In China or in France, in-laws are hard to get along with

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Louise Ho

Con­flicts be­tween mother-sand daugh­ters-in-law in China have been a con­stant source of drama in Chi­nese fam­i­lies dat­ing back thou­sands of years. In to­day’s Chi­nese soap op­eras, the drama con­tin­ues to be a source of en­ter­tain­ment for view­ers who can re­late.

Prior to mar­ry­ing my French hus­band and mov­ing to France with him, I al­ways as­sumed that in-law re­la­tions would be sim­pler there. But to my sur­prise, it is just as dif­fi­cult. There are even French jokes about how peo­ple have a headache be­cause they spent the whole day with their mothers-in-law.

The mother of my hus­band’s best friend is very mean to her daugh­terin-law. This mother is a typ­i­cal old-school in-law – Catholic and con­ser­va­tive. She’s cold to­ward her daugh­ter-in-law and al­ways gives her or­ders. They also clash on how to raise her grand­child. Any sug­ges­tions made by her daugh­ter-in-law are im­me­di­ately dis­missed by the mother-in-law.

Shang­hai mothers-in-law have a sim­i­lar no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing mean, ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and bossy to­ward their son’s wife. Hav­ing a good job, a car and an apart­ment are also min­i­mum re­quire­ments for Shang­hai mothers for their fu­ture son-in-law.

I know a Shang­hai mother-in­law who, after vis­it­ing her son and daugh­ter-in-law, posted pho­tos of their messy apart­ment on her WeChat for her friends to see. This was an in­di­rect way of say­ing her daugh­ter-in-law was not ful­fill­ing her house­keep­ing du­ties.

As in China, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mothers- and daugh­tersin-law is a sen­si­tive sub­ject in French so­ci­ety. Some­times a French hus­band will de­fend his mother by ex­plain­ing to his wife that she means well.

But the big dif­fer­ence be­tween Chi­nese and French fam­i­lies is that in-laws in France sel­dom live with their adult chil­dren. French daugh­ters-in-law are for­tu­nate to be able to es­cape con­stant crit­i­cism by their hus­band’s mother un­like in China, where ev­ery­one lives un­der one roof.

My French hus­band and I live in down­town Paris, but his par­ents live out in the sub­urbs, which is over an hour away. Liv­ing apart gives us much-needed space and pri­vacy, which is quite im­por­tant for both sides in French cul­ture.

In China, cou­ples who live with their par­ents or in-laws of­ten suf­fer from stress and ten­sion aris­ing from con­flict­ing val­ues and habits. I have heard many hor­ror sto­ries from Chi­nese friends and col­leagues about how dif­fi­cult it is to han­dle their mothers-in-law, who ei­ther live with them or who fre­quently visit.

One col­league who had a new baby told me that her mother-in-law had picked some old baby clothes from out of the trash bin at home and in­sisted that her grand­child wear them in or­der to save money.

But many cou­ples in Shang­hai will­ingly sac­ri­fice their free­dom for peace of mind. One friend who lives with her hus­band and their 3-yearold son ro­tate their spare room ev­ery two weeks with her par­ents and his par­ents. Luck­ily, both side’s par­ents hap­pily help with the cook­ing, clean­ing and child-rear­ing, which al­lows the cou­ple to re­lax at the end of their work day.

Hav­ing a help­ful moth­erin-law around can in­deed make life much eas­ier. I’m per­son­ally blessed that my French mother-in­law is sweet and easy­go­ing. She is eth­ni­cally Ger­man but has been liv­ing in France for over 50 years. She also speaks flu­ent English thanks to her au pair ex­pe­ri­ence in the UK when she was a young woman. This en­ables us to com­mu­ni­cate well, as my knowl­edge of French is still ba­sic.

More im­por­tantly, she never im­poses any de­ci­sions on me. She likes to visit us once a week to babysit, which gives me much-needed per­sonal time to go out shop­ping, see an ex­hi­bi­tion or what­ever I want. But this de­pends on if I want her to come in the first place. “After all, you are the mother,” she said to me. And that there is the big dif­fer­ence be­tween our cul­tures; were she Chi­nese, she’d be glued to us day and night! The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the au­thor’s own and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views of the Global Times.

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