The Essential Tool for Navigating Family Dynamics.

The Essential Tool for Navigating Family Dynamics.

The age old battle between mother in laws and daughter in laws is a classic. Eastern and Western movies and TV shows alike feature this trope often, an endless battle between a man’s two most important women – his mother and his wife.

Some cultures place varying degrees of importance on this relationship. South Asian cultures for example place high importance on the relationship between wives and in-laws. It is expected that the wife cares for her in-laws potentially even more than she does her own parents.

In South Asian families, the concept of enmeshment is normalized. Enmeshment is when there are not a lot of boundaries, where emotions are intertwined with each other, and where there is an over dependence on one another. In this relationship, this looks like a cycle where a wife who does not receive the love and emotional fulfillment from her husband, displaces those expectations on to her son, and when the son grows up the cycle continues. Sons are taught to give importance to their moms but husbands are not taught to give importance to their wives and so on.

Breaking that cycle of course is not easy because it includes generations of trauma and false narratives of respect and misunderstanding the roles of different relationships and lots of guilt. There is a misunderstanding around the family structure and the importance of marriage. However there is no changing the past, maybe not even the present, but what you can do is empathize.

Empathy is a powerful tool that can change your world. Your world, the world that is seen through your eyes, can have a powerful impact on your thoughts and feelings. Your world can be a very different experience than the world of people around you. Two people can see the same thing but interpret it differently because of the way they’ve been brought up, the experiences and traumas they have been through and the values they’ve learned. Practicing empathy not only helps you live and deal with the people around you, but also helps you create harmony and love with them too.

When you incorporate empathy into your lives amazing things happen. Here is a very simple yet relevant story from my own life:

As a new mom I went to visit my in-laws, just me and my 18 month old for ten days without my husband. It is already a hard experience being away from your husband, dealing with jet lag and a nursing baby, and then my mother in law brings up the subject of why I was not giving my child a bottle. Now I tried giving my daughter a bottle but since I was exclusively nursing and we had decided that we would nurse her until she was 2, she never really took on the bottle. So I explained it to her that way and I said, besides she’s almost 2 now and doctors don’t recommend bottles anymore because it causes issues with tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies, and so on. At this point, the conversation escalated, and my mother-in-law brought up how bottles were given to children until they were four or five years old in her time, I brought up how there is more research now and then we left it at a disagreement. This experience could have changed my relationship in two ways.

  1. I could have gotten angry that she is trying to parent my child, or doesn’t trust my parenting and she is trying to tell me what to do, causing me to further be angry and leave a rift in our relationship.
  2. OR
  3. I could apply empathy. When I apply empathy I can understand that motherhood is a touchy subject. Mothers are already put under so much pressure from everything around them and mothers also know that they do the best they can for their children based on the knowledge and instinct that they have. So when I told my mother-in-law that bottles aren’t good for babies, she was essentially hearing me say she messed up with her own kids without me explicitly saying it, same as I was hearing her say, I don’t know how to parent my child. Now her comments don’t feel as heavy, because I know they aren’t coming from the same worldview as me. They are coming from a different worldview and so now I can place a boundary in my mind to not take comments personally and let things go. She comes from a different time, a different perspective – when I take a step back, I can understand: this is not about me.

But AYA, you might be thinking, I try to be empathetic but I have to deal with it ALL THE TIME!! So for that I would say… you still have to be empathetic. The unfortunate or fortunate reality is that we can only control ourselves. We cannot control others. Period. So that means even if your mother in law does not change no matter how kind and gracious and empathetic you are, there is very little you can do about it.

You can be mean and rude but that would only affect you, and your akhira. Doesn’t she deserve it though? You’re thinking. Maybe, maybe not, but as the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa) we cannot turn a blind eye to the stories of their grace. To constantly be surrounded by a majority of hateful, envious individuals, to be physically and verbally assaulted, to have just a handful of supporters some of them having to hide their support, and yet the Ahl al-Bayt are still the best of characters, and the best of leaders, even to those who we think may not deserve it.

Out of the many stories, I am reminded of the story of Imām ʿAlī’s (ʿa) martyrdom. To be struck and in pain, many people are given slack for the things they say in these moments. Let it be, he is in pain, one might say but even at that moment, Imām ʿAlī’s grace shows when he asks the ropes to be loosened around his killer’s arms, when he so graciously asks, “was I bad Imām to you?” allowing space for realization, when he offers his killer water and food. This is a brief story that shows the character of Imām ʿAlī and represents all of the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa). Your character cannot change from person to person, it is something that stays consistent with you and grows through the challenges–and it will be challenged. As Allah (swt) tells us “Do the people suppose that they will be let off because they say, ‘We have faith,’ and they will not be tested?” (Sūrah al-ʿAnkabūt 29:2)

Empathy is one way to keep yourself in check, connect with and remember Allah (swt) and control the only thing you can control–yourself.

Indeed Allah, the Exalted, has made this world for that which comes after it, and in it He tests its inhabitants so that He may know who from among them is best in conduct. We have not been created for this world and we have not been commanded to strive for it, rather we have only been placed in it in order to be tested and [so] that we may work in it for what is [to come] after it.

Imam Ali (Ghurar Al-Hikam Hadith #3219)