How I Came To Understand My Mother-In-Law From Hell

Ignoring Her, As Strategy

My mother-in-law (MIL) went into a depression soon after our wedding ten years ago. The trigger? Her son marrying me.

Her depression manifested in different ways.

Calling me incessantly to find out what I was going to cook for dinner. Telling my husband that she felt I hated her because I didn’t cook enough. Clinging to his arm during weekly family dinners.

She eventually got over this “bad spell” after a month.

Because of this episode, I have always drawn clear but courteous boundaries with MIL. When I did have to see her (not more than once a week, as clearly stipulated to my husband), I would ask about her health, and sometimes even bring along herbs and teas for her to partake of. I would show appreciation for the chunks of fresh fish and bags of fruit she would have bought from the market specially for my husband and my son. I would nod at her many suggestions regarding housework, raising children, and earning money, but I would rarely take any of her suggestions to heart.

This was a strategy recommended by my husband after a particular crazy family dinner where she confronted me about not ironing bed sheets. “I know she’s a bit much, we’ve all just learned to ignore her,” he told me.

Listening To Her

Lately, though, I’ve been listening to MIL a little more.

She has not been sleeping much these past few months, and she has also completely stopped doing housework. This disinterest in domestic chores is disturbing. She had worked as a hotel chambermaid for over 30 years, and always prided herself on how well she cooked and cleaned. But now, the floor is dusty, the fridge is bare, and my brother-in-law and father-in-law go around in wrinkled work shirts.

My father-in-law has taken her to see several psychiatrists, but these visits haven’t helped. She would only selectively take the medicine prescribed for insomnia, depression, and anxiety, because she doesn’t want to get addicted to any of the pills. She also wouldn’t open up to these psychiatrists as she had been briefed not to talk too much about “personal matters”.

Finding A Counsellor For Her

I secretly arrange for MIL to speak to a counsellor and assure her that everything is confidential, so she can be as open as she wants to be. She agrees, but only if I come along as well.

Counsellor: Is there anything you want to tell me?

MIL: What do you want me to say?

Counsellor: What is your greatest fear?

MIL. Being alone at home. I am always alone at home.

Counsellor: Do you have suicidal tendencies?

MIL: No. I have kept the knives away.

My husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law are heartbroken to see her like this. But they have no idea what it means to take care of her. They’re so used to tuning her out. Sometimes, when she is crying, they check their phones.

Everything on the Daughter-in-Law

I tell a close friend about what’s happening. She lives with her husband’s parents and has had her fair share of issues with in-laws.

“Try not to get too involved,” she advised, “if something goes wrong, Chinese families will always pin everything on the daughter-in-law.”

The phrase “pin everything” jumps out at me. It makes me realise how the responsibility of caring for my MIL has landed on me by default, even though it’s the company of her husband and sons she longs for. At the same time, I feel compelled to help because I, too, am terrified of being this miserable and lonely one day.

This is a new fear. I’ve always enjoyed solitude, but seeing my MIL like this, I wonder if years of unsaid disappointments and unmet expectations will eventually pile up to a mind-bending overflow of bitterness and emptiness in the near future.

“All my worries sit on me, and then I can’t breathe,” she laments.

How much of this is real? How much of this is attention-seeking? Whatever the motivation, she is suffering. As I try to teach her the little I know about meditation, she cannot stop wringing her wrinkled hands that are hot to touch even as the rest of her body shivers in fatigue.

Then, The Father-in-Law

“She just needs to stop being so negative,” my father-in-law says in front of her, as if she is not in the room.

I want to scream at him. I want to shake him like a bottle of stuck ketchup.

Instead, I arrange for another secret session with the counsellor and bring groceries over to her place.

(Written by Amelia Tan. Amelia is an educator from Singapore.) 

Amelia Tan is a pen name. The author of this personal story has requested to share it anonymously.

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