I write this article with a heavy heart. I do not want to come off as a victim (I am far from it). I simply want to share what I experienced as a newlywed “westernized” Sikh girl who moved in with her “traditional” in-laws. Why the heavy heart? Simply, my experiences are not isolated. The more I speak to Sikh friends and colleagues, the more I realize that my experiences are common and what some term as the “norm”. I wish to share my experiences to simply tell other women in challenging family situations that, “You are not alone”.
I am a Sikh who was married about six years ago. Before marriage, I always lived at home with my parents (even throughout university). I became a qualified professional who always worked hard and succeeded (through the support of both my parents). I played hard and worked even harder. I was independent. I was a good cook (Indian food included). I looked after all the housework for my parents and most of all, my parents valued my opinion; they saw the all-night study sessions I pulled, they saw me achieve my First Class Honors degree, and they saw me progress professionally. But what was missing for them was that I was not married – they felt that it was a great burden on their heads to have an unmarried, 27 year-old daughter.
So the day came… I announced that I had found someone. “Same religion?” Yes. “Same caste?” Yes. “A college graduate?” No. This final point was a bit sticky (particularly for my dad to accept) but we got there in the end. He accepted it and decided that the “love marriage” would go ahead and my parents welcomed my husband with open arms.
I will skip past the wedding and planning details (as that brought with it significant challenges). It was a traditional wedding, an “intimate” 600 person affair with hardly anyone I knew and of course, my parents paid. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the “traditional” nature of my in-laws at this point. However, I was blinded by my husband’s persistence that, “Everything was going to be fine!” and that his parents would love me. “They need someone independent and strong minded,” he said. I was moving into a big, over-extended family (he had four uncles and two aunts all with married children who had children of their own) and my husband felt my independent outlook would benefit his mum who grew up in the shadow of stronger, more dominant women. I, on the other hand, can count my uncles on one finger and do not need any fingers for my aunts. Suffice to say, I came from a very small family and I was moving into a new, far away town with an over-extended family who all lived within five minutes of each other. I was leaving behind everything I knew.
Fast forward to approximately one month of living with my in-laws (his mum and dad and two younger siblings) .
“She goes back to her parents’ house too much.”
“She doesn’t mix with our family.”
“She doesn’t eat dinner with us.”
“She is always in her room.”
“She answers back.”
“She does not agree with us.”
“She didn’t wash the dishes properly.”
These were the messages my husband was asked to relay back to me on an almost daily basis. In regard to the dishes, I was given a washing demonstration of the plate in question, shown where the stain had remained, and “advised” to double check once I had given the dishes a rinse. I couldn’t believe it! I was shocked that I was getting this training. This made me even more determined to “rebel”. After all, I was a highly educated woman who had a professional job and I did not need to hear such comments, I thought.
It had been my intention to go into my new life being myself – to say what I felt when necessary, help with the cooking, and enjoy my role as a wife. However I quickly came to realize that I had no place in my new family. I was constantly compared to the other daughter-in-laws and told I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t included in any family discussions or asked what I might think. Members of my new family would arrange dinners and events and not even care to add me to the invite – this treatment came from the people I shared a house with. Finally, the fact that I had left behind my parents seemed to mean nothing to them.
Overtime, I became more withdrawn and felt isolated. “If I am not good enough for them,” I told myself, “I don’t care what they or the extended family thinks of me.” I was talked about and sniggered at as being bad and disrespectful. But the truth is, I did care what people thought of me but I did not want to conform to their perception of how I should behave and act. Tensions grew and anger brewed as I was not the daughter-in-law they had dreamed of, one that would spend evenings with my mother-in-law following her lead of cooking and cleaning (after all I was completely incapable of cooking myself, according to her). It was her way or the highway and so, I chose the highway to her disappointment and rage.
The “highway” may have been overtly demonstrated and perceived by others but inside, I struggled with anxiety; the constant sickly feeling, being ignored in the house I lived in, having three women against me (after all his sisters would defend their mum), having to suffer alone in my bedroom and the stresses it put on my relationship with my husband. Going from a confident women, I can honestly say I had no self-belief left. I was made to feel like I was a terrible person and I know that I was the hot topic at family gatherings I was not present at. My confidence fell to an all-time low and I felt I was incapable of anything. I became a shell of what I was; mentally and physically, dropping over a stone with all the anxiety I was suffering.
So I started trying to be more “worthy”. I stopped going back to visit my parents. I started trying to spend more time with my in-laws, and did not speak my mind or give my opinions. I spent weekends waiting around for them to try and show them I was available; I put my life on hold to conform. I did this all in the hopes that I would be accepted and not gossiped about. Ultimately, I was emotionally blackmailed. There was a lingering threat in the background that they would complain to my parents about my behavior and I was afraid that my dad would blame me for the “love marriage” I chose. I felt trapped and alone. I could not turn to my husband as he himself was feeling the pressure for the choice he made.
One year into the marriage, I committed the cardinal sin: I bought my own house and my husband and I moved out. Though it was a mere 5 minute walk from my in-laws, they felt that I had “taken away” their only son to his own house. I had been open with my husband from the start of our relationship that I wanted my own house and I wanted us to have our own space. This was something we had discussed and agreed upon prior to marriage and something my in-laws were also aware of. What should have been an exciting and proud time for any parents (watching their kids buy their first house independently) turned into a nightmare. My in-laws refused to come to our house. My husband became withdrawn and I felt he blamed me for all the issues. It was their view that we had been dishonest and not managed their expectations about our timeframe for such a move. But still I visisted my in-laws every weekend and most evenings after work to show that we were still part of the family, but I was still suffering from all the anxiety I had living with them.
All the anger towards me came to a head when my mother-in-law did what she had always threatened to do: she called my parents and complained about me. This was followed up with a public display of fury as my mother-in-law confronted my mum and dad at a family function about how they had raised such a rude and disobedient girl. She said that she had taught her daughters well and I had been raised with no manners. They hadn’t given me any “arkaal” (sense) in how to respect in-laws, she said. They were bad people without morals and had taught their daughter to be the same, she concluded.
Rightly or wrongly, I cut of all contact with my in-laws at that point as it was the only way I could cope with it. I remember the weeks that followed were awful. My husband and I argued about it constantly. I blamed him, he blamed me and around in circles we went. My anxiety got worse and I became physically unwell. I put pressure on my husband to try and smooth it over. I set him the task of trying to make my mother-in-law change her mind about me and I didn’t want to be caste as a black sheep. In hindsight, I realize this was a mistake – my husband became more withdrawn as he had pressure from both sides.
This all happened about 4 years ago. I can’t pin point exactly how things were resolved but I believe it was a mixture of me walking away and also later learning to accept that one side is not going to change the views of the other.
Me walking away demonstrated that I was unwilling to endure the insults to my parents – full-stop. This hit a nerve with my mother-in-law. She realized that I was never going to be the “traditional daughter in-law” whose role it was to accept everything that was thrown my way. I think she came to realize that she risked losing her son and his wife.
Once the communication channels did open up (aided by a family relative from my husband’s side at our request), we did not dissect the past. Instead, we silently acknowledged that both sides had their views and these were not going to be changed – neither side made any apology for holding their views. The only apology I made was where they felt my actions or behavior had been inappropriate towards them – I am humble enough to acknowledge that the delivery of my message fueled by anger was not right.
What this experience did do was it established that there are boundaries in our relationship – something traditional in-laws find difficult to appreciate.
Despite moving on, I look back and wonder how I could have handled it so badly. I now have a three year old daughter and I panic at the thought of her ever going through or feeling the same way I did. Feeling like a second-class citizen in what was supposedly my new home – and for what reason?
In our Sikh scriptures, women are considered to have the same souls as men and an equal right to grow spiritually. Our Gurus taught us that there is no difference between a man and woman. The Anand Karaj is defined as a marriage between equals. Why then, is there a burden on girls to have to change or to adjust to their “new family”? Why can’t we be accepted for who we are instead of being ostracized for not performing to a preordained expectation of how we should behave as a daughter-in-law? My mum calls it the “generation gap” and how this type of thinking cannot be changed. Unfortunately, there is an unnatural bias towards boys (whether we like to admit it or not). This is why the vast majority of Sikh parents-in-law (in my experience) behave in the manner that they do, thinking that it is ok for them to blame a girl’s parents for her not being respectful enough – God forbid it should be the other way round.
It is clear that many Punjabi famileis have unreasonable expectations which piles on unnecessary pressure. A friend of mine recently went to the doctor complaining of certain symptoms. After running a number of medical tests, the doctor diagnosed her with depression and she came to realise that the pressures of her married life and in-laws was the cause. Worse, the doctor told her that her symptoms were common to what he is seeing in Indian women as they live in a pressured situation of having to fulfill role expectations whilst still having the modern pressures of a professional job and equal if not the majority of financial responsibilities.
Whilst I may not agree with my mum’s explanation, I do accept it. I alone am not going to change people’s engrained beliefs: what I can do is change how I react to it. This is the message I wish to get across to my fellow sisters in the situation I was. You are allowed to have your own opinion. Everything you have achieved in your life before your marriage is worth something. You should not feel guilty for wanting to have independence in your own right. Your marriage or your in-laws should not define you. You should define you. It is okay to be you. For that, you should carry no guilt. It is not okay to be emotionally blackmailed or bullied and it is not okay to have our parents insulted simply because they are the girl’s parents.
If you are not “good enough” in their eyes, that is their opinion. Do not let their views stop you from living your life. Do not be disrespectful and do not add unnecessary fuel to the fire, but at the same time you are not there to be insulted and you do not have to accept what is wrong.
A marriage is a commitment between two people – whilst I understand that there are cultural traditions in joining into a new family, the most important thing first should be your marriage and becoming ik jot. Shared values, a shared Guru and an understanding between a husband and a wife should take precedence over all other factors. If you have a solid base, then no matter what periphery issues come up (such as the comments I incurred at the start) will not matter and you can deal with them together as a unit. In hindsight, this was my mistake – I fought for my husband to defend me against his family. We should have had a better channel of communication to air our views and understand one another before we responded or dealt with the “attacks” coming our way. Having been to marriage counselling, we have come to realise the mistakes we made.
The thought of marriage counselling is seen as a big taboo in our culture. However in my opinion this is the best decision we made. We came to understand our views in a non-judgmental environment and it has taught us to communicate our feelings to each other more productively. The relationship with my in-laws is much improved, We respect that we have independent lives, but ultimately we accept that we are all a big family – we just don’t need to live in each other’s pockets to prove it.
I still get the occasional few seconds of anxiety when I feel that my in-laws think that I am not good enough, but then I see my daughter’s face and imagine if it was her in my shoes. I realize that I should not feel guilty or be scared of being me or doing what I want. I should not be afraid to live the life I dreamed off as a girl and this shouldn’t change because I got married
We are somebodies. We are not somebody’s!