Living with the In-Laws: Recipe for Disaster?

I’m no economist, but it seems to me that it’s more difficult than ever to make a start in life away from the parental home. Studies have shown that Gen Y kids are putting off moving out until later in life than their Gen X predecessors due to financial pressures. (Plus, let’s face it, who would actually volunteer to do their own washing?) For Muslims, this discussion takes on a whole other dimension.

For starters, us Muslims generally don’t move out of home before we get married unless it’s seen as absolutely necessary, such as getting into medicine in a different city. (‘Medicine’ is a magic word for Muslim parents, much like ‘open sesame’.) For the overwhelming majority of us who stay at home, life at twenty eight can potentially be exactly the same as it was at eighteen.  Twenty-somethings often still have curfews and thirty-somethings may still meet potential partners in their lounge room like they did a decade before. But there’s more. In many cultures it is the norm for the daughter-in-law to move in with her new family and stay put for an extended period of time, if not for life. This is a cultural norm not exclusive to Muslims, but when these cultures intersect with Islam it makes for some interesting conundrums.

For example, a woman who wears the hijab is not permitted to remove it in front of her brother-in-law. If your husband has a brother who lives at home, this means either staying in your room a lot or walking around wearing hijab and long sleeves and all the rest of it. The issue is not that the hijab is particularly uncomfortable in the physical sense of the word. If it was, we’d hardly be able to cope on a day-to-day basis. It’s more that hijab is the ‘face’ a Muslim woman presents to the public; it encompasses a modest demeanour as well as modest dress. If a Muslim woman cannot remove her public face in her own home, where then can she occupy an uninhibited space?

There are other more trivial but still noteworthy issues associated with living with in-laws. One raised by friends who have lived with their in-laws is the somewhat delicate issue of ghusl, the ritual purification required after sexual intercourse. If you’re having a shower at 4am, it’s not that difficult to conclude that something has been going on. Nothing wrong with it of course, but do you really want your in-laws to know about it? How comfortable can you really be with conducting your intimate married life inside someone else’s home?

These are just a couple of the issues I’ve discussed with people, not to mention the more general issues of interference from in-laws and lack of privacy. For these reasons, I have many friends who will simply not even consider living with their in-laws, even when they get along very well. They would rather live in a boxy apartment than in relative comfort with their in-laws because they anticipate that nothing good can come out of it. They also feel that marriage signals the start of a new independent, adult life, and that remaining in the family home is the exact opposite of this. After all, the process of settling into married life can be fraught with difficulty on its own, let alone with the addition of long-established family dynamics and tensions.

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I’ve fluctuated between hating the idea of living with the in-laws and being indifferent to it. As someone who enjoys a healthy dose of the 2 P’s, privacy and personal space, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But I’m also aware of the financial advantages of blended family life, as well as the potential emotional rewards such as familial closeness and support. I try not to buy into the horror stories about X’s evil mother-in-law and Y’s and overbearing father-in-law. But I must concede that it’s something that I find difficult to view as anything more than a stopgap, a platform to bigger and better things to come. I worry about the little things, like not enjoying my mother-in-law’s cooking and having to make polite conversation when all I want to do is collapse on the couch with my husband after a long day’s slog at work.

I don’t deny that living with the in-laws can work, particularly when it’s only a temporary arrangement. After all, doing so is the norm in many parts of the world, so it can’t be all bad. I’m more interested in the process of negotiation that takes place to facilitate it and how people conduct it while maintaining open and cordial relations. This process of negotiation can be especially interesting when the parties are of different ethnic backgrounds, which is becoming more and more common in the Muslim community and beyond. If there are expectations of a daughter-in-law specific to a particular culture, what happens when that daughter-in-law happens to be from a different culture altogether? Who draws the lines, and where?

Over to you guys. Would you ever live with your in-laws? Why/why not?

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2 responses to “Living with the In-Laws: Recipe for Disaster?

  1. Salaam! I just came across your blog today and how interesting as I wrote a similar piece (well more centred around Pakistani in-laws). I was quite open when I spoke to any potential partners that I would not live within an extended family. It’s my personal choice though and I have seen situations where it does work. I just don’t understand the concept. Why move from one family home to another? Marriage should signal the start of a new adult life with your partner. It shouldn’t be for the daughter in law to move into her in laws home so she can see how they do things and adapt to it. We should understand differences exist within people and be open to adjusting to each other.

    • Wasalam! I have to check it out. I understand your point of view, and honestly, it’s my preference too. But sometimes circumstances require a bit of compromise and this may be something the couple agree to compromise on. It’s something to be discussed and negotiated.

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