Wives and mothers-in-law break tradition of discord

By Pham Nga   February 28, 2023 | 08:06 pm PT
Wives and mothers-in-law break tradition of discord
Wives are getting along with their mothers-in-law better than ever as both parties sacrifice to understand each other and shake off historical antipathy.

During the pandemic, 35-year-old Ho Chi Minh City resident Kim Long returned to her mother's hometown in Long An. A few days later, Long's mother-in-law Kim Huong visited with a dozen bags of "che" (sweet soup) Long’s favorite dessert.

Word spread quickly around the neighborhood that Huong cares for Long even "more than her own daughter." Neighbors and relatives told Long that she was lucky to be Huong's daughter-in-law.

It all started several years ago, when Huong was seriously ill. During a meal, Kim Long saw that her mother-in-law chewed for a long time. Long came closer and found out that her mother-in-law only ate tendons and reserved soft meat for Long and her husband even though she was sick.

Long cried and since then has made an effort to shop for better food for her mother-in-law.

Kim Long (R) and her mother-in-law in 2019. Photo courtesy of Long

Kim Long (R) and her mother-in-law in 2019. Photo courtesy of Long

In the central province of Thanh Hoa, Nguyen Ngoc, 30, is also very well taken care of by her mother-in-law. The day she gave birth, her mother-in-law did all the laundry. Now that Ngoc works far away, her mother-in-law buys and sends her home-cooked meals.

"There’ s no shortage of food in cities, but getting carefully-prepared food from my mother-in-law – from chicken to onion and lemongrass – makes me feel really cared for," says Ngoc, who’s been married for 5 years.

During this past Tet, the Lunar New Year holidays which fell from Jan. 20-26, Tuong Van’s mother-in-law bought lip tattoos for both of them. The story surprised a lot of people on social media, but it felt normal in Van's family. Van has lived with her mother-in-law for 7 years, and her mother-in-law is like her close friend.

"My mother-in-law knows that I’m quite clumsy with housework so she sometimes helps me iron clothes and put my children to sleep so I can have more time for myself and my husband," says Van.

Psychologist Dr. Nguyen Thi Minh, a lecturer at the HCMC National Academy of Public Administration, says that nowadays the dynamics between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law have changed in a positive direction.

Daughters-in-law receiving affection from their mothers-in-law, like Kim Long, Ngoc and Tuong Van, are an increasingly common phenomenon.

Traditionally, so the stereotype goes, Vietnamese mother in laws have had contentious relationships with their daughters in law at best. And at worst: abusive.

But research by author Le Ngoc Lan from the Institute for Family and Gender Studies in 2021 took data from 202 mothers-in-law and 400 daughters-in-law to reveal that only 9.5% of mothers-in-law said they were not compatible with their daughters-in-law, a substantial decrease of 30% compared to a similar study in 2013.

According to Dr. Minh, most daughters-in-law are now active contributors to family incomes, so they gain more significant respect from their mothers-in-law.

Research by the Institute for Family and Gender Studies (IFGS) also shows that most daughters-in-law are economically better off than their mothers-in-law.

Mothers-in-law rated their daughter-in-law's contribution to family funds as 38%, and themselves as 22%. While according to the daughters-in-law, they contribute 45%, and the mothers-in-law only 19%.

Minh says that most families now live together as nuclear units rather than extended ones, so daughters-in-law rarely have to live in the same space with mothers-in-law, which helps avoid unnecessary conflicts. Women are now more educated and tactful and in balancing their family relationships.

Sharing the same view, writer Hoang Anh Tu, the administrator of a forum with more than 100,000 members that discuss family issues, says that the relationship between daughters and mothers-in-laws is improving, especially in cities, where women have more rights and freedom.

But such changes don’t always come naturally and often require effort from both sides.

Reciprocal sacrifices

Tuong Van said that in the beginning of her marriage she couldn’t avoid disagreements with her mother-in-law. The two didn’t share the same views on how to teach their children and grandchildren. Tuong Van’s mother-in-law wanted to please the granddaughter, while Van wanted to be stricter. So, they sometimes argued with each other.

Tuong Van and her mother-in-law in 2022. Photo courtesy of Van

Tuong Van and her mother-in-law in 2022. Photo courtesy of Van

But when she realized how uncomfortable this conflict made her husband, Van says she decided she needed to change to improve her family’s dynamics.

She says that she understands that because her mother-in-law got divorced, her son is her only close family member. So now Van tries hard not to make her mother-in-law feel left out.

Though her mother-in-law sometimes says things that upset Tuong Van, she still wants to focus on the good side of her mother-in-law, since no human is perfect.

Tuong Van says she can solve conflicts with her mother-in-law and live more in harmony because she tries hard to understand the needs and interests of her mother-in-law.

"It’s much easier to connect with another person if we understand them well," she says.

Ngoc says that her two families come from the same region and are thus culturally similar. However, each family has their own lifestyle and routine.

She says: "I’m lucky to have a considerate mother-in-law. My mother-in-law thinks that she should love her son and daughter-in-law equally."

Kim Long says that her secret is genuine care for her mother-in-law.

"I truly care about my mother-in-law and I don’t do it just to gain affection. To me, love should be genuine and natural," she says.

Before Kim Long married her husband, Huong was diagnosed with cancer. She had VND200 million (US$8,483) in savings but refused to use it for treatment because she wanted her son to have it for his future.

Kim Long convinced her mother-in-law to have a life-saving operation. She even took many days off work to care for her mother-in-law in the hospital.

"We can’t avoid certain conflicts while living together," says Huong. "However, I know that my daughter-in-law cares about me, so I care about her too, and ignore minor conflicts."

Nguyen Thi Minh says that family dynamics are like the dynamics of an organization, and the new daughter-in-law is like a new employee. The mother-in-law is like a manager, and to manage well she needs to be gentle, but firm - like Ngoc’s mother-in-law.

"Let’s take time to help the daughter-in-law understand the culture of the family," Minh says. "As seniors, people should set good examples, help guide and support the daughter-in-law, help understand her and give her time to integrate."

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