SINGAPORE: The title of my first novel, My Mother-In-law’s Son, always perplexed people. Before most people read the book, they will ask me: “Why don’t you just say brother-in-law or husband?”
The novel is set in post-war Singapore in a Chinese household and the story is told by Swee Gek, a Peranakan daughter-in-law. After my readers have read the novel, they finally get the subtle inference of the title - that Swee Gek’s husband never really belonged to her but continued to be his mother’s child.
Mothers-in-law did rule the roost, especially in the old days. So, Swee Gek’s husband was always the son first and rarely the husband.
Have things changed? Of course, they have.
In 1961, when the Women’s Charter was passed, life changed for women in Singapore. The new law protected women and children. It did not permit a man to have more than one wife at the same time.
There was also the added benefit that the majority of women started to earn their own income. This took away a great deal of insecurity for them.
HOW THE DRAGON MOTHER-IN-LAW CAME TO BE
But in the days of the Dragon Mother-in-law, the woman had no say if her husband chose to have several wives. If she was not working, she had no income of her own and was thus dependent on the man.
Gender roles were clearly marked. The man’s role was to bring home the money; the woman’s role was to bear children, look after her husband and create a beautiful, comfortable home for him to come back to.
The woman had to work exceptionally hard to ensure her husband was less likely to want another wife. So, she excelled in cooking delicious food, kept herself pretty and knew how to keep her husband satisfied in bed. Her power was thus in the household.
When such a woman provided her husband with an heir, her good fate was sealed. Even if her husband were to stray, she held the golden key – a son. From this developed what I call The First Son Syndrome. Or worse, The Only Son Syndrome.
It was in the woman’s interest to pander to her son, for if her husband should die, it was the son who would in turn look after her. In wealthy households, such sons became utterly spoilt. But even in poor villages, sons get the best food not allocated to daughters.
So, when a daughter-in-law appeared on the scene, Mother-in-law had to control the daughter-in-law so that she would not usurp her position in the household. This was particularly so if Daughter-in-law, after marrying, came to live with her in-laws.
Thus, began this wage of war between the two throughout history. Mother moaned to the son that his wife behaved badly; Wife pillow-talked her husband that Mother-In-law was merciless.
In Peranakan-speak, a daughter-in-law is a menantu. But if Mother-in-law was mad at her, she would call her an hantu, a devil. Peranakans have a penchant for rhyming words.
It is ironic that the bullying Mothers-in-law had forgotten that once, when she was Daughter-in-law, she were bullied too yet has morphed into becoming a bully herself now. Sometimes, the poor Son got so caught by the cross-fire that he stayed away from home.
A LOCKED-HORN BATTLE
The hereditary locked-horn battle has never really gone away even in modern times.
Though Mother-in-law is no longer as vulnerable as before, she still wields power over her son. Especially if he is her First-born Son. Or worse, her Only Son.
She treats him as precious, she is subservient to him, and she caters to his comfort so long as she can control him. So, any wife that comes on the scene has to learn to navigate this potentially explosive landscape.
If Daughter-in-law is a kind and good woman, she has to tug and pull as though she’s flying a kite, know when to assert herself yet showing deference to Mother-in-law.
These days, most young women are working women and so, are not entirely dependent on their husband’s income so she has more say.
Yet, in order for there to be peace and harmony, Daughter-in-law needs to dance a delicate dance between husband and Mother-in-law.
In the latter’s presence, some husbands undergo a kind of transformation and revert to a child in his mother’s presence. So, Daughter-in-law must practise some patience and decorum and allow her Mother-in-law some rope.
She should not possess her husband so tightly that Mother-in-law feels threatened and pushed away. She should never, never criticise her husband in front of Mother-in-law. Use the private bedroom for that or when you are out.
Daughter-in-law can do her best to include Mother-in-law in certain outings, like Sunday lunch or dinner, remember crucial days like birthdays, anniversaries or special feast or worship days. Try to empathise with Mother-in-law, feel her fear of losing her son entirely and thus her security.
For one day, you too might become a mother-in-law with the same fear of losing your son to your daughter-in-law.
MOVING INTO A FOREIGN COUNTRY
If Daughter-in-law moves in to a home that belonged to Mother-in-Law, she has to realise that she is entering a foreign country whose territory has been under Mother-in-Law’s jurisdiction for years before her arrival.
To try to change anything without discussing with Mother-in-law first is to invite wrath. The best thing to do is to set some boundaries, like the bedroom, which is sacrosanct to you. Then if you must, slowly and gently ring in the changes.
Any modern Mother-in-Law of any worth will know that Daughter-in-law now holds the golden key – her Son.
Unlike the old days, where a daughter-in-law is entirely dependent on her husband’s income, times have changed. So, the old act of the Dragon Mother-in-law no longer has the same bite as before.
If a woman wants to continue to see her son, and in future, her grandchildren, she needs to know which piper is playing the tune. She cannot afford to antagonise the modern Daughter-in-law.
TAKE HEED DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
Sadly, these days, there are many instances where Daughters-in-law not only do not play the archaic, subservient roles but they assert a superior status. Some neglect to upkeep the role of mediator or social planner of visits.
This is particularly true of high-powered Daughters-in-law whose income is much higher than her husband’s.
I have heard of grandmothers and grandparents who do not get to see their grandchildren because daughters-in-law do not make the effort to let them connect. The sons either feign busy work-lives or do not make any effort because they are too weak to fight their wives over their mothers or too afraid to rock the boat.
Ultimately, the loss is the grandchildren’s. They miss out on a relationship with one grandmother or a set of grandparents.
It is not to Daughter-in-law’s benefit to create this chasm of estrangement. Some day when the kids are grown up, they will question why they have not known their father’s mother or parents. So, Daughters-in-law beware.
Joy in the family comes from a union of varied characters practising tolerance of their differences. People are more educated now. We can afford to bury the old hatchet of insecurity and possessiveness.
We can accept that Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-law have their own roles to play and appreciate this fact.
Josephine Chia is author of many books, most famously Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong, Goodbye My Kampong and the children’s edition, Growing Up in Kampong Potong Pasir, and most recently, Big Tree in a Small Pot.