"I live in a joint family with in-laws.... but now I want to move out"

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"If ever we buy something for our two-year-old daughter, the first reply from her is that there are other kids in the household too!"

I belong to a businessman clan in India and in our culture living in big, extended families is a norm. I myself grew up in a joint family with uncles, aunts and about half a dozen of my cousins.

So when my marriage proposal came from a big business family where the entire extended family lived together, it was hardly a concern. In fact, I was quite excited to be a part of another family that looked as boisterous and loving as ours.

Also being the eldest amongst my cousins, I was quite used to play the mothering role to all the kids in the family and hoped to win over my new family with my staunch family values.

Since ours was an arranged marriage, my husband and I didn’t get much time to blossom as friends before taking the leap into matrimony. We did have a few family arranged dates but we never really let our guard down and were on exceptionally good behaviour with each other and hence we never could discuss the eccentricities of each others’ families.

After I entered my new household post marriage things seemed nice and rosy in the beginning. It was an ideal family unit – my parents-in-law, their three sons with their wives and children and their unmarried daughter -- we all lived together, had a common kitchen and truth be told there was never a dull moment in the house.

The not so loving structure...

But slowly as the newness of my marriage began fading, I started realizing how things are not as quite and calm as it appeared on the surface. My husband is a part of the joint family business and he runs a jewellery store in town along with his brothers and father.

Almost every month there is a big argument between brothers on how the other one is not doing sufficient to grow the profits. I noticed that this nervous energy is passed on to other members of the family too and the ladies of the house would either stop talking to each other for days or would taunt each other on highly personal issues.

It seemed juvenile to me that soon as my sisters-in-law noticed that the brothers are bickering over business, they would bring this negativity to the kitchen and even amongst our kids growing together.

From bad to worse...

It’s been four years that I am living in this joint family and things are only getting from bad to worse. Since I work as a teacher and my other two sisters-in-law are homemakers they are often ganging up together to pass sly comments on how it is they who toil all day to ensure the other members can come and relax. I know these warped comments are for me.

My mother-in-law doesn’t also make it easy for us. If ever we buy something for our two-year-old daughter, the first reply from her is that there are other kids in the household too. While I do agree that all children should be treated equally but I think it’s a bit much that if I buy even a toothbrush for my daughter I should be buying the same for other kids too when I know they don’t need one.

Besides, there are other practical problems too. My husband gets an equal share from the family business, but we can never ever dream of going for a dinner or a movie together.

Since there are other members in the house too it is inevitably expected that we take along everyone. Financially it’s not always possible to pay for large family dining outs on a weekly basis.

Petty Competition

Amusingly amongst the womenfolk in the house, there is always some sort of petty competition going on. If I wear a new dress, the next day the other sisters-in-law would go shopping too. If my husband buys me a piece of jewellery for a special occasion, my father-in-law points out how the business is not booming and we are busy in overspending.

Not only this, while we do have a separate room to ourselves my husbands’ younger sister just saunters in whenever she wants and treats it like her study. Sometimes she continues working till late nights leaving my husband and me with very little privacy.

I have tried telling this to my husband that a joint family system only works when everyone is mindful of each other’s space but being the eldest in the family he takes it as his responsibility to please everyone.

We have never been able to go on a quite couple dinner or a holiday because living together every time we share our plans, my father-in-law advises us to at least take the children along so that they won’t feel neglected.

Lip Service

My concern has always been that if we can’t be happy about each other’s life and achievements why to stay together and brew more negativity. It’s better to stay separately and meet often than to be throttling each other’s wishes and desires under the same roof.

I have been telling my husband to consider moving out but he’s scared about upsetting the family applecart. Also since he doesn’t have financial independence of his own there is always this fear of being cast away.

This new joint family, unlike the family I left behind has never given me one moment where I have felt that we are all together through joys and sorrows. It seems that we are always on loggerheads trying to outdo each other.

Working mother woes

As a working mother to a two-year-old daughter, I am constantly rebuked for being inattentive towards my child. If I want to take my daughter out with my husband I am made to feel that I am compensating for the guilt of not spending enough time with her.

If ever I buy anything or my husband buys anything for me we are told to share the price with all the other members. There is always a scrutiny on what we are wearing, eating and even how we are spending time with each other.

During weekends when I try to catch up on my sleep, my mother-in-law rudely knocks the door telling me how her other bahus are busy in the kitchen.

Honestly, I am now exhausted trying to please everyone and crave for a moment when I can come back from work, throw off my shoes and just relax with a cup of chai. Instead, I am expected to quickly take charge of kitchen duties to make up for the time I spent at my workplace.
If all that a joint family system does is to take a toll on you emotionally then why do we have to tow the line? Sometimes customs are more for lip service than for actual benefits. I have been trying to convince my husband but until then I will have to make peace with this big but not exactly blissful family unit.

(Disclaimer: Name of writer has been withheld to protect identity. Story as told to Zofeen Maqsood)

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zofeen