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

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 sit 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 choose 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 travelled 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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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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