I went along with Karin visiting the other day. While she checked the father’s blood pressure, I talked to the women-folk of the house while keeping Elias out of mischief. The big home housed both the aging parents, their son, his wife and their kids. The parents had arranged the marriage, and they hoped that their daughter-in-law would be like their own daughter and would care for them in their old age. But their daughter-in-law was very unfriendly and distant from them. She used a spare corner of the house to cook for herself, kept her own refrigerator, used a separate entrance to the house, and didn’t help around the house as much as they wanted her to. In a way I don’t really blame her!! Her mother-in-law has a reputation of being very cranky and stubborn. And surely, it’s freeing to be your own person, not just your mother-in-law’s slave.
The family was amazed that Jacob and I live with Paul and Karin. They were amazed that we shared the cooking. When they heard that, all of a sudden we were “in” or normal — as I would say 85% of young married couples live with their in-laws sometime during their marriage. Because of TV, Bengalis have a skewed view of Western families – they think that all of us are divorced and individualistic and living alone and putting all the old people in homes. So it comes as a surprise when they see our family!!
But then the mother asked me, “What do you call her?” pointing to Karin. Maybe I should have lied. Sometimes that’s the easiest thing to do!! But I said that I call Karin by name and Paul by name as well. They were HORRIFIED. They asked again and again. Karin piped up that she does not feel disrespected at all, that it’s our culture . .and I said that I have a mom already but they were not satisfied. The scolding continued for a good long time and I am afraid that I went a long way down in their estimation. It’s understandable, Bengali people always call their in-laws Mom and Dad from day one. Everyone does it. Even those families that fight!
Afterwards, I was thinking about our conversation. I mean, I live with my in-laws, I respect them, I listen to them, what will calling them Mom and Dad do?! But here’s the difference between our views. Bengali girls stay with their real parents only till marriage. Then their marriages are arranged by the parents. When a girl moves to her in-laws’, her day-to-day work is with her mother-in-law: the cleaning, cooking, everything is done together. And the father-in-law’s word is law. She has joined their family for life, and her husband is just one member of the family. And especially if her husband is older and busy outside the home, life is miserable unless the mother-in-law is satisfied.
But with us, I chose to marry Jacob. We have both, in a sense, left our old families and started a new family. But I continue to be a Tobin at heart, I bring my Tobin-ness to the marriage, and he his Thomas-ness. As for in-laws, they are a blessing in our lives. But we are free-choosing adults now.
Even though family titles aren’t changing, the culture here is. Many sons are moving to the city for jobs and leaving the parental homestead behind. Many girls are educated , earning an income that gives them greater say in the family. Many couples are marrying for love, either with or without their parent’s approval –which completely changes family dynamics. But there is a long way to go till Bangladesh is like the West. Hopefully that time will never come, though maybe we can learn from eachother? But I think I’ll continue to say that I have only one mother.