True marriage is a balance between dreams and reality
Published: Apr 27, 2015 06:43 PM Updated: Apr 28, 2015 09:56 AM
While reading the recent Global Times opinion piece "Living with parents after marriage is a bad idea," written by my young, unmarried colleague Lanlan, I couldn't help but snicker at her youthful naivety. As a middle-aged woman who has been living with my in-laws for more than 10 years, I find Lanlan's anti-in-law premise, based on a single case, impetuous and deserving of a motherly scolding.

Her piece cited a recent divorce case filed by a husband who, despite his professed love for his wife, could no longer tolerate his mother-in-law's insistent interference with his marriage. The couple are young and haven't been together long but are willing to throw away their future rather than work towards a solution. This perfectly exemplifies the hastiness of today's generation.

When we are young, we all dream of an ideal life free of restrictions from parents. I too was once a rebellious girl like Lanlan. I constantly quarreled with my mother, annoying her so much that she cursed me "you deserve the worst mother-in-law!" In China, where the average couple lives with their parents, this is a terrible threat. There's nothing more dreaded than a domineering in-law.

I recall a young woman I once knew who, just before getting married, proudly bragged to her friends, "I will purposely redecorate my two-bedroom, one-living-room apartment into one bedroom and two living rooms so that no parents can live with us." After she had a baby, however, this mother became overwhelmed by the realities of parenthood. The last we'd heard from her, she was begging her parents to move in with them. I wonder how her redesigned home worked out for them.

Lanlan writes that living with parents is one way for Chinese to demonstrate our filial piety, which has been a very important concept in our society since 5th century BC. But in fact, over the millennia grown children have come to rely more on their aged parents than the other way around.

For example, pretty much every young child you will ever see anywhere in today's China is being tended to by grandparents while the parents are out working. Housework and food preparation are also often provided by live-in parents, and many young couples today have come to depend on, even expect, financial support from their parents. That is the true portrait of a modern Chinese family.

Unlike the Western concept of a "Nuclear Family," in China there are any number of complex formulas for our family units: a 2-2-2 structure, for instance, would see the parents of both spouses move in. The addition of a baby would change the dynamic to 3-2-2. With every possible formula in an extended family, there's the potential for conflicts when deciding who should be the decision-makers. This is the first and true test of any new marriage.

After decades of ruling their own kingdom, it's not easy for the old generation to suddenly play a minor role in their new extended household. But wisdom is born from experience, and only by stepping back and letting the younger generation learn from their mistakes will they in time rightly earn the titles of matriarch and patriarch.

A sincere respect and deference to our aged parents, however, is vital to upholding the structure of a traditional Chinese family. The elderly have already been down this path, and certainly during more harrowing times. We should follow their guiding light, not turn away from it.

Hatred between parents and children will dissipate overnight, but hatred between parents and in-laws lasts forever, goes the classic Chinese axiom. It is very important for today's young couples to heed these words and start spending more time cultivating interpersonal relationships with in-laws rather than trying to distance themselves from them.

Personal experience has shown me that it is not so hard for three generations to live together under one roof. Young couples should be allowed by their parents and in-laws to make the final decisions in their new households, but they also owe it to their parents to keep the family units together no matter the challenges.

As Emperor Kangxi once said, "Let young and old be as one body, their joys and sorrows as of one family."