Woe Is Me! “My SIL Refuses to Do Household Chores Because She Has a Job, and I Resent It”
Woe Is Me! is a series in which The Swaddle team indulges your pity party with advice you’ll probably ignore.
“I come from a conservative family, and my elder brother married a doctor two years ago. My family has tried their best to be supportive of my sister-in-law’s career and progressive lifestyle, but she’s always in conflict with my mother. She’s expected to help my mother cook to contribute to the household, but she refuses because she works, and expects my mother to do it, because she’s a homemaker. This, even when my brother both works and does his best to help around the house as well. I’ve always taken my SIL’s side, but lately I’ve noticed her being more manipulative and passive-aggressive. How do I figure out who’s to blame in this ugly situation?”
— Spot The Difference
LG: Family drama is The Worst. Particularly if you live amid it and can’t escape. So, all the feels for your house divided; it’s not a comfortable feeling. That said, can you spot the difference? Your SIL is ‘expected’ to cook, and your brother ‘does his best to help around the house.’ That means your SIL is seen as disappointing, unfamilial, a failure, lazy or other negative attribute if she doesn’t cook even one day, whereas your bro gets a pass if he slacks off on the housework for a couple of days – he’s done is best, after all. His effort is voluntary; hers is mandated. He can only exceed expectations, because no one expects him to help with housework; she can only fail to live up to them, because everyone expects her to cook everyday.
Frankly, while passive aggressiveness and manipulation are not healthy or mature tactics (though maybe in a home where her contribution has been prescribed for her, she may feel these are the only tactics available to her), my sympathy is with your SIL. Has anyone ever asked her if she even likes cooking? Maybe there is some other way, some other chore she’d prefer to do, in order to contribute to the smooth functioning of the household. Sounds like a family meeting is in order, one in which EVERYONE divvies up the chores in an equitable manner (which means keeping in mind who also has work outside the home).
And everyone, regardless of gender commits voluntarily to completing those home duties on an agreed-upon interval. Also, not for nothing, but in my opinion all health care practitioners get a pass on housework right now, when they are providing care at great risk to themselves in the midst of a literal pandemic. Please, someone, bring this woman breakfast in bed with a thank you card.
KB: Eek, forgive me, I always need a minute to recover when I hear someone refer to a woman as “manipulative.”
First, I don’t know why you are looking to assign blame. Any time adult human beings interact with each other, in an enclosed space where they are not allowed to say exactly what’s on their minds, simmering resentments are bound to exist. Why does it have to be any one person’s fault? I would encourage you, instead, to consider all the complexities of living in a joint family, and all the various motivations, expectations, and disappointments that intersect and collide in such an environment. Does your SIL work a full-time job, probably contribute to the household finances, and come home exhausted, expecting most of the housework to be done by others for whom it is their primary occupation? Yes, and that’s a reasonable position.
Does your MIL manage an entire extended household (a massive full-time job), deal with keeping everyone fed, make sure the home supports everyone’s lives outside of it, and expect that others within the home will help her with various household work here and there? Yes, and that’s also a reasonable expectation. What is causing the resentments and passive-aggression is the fact that your SIL is not living in “her” own house, surrounded by “her” family, probably feels a little judged for her life choices (based on how you’re framing your question), and therefore does not feel she can be brutally honest about her needs and emotions.
If you really want to help solve this, stop looking to take sides or assign blame, and instead, look to foster a supportive, transparent environment where people can say what they feel.
SM: This sounds like a difficult situation, but one that women in Indian joint families often have to navigate. I’d say you should try and see things from your sister-in-law’s perspective — it must be so difficult to move in to a new setup, with a new family, and then be expected to contribute or behave a certain way, when she’s probably used to having much more agency and freedom. If passive-aggressive behaviour is something you’re noticing only of late, I suggest you openly talk to her about it, and ask her if if she’s okay? I can imagine it being a particularly difficult time for healthcare workers with the COVID crisis. If you can’t help troubleshoot, I think you should just ignore the situation, and try and be empathetic to both your sister-in-law and mother — it’s not easy, but if troubleshooting fails, then that’s the only option that you won’t regret.
DR: I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how exactly your family has been “supportive” of your sister-in-law’s career when she’s expected to come home and cook for the family, after a long day at work. Are the men in the household expected to contribute to cooking as well after coming back from work? If not, then I think your family is being unfair to your sister-in-law by subjecting her to a modern version of the age-old, gender stereotypes, where a woman is “allowed” to work, but must also come back home and cook, because that’s part of her “natural responsibility” as a woman, right? To be thrown into a household full of a new set of people, who think they’re doing her a favor by letting her work, while dumping unfair expectations upon her, seems like a very good reason for her to revolt — a natural reaction, even. And, I don’t think we get to judge her mechanism of revolting, i.e., being manipulative and passive-aggressive, since a straightforward refusal to cook, doesn’t quite appear to have worked for her. So, to answer your question, I think the gendered notions your family subscribes to, are squarely to blame for this “ugly situation.”
AS: I feel you should be careful not to perceive or treat your SIL as an outsider who has to prove that she is indeed a good member of the family – because living with one’s in-laws can be difficult as it is. (Yes, this is coming from an unmarried female, but we all know it, don’t we?) When you see your brother ‘help’ around the house, that’s precisely what it is – help. But the same thing for your SIL is an expectation. See where I’m going with this? I am glad you’ve been on her side so far, but you have to understand that you can’t judge her for not wanting to perform housework, just because she is a woman.
Having said that, I don’t believe the entire burden of housework should fall on your mother either, because this work is grueling, and just thoroughly undervalued. A possible solution could be that all members of the family take on household tasks as a general practice. Maybe you can communicate this plan to everyone, and not just to your SIL. I think making it a team effort can change her and everyone else’s perspective. I know this is easier said than done, especially in a conservative setup, but showing appreciation for this work really starts with understanding how tough it is, and then redistributing it among everyone and not just the women.