With my in-laws back living with me alhamdulillah, it took me to thinking about living harmoniously and issues of control, privacy and co-operation.
I enjoy my in-laws extended visits, especially the long meals, the long walks and the long talks. This means that at the moment our home is busy but pleasant. It hasn’t always been this way though and it has taken a bit of work and growing up for everyone to get to this point.
The first time my mother-in-law came to stay there were tears, arguments and sulks on both sides, with my poor husband trying to mediate as best he could. We are both fairly strong-willed and used to getting our way. We both had to learn that sometimes it is better to step back and let small things go.
The second time my mother-in-law came to stay, she had already been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and we were not sure how much time she had with us as she had been told her illness was untreatable. I wanted to keep her happy and as well as possible given the situation. She wanted me to be happy and at ease with her. The small things seemed so irrelevant, we had reached a point where we were both willing to capitulate to the others way of doing things.
So I suppose for my mother-in-law, the art of living together involved not “sweating the small stuff” as it were, letting go. If she wanted more chilli in the curry, fine. I didn’t want to hoover that minute, fine.
Of course, it’s not always small stuff. During a stay with her in Pakistan, she wanted me to take my hijab off for a wedding, I was mortified. I had to ask for assistance from hubby, who waited until my mother-in-law was within ear-shot and commanded sternly “just because you are going to a wedding, don’t think you can take your hijab off”. I was killing myself with laughter. That’s not to judge her harshly, because a year later when she came to stay with me, she left wearing hijab and abaya maashaa'Allah.
There was also the matter of control, at first I felt I could not cook what I want, leave the house in a mess if I wanted to or spend my money how I wanted to. This was not because of anything she said but because of my assumptions and because she would not sit still. She has worked hard and been careful with her money her entire life and sickness has not changed that habit. If the cooking or cleaning or laundry was not done she would rush to do it her way. So I learned to get it done myself at the first opportunity or delegate to my husband or brother-in-laws with the maxim that “your mum is ill, she needs rest, so get this done before she does” – I can’t believe this worked.
I also had to deal with my assumptions that she thought me lazy, spendthrift, or wasteful. She has never actually said any of these things so I need to give her the benefit of the doubt. I had to remember that I’m an adult and I can spend my time and money in the way that I choose. If anyone says anything about this, then I can take their comments on board and thank them for their concern but then totally ignore it if I choose to.
Living with my father-in-law was a whole different kettle of fish. I think he is wonderful, he is the doting parent that any girl would wish for and we have in common a liking for the things that bore the entire rest of the family: history, museums, academia (we both loved Stonehenge, whilst the everyone else could not see the interest in a bunch of old rocks). So you can imagine we have a mutual fan club there.
We weren’t without our teething problems though. Dad-in-law wasn’t aware of when he could be critical. So his comments about my cooking, how well my sister-in-law dressed and how beautiful she was knocked my confidence quite a bit. This was not intentional and if he had known he would have been mortified. I had to learn though to accept how I am and to accept my cooking as it was. I had to remind myself that I don’t have to impress anyone but Allah (SWT) and that I didn’t need anyone’s approval. I still don’t have much confidence in the kitchen, but I’m not too fussed anymore about what people think about me.
Regarding privacy, during the in-laws first visit, I was breast-feeding Gorgeous, so I had to make it very, very clear that when my bedroom door is closed, no-one comes in. That has held so that when I need quiet- or alone- time I can just go in my room and shut the door.
My brothers-in-law are my age and younger and are non-Mahram for me, although I think highly of all of them and we have a relationship of mutual respect, I still dress Islamically when they are around and cover myself, including at home. This can feel bothersome at times, especially as I want to look nice for my husband, but I am now used to it and to be honest this is not a problem when we only have the older brother-in-law with us because he is rarely home.
Uqba bin Amir reported Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) as saying: "Beware of getting, into the houses and meeting women (in seclusion)." A person from the Ansaar said: "Allah’s Messenger, what about husband’s brother?", whereupon he said: "The husband’s brother is death." (Muslim 8:26:5400)
Although there is no obligation in Islam on a woman to care for her in-laws, there is an obligation to care for her parents. If we viewed our in-laws in the same way as our parents, with the same empathy and concern, we would be willing to change our behaviour a little and guide them gently to adjust theirs. Also, they ARE my husband’s parents and because of this, I want to help him serve them and make his way to his reward, inshaa'Allah.
Finally, we will all one day be old if death does not reach us first. The way the elderly are treated today is sad and frightening. What is to say things will be any different for us – alone, uncared for and robbed blind? I believe that we are paid back for what we do (Allah SWT is truly Just) and if we care for our elders perhaps someone will care for us. I also know that children learn from what we do and not what we say. If we make caring for our elders, even difficult ones, the norm in our homes, they might just extend the same treatment to us as the perfectly natural way to behave.
“And your Lord has commanded that you shall not serve (any) but Him, and that you shall show goodness to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them (so much as) “Ugh” nor chide them, and speak to them a generous word.” (Quran 17:23)
Narrated 'Abdullah: I asked the Prophet (PBUH) "Which deed is the dearest to Allah?" He replied, "To offer the prayers at their early stated fixed times." I asked, "What is the next (in goodness)?" He replied, "To be good and dutiful to your parents" I again asked, "What is the next (in goodness)?" He replied, 'To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah's cause."
"I asked only that much and if I had asked more, the Prophet would have told me more." (Bukhari 1:10:505)
This weekend my mum-in-law is flying back to Pakistan after staying with us for the last five months. She is here for about six months every year and her coming and going usually means lots of change in our home and family routine.
I have written before about how I initially struggled to get on with her, but how eventually we found the middle ground and learned to live together without upsetting each other – letting small things go and learning to accept our differences. Two years on, I view her parting with mixed feelings.
Living with your in-laws can be challenging, even after so many years, I occasionally still find myself a little resentful or fed up. One of the difficulties I faced was my mother-in-law’s poor health. This made her much less mobile and consequently all of us less mobile as we didn’t like to leave her at home on her own for too long.
I also struggled with her anxiety and depression in the beginning. I found myself coming home from a long day at work to spend time trying to reassure her and cheer her up. Over time, alhamdulillah I have noticed her depression lifting and this being less of a problem, but in the beginning I found it wore me down each day.
Probably the hardest I found was not being able to say no to her. So if she wanted to go somewhere, or come early from somewhere it had to happen that way. If she wanted certain things to be cooked or household chores to be done, I felt that they had to be done, even if I thought my time would be better spent in a different way. In this way she is very similar to my mum and as with my mum I couldn’t say no. I think the way I have been raised embeds obedience very deeply and to refuse to do what a mother or mother-in-law asks feels equivalent to being a bad daughter or daughter-in-law. As always, as I write this, I am finding a lot of this is in my head and I let my over-thinking hobble me like nothing else can.
On the other hand, when she has been well, she has helped with the school run and the housework. She watched the kids whilst hubby dropped me to work in the morning. She minded the children when I needed to pop across the road to get a carton of milk, saving me the frustration of spending 20 minutes getting three children ready to go across the road to pick up one thing.
She was also a second feminine influence in the home, contrasting to hubby’s obsession with building work and vehicles and the two boys’ rowdiness (and obsession with construction blocks and toy cars). She and Little Lady are fast friends, with Little Lady sneaking out of bed to get into her grandmothers bed.
Most importantly though, I believe it is extremely beneficial to have an elder in the home for so many reasons. They are in a position to pass on their life lessons so that we don’t make the same mistakes they have – in both the small matters and the big ones. They give us a powerful sense of our own mortality. Having my grandmother live with me for two years meant that I learnt to value and treasure each day of health and mobility – you may hate housework, but there might be a day when you wish you were well enough to do these things for yourself.
The blessing that elders bring to our homes are also invaluable: spending time engaged in dhikr (remembrance of Allah SWT), getting up for tahajjud (the night prayer). Spending time making dua for each and every one of their family members – what is there that comes close to a mothers supplications for her children?
Some of these things I will feel the loss of in our home, I am a little worried bout how I am going to manage, now that I have gotten so used to her being here. Mum-in-law is likely to be back in a few months inshaa’Allah (in time for a family wedding inshaa’Allah). In the meantime, I plan to let the laundry pile up, and the dishes, guilt-free...