[Two Pronged] Overstaying Mom
Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.
Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.
Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer:
My name is Ben, 35 years old and my wife and I are both doctors. We have three children. I would like your advice.
We currently live in the US. My mother, who is also a doctor (retired), came over from the Philippines for a vacation, and also to help us care for our children. She was supposed to stay with us for 5 months.
As soon as my mother arrived, she helped with caring for the children, cleaning our home, cooking our meals, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, etc. In other words, she helped with everything my wife would have had to do on her own otherwise.
My wife and mother do not speak to each other so much. During our daughter’s birthday, my wife was cooking pancit for the guests. In an effort to help, my mother got a chopping board and started chopping some carrots. My wife suddenly got angry and had this sour face the rest of the evening. I know that carrots are part of any pansit we Filipinos cook, so I was wondering why my wife got angry. My wife’s behavior also surprised my mother and they had words.
Since that time, they've hardly spoken to one another. But the way they behave towards each other has gotten worse. My wife always criticizes my mother. For example, she says my mother’s cooking is not delicious and lacks salt. My wife also says my mother is incompetent in ‘washing the dishes because she doesn’t dry them properly.' That my mother leaves the clothes in the dryer too long so they come out wrinkled, etc.
I feel I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.
I do not want to fight with my wife, but I also feel bad for my mother. All she wants to do is help.
Thank you for your email.
Your account vividly illustrates some of the trials and tribulations that arise from the juxtaposition of an American setting and Filipino mores. Moving to a foreign country is problematic in and of itself, requiring significant adjustment by all parties. Leaving the Philippines – with its drivers, yayas, and other house help – for a life in the US and altering one’s daily routine to accommodate all these domestic tasks which were previously the province of others is no easy transition. Options abound, of course. One spouse can give up work, babysitters can be employed, cleaners can be hired but the lure of full time help from a trusted family member at no cost is naturally hard to resist.
However, I really wonder how the conversation went when you suggested to your wife that her mother-in-law should come to visit for 5 months “to lend a hand” – but perhaps I am being unfair and it was your wife who suggested it. What a pity that you have chosen not to tell us. Whatever your story, I cannot help but wonder just how many readers would welcome a 5 month visit from their mother-in-law, under any circumstances (certainly I would not have, not my mother-in-law and not even my own mother).
So what are we to make of your situation? Certain things that you say give some insight. For example, when you write about how your mother helped, you say “In other words, she helped with everything my wife would have had to do on her own otherwise.” Apparently there is no chance that you would have even considered making the slightest contribution to domestic life American style, which may of course have influenced your wife to accept her mother-in-law’s visit in the first place, particularly if she had been bearing this burden alone for some considerable time.
Now you have two people in your household dedicated to doing all the things that you are unwilling to do, giving you even more reason not to assist. This is ideal for you, but not necessarily for your mother or your wife, each of whom is presumably used to running a household their own way. Other people’s interference, well-meaning or otherwise, can be tolerated for short periods but 5 months would test the patience of a saint, so it is scarcely surprising that matters deteriorated and your wife and mother are at loggerheads.
Your comment “Don’t you feel my wife lacks respect for my mother?” really sums up your view of the situation. You just want two people dedicated to your own well-being and you feel aggrieved that you are caught between your wife and your mother. You apparently don’t feel in any way responsible for bringing this situation about in the first place.
As to a solution, that depends on how strongly you feel about Genesis 2:24. As an atheist I do not ordinarily consider that great work of fiction, the Bible, as my code of conduct but I must admit that this particular quote resonates: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” Some men have problems cutting their parental ties while others do not. You need to decide whether you have severed the umbilical cord or not and act accordingly.
All the best,
Thank you very much for your letter. First, I agree with everything that Mr Baer says, especially his observation that you have remained Filipino in expecting all your needs to be answered when you now live in the US where such expectations are unreasonable.
In addition, I am glad that Mr Baer’s final paragraph includes Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” That is the same phrase I will start my answer to you with because I cannot help hypothesizing that not leaving your mother and your not cleaving to your wife is the crux of the matter.
Just take a look at your following statements: “she helped with everything my wife would have had to do on her own otherwise.” AND “I was wondering why my wife got angry. My wife’s behavior also surprised my mother and they had words.” AND “Don’t you feel my wife lacks respect for my mother?” AND “I do not want to fight with my wife, but I also feel bad for my mother. All she wants to do is help.”
All these statements make it clear that you are more on your mother’s side than on your wife’s. Of course, the super idealistic might say: “well, why must a man choose sides?” and in an idealistic word, that question is spot on. However, very few immigrants and, indeed, very few “anyones,” live in such a world. It implies a world where both your mother and your wife are secure enough not to feel a need to compete for your love. But neither would feel a need to do that that if you made very clear that you love your mother and you love your wife for different reasons.
In an ideal world, you love your mother because she has been selfless and responsive to your needs while you were growing up. Once you became an adult, you helped her realize you were mature enough so she could let go, no longer make you a priority and find that devoting half a year to help you adjust is a ludicrous expectation on your part and an absurdity for her to let you get away with it.
In an ideal world, your wife would get help from you, so career and housework would be do-able because both of you were pulling your own weight and both of you were supportive of each other’s fatigue and occasional pessimism that “this would never work” because both of you would have been there, done that, and experienced the joy of having come through, and mastering, it.
In an ideal world, your mother and your wife would each feel that you appreciated each for who she was. But that is not what is happening in your case, is it? That is because, not only have you not cleaved to your wife, but you have not really left your mother as the sole source of comfort and reason.
No wonder your wife constantly criticizes your mother (actually, it is you who encouraged this competition between them). Your wife is merely protecting her territory, which, ideally, she would not have needed to do were you more objective, rather than clearly on your mother’s side.
You want your situation to change, then change your behavior. Admittedly, your changing is not necessarily a guarantee that both the women in your life will change accordingly, but your NOT changing is a sure fire way you will always be in the untenable position you are in now.
Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.