How to (Involuntarily) Break Up with Your In-Laws

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A lone tree stands at the Experimental Farm, Ottawa, July 2016

A lone tree stands at the Experimental Farm, Ottawa, July 2016

If I had to lay on a shrink’s couch, I wouldn’t start with family issues. I’m one of the lucky few who escaped childhood unscathed. I have a good relationship with my parents, siblings and closest relatives. There was (is!) a lot of love and they raised us well.

Then I met Feng and I acquired in-laws. “In-laws”—such a strange word that stresses on the fact you didn’t chose them, that legal links were created because of a marriage.

Feng’s parents live close to Ottawa and I met them in 2002, when I first came over for a few weeks after our long Latin American trip. As far as I know, there was no dramatic moment where they begged Feng to reconsider and exchange that tall awkward Western woman for a proper Chinese lady. My in-laws, who immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s, are smart, very educated and fairly modern. Feng spent his teenage years immersed in Canadian culture so I’m sure they realized that he wasn’t necessarily going to build a traditional Chinese family. Maybe they hadn’t planned for a French girlfriend, but here I was.

At first, they treated me like a guest, friendly but distant, feeding me food and asking polite questions about France. Over the years, I spent a lot of time with them. They used to come over on weekends and Feng was generally working so I stayed home and watched his mum cook, made conversation in Mandarin and listened to anecdotes about life in China or Feng when he was younger. I liked these moments. It felt homey. I was still in my early twenties, it was somewhat comforting to have parental figures around.

What I didn’t like so much were the arguments between Feng and his parents. As I became less of a guest and more a family member, I learned the dirty secret of Asian parenting: no matter what you do, it’s never good enough. Don’t praise, criticize.

So Feng’s parents criticized us. A lot. We weren’t eating healthy foods, Feng should get a proper office job, I shouldn’t go out at night, we weren’t dressed for the weather, we were sleeping too late, we shouldn’t shop here but there, etc. They were constantly on our backs.

I wanted to please. I wanted my in-laws to like me. Besides, they are Feng’s only family and the only familiar faces I knew in Canada. It made sense to get on well, to stick together like grains of rice. But it wasn’t always easy. I’ve seen bowls of noodles sent flying across the kitchen and I’ve heard endless arguments in Mandarin over this or that. Nobody ever won.

Then, one day, we told them I was pregnant. There I was, carrying their chance to become grand-parents. We had held off the news until the sixth month because Feng had warned me: a pregnant woman is an easy target for thoughtful Chinese parenting. “They’re gonna make you eat fish eyeballs!”

When Mark was born, I felt I had scored 100% on the daughter-in-law exam. It was a boy! Born a day after Feng’s birthday, in the super-mega lucky year of the dragon! Healthy! Hair included! Big eyes!

Feng’s parents were in China when Mark showed up, so they met him a few weeks later. It was strange. I couldn’t wait to show them the produce of Feng and I fooling around, but they refused to go upstairs and see Mark because he was sleeping. “Another time!” they said. Then they berated me because I shouldn’t wash or go out for a month, as tradition goes.

Over the first few months, they didn’t help out much with Mark. They came over once in a while bringing food we didn’t need but I found them relatively distant. It didn’t help that Mark was screaming non-stop when they were holding him. My mother-in-law carried him around the house chanting “bù kū” (“don’t cry”) over and over again. I actually nicknamed them the “bù kū” for a couple of years—“Are the bù kū coming over today?”

It soon became clear that we weren’t on the same page at all. As Feng and I were deciphering Mark’s instruction manual, we passed along tips. “I don’t think he his hungry,” I’d say. “I think he is just too hot.” “Nonsense,” they’d reply making him a bottle and adding another layer of clothing to the three he was already wearing.

Our first big argument was over food. At one point, I began giving Mark rice cereals mixed with formula because the doctor had said it was a good introduction to solid food. But I quickly realized clear Mark hated it and he wasn’t digesting it well. No big deal, I switched to something else. When Feng’s parents came over one weekend, they brought boxes of cereals. I told them about my experience. My father in law still insisted on feeding Mark who, as usual, didn’t digest it well. I shrugged. “I told you.”

The next time, I caught them trying to feed Mark cereals again behind my back. I got angry. “I told you he doesn’t like it!” But they didn’t care about what I said. It was irrelevant. They had decided to feed Mark cereals and that was it.

And this is when I started to get really annoyed. As parents, Feng and I should be the supreme authority. We can take advice and suggestions but ultimately, WE decide. And they didn’t care. Feng was caught in the crossfire, having to pick a side on matters he didn’t exactly master in the first place and worse, Feng and I didn’t always agree either. It was a clusterfuck of hurt feelings and lack of common sense, exacerbated by tiredness.

We were arguing more and more and they were criticizing me more and more over just about everything. I wasn’t feeding him enough, he was cold, I shouldn’t take him out, etc. I was feeling like a compete failure as a mother in the first place—they were really shooting an ambulance. It was infuriating and depressing. I felt powerless with no one to turn to, nobody on my side.

Then, in 2014, we all traveled to China. All the ingredients for a good Chinese soap opera were here: Feng and I were both tired and stressed out, Mark wasn’t even two yet and we followed his dad in the South, then his mum in the North, to meet relatives Feng hadn’t seen in over 15 years. We argued a lot. Feng’s family found me rude because I didn’t stick to Chinese customs. My side of the story is that I found it hard to balance between caring for Mark and meeting expectations that were a bit fuzzy. One night, my father-in-law accused me of starving Mark on purpose, claiming that when we came back from France in the summer, they had weighed him and he was lighter. I couldn’t believe it. Weighing Mark? Me, starving him? What the fuck, people?

Then, a couple of months later, the day Mark started daycare, I had a big argument with Feng’s mother. I remember how it started—she was annoyed Mark wouldn’t eat and I told her to take it easy on him. What I can’t remember is how it went down to telling me I was crazy and that I should just leave.

I’ve had arguments with my family before. Usually, once everyone cools off a bit, we either make amends, apologize, find a solution or agree to disagree. But I don’t know how to declare a truce with my in-laws who refuse to change and won’t listen to me, to us. So I avoid them.

I haven’t seen them in about six months now. Feng takes Mark over on the weekends and they still do the opposite of what we tell them to do, of what I believe in. They let Mark nap late so he doesn’t sleep at night, they buy him pretty much anything he throws a tantrum for, they let him watch movies that aren’t appropriate for him, they insist on layering two pairs of pants for fear he gets sick, they feed him too much, hand over candies and sweets… the list is long. These are anecdotal but to me, it all boils down to this: they don’t respect me as a mother.

I miss them, in a weird kind of way. I wish they would see that I love Mark, that I’m overall a good person and that I think I know what I’m doing.

I don’t know if our relationship will ever get better.

I’m an optimist. I hope one day it will. Feng is their only child, he won’t take a side. And I want Mark to have a relationship with them.

This is just my side of the story, maybe their version would be different and I’m sure I completely screwed up over stuff as well. I’m not asking for sympathy or anything like that, I’m just sharing a story—family matters are complicated.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

22 Comments

  1. do you feel relief after writing this passage? it is a bit too personal for me. May be because I’m south east asian — live in Java Island where people don’t talk this “open”.
    I mean, I don’t think I’d read any of this matter in an Indonesian blog. But yes, I believe my friends have this and that arguments with their parent/in law especially after they have kids. Older people seem to know what best for their children (and grand children) because “hey…I raised you well after decades, this thing should work on our grand children too!”
    it’s kind of out of topic.
    Here is a picture. During Eid Mubarak Holiday, we, Indonesian, have this tradition of visiting relatives. Means, we will see our uncles, aunties, in short…distant relatives who we haven;t see for quite sometimes!
    When these old people (the aunties, the uncles) find the nephew/niece hasn’t married, they will ask question “why still single? you’re too busy chasing your career”. If you only have 1 child they will ask “go have another baby. Your child will be lonely when they grow up” bla bla bla…
    BELIEVE ME, these kind of questions WERE BEING ASKED REGULARLY! At Any given family!

    Btw, I hope your relationship gets better soon. For Indonesian (or probably most of South east asia countries) you marry a person, you’re marry to the WHOLE FAMILY! it will be awkward if you don’t get along.

    • Generally speaking, writing helps me step back and take a new look at a situation. It is a personal matter and I didn’t want anyone reading to take side nor offer sympathy or anything. I think I mostly wanted to say that sometimes, things don’t work out as planned, that family ties can be complicated, especially when you add a cultural aspect to it.

  2. I can relate to some extent. I was in a situation similar to yours (my wife playing your role). When it got to a point it was no longer tolerable, I made the easy choice: my wife, my kids, MY family. I closed the door on that toxic relationship about five years ago and I never looked back. I keep it civil; still talk to my mother and everything (whenever I see her, which doesn’t happen more than once every year or two), but it’s all casual conversations, nothing too deep. That door is closed for good.

    • Wow, you were strong. Did she notice the change, that door closing? How did your wife react all these years?

      Sorry for the follow-up questions, I’m genuinely curious!

      • Hi, Zhu!!! She definitely noticed the change, there is no way she did not. My wife is a better person than I am. She was on the receiving end of a lot of rudeness and undeserved mistreatment and took it like the great wife and mother she is. She was actually the one who made sure that my kids stayed in contact with their grandmother, calling her so they would talk, etc, until the kids themselves realized that she wasn’t that interested and slowly gave up as well.

        I can see now that my mother is starting to realize the consequences of the way she has been (either that or she is trying to pretend that nothing happened since it’s been a few years) and has called a couple times and asked how we are doing, etc. While I would say her interest looks genuine… I also know it’s too late for me. Sad.

        • I’m really to hear that it’s too late for you. I understand, of course. There is stuff you just can’t erase easily :-/

          Your wife is an amazing person. I admire her for raising a big and fun family (you get credit too!) and I always find it touching the way you talk about her. You can feel the love 😉

  3. You’re not asking for sympathy but here I am having some…
    Tu as été très forte et surtout très patiente vis à vis de tout ce qu’ils t’ont envoyé, directement ou indirectement, dans la tête. C’est une prouesse, à ce niveau là. Je me demandais si tes beaux-parents n’étaient d’ailleurs pas étrangers aux périodes difficiles que tu as pu traverser… Des fois, y’a pas d’autre chose à faire que de distendre le lien. Je pense aussi qu’ils ne te respectent pas en tant que mère… C’est tellement dur de s’éloigner de sa famille, de “rompre” avec notre famille ! Mais si les choses sont telles qu’elles sont aujourd’hui c’est sûrement qu’il n’y a pas d’autre choix. Ne te ronge pas trop les sangs : tu verras pour la suite !

    • Tu me donnes double dose de sympathie aujourd’hui 😉

      Pour être honnête, je dois dire que non, je n’allais pas bien déjà pendant la grossesse, sur ce coup-là ils n’y sont pour rien. Je ne peux pas expliquer pourquoi j’étais déprimée, je pense qu’il y a une part “biologique” (les hormones??) et une part contextuelle (l’année a été dure avec des gros coups durs pas facile à gérer qui n’avaient rien à voir avec Mark). Par contre, après quelques mois… oui, ils ont tiré sur une ambulance, c’est clair. Je crois qu’ils ne se sont pas du tout rendu compte que j’allais mal. C’est probablement culturel aussi, les Chinois ne “psychotent” pas comme on peut le faire dans les sociétés occidentales.

      Le manque de respect de mon rôle, c’est le plus dur. J’ai pas dit le quart des trucs et je ne les dirai pas, ça n’a pas sa place ici. Je ne voulais pas régler des comptes, juste témoigner que des fois, ben la famille, c’est une dynamique méga compliquée!

  4. Your post didn’t show up in my feed, weird :/
    I think you know my family is…. complicated. And the Scotsman only met my dad, stepmom and half sister / brother a couple of yrs ago after I basically forced them to come see us in Scotland haha he hasn’t met my mum (probably for the best) or my two brothers (makes me sad). I mean, when I went to France when we first met he had to buy me a flight ticket to get me back to Scotland bcse I was too upset. He struggles to understand sometimes why I still want to be close to them. So I guess I’m the one with the crazy family haha
    And it’s hard when there is a cross-cultural dimension as well. You’d think Scottish and French people wouldn’t be that different but we are, and it has caused some misunderstanding on our end too. So I can’t imagine with a Chinese family.
    I’m sorry you had to go through all that stress, it must have been so hard since you were also adjusting to being a new parent and sleep deprived! hopefully, you will be able to find more common ground with them in time.
    I laughed though because my MIL thinks my SIL (her son’s wife) feeds her grand-daughter too much crap and lets her watch too much TV so she’s feeding her healthy food and not spoiling her like a granny should haha
    Anyway, sorry I didn’t mean to highjack your post with my family story, just wanted to let you know I totally understand! Families are so complicated, and if you add different languages and cultures to the mix it makes it even harder sigh
    Funny story: when I met my in-laws, I was left alone with Dad and the buttons from my shirt popped opened revealing my boobs! I was so embarrassed haha turns out he is going blind and didn’t see a thing but I didn’t know and felt so awkward haah

    • No hijacking at all, I appreciate you sharing your experience and I was inviting people to do so, which is why I explained I wasn’t looking for sympathy!

      You made a very good point, cross-cultural relationships add another layer to family dynamics. Sure, it’s very rewarding to blend cultures and all, but it’s also FUCKING hard! Let’s be honest here! 😆 Just within a couple it can be tricky at times, when you add the family, it’s much harder.

      How is your mum feeling (if you ever care about her feelings, I have no idea how the current relationship is!) about not knowing him?

      • Looks like your post stroke a cord with a lot of people 🙂 I guess family dynamics is something we all have to contend with!
        I really want to write something about being a multicultural couple, but I’m still mulling on what / how to share about it.
        My mother seems to have made herself a mental image of what he is like and seems to be happy with that. She is cut off from the world and other people so that’s what she’s done for everyone I know and everywhere I have lived.
        I’m not sure how happy she is doing this, but I haven’t heard her complain about it.
        The surprising thing is, she was actually happy for me and didn’t question my choice after the first few months. I think she sensed how happy and “epanouie” I have become.

        • I wasn’t expecting so much advice and insight and I’m really glad that I share a somewhat private story. Seriously, I gained a new perspective! It’s awesome.

          I would definitely be interested in reading about your multicultural relationship. This is a fascinating topic to me… from an external perspective, it looks so easy and fun, but like everything in life, it’s truly a work of compromise 🙂

  5. My mother used to live with my brother and his family, but she didn’t get along with my sister in law so she was forced to move out. She was very upset about it and told me that she won’t forgive my SIL because now she will die in her daughter’s house instead of her only son’s. There were many silly reasons why they didn’t like each other, one of them was because she always have a gloomy face when my SIL comes back from work.

    Just to tell you that problems with in laws are very common issues in Asian culture. Especially when it involves kids, we have different ways of bringing up my kids with both side of my parents / in laws. When I brought my kids home for CNY, my mother told me how she would do this or that when she brought up her kids. My in laws also complained to my husband how they felt weird that our kids were sleeping in our room, they ate all the times… but overall, I’m very lucky to have very understanding in laws, who always say that we are the one deciding when it comes to our kids. When my daughter wants to eat chocolate and she asks her grandma, her grandma would say, ask your mother, she is the one deciding. However, even with that, we have other issues that we disagree and sometimes my husband was caught in the middle. My husband clearly told me : when he senses there will be a conflict between me and his mother, he would choose to please his mother first because it is easier to handle things with me. I don’t know how I should take this, but since my MIL is a very nice person, I would simply keep quiet on certain things.

    My opinion : if you wish things to get better, it would be nice for you to go see them from time to time. This shows that you want to amend the relationship. It will be hard for them to take initiative, if they are like my mother, as it means losing face.

    • Thank you SO much for your precious insight, especially since you understand both culture, French and Asian! You know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe I should go see them and make the first move again. See, for me, losing face doesn’t matter. I understand the concept, of course, but I don’t mind losing face, do you know what I mean?

      How do you feel when your parents criticize the way you raise your kids? Are you expecting to be criticized? How do you react when your MIL says something? She sounds like a nice woman, though. But I’ve just read your food struggle, so of course, French are demanding on other aspects of life, like food. Ugh. So much stress.

      • Yes, losing face is not a big problem for you. I think they want to feel being respected. You can probably buy a gift for their birthday and show up with your husband and Mark from time to time.

        When my mother criticizes me (never my father he is a cool guy, he doesn’t care about these things), it is just so natural that I would just smile and continue to do what I believe in. Actually, I do not feel like being criticized, it is more sharing, giving opinions. as for my MIL, she doesn’t say much, it is more my FIL, and he usually says it to my husband, not me.

        • This is the tricky part when dealing with different cultures, expectations are different and even if you understand them from an intellectual perspective, it’s not natural for me to… act Chinese, I guess!

          That said, I’m taking your precious advice 🙂 It really helps to get a different perspective, thank you so much!

  6. I am Asian who grew up in Southeast Asia, so I completely understand your predicament. My mother is completely overbearing with her adult, married and financially independent daughters on every single matter, not limited to how to raise kids. My dad, fortunately, is easy going and respected our decisions in life. The relationship between an Asian mother and daughters is completely different vs. daughter-in-law. Reason is daughters can argue with their mom and refuse to abide by what she instructs, and life goes on… until the next argument (like Feng’s relationship with his mom). With DIL, you get in trouble even if you don’t argue with your MIL. My SIL treats my mom with respect and is very hospitable every time my mom visits. Unlike with daughters, my mom cannot openly criticizes or reprimands my SIL, however she sure did a lot of that behind her back. For me, she nitpicks over everything and it is obvious that her expectation on DIL is much higher vs. her daughters. She refuses to go stay with my bro and SIL because she doesn’t like the way my SIL runs her household and doesn’t feel comfortable with her. So she stays with her daughters but she laments everyday that she is only a “long-term guest” (because she has the traditional mindset of daughter vs. son). For me, it is all self-inflicted. I bet you your MIL and FIL did a lot of complaining about you behind your back, then they start assuming things. I laughed so hard at the part about them showing no interest in their first grandson when he was born. My guess is they were “pretending” for the stupid intention of showing you that your position was not elevated by producing a male heir, or that since you wanted to run your household your way, now try raising a new born without their help. They expected you to crawl back to them begging for help/guidance. I don’t mean to stir things up but I have heard so much of these types of conversation growing up in Asia (among my mom and aunts). I studied abroad in UK, live in US and married to a British guy, so I am lucky that I don’t have to deal with these “challenges” with in laws, and my mom 🙂 I am impressed that in spite of it all, you want your son to have a relationship with them, and hope that you can have one with them one day. That is very admirable, considering how they have treated you in the past. All I can say is there is not very much that you can do to change them (the older they get, the more stubborn and sensitive they will get). Crossing cultural barrier is already tough, and this is generational barrier as well. Love your blog BTW, been following it for a few years now. Keep writing!

    • This is awesome, thank you so much for sharing your insight. They are incredibly precious because you understand both culture, Asian and Western, and you can put it into perspective. I’m actually understanding more how it works now… I mean, I should know, I’ve been immersed in Chinese culture for a long time but still, their attitude with Mark (and I as a mother) baffled me. I get it now.

      As a Westerner, I don’t care at all about losing face. However, it does hurt a lot when they talk behind my back (and I know they do). As you know, Westerners generally solve problem face-to-face, even if it means arguing. But talking behind someone’s back is considered dishonest, and this is when I felt betrayed. Meanwhile, they probably really hate the way I argue back… oh boy :-/

      They are older people now, in the seventies. I doubt they will change…

    • … Ça dépend. Ça a changé, aussi. Des fois il est d’accord avec ses parents parce que leur façon de faire lui semble logique, forcément, il a grandi avec! Des fois, il est d’accord avec moi. Et des fois, il n’est d’accord avec personne. D’une manière générale, je préfère qu’il ne soit pas pris à parti, car c’est impossible de renier ses parents. Il est fils unique, et le poids de la culture chinoise pèse lourd là-dedans aussi.

  7. Family mattees are always complicated ! I am lucky that my in-laws are relaxed but we have our days. I hear more criticism from my mother and sister which sucks because I miss them and I want to tall to them.everyday but I am always scared to hear criticism about my parenting skills. It seems like you can never win as a mom. Oh well…
    But you are doing a great job 🙂

    • Aaww, thank you!

      Would you say your family is more likely to pick on you than your in-laws? Maybe because they feel you are raising him in a different culture…?

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