Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Pedders of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Stereotypes – Conclusion

My previous two articles on this theme are here and here

The Evil Mother-in-Law

In our Hindu tradition, some of us perform a puja (prayer ritual) called Varalakshmi Vratham. This puja is performed by married women and young girls – it is a prayer for peace, prosperity and well being of the whole family. In some places, the belief is that the women doing this prayer will be granted the same husband in the next seven births, and their couple status will transcend birth and death.

Varalakshmi Vratham this time comes on August 12th, and there is a topical joke going around in social media, on this theme of the same spouse in multiple births. Chitragupta, the divine accountant of good and bad karma performed in a person’s lifetime, tells Brahma the Creator that this Varalakshmi Vratham scheme of the praying women wanting the same husband for the next seven births needs to stop….Because while the women wanted the same husband, their husbands wanted a different wife in each birth!!

“How should we solve this dilemma?”, asks Chitragupta.

Neither of them is able to solve this puzzle. Just then Narada, the divine sage, comes along, and says they should ask a wise man named Chanakya for advice, as he was known for his ability to solve complex problems. So Chitragupta goes to meet Chanakya, and explains the problem to him. Chanakya listens carefully, thinks for a while and says there is a solution.

“Tell the praying women that if they want the same husband for the next seven births,  they will also get the same Mother-in-Law”

The problem was now solved!! 🙂

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Mother-in-law generally is the most hated-figure, coming a close second to only one other role that I will come to in a bit.

Indian television shows are replete with mothers-in-law who scheme and collude with the rest of the family to treat the poor daughter-in-law as an outcast in the family, try to separate her from her husband, treat her like an unpaid servant, expect her to put up with all sorts of abuse, and in general lord it over the poor newcomer. The TV shows feature daughters-in-law who suffered this treatment for a while and shed copious tears before finding themselves, developing their potential talents and breaking free.

The scene in urban India is a far cry from this. In my hometown of Chennai, I hear many stories of demands from prospective brides – that the prospective groom needs to have his own house and car; ideally he should not have any sisters or the sisters should be married and settled abroad. Preferably, he should be an only son who will eventually inherit all his parents’ property. The bride’s parents will live close to the bride, with the understanding that she will be a dutiful daughter and take care of them in their old age. The woman’s parents might even move in with the couple once they have children….The groom’s parents on the other hand should not live with him, and should preferably be in a different city or a whole different country.

This is the scenario of prospective urban brides of India, in 2016. If this is the demand before the wedding even starts, one can imagine how things will be once the wedding is over.

Women are the kin-keepers in any family. They keep in touch with loved ones, invite them over for celebrations, keep track of birthdays, anniversaries – and are the communicators in the family. Few men keep track of all this, leaving it to the women to handle extended family relationships. With the women being naturally close to their own families of birth, the man’s side typically gets lesser attention, and if the woman decides that the husband’s family is not important to them, sooner or later they lose their connection with the son and grandchildren. Radhika Sarathkumar says this poignantly in the film “Theri” when her son (played by Vijay) introduces his fiancee to her. She expresses her worry thus: “I fear you may not like me……And if you don’t like me, you will cut my son out of my life….Then you will cut my grandchildren out of my life”

Sad is the state of the mother-in-law who has been a homemaker all her life, who becomes widowed and starts to rely on her son for support. If there are many sons, she gets shuttled between their homes, an unwanted visitor and poor relation. If there is only one son, the daughter-in-law can feel threatened and either treat her as a marginal member of the family, or treat her like an outcast and outright demand that her husband put her in an old age home, and she is no longer welcome at theirs. With rising divorce rates, many men are afraid to stand up for their own side of the family, and many of them toe the line of the wife.

I have seen instances where an aged mother is left to fend for herself after her husband’s death – with the son initially promising to take care of his mother and taking over all her assets. Once all assets are transferred, the mother-in-law is increasingly marginalized by the daughter-in-law and finally cast out. Modern day mothers-in-law especially in urban areas are more sinned against than sinning!

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And the Most Evil of Them All

The award for The Most Reviled Figure in all of literature goes to…..(drumroll, please) The Stepmother! She wins this award hands down, across the world!

Nearly all western fairy tales feature a stepmother who mistreats, abuses and makes an unpaid servant out of her stepchild(ren) as in the case of Cinderella. Some stepmothers are outright witches as in the case of Hansel and Gretel and Snow White. These stepmothers are not just wicked and mean, they are murderers who try to poison the poor children!

In Indian puranas, we see Queen Suruchi, a stepmother who prevents young prince Dhruva, a child of about five from sitting on his father’s lap. Dhruva goes to the forest, does severe penance, and becomes the pole star. The Ramayana has Kaikeyi, Lord Rama’s stepmother – who is instrumental in banishing Him to a forest, so that her son Bharata can become crown prince.  The Mahabharata has Satyavati, who marries King Shantanu under the condition that their future son will become the crown prince and after him his descendants will rule the kingdom, passing over prince Devavrata who is Shantanu’s son from a previous marriage. Devavrata renounces his claim to the throne, and even takes a vow of celibacy so that he has no descendants – sacrificing his happiness for his father’s.

There are innumerable movies along this theme in nearly every country. “The Parent Trap” is one in the US, where twin daughters scheme to kick the gold-digging stepmother out of the home. All ends well with the stepmother being shown the door and the children getting their parents to reunite. The stepmother is widely understood to be a figure who will mistreat her stepchildren, alienate them from their father, and stake claim to all of his assets and emotions.

Few understand how toxic this type of stereotyping can be…..and how hard on the woman involved. In previous generations, men worked outside the home while women stayed home to take care of the family. Marriage was considered a necessity at the time, for women to be financially supported and for men to have a partner to run their home.

These days with women gaining financial independence, and having more choice in their lives, marriage is increasingly regarded as an option. When something becomes an option, it is a conscious choice – made out of love, and a need for companionship. Why else would someone who is otherwise independent, marry a person with child(ren)?

In many families, both husband and wife work outside the home. There are numerous demands on one’s time, and much juggling to balance all of one’s roles and responsibilities. Some days, tempers flare because there is just so much to do! If one partner in a marriage comes branded as Evil by social stereotyping, imagine the added pressure on her…..She isn’t allowed to be human with human frailties, lest she be branded as Evil! She has to put on a pleasing front all the time, suppressing her natural feelings, to “prove” that she is not evil.

Sometimes people who have a bad day at work can be moody at home. Not the stepmother, because she is not allowed to have or express such feelings. If she corrects her stepchild, she is not being maternal enough and is treating him/her in a step-motherly manner. If she does not correct the child, then she is not invested enough in the child’s well-being the way a real mother would be! An uncle or aunt can correct a child, or give advice – but stepmothers have no such privileges.

In a typical step or blended family, a stepmother is allowed to love but not discipline. She is given responsibility but no real authority. Unconditional love for the child is demanded from her, without any reciprocal expectation of love or respect from the child. Many children resent the presence of a stepmother, because to them she has replaced their own mother in their family unit! They naturally resent this change, and show this resentment in many ways….Young children act out, clinging to the father and being rebellious towards the stepmom.

“You are NOT my mother!” is a common refrain.

Teenagers act sullen and passive aggressive, or become destructive/disrespectful of both parental figures in the home as a way of expressing displeasure at the change in family unit. Many children hold on to fantasies of their natural parents reuniting, and try to break up the relationship between their father and the stepmother.

In all this, pressure from the couple’s immediate circle can be unrelenting. If the child resents the stepmother and acts out, it is seen as stepmom’s fault – because she is not good enough and hasn’t made enough of an effort to win the child’s love. If the stepmother expresses frustration at the lack of acceptance from the child and in many cases lack of support from her spouse, she is unfit to be parent, and it was a mistake for the father to have married her. If the child reports anything negative against the stepmother, typically the child’s words are believed over anything the stepmother has to stay. It is a very challenging role, with a high incidence of depression and anxiety

For those who believe stepmothers are inherently evil, imagine yourself in the following scenario: Your best friend  wants you to take care of their child for a year.

Will you take on this responsibility? Why or why not? If you answered ‘yes’ out of love for your best friend, pause and think carefully about each of the questions below:

  1. Do you expect to love the child as much as your own from the get-go, or do you expect a relationship that evolves and deepens over time…..?
  2. Given that you – instead of their parent – is parenting them for a whole year, do you expect the child to be happy about this situation that they didn’t choose?
  3. If you scold the child for a mistake and the child calls and complains to their parent, what types of reactions do you expect from the parent? If the parent were to automatically believe anything the child says, and not even hear what you have to say, what will your feelings be?
  4. What if the child rejects you because they resent the change in their life, or they miss their parent?
  5. What if the child feels (and is given the subliminal message) that that they are not required to love or respect you, while you are required to show love, affection and patience regardless, while juggling your other responsibilities such as work, home care, and family responsibilities?
  6. What if the child has grown up with fairy tales stating that surrogate caregivers are inherently evil, and is suspicious of your intentions? What if society is suspicious of your intentions and actions, simply because you have taken on the role of caregiver for the child?

Tough, isn’t it?

Adoptive parents are not branded in this manner. They are allowed to parent the child according to their values and principles, and lauded for taking on the care and responsibility of a child that sorely needed a parent and didn’t have one in their life. Adoptive parents are treated as angels, and respected as much as biological parents. Stepfathers don’t have a negative societal label – conservative societies applaud a man for stepping in to parent his spouse’s children. But stepmothers somehow are viewed with extreme suspicion and have to deal with negative labeling, simply for trying to do their best in the face of rejection from nearly everyone!

Many libraries ban books that use derogatory and discriminatory statements against a group of people or a race. Books with the n* word to depict Black Americans are banned in some libraries.

We are required to be politically correct and not brand a group of people with a broad brush on the basis of religion, race, or region. Yet, Grimms Fairy Tales continue to be popular and the myth of the Evil Stepmother is fed to people over and over again, starting from childhood. Is this fair?

(Concluded)