I thought that with yesterday being Mother’s Day, this conversation I had with my teacher last week might be interesting and timely to blog about. I’m really thankful for the wonders of the internet, which make it possible to stay in touch with our families even from far away. My conversations with both Moms yesterday reminded me of how wonderful it is to have good relationships with both the family I grew up in, and the family I’ve been welcomed into since marrying Joel.
Recently, the topic of “mother-in-laws” has come up a few times in conversation. The girls from GAO pretty much unanimously declared that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is the one that tends to be the most problematic in Chinese families. Some of the tension in this relationship is inherited from the days when women in China really did marry OUT of their families and into their husband’s family…a girl might never see her own family ever again! At the same time, even though she had married into this new family, she would likely still be considered an outsider. As sort of “low woman on the totem pole” in her new family, one of her main jobs would be to serve her mother-in-law and make her happy. The Chinese mother-in-law (at least in ages past) had a reputation for being pretty demanding and difficult to please…after all, she had once been low woman on the totem pole as well, and had risen through the ranks to become mother, mother-in-law, and hopefully, grandmother. It seems this could all get pretty political, with both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law triangulating and manipulating to keep son/husband in their corner.
Obviously the dynamics of some of this has changed over the centuries, though I think it still probably carries influence at some level. Chinese mothers and sons are also noted for their particularly strong bond…in some ways, being limited to one child may have actually strengthened this already traditionally very strong aspect of family relationships. All the love and care that might have been given to multiple children in previous generations is now lavished upon the one son, who is the hope and future of the family.
Last week my teacher was telling me how relieved she is that she has a good relationship with her boyfriend’s mother. She feels like her boyfriend’s mother has potential to be a kind and good mother-in-law, and she hopes that their relationship can remain close. She also remarked that another change to family dynamics in recent years is that many Chinese mothers, limited to only one child and having born a son, seem to have yearned for a daughter. With this kind of mother-in-law, the son’s wife may have a greater chance of being treated as the daughter that she never was able to have, and there is a stronger possibility for having a better relationship. “However,” my teacher said “I still would never, ever, in the presence of my boyfriend’s mother, ask him to get up and get me a drink of water.”
My lack of understanding at the significance of this must have been obvious, because she proceeded to tell me the story of a classmate who made exactly that mistake while visiting her boyfriend’s parents. The classmate asked her boyfriend to get her a drink of water, and the boyfriend (foolish boy) asked his mother to get him a drink of water (intending to give it to his girlfriend). At the classmate’s request the mother’s eyebrows furrowed a little bit, but at the son’s request the air turned icy-cold, the silence was deafening, and the earth stopped spinning. Mother rose from her chair, stalked off to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. Returning to where they were sitting, she placed the glass (with a resounding, final THUNK) on the table in front of her son. The message was clear and did NOT need to be explained. But since you’re probably a waiguoren reading this and might not understand why a glass of water should be such a big deal, I’ll share the explanation my teacher gave.
First, the girlfriend made a big mistake in front of her potential-future-mother-in-law by not showing her boyfriend the respect he deserves. Taking into account that this mother has sacrificed many hours cooking, cleaning, and otherwise looking out for and taking care of her son, a request like this on the behalf of the girlfriend makes it seem like she’s not the kind of girl who will take very good care of him. Add into the mix that it’s apparently not uncommon for some Chinese mother-in-laws feel that their son’s wife/girlfriend has “stolen away their precious son” (yes, my teacher really said that), and the future potential mother-in-law becomes aghast that this son-stealer, this interloper is not only too lazy to get her own water, but also expects the precious treasure of a son to serve her.
Secondly, the boyfriend made a REALLY big mistake by passing the request on to his mother. In effect, he turned the “natural order” of things (daughter-in-law serves mother-in-law) completely on its head, and basically asked his mother to serve his potential future wife. He really should have known better. Of course, being used to having his mother do everything for him…he might not have stopped to consider that it might be a problem to ask her to get a cup of water for his girlfriend. Till of course, the earth stopped spinning for a minute, and then in one giant moment of awkward clarity, both my teacher’s classmate and her boyfriend realized the magnitude of their error.
So, when considering how to impress your future-Chinese-mother-in-law, remember that among the things you JUST DON’T DO is ask your boyfriend or her to get you a drink of water. Best to get it yourself, and on the way ask everyone else if they want any…just to show how extra good and helpful you would be as a wife/daughter-in-law.
All that said, it’s not like we in North America have gotten in-law relationships all worked out either…the abundance of mother-in-law jokes and stories that get told provide ample testimony to our own problems in this area. Still, whether it’s this kind of conversation in China or a mother-in-law story from a friend in the West, I always end up very thankful that both Joel and I have really good relationships with each other’s moms.