Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A most delicate relationship

I realised my mother-in-law's indulgence of her sons – common among Asians – made spoilt men who could not really respect the needs and rights of women

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The pompous and snide email Carolyn 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 as Margo in The Good Life and Joan Crawford at her most vicious, and of course triggered off thousands more mother-in-law jokes: "What's the difference between a vulture and a mother-in-law?" "A vulture waits until you are dead before it rips your heart out"; "How many mothers-in-law does it take to ruin a marriage?" "One."

The men in the email drama have vanished, as they often do in these tricky situations, gone to the pub maybe, or fishing, till it's over, and the wildcats calm down again. It will be some wedding. They should sell a few tickets to nosy punters or at least put the wedding video on YouTube. Or turn it into a reality show: Mother-in-Law From Hell!

I have two of my own, one Asian, one very English. And now I am also one myself, a mother-in-law to darling Liz who hails from Cheshire. My beloved mother blighted her own life mourning the "loss" of her only son after he married a woman with whom she never got on. 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 dangerously 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 very close, though I spent too many years trying, unsuccessfully of course, to be like her, a domestic angel who cooked and 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 and tricks 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. In another part of town, 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 regularly 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.

I have white British friends too who loathe their mothers-in-law and are hated back resolutely, often because of small incidents that soured the possibilities between them early on. Lisa, a teacher, fell out with Alice, her mother-in-law on her wedding day. Alice, a feisty Liverpudlian, didn't like the "poncy" food served up at the wedding breakfast. Something that trivial kept them fighting bitterly for years. Then Lisa became ill and needed help with the children and only Alice offered to come and live with them. She was great and all was forgiven, but what a lot of time was squandered.

Acquiring my own English mother-in-law brought its own interesting challenges. I had to learn about different cultural expectations, to understand unspoken messages and confusing, indirect talk. She, for her part, had to accept this stormy, mouthy woman. Hers was the harder task.

When her blue-eyed son phoned her to tell her of our getting together 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 an awfully 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.

Then there was the time I gave her a jasmine plant in full and fragrant bloom. She called to say she had buried it far away from the house because she was sure it was "rotten". But she did accept me and we were very careful not to cause each other any hurt, and in time both trust and love grew. Patience helped.

My own daughter-in-law and I try just as hard to work on 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 when he marries. Mrs Bourne can't see that. It is her loss. Or perhaps she has learnt something 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.

Some names have been changed in this article

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