I had started dating Simon when we were in college. One year after we started seeing each other, I met his mum, now my mother-in-law. She was warm and gracious towards me. Seven years later, we were still getting along fine, and I congratulated myself on having maintained the perfect relationship.
As it turned out, I congratulated myself too soon.
One morning, Simon announced that a consulting firm in London had offered him a job. That would mean that both of us had to fly 6000 miles across the globe to live in a strange place with strangers. It was going to be both adventurous and challenging.
There was only one problem. I was seven months pregnant with our son. It was then decided that Simon was to fly over to London first. Baby and I would join him later. The day Simon left for London, I moved in with my in-laws, and life took on a new pattern.
I live in a Chinese community. My mother-in-law is an old-fashioned woman who had been a housewife all her life. She held on to traditional beliefs that I could not comprehend. She made house rules that seemed neither necessary nor reasonable to me.
“You may wash your clothes in the bathroom while you bathe in the evening. Soak the clothes in this pail. I will bring them out to line-dry in the morning,” she said.
I stared at her almost unbelievingly. She’s not suggesting I hand-wash all my clothes, is she? Is the washing machine spoilt? Aloud I said, “Okay. But I normally use the washing machine at home.”
“Well, Kim hand-washes all her clothes,” she replied.
Kim is married to Simon’s elder brother, Raymond, and has two lovely boys aged 1 and 4. Over the months to come, I was to hear the same unbearably annoying comments over and over again. Kim did this. Kim did that. Kim would not wash the milk bottles with detergent. Kim would give boiled water in a small bottle rather than a large one. Kim didn’t believe in diaper rash cream or diaper liner. Kim would not use baby powder. To my mother-in-law, Kim was the perfect daughter-in-law. Kim had lived with her since she and Raymond first got married, and had obediently followed all her house rules. If she had been unwilling, she showed no sign of it.
“After you’ve washed your panties, just hang it here in the toilet to dry”, she added, gesturing towards her female-only toilet in the house.
Superstitiously, she believed that a woman’s underwear is something filthy and shameful and that it shouldn’t be washed and dried together with the other clothes, otherwise bad luck will befall the men of the house.
“And you don’t wash your panties in the washing machine. Only lazy people do that,” she added.
My impulse had been to retort that there is a difference between hard work and redundancy. Instead I reasoned that not everyone thought the same way.
My mother-in-law was overly helpful after I gave birth to baby boy, Dominic. One would say that she was the perfect grandmother. After all she took extraordinary good care of her two other grandsons. She fed them, bathed them and catered to their every need like a servant waiting on his prince. She would feed four-year-old Joe lunch and dinner while he lied crossed-legged in front of the television. She would do everything in her power to protect her grandchildren from any harm, no matter how minor it may be. She would do her best to ensure that Dominic was not too cold or too hot, and she would do that to an extreme.
One sunny afternoon, I was on my way out for a lunch appointment with Dominic in my arms. My car was parked less than a meter from the house. My mother-in-law suggested that I drove the car right up to the car porch so that Dominic would not have to be exposed to the hot sun. Although she did not insist and I did not comply, she would make the same suggestion each time we went out, or she would suggest that we carry an umbrella.
The weather in Malaysia was extremely hot most of the year. It would be 33oC outdoors and approximately 26oC indoors if air-conditioned. Being a Cheimaphobia herself, she would suggest that I clothe Dominic several more layers than necessary when we were in an air-conditioned room. Again, she was only suggesting, but yet she persistently made the same suggestion that drove me up the wall. She had never fancied the idea of me driving the baby out alone anyway. She did not trust the car seat. Several times when she traveled with us, she stated that she would prefer carrying the baby in her arms. However, I had never acceded to her suggestion and soon she ceased broaching the subject.
My mother-in-law was over the sun and moon with the arrival of Dominic, generous to a fault and intrusively full of parenting advice that felt more like criticisms. Although she was trying to help, she drove me mad by being too involved. She would annoyingly comment on almost everything I did. When Dominic had soiled his diaper, she would stop what she was doing and enter the room to inspect the way I’d clean Dominic and she would say, “I see. This is how you do it. Kim used to Ã¢Â?Â¦” While preparing lunch, she would abandon the kitchen and watch me bathe Dominic and she would begin to predict all the possible accidents that might occur.
Beware of the door. You might hit his head against it.
Hold him tightly and don’t let him slip.
Is the water warm enough? Come, let me feel it.
You’re using baby bath foam? Kim never did that Ã¢Â?Â¦
It was an insult. Those were words you said to someone who didn’t have any common sense. Besides, she had said them too many times they ceased to appear well-meaning. I was tempted to reply with sarcasm: Oh, yes, I think I might even drown him in the two centimeters of water. Would you like to bathe him instead? Maybe you would want to take over as his mum. I don’t think I’m capable to be one at all.
But I said none of those things, for in truth I was afraid that an accident may really happen no matter how careful I was and she would say I told you so.
My mother-in-law prided herself for putting utmost importance in cleanliness and hygiene. She would mop the floor three times a day. In truth, the house was a giant of a mess, apart from the unoccupied floor space that she still managed to clean. There were junk piled up at almost every corner of the house. There were flies, cockroaches and ants everywhere. Once, in the middle of the night, I saw a cockroach in the toilet, buried within my mother-in-law’s underwear, savoring her sweet femininity. I was sure she had not yet seen that herself.
She would bathe her two precious grandsons three times a day and would suggest that I do the same to Dominic. I agreed that the weather was warm and humid and it would be nice to bathe more often. I also agreed that it would be nice to stay in the bath and not get out at all.
As the weeks went by, the constant nagging had made life an agony. The good news was that it had gradually become less frequent having being too often dismissed by me. Almost every waking hour in the next three months was motivated by the fact that I would soon be in London with Simon, 6000 miles away from the nagging woman.
As fate would have it, my parents-in-law decided to come with me to London to have a 3-week vacation. It was just as well, otherwise I would not have been able to check in the 80kg luggage that I had with me.
Life entered a new phase after we had settled down in the nice little house that Simon had found for us. From now on, this would be my home and I would be the lady of the house. In the weeks that followed, my mother-in-law continued to be less than easy. She insisted on having Chinese meals three times a day everyday. She refused to put her underwear in the dryer nor hang it out in the back yard to dry. She also refused to use the disposable panties that I gave her. And as usual, she would pester us to dress the baby up heavily even though it was only 12-17 0C.
But I was bothered by none of those. I was so thankful to be in the arms of the husband whom I loved so much, in one of the most exciting cities in the world, starting out on a new life, it was as though the agony and pain for the past three months were washed away in a cleansing flood of joy. No, I was too happy to be bothered by her. Besides, this was my home now and I was the one who made the rules. Yes, everything considered, life was satisfactory.
It was a cool, windy afternoon when Simon and I finally sent his parents off to the Heathrow airport. As we said our final farewell, Simon’s eyes were flooded with tears. It filled me with a sense of guilt. At that instance, I felt a pang of compassion for my parents-in-law. Yes, including my mother-in-law. How can I be so eager to part with them? Have I forgotten all the help that they had so generously extended to me? It was the feeling of relief and regret blended into one.
Simon, Dominic and I walked in silence as we headed back to the underground station where the train would take us back home.