitive answer; it varies based on your relationship and various factors. While caregiving for the elderly is rewarding, dealing with chronic conditions poses challenges. When it comes to in-laws, it can be even trickier and more demanding. In many cases, the dynamics between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can be perilous and volatile. Professionals assert that a spouse who doesn’t support caregiving efforts, takes the caregiver for granted, or fails to contribute is likely heading towards strife.

Every family is unique and no two are same and in general when it comes to caring for ageing parents, we often see a marked gender division. Most men consider hands-on-care as embarrassing and even the parents or in-law’s aren’t comfortable so this responsibility often falls to their wives. Even for their own parents, performing more intimate care tasks, it’s still generally the women who are left to handle these chores. Nonetheless, these daughter-in-laws who want to participate in their in-laws’ care, willingly or hesitantly, may still be assigned these tasks “by default”.

As social gerontologists, we acknowledge the difficulty of dealing with demanding aging parents, whether they be your own, mother-in-law, or father-in-law. The emotional toll on all parties involved can be draining and frustrating. Sometimes, the challenges arise from a parent who has always been demanding, and aging exacerbates the situation. Other times, changes in medical conditions, cognition, or impaired function contribute to escalating demands on family members.

Navigating the complexities of dealing with demanding aging in-laws is a significant dilemma, and here is our perspective. Even in the best of circumstances, managing relationships with in-laws presents its own set of challenges. When your in-laws age and require assistance, the situation becomes even more intricate and stressful. Frequently, women find themselves shouldering the majority of caregiving responsibilities and providing emotional support for their in-laws. Here we list out few tips for dealing with aging in-laws.

Establish clear boundaries: Early establishment of boundaries can prevent situations from escalating. It’s more efficient to set limits than to backtrack later. If your in-laws demand a significant amount of your time, determine what works best for you and communicate your availability. Propose the involvement of professional caregivers to handle tasks and time you cannot provide.

Engage your partner more: Particularly with men, there may be reluctance to take on additional caregiving responsibilities. Have an open conversation about the stress you’re experiencing and explore ways both of you can better manage the demands of your in-laws. Your partner might be willing to assume additional responsibilities if you express your needs. Prioritise positive relationships: Despite the demands, your in-laws remain family. To maintain good relations, dedicate time to enjoyable family activities that aren’t centered around caregiving or tasks. Explore alternatives: Consider various alternatives, such as in-home care or assisted living, depending on your in-laws’ needs. Explore options like meal delivery, transportation services, and bill paying. While some ideas may not be well-received, initiating discussions about alternatives opens the door to possibilities.

Seek support from other family members: If your partner has siblings, consider discussing your situation with them and exploring ways they can share the responsibilities. Provide specific suggestions for tasks that could alleviate some of the pressure on you.