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Marriage in Pakistan is a marry one get one free deal — marry your husband and get his entire family too

Very few people talk about the challenges and trauma that come from trying to fit into a new family and leaving your own behind.
Published 26 Feb, 2022 10:57am

There are numerous guides online on how to style your new bedroom after you get married, the best places for a couple’s photoshoot and honeymoon suggestions but not a single one on how to adapt to a new family, or in my case, how to deal with an emotional breakdown inside a Nadra office.

“You are being removed from your family, and moved into this one, your husband's,” said the Nadra officer. I saw him drag and very literally drop my name from one document to the other. “Now you’re part of their family.” I felt my eyes tear up a little and tried to catch my breath. My husband later joked about how the Nadra officer had gotten me more sentimental than the nikahkhwan.

This incident led me to mentally prepare myself a year ahead of my ruksati — any chance I got I spoke to friends, friends of friends and family members about their experiences after getting married, especially women who found themselves in joint family systems. A year later I found myself sometimes struggling but mostly naturally manoeuvring and settling into a new life and family. These conversations made me grateful in some situations and in others helped me take a step back. But all of the stories stayed with me.

For example, a newly-married 27-year-old told me she wasn’t allowed to have cheese in her new home. As bizarre as it may sound, it was true — her father-in-law received a WhatsApp forward about processed cheese being cancerous, “So now we can’t have cheese, I literally have to destroy the evidence if we have a cheese omelet”. I think she saw the disbelief on my face, because she added, “I’m serious, I would rather that my father-in-law finding me smoking up than eating cheese”. We all laughed and when I asked her how she dealt with it, her reply really stuck with me — “It’s his house”.

Why does no one talk about moving in with people you’ve met just a few times in your life? What does it mean to “adjust” into a new house and a new family?

According to an article in The Washington Post, the University of Kentucky’s Department of Communication conducted two studies on depression in newly-married women. In a study of 28 women conducted in 2016, nearly half of the participants indicated they felt depressed or let down after their wedding. They also reported clinical levels of depression. Another study conducted in 2018 of 152 women showed 12 per cent feeling depressed after their wedding.

For most South Asian women the post-marriage depression strikes a few weeks or months later. Maheen*, 30, recalled, “Once you’re back from the honeymoon and the dinners end and life starts to normalise, you find yourself in someone else’s house and you’re thinking 'okay, when do I go home', but this is home, but at the same time it’s really not”.

For 29-year-old Hina*, it was made very clear that this wasn't her house. “I come from a very conservative community where girls are married off very young. I was 21 and I remember my mother-in-law told me on the very first day that this wasn’t my house,” she said. When I asked Hina how she was made to feel this way, Hina laughed and said, “Oh, she very literally told me that this isn’t my house and that this is their house and their rules were meant to be followed".

Hina’s experience is unfortunately not rare — moving out of your home for a woman in Pakistan doesn’t necessarily mean starting anew with your spouse. It often means you have to “adjust” into a family where your diet, spending habits and general lifestyles is altered. There's also an unspoken rule — don’t change the environment, change yourself. The sign of a “good” daughter-in-law is when she takes up less space, doesn’t speak her mind and is subservient not just to her husband but everyone in his family as well.

Twenty-nine-year-old dentist Sidra* recalled that she and her husband got into a fight when she refused to serve his brother breakfast. "Religiously I’m not supposed to but my husband told me religion aside, this is our culture. It just didn’t seem fair. I work as well and have to reach the clinic before my husband and I never complained about doing his work but I drew the line at serving his brother. The argument kept growing to a point where I went back to my mother's the next day,” she said.

Sidra’s situation may seem extreme but culture in our country often overrules religion. “I am supposed to look after not just my husband but his parents as well, and it just makes me mad because had my mother been in the place of my mother-in-law she would actually help me instead expecting me to clean up after her,” Samra* who got married last year told me over the phone. “It’s a sham when they tell you your mother-in-law Is like your mother. She really isn't.”

When I asked my friend Amina* about the one piece of advice she would give a new bride, she had a very simple reply. “Be yourself — this is something I was not. I was the best version of myself, but that didn’t last very long. I was exhausted after a while, which disappointed my in-laws. Just be who you are and don’t give them a chance to complain about how you’ve changed after getting married.”

Women from South Asian cultures have newly come to terms and accepted the idea of normalising and de-stigmatising depression, postpartum depression as well as emotional and physical trauma. My personal discomfort of accepting I was depressed in this perfectly sound new environment made me feel ungrateful because of which I invalidated and dismissed my short and sometimes long bouts of depression.

“There is resentment you feel towards your husband for the way he smoothly settles into his life where nothing for him changes. But for me everything changed, and he didn’t even acknowledge it,” Beena* told me about her experience moving cities. “Do men realise how lucky they are? They can open the door to their mothers’ room, I have to wait for the holidays and book a ticket.”

What I learnt is that no one is going to prepare you, no words or stories can save you from the vehement misplacement you feel when you’re living with a family familiar and harmonised with each other’s patterns and even habits that may be unpleasant to live with. Listening to these stories made me feel like I hit the jackpot with my in-laws. So why was it that I felt this strange sadness that over took me randomly? Often, I silenced that feeling because of the horrors stories I had been listening to for almost a year. It was not until much later that I realised the advice I wished to have received from married women instead of table setting, in-law dealing and money managing was that randomly crying on random afternoons was normal, seeing your husband sitting next to his mother watching TV and feeling resentment that I couldn’t do the same was natural and feeling lost during a big dinner with all your in-laws was going to get better.

I wish someone had told me this was all going to happen and I didn’t have to deny myself the grief or sorrow. That that period of bereavement wasn’t permanent, that my feelings were valid. But most of all, that I wasn’t being ungrateful nor did it mean I loved my new life or my husband any less, but there were things that this new home didn't have — my mother’s voice waking up, my father handing me a plate of cut fruit or that heart-to-heart conversation I had with my sisters before falling asleep or references to the many inside jokes I have with my brother. In this culture which we cling on to so dearly we don’t talk about the agony women leave with when they separate from their families, the stress during the move and the separation anxiety that follows.

How do I explain to the men in my life the feeling I endure when I am standing outside the door of the room that was once mine at my parents' house? Where I see pieces of my life and have to decide what to take with me and what to leave behind? What do I do with the despair I feel and the frustration that comes with it? Instead, we tell these women they’re not the first to part with their families. Instead we call them a bridezilla, difficult or moody. Moving in with another family is like a migration you make, it will always involve loss. Sometimes it hits you sooner and sometimes its inside a Nadra office.

**Names have been changed at the request of the women interviewed*