If a woman's primary identity is derived from her motherhood, it can be difficult to let go when the children get married.

The Indian mother does have a hard time of it. She's extolled by one and all as the bedrock of the Indian family, but social scientists tell us that the Indian family seems to be becoming progressively more rickety. And in some strange way, without anything actually being said, she seems to be looked askance at. She begins to feel that she's somehow not quite doing what, over several centuries, her foremothers are believed to have pulled off. And if she's chosen to be a ‘full-time mom', she feels even worse, for, she feels she's failed in her primary task. No wonder then that hordes of contemporary women balk at the idea of being ‘stay-at-home moms', for, every time they look at their own stay-at-home-mothers' lives they realise how much mothers have been scapegoated for a lot of things that have gone wrong in their families and how, for many of them, platitudinous lip-service has been their only tangible reward. So, when she has an opportunity to, it is no surprise that Mummy Strikes Back.

She usually does this when the children have grown up and don't ‘need' her any more. This is when her sense of self takes a pounding, for, her primary identity is that of a mother. The typical Indian mother has usually derived her identity from having been somebody's daughter, somebody's wife and eventually somebody's mother. As a daughter and as a wife, she's had a subordinate role to play but as a mother she comes into her own, and understandably, this is the role she is most attached to. And when it is threatened, she's not going to go down without a fight.

Ownership issues

Which is why we have the much-written-about and ad-nauseam-lamented-about conflict between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law. Often the son-husband becomes incidental in this conflict as the underlying dynamics are not about who loves him more but who has more ownership rights over him. Also, over the last few decades, we have also seen what I refer to as the ‘other-in-law' wherein the son-in-law is also at the receiving end of much interference from his parents-in-law. But, you all know this and I don't want to bore you with more of the same.

However, you might be interested in knowing about the “Mother-is-law” phenomenon, the incidence of which seems to be sharply on the rise over the last decade or so, although it's been around for quite a while earlier, but in the background. I refer to the dynamics of the relationship between mothers and married daughters which has come a full circle. From being considered the in-laws' property, married daughters have now become a bone of contention between mother and mother-in-law and mother and son-in-law.

Typically, two scenarios seem to be the most common. In the first of these, the husband, who is expected to cut his umbilical cord from his mother, finds the closeness between his wife and mother-in-law uncomfortable. He finds his wife sharing everything that happens in the marriage with her mother, conducting the marriage as per her mother's advice and spending endless hours in a day either visiting her mother or talking to her on the phone, regardless of the rift that's developing between husband and wife. In the other common scenario, the mother, who cannot bear the idea of her daughter's budding closeness to her mother-in-law, does everything to let her displeasure be known, thereby putting the daughter in a dilemma and sometimes effectively scuttling what could have become a good relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

The other side

One way of understanding this phenomenon is to see it as a manifestation of gender-equitation, whereby what used to happen to the mother-son relationship post the latter's marriage is happening to the mother-daughter relationship as well. There's some truth to this, but there is one important difference. The ‘possessiveness' expressed by the mother of the son has been, over centuries, accepted as part of the ‘motherhood experience' if you will, and is often seen as the mother's right. Whereas the same response to the daughter is seen as neurotic, unnatural and therefore unacceptable. Evidently, we've not yet gone all the way when it comes to gender-equity in the mother-child relationship.

However, whether dealing with son or daughter, the major difficulty experienced by the Indian mother is that she's overly attached to her identity as a mother, and often-times has not developed any other facet of her identity during the course of her life. This makes her extremely vulnerable, for, when the possibility of actively ‘mothering' her children is no longer available to her, she's quite lost. Her husband, whose primary identity is not derived from his role as a father, can ‘let go' of the married children, if and when he learns to delegate the ‘head of the family' role, but she finds it hard to follow suit, particularly if she has nothing else to fall back on. And this is where you have to feel for her.

However, if she puts in more energy and dynamism in developing other facets of her identity, not only will she become a more nurturing and less stifling parent, but she'll be a happier and better-adjusted person. And she need no longer feel compelled to lay down the law.

Email the writer: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com