When compliment for the bahu becomes comparison for the saas

Just recently, some of us in the family were chatting merrily after a heavy lunch on a lazy Sunday. The conversation was obviously food. My cousin Rishi had just got engaged and it was the first time for my sister-in-law Pallavi to be with our family. Coincidentally, Pallavi had prepared the paneer butter masala that day. And my cousin, to complement, to praise his fiancé, spontaneously said “Pallavi has made such yummy paneer today. Even mummy has never made such tasty paneer ever.” Both Pallavi and my aunty blushed. But the reason for both their blushing was different. While Pallavi blushed feeling good about such an extravagant praise from her fiancé, my aunt surely felt bad about Rishi’s unexpected comparison, which put her down against her bahu. All present there knew that Rishi didn’t at all meant to hurt his mother. But in his attempt to make Pallavi happy, he unknowingly hit the wrong chord with his mom.

I thought about this very common incident occurring in almost every household, where a compliment for one becomes a comparison for the other. Even with nuclear families, one cannot avoid situations when saas and bahu are pitched against each other and every genuine applause and appreciation loses its charm and becomes a new battleground to establish the authority over the man of the house.

When the couple is newly married, the mother is insecure of her position in her son’s life and wants to assert her authority. I have seen some 'vamp' mothers, who, in spite of their high achievements and solid social status, absolutely forbid their sons to praise or compliment the wife in front of them or others. If the son shows his appreciation for the wife, the typical reply is, “Now you will only like your wife, we are no one”, “Tu to ab hamein bhul hi gaya hai”, “You can’t see our hard work and efforts of so many years." And the best one - “Maine tujhe nau mahine apni kok me paala hai." Remember Lalita Pawar (the quintessential Bollywood mother-in-law). There are an equal number of supportive MILs as well who themselves praise and encourage their bahus and also don’t feel bad when their son does it. But I must say, they are really rare, because the basic insecurity factor always stays for a couple of years.

The new bride, already feeling a little disoriented with the new home, people and environment, feels she needs all the encouragement and support from her husband – the only person on whom she can depend. And when this bahu realises that the saas is acting possessive, it invariably activates her own insecurity and makes her see the mother as a threat to her own territory. So the bahu now starts commanding absolute control over everything, making changes in lifestyle, eating and sleeping habits, routine and - the most dangerous area – the kitchen. She can't take anything good coming from the saas positively. Whatever the mother makes for her son lovingly, this wife hates it and feels the mother is doing it just to influence the son. So, in spite of eating half a kilo of gajar ka halwa herself, the wife is very stingy complimenting the saas. “Ab tumhari maa aa gayi hai naa, ab mera kya kaam.” “Why don’t you ask your mother to cook every day if she is so good?” “She just wants to show off how much she loves you.” Aren’t these statements from the wife also familiar?

I feel both the mother and the wife are riding the same boat and are also right in their own ways. Somewhere deep down, both parties understand the importance of the other woman but are not ready to accept and give in. Then, it all becomes the war of ego and authority rather than love and affection. But, in the process, they don’t realise that the situation of the man of the house becomes really miserable when he is made a judge to decide who is better among two women who are equally valuable to him.

I feel all the three people involved eventually want happiness for their family. But they should also exert some discretion and sensitivity to allow the other person also to evolve and flourish.

To the saas:

Your son loves you and no other woman can take the place you hold. Having said that, please also understand that your bahu also needs to feel accepted and comfortable under your care and love. So, once in a while, if the son praises her, please do not let your head boil. The bahu will be indebted to you for her entire life for supporting and encouraging her.

 To the bahu:

The saas is the mother of your man and the matriarch of the family. Period. You cannot enter into her territory. Rather, you will do better by creating your own. So be strong and honest about your feelings towards your man. Strong communication is the foundation to a strong relationship. Once the saas realises that you and your man are a team, she will shed her insecurity a little.

To the man of the house:

I really sympathise with men facing such a situation. You have to be strong but very subtle in handling it. Moderation is the key to maintaining a balance between the two ladies. Avoiding the situation altogether can complicate the issue further. So you have to make sure that you praise both women, equally taking care that your words do not create unnecessary comparisons.