The early days of knowing my mother-in-law seemed smooth and simple. I thought that I must have the best mother-in-law in the world. I held her in high esteem, and it didn’t occur to me that it would hurt anyone to do that. I was shocked when she came crashing down, injuring us both and others in the fall. In navigating her new challenges as an expectant and new grandmother, my mother-in-law inadvertently took a course of action that disregarded my requests for labour and my needs as a new mother, and superseded the responsibilities and rights of my mother in her roles of mother and new grandmother – may Allah I accept her repentance and know that I forgive her.
I have subsequently encountered this hadith, Alhamdulillah, and know better than to overrate someone:
Narrated Abu Bakr (RA): A man was mentioned before the Prophet (SAW) and another man praised him greatly. The Prophet (SAW) said, “May Allah’s Mercy be on you! You have cut the neck of your friend.” The Prophet repeated this sentence many times and said, “If it is indispensable for anyone of you to praise someone, then he should say, ‘I think that he is so-and-so,” if he really thinks that he is such. Allah is the One Who will take his accounts (as He knows his reality) and no-one can sanctify anybody before Allah.” (Khalid said, “Woe to you,” instead of “Allah’s Mercy be on you.”) (Bukhari Book 73, Hadith 87)
As a reaction to this fall, my mind went from being filled with compliments for my mother-in-law, to swelling with questions, doubts and fears. Had I been a fool to trust her? Had I turned her into an oppressor by my docile following of her lead? Should I maintain a distance between us for both our sakes? My unspoken pain troubled me constantly. I felt angry. I knew my heart was turning black and that I was at risk of sinking into a bitter mindset. I was very tempted to back away from her, but I resolved to draw closer.
I approached her with my need to talk and suggested a structured exercise to facilitate us both to have our say: she would have five minutes to speak and I would silently listen, then I would have five minutes for talking while she listened, and we would alternate in this way for about an hour. We could use our speaking time for silence if we chose, and we could also choose whether or not to respond to any part of what the other one said.
Alhamdulillah, we completed the exercise and stuck to our rules and formal structure. Periods of silence and reflection in our turns gradually increased until we agreed on one last turn each before ending. The exercise did not instantly resolve all of our differences. But it enabled us to let go of unwanted thought cycles and to set in motion the healing of time. And it gave prominence to the earnestness to please Allah (SAW) that is between us and which remains the safe ground we can rely upon, insha Allah.
Years later, we make use of informal turn-taking to talk about ourselves to each other. Often this includes no questions, no direct responses, just talking and listening. For example, I recently told my mother-in-law about the difficulties I experienced in my last labour and post-labour, and how hard it had all been for the bystanders. Simultaneously, she told me about one of her labours and its aftermath. I spoke a little at a time, and she interspersed her story with mine. We empathised with each other, we heard ourselves think, and we reflected upon the mercy of Allah (SWT) and our gratitude for the blessings He granted us through our trials.
To hear us converse in this manner probably sounds odd. It probably sounds as if we’re not comprehending what each other says. It probably sounds slow, cold and dull. But it works for us. We speak slowly and calmly enough that we avoid rushing into words we would regret. When we hear each other out, we get the release of saying what we need to say, and we get to know each other better by listening. By sharing similar experiences, we express how we relate to the other one’s affairs. We avoid leading questions that may prompt backbiting. We don’t expect limitless support from each other, but rather the absence of expressed sympathy reminds us that it is Allah (SWT) alone who can totally fulfil our needs. And we hear how our own selves sound and become alert to the particular issues we may need to take to Allah (SWT).
Alhamdulillah, the process of getting back up after that first fall has been the making of my relationship with my mother-in-law. Filled with intentions to please Allah (SWT), our simple turn-taking structure for talking about difficult things enables us to avoid the heavy clutter of regrets between us and to manage to maintain a buoyant relationship.
Umma Aadam and her mother-in-law hope to encourage others to keep striving to please Allah (SWT) during difficulties in their relationships.