Imagine growing up in affluent Dubai, in a nuclear family set-up. The next obvious step is the US for university and later getting married to the person of your choice. Soon, you are living in Chicago, working as an architect, and getting paid a six-figure salary at the age of twenty-seven. This is the life of dreams, is it not? That was in 2002.
Now, imagine. The death of your father-in-law prompts your husband to move to Pakistan in order to take care of his mother. You now live in a joint family system, which includes his brother’s family. You become a stay-at-home mom! Yikes! I have now lived as part of a close joint family for the past eleven years, Alhumdulillah. Here is my secret to success.
(1) Allah (swt) has not just created us; He has shaped us in the best of forms. (At-Taghabun, 64:3) This implies that we are the epitome of creation and hence, we should love ourselves. When we love ourselves and are comfortable with who we are, we hope to be a source of joy, comfort and friendship to others. Do not be tempted to develop an inferiority or superiority complex. Pride truly does come before a fall.
(2) There is a reason that Allah (swt) has mentioned several degrees of relationships: there are your blood ties; then there are those with whom you share a relationship due to marriage; there are colleagues, and finally, those with whom you share the bond of Deen. We must learn to distinguish our obligations towards each of these groups. It is a fact that if your mother tells you something, you do not feel she is interfering, but if your mother-in-law tells you the same thing, there are fireworks! The reason for this is your attitude: you have to learn to distinguish. Be responsible.
(3) Expect only from Allah (swt); give to everyone else. When you do something, train yourself to consider for whom you are doing it: yourself, to please others or for Allah (swt). When your intention is grounded in reality, your actions will reflect it, and you will not foster false expectations from Allah’s (swt) creations.
(4) Learn to say ‘no’. This might sound harsh, and I learnt it the hard way. However, if you only do things to be liked by people, then in the end, you will become resentful. The ‘self-pity’ syndrome, so common and easy to succumb to, will take over and you will make yourself and everyone around you miserable.
(5) Learn about your obligations and rights as a wife, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, etc. Then, forget the rights; erase them! Focus on your obligations alone. Are you fulfilling them?
(6) Giving gifts is the best therapy. It makes you and the receiver of the gift feel good. The Messenger of Allah (sa) said: “Exchange gifts; you would thereby remove hatred towards one another; never belittle any gift you give your neighbour, even if it is (something as minor as) the hoof of a sheep.” (Tirmidhi) All the women in our family exchanged special Ramadan gifts, just among ourselves; they were not very expensive but made us feel loved.
(7) The most important thing is to follow the Prophet’s (sa) Sunnah. Show mercy and remain silent. If you remain silent in a name-calling duel, then it is not a duel, and the other person will eventually calm down. This does not mean that you should never say anything; instead, pick and choose your battles. Every situation or petty issue does not need to be turned into a battle. Remember Allah’s (swt) words: “The good deed and the evil deed cannot be equal. Repel (the evil) with one which is better (i.e. Allah ordered the faithful believers to be patient at the time of anger, and to excuse those who treat them badly), then verily! he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend.” (Fussilat 41:34)
(8) If your marriage is healthy and symbiotic, so will your relationship with your in-laws. Love your spouse. Take care to please him or her. Dress the way your spouse would like to see you dressed. The little things matter. Learn to cook the way he likes his food (which means nine out of ten times cooking like your mother-in-law – use this time to bond with her). Thank him or her constantly for supporting you.
(9) Of all the emotions and characteristics, we learn that the most important is mercy. Every time we start something, we appeal to Allah’s (swt) mercy (Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem). So, if you feel you are being taken advantage of, be merciful. If you have been wronged, be merciful. It feels great to forgive. Try it.
(10) Humour is truly the best medicine, and I want to share a personal incident:
Weddings in my husband’s family, like in any other family, are special occasions for the entire extended family to get together for celebrating a new union, and everything is just perfect. Wrong! It is mayhem! Chaos! I can safely call it utter and total pandemonium.
It had been only two years since we had moved to be with my mother-in-law, and there was now going to be a grand wedding in the family, the first in almost fifteen years. I was so thrilled, even though it was my husband’s cousin’s wedding. We were the hosts (read – I would be doing all the cooking, laundry, cleaning and entertaining for all the out-of-state guests who would stay with us – only for two whole entire weeks – piece of cake! After all, I had survived Architecture School.)
So everything was decided; I had to make breakfast for about twenty people for the next two weeks. Lunch and dinner would thankfully be cooked by a cook we hired; however, I was in charge of serving all three meals (dishing them out, laying the table, cleaning up, etc.) plus tea and snacks three times a day.
Me: “Good morning; we have omelette and toast with butter, jam, honey and tea or juice.”
Guest #1: “Oh! You mean I cannot order what I want; I wanted to eat Parathas with curry and fresh Lassi. When I was at so-and-so’s house during a wedding last month, they had such an excellent system. You could get what you wanted.”
Mother-in-law, arriving just in time to save the day: “Not a problem; it will only take a second; you make yourself comfortable.”
Turning to me, she indicates that I should get a move on and fill the order pronto. Being the kind, intuitive soul she is, she realizes that I am not up to the task and ‘helps’ me out. She takes the orders while I cook. We were open for breakfast from six in the morning till noon. Everything had to be served with piping hot freshly brewed tea or Lassi. Then, noon was when the six in the morning breakfast crowd wanted lunch.
Lunch ran till four in the afternoon, when it was time for tea with snacks. Snacks consisted of various fried homemade items. Dinner then started at six in the evening and lasted till eleven at night, after which the kitchen was open for another round of tea and snacks.
The next day, I was called in for a ‘conference’. The participants were: mother-in-law, the bride’s mother, the groom’s mother, husband and brother-in-law. The bride’s mother and the groom’s mother both happened to be my mother-in-law’s sisters! You can imagine how that conversation went.
The next morning at breakfast, I have a menu in English (which always impresses people, who cannot read or speak it well). Mother-in-law walks in suspiciously and everyone tells her what a wonderful idea this is. It is just the height of hospitality; they have never seen such a thing. The menu in fancy English font makes them choose from two choices for breakfast: omelette or boiled egg and tea; for lunch they get meat with veggies or lentil; for dinner, they get lunch leftovers, served with salad and dessert. Times are also limited to two-hour windows for each service. However, they can get tea and snacks anytime. That they like and those I order from the bakery with my husband and his nephews as my cohorts. Chalk one up for the younger generation!