Monster-in-law jokes can be hard to laugh at

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The Independent Online

The pompous and snide email Caroline Bourne sent to her stepson's bride-to-be has made the nation laugh out loud. Young Heidi Withers was accused of bad manners, of being attention-seeking and grasping, of having no class and most cruelly castigated for specifying her dietary needs – although she is a diabetic. Bourne sounded like a cross between Penelope Keith in The Good Life and Joan Crawford at her most vicious, and of course triggered off thousands more mother-in-law jokes.

I have two of my own, one Asian, one very English. And now I am also a mother-in-law myself. So I have some experience of this, one of the most delicate and potentially corrosive of relationships, the struggle between a mother and a daughter-in-law over the man they both love and feel they must own.

My ex-husband's mother has been in my life since I was a flighty 17-year-old besotted with her handsome boy – though less besotted than she was with him and her other four sons. If they wanted her to cook them samosas in the middle of the night she would be delighted to oblige; she took care of their clothes, their every whim and those of the women married to her sons too.

We grew close, though I spent too many years trying, unsuccessfully, to be like her, a domestic angel who nurtured the family without expecting gratitude. Heavens, I used to think, what devotion, what amazing selflessness. Not any more. In my thirties I realised that such maternal indulgence – common among Asians – made spoilt men who could not really respect the needs and rights of women. I still phone her and love her, but would never want to be like her.

Some of my friends had a much harder time. The mothers of their husbands used guile to make them feel undeserving interlopers. When Nasim, a childhood mate, married Ali, she knew his mum was upset because Ali was her only child and had peachy skin. Nasim's was chocolate-brown, as near as you can get to the colour of sin. After the wedding the young couple lived with his parents in their big house. Nasim's husband was violently ill every time she cooked him a meal. Years later they found out that his mother had been adding laxative powder to her food.

I have written in my memoir about the twin babies poisoned with mercury by their paternal grandmother, a witch who couldn't bear the growing love between her son and his wife. And, Gita, a Hindu acquaintance, tried to burn herself to death because she could not stand the scorn piled on her by her mother-in-law. These things still happen, in Britain. Too many young wives are dominated by the matriarchs who run their domestic kingdoms more ruthlessly than any Arab tyrant. All of which means that many of us Asians don't find it easy to laugh at mother-in-law jokes.

Acquiring a lower-middle-class English mother-in-law from Shoreham-by-Sea has brought its own challenges. I had to learn about different cultural expectations. She, for her part, has had to accept this stormy, mouthy woman. Hers was the harder task. When her blue-eyed son phoned to tell her about us she didn't know how to respond. I was in the middle of a disagreeable divorce, the mother of a young boy, a Shia Muslim and a troubleshooting, uncompromising journalist. Vera, bless her, listened, paused for a long time and then spoke: "Oh dear! I've never met anyone who is divorced. Hope I don't say the wrong thing." That's how English she is.

My own daughter-in-law and I try hard with our relationship because it really matters. Petty jealousies and possessiveness can be laid aside. It is always worth it. You don't lose a son but gain a daughter. Mrs Bourne cannot see that. It is her loss. Or perhaps she has learnt a thing or two after all the derision that has come her way and will be on her best behaviour at the wedding. Send us a photograph if you're there. Big smile now, Carolyn. We are all watching.

Names have been changed