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Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

How I Reclaimed My House from My Mother-in-Law

Ember and her daughter/ (c)Ember Swift - incultureparent

I am standing at my kitchen sink here in Beijing. I’m about to wash the day’s final few dishes in a kitchen that I can now spin around in knowing every item is placed exactly where I want it; every cupboard has been cleaned and ordered, the floor is clear of clutter and my beautiful spice rack containing gems like oregano, curry powder and basil is, once again, front and center beside my stove. There’s a small smile on my lips—something you’d rarely see while I’m doing something as mundane as washing dishes—but this is a momentous accomplishment. A marching band is parading up my spine and relaxing my shoulders. It’s a coup!


Ever since my daughter was born 14 months ago, there’s been a war between cultures in my household. As the Canadian underdog surrounded by Chinese culture, I’m the one who has had to be more flexible, particularly related to the Chinese tradition in which extended family comes to care for both the infant and the new parents. In my culture, the new grandparents might come and stay for a week or two after a baby has been born, but then they leave. Their role is to assist with the transition into a new family dynamic, but Western parents are still guests in their grown-up child’s home. Parenting choices remain solely in the hands of the parents, without question.


My mother-in-law moved to Beijing when I was in my final month of pregnancy, a move that required great sacrifice of her career and lifestyle, not to mention her leaving behind her husband and aged father to fend for themselves. However, in a concessional move for our cultural divide, she rented a small apartment rather than moving into ours. I was relieved—I could think of nothing more uncomfortable than suddenly living with my mother-in-law whom I barely knew. Still, no one but me found it unusual for her to spend 12 hours a day in our home. She burst in and took over all the shopping, cooking, cleaning and general housework. That’s all on top of providing childcare for our new baby. Her energy astounded me.


I wasn’t prepared for the immensity of her role. A strong, spirited woman, she acts a bit like commander-in-chief in all she does. After my initial postpartum recovery period was over, every desire I expressed for independent control of parenting or managing my own household was perceived as a direct challenge to her generational authority, and by extension, a sign of my ingratitude for her incredible contribution. Imagine the conflicted feelings of relief to have such assistance—like I’d won the lottery—and annoyance by its controlling imposition.


What’s more, my husband became very comfortable with his mother doing everything; it made our relationship miserable. I resented his sexist dependence on her and doubly resented her sexist expectation that he would be useless in either the domestic or parenting realm.


After a whole year of this haranguing arrangement, I boarded a plane with my daughter, relieved to have Christmas as an excuse to escape home to my own country. My husband couldn’t come with us, so I travelled solo with my daughter and thus was the only one responsible for the shopping, meal preparation, cloth diaper washing, and cooking for friends and family whose homes we were staying in, all while managing my daughter’s potty training and sleep schedule with a keen eye. I discovered something invaluable: I could do it. Despite the six weeks of exhaustion, I was empowered.


It helped me understand my husband slightly better, as well. There’s nothing like the presence of someone insisting on doing everything to make one doubtful of one’s own abilities to do anything. I discovered that being steamrolled by a strong figure could quite often be mistaken as laziness.


While independent in Canada, I also took the opportunity to teach my daughter how to sleep on her own. With remote support from my husband, we took it slow, but I was consistent. She returned to China able to go to bed without crying and wake with a smile—a feat my mother-in-law began bragging about to her friends immediately.


Still in the spotlight from this accomplishment, I pulled out the big guns and engaged an unusual tactic in this game of cultural roulette. I called a formal family meeting over Chinese New Year. I even asked an extra family member to be present as a mediator. Because my lone Canadian voice is so often drowned out in discussions such as these, I did a fair share of mental preparation and began the proceedings with confidence and conviction, despite my imperfect Mandarin.


Focusing on gratitude and acknowledgement of both her efforts and contributions, not to mention the benefits it has brought the whole family, I framed my need to recover independence around her inevitable ability to relate to such a desire, being the strong, independent matriarch that she is. I also appealed to her love of her granddaughter—a child of both cultures—who would need a balanced set of influences to reflect her cross-cultural heritage. “How would it be for her if we move back to Canada and she can’t get used to the food?” I asked, knowing this is a constant worry for Chinese people when they leave China. “Her mommy needs to cook for her too.”


But the real stroke of genius lay in the presence of mediation, and particularly choosing someone who was of my mother-in-law’s generation, namely my husband’s aunt. Initial defensiveness was immediately challenged. “What is your problem?” she was asked. “Doing less is a good thing! You can enjoy your granddaughter and your retirement!”


Before I knew it, the victory was handed to me. She agreed to continue to provide childcare on a daily basis but in her apartment. My daughter now spends part of every day with her nainai while we go to work. We’ve even set up a crib there. Nainai cooks for her and we still often join my mother-in-law for meals—grateful to still have an invitation to enjoy her cooking—but we don’t share every meal. Back at home, my daughter eats what I cook and benefits from time alone with her mommy where the language is exclusively English. Her daddy has returned to the man I married—someone who might not always want to pick up his socks but will do it in the end. But the biggest relief is that he’s reengaged his fatherly role without question; our daughter’s needs are back to half his responsibility again. Now that’s what I call winning the lottery!


So tonight, as I begin to dry the dishes, I pick up one of my white tea towels that I discovered stuffed in a drawer (as Chinese people rarely dry dishes) and I can’t help but smile again. It’s a white flag of truce and victory. I’m waving it in my kitchen right now. My kitchen. I take a deep, peaceful breath. Can you hear the happy trumpets blare?

© 2013, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.

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Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsgang chen   |  Wednesday, 10 April 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Gang Chen you described the situation so well Amber. I totally sympathize, but it was my own mother who we have been struggling with. We had a similar arrangement, we rent a apartment for my parents nearby, like in 10 minutes walking distance. However, my mom, who is a dominant and controlling person like many moms in China, couldn’t understand why they can’t live with us. The money we spent on renting the house was killing them, and plus, they ended up showing up in our house without telling us early in the morning, with breakfast food ready. It was kind funny that we were actually startled by them when we came down to our dinning room in our pjs and seeing them sitting there. Now, we have to BUY a condo near by, so that they won’t feel we are wasting money on the rent, the problem remains, they want to come to visit much more often as we would like, like everyday if it is up to them.

  2. CommentsAlan Lee   |  Wednesday, 10 April 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Good for you Ember!!

  3. CommentsTeresa   |  Wednesday, 10 April 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Congratulations on having your home back! My (Mexican) mother-in-law took over my house for a month after my son was born, and I totally relate to the combined frustration and gratefulness. Such a difficult situation–sounds like you handled it really well.

  4. CommentsLao Lao Swift   |  Wednesday, 10 April 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Congratulations on writing another great article! I love reading your thoughts and feelings. You truly do have a wonderful gift that Is definitely worth sharing with your readers. Obviously Alan Lee and Teresa found your message very refreshing. From our Skype tonight, I can see first hand that Echo is well adjusted and doing fabulously. Mama will be more appreciative of your motherly skills when she witnesses the growth particularly with her gross motor skill and language. This is something that a Canadian work from home mom can provide for her very easily. Good job Ember! Hugs and High Fives! Gramme

  5. CommentsUte   |  Friday, 12 April 2013 at 9:51 am

    Congratulations for you success! And: I heard your happy trumpets (I’m in the Netherlands!)! The way you handled this situation is brilliant! It’s quite difficult not to hurt the other ones feelings, to say the right thing (in the right tone) and at the right moment. I can imagine how you felt during these long 14 months and I’m really happy for you that you have your house back, your husband back and a life that is “yours”.

  6. CommentsKim at Mama Mzungu   |  Wednesday, 24 July 2013 at 10:44 am

    Wow. Fantastic job in navigating such a fraught situation. Very clever way to frame everything and adding a mediator from your mother-in-law’s culture was genius. Well done! I had heard of this Chinese tradition and it always *sounds* fantastic to have such a load lifted from your shoulders, but I imagine even WITHOUT the cultural differences this is often a difficult situation for modern Chinese women who have more traditional parents. Excellent post!

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  8. CommentsKp   |  Tuesday, 24 December 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Was wondering if you could give me advice. Recently my partner and I have just had our first child. Her mum who was living in Switzerland decided to quit her job, leave her house and come to stay with us. She has bipolar. I had been informed it was on a temporary basis. But 3months down the line she is still here with no job and no money to make any steps to moving out. She sleeps with her door open. Complained to my girlfriend I make too much noise getting ready for work at half 5 in the morning and because of that I can no longer shower before work only when I come home at half 8 in the morning. It is a 2bedroom house and the mum in law is sleeping in one room and girlfriend and baby is in the other so I am in the sofa. She brought a cat over that I hate and is continuously making itself comfortable in the baby’s crib, pram and chair. I pushed it out the first week it was doing it but seeing as my girlfriend didn’t seem to back me up I have given up and just get angry and keep my opinion to my self. I have been debating how to get rid of the cat. We told her she could not bring it with her and she gave the excuse she could not find a home for it. Since she has came she is always voicing a 3rd opinion about the baby and when ever me and my partner has arguments or heated discussions I can hear her lurking by the door. I get bad vibes from her and constantly here her talking bad about other people which is something I do not want to be involved in my child’s life. My girlfriend has been trying to pressure me to get a 3 bedroom or bigger house and since she has been here. Last week it came up again we argued and I said once again no. To me that means her mum is going to try stay permanent and I do not want that. Plus I am studying 1 day and 2nights a week and working 4-5days a week. Every time my partner gets upset of course the mum sits there giving me evils or try’s to add her opinion which is the exact same as her daughters. I think she is the one who talks to my partner all day to convince her to ask me these things and I have told my partner. I had to leave the other day because her grandad and Aunty was coming to stay and her dad was renting a house a couple of houses down for him and his family. This is meant to be for the Christmas however the dad plans to leave his wife and 2kids here and pay for a house for them whilst he goes back to brazil. If I didn’t leave the house before I am was border line to kick the mum out and ban the rest of the family from coming over because I want to be with my partner and child alone. The mum has no where to go though and I doubt my partner will forgive me for putting them on the street. Since I have left My partner has been trying to get me to come back and has said she spoke to her mum and explained we can’t live together. She has said she feels like killing herself or going to a mental hospital. The dad can see it is causing a problem and has suggested moving her to live with his new wife and kids who are not hers. She will have no dignity as I woman I guess if she that but at the same time I do want her gone or I am gone. I believe she has a hidden agenda and pre-meditated to come here and live with us or push me away. When u say to my girlfriend I want to talk to both her and the mum she says that her mum will think I am attacking her. But I need to know her plans or how she is thinking because I do not feel comfortable in my own home and feel like I have been forced to spend Christmas without my child or I can go back and kick everyone out. That will also be very rocky for my relationship. They are all Portuguese but the dads company is in brazil

  9. CommentsJENNIFER   |  Friday, 10 January 2014 at 8:52 am

    I found your blog by googling “mother in law living with me after baby” because this is my exact situation. My inlaws live in Italy and have come over to the US and have been staying with us for 3+ months. And they intend to stay an additional 2 months. They are living in our home and volunteered to watch the baby while I went back to work. While I appreciate this help, along with the cooking, grocery shopping and laundry, I do not feel like my baby or my house belong to me anymore. I am getting depressed because no matter how hard I try to communicate my feelings to them and my husband, the situation is not changing. My husband’s suggestion is to just suck it up until the end of February and then they will be gone. But I feel like I have missed precious moments with my son and, similarly to you, I have lost my confidence as his mother. I am just happy to know that I am not the only person who has been in this situation. I only hope I can find a way to get the message more clearly communicated, as you did.

  10. CommentsMimsie   |  Tuesday, 04 February 2014 at 5:19 am

    The only thing I don’t understand is when you took your daughter back to Canada for a visit, she was one year old, and you “took charge of her potty training”. How many babies are ready for potty training at one year?

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  12. CommentsLee Wen Hing   |  Thursday, 20 November 2014 at 10:50 pm

    .lol, as a child of a Chinese father and white Canadian mother I find your blogs funny, yet familiar. I married a Chinese Canadian woman (yes, I’m a guy) and I can appreciate the wonderful blessings, and challenges, of a traditional Chinese mother-in-law. I’ve been having a good laugh, (both with you and at you ;) ) while remembering similar experiences and imagining how all of the youthful ideals of gender equality that young white Canadian women grow up with go right out the window in the face of a very traditional, conservative and proud culture. Making a mixed marriage work is challenging, my kudos to you, the key is to just never give up while learning to have joy in the diversity. When my parents got married if was not acceptable in either society, while not as bad these days I imagine that in China as a guai lo you may experience this to some degree but just ignore it and think of the rich cultural heritage you are giving to your daughter. Blessings to you and your husband.

  13. CommentsBilly   |  Saturday, 20 December 2014 at 2:28 pm

    After 5 years having a Beijing mother inlaw in our home and life,I am finished will walk away even 2 children one of which she stole from the beginning.
    The family unit China like different regions their country is always in turmoil.
    Their greed us unfathomable and truth so lacking.
    I advise any Canadian against getting involved with Chinese.

  14. CommentsGabriel   |  Tuesday, 13 January 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I want to choke-slam my MIL. I just had my first born son about 5 weeks ago. I own my house and I had it before I married my wife. Since we came home from the hospital, my MIL has been in my house every single day with the exception of 1 saturday. Every night i come home from working and i would like to unwind and walk around my house as i see fit. I can’t get something to drink from the frige, if i want to go and get out of work clothes I have to wait for the B&*ch to get out of my room where the baby normally is. She cooks so much more than what we are used to that now my utility bills are going up and she basically gets a free meal everyday. I also have 2 dogs. they had a specific routine when it comes to eating. she messed that up to the point where now the fight each other and i’m trying to correct the behavior but she undoes in 1 day everything i have done for the last 2 years. I would like any opinions as to how to get rid of her without going to jail.

  15. CommentsJoey   |  Thursday, 19 February 2015 at 5:30 am

    My mother in law comes with a different set of problems. She invited herself to stay at my home two weeks b4 my due date and chooses to sleep on the sofa almost all day. She sets her alarm clock to 3.30am, waking me every morning. And leaves a pile of her laundry for us to wash. She messed up the kitchen by deep frying food and leaving the floor sticky, and expects us to setttle all her meals. She hasn’t volunteered to do a single chore which we really need help with. I have to clean up after her including throwing away a pot of rice which she god knows why cooked and left overnight. As if being heavily pregnant wasnt enough, i have addition stress from her and she goes around telling us she is taking care of me. I just roll my eyes inside and wish she would just leave us alone.

  16. CommentsJane M   |  Monday, 18 May 2015 at 4:49 pm

    I came across this page as Im sat here googling about in-laws you dont want in your house. Im English and my husband in Indian. This is the second time they have come to stay with us for 5 weeks. This time was better actually because after the first disastrous encounter, I wrote down all the things that pissed me off about his parents (from them not helping in the house, to him being unsupportive of me) and had a big discussion with him. For this visit I reminded him of all the things that had to change. Thankfully things have improved. But I am counting down the hours until they leave and I can get my house back. I am currently sat in bed writing this, because they are in the lounge and I dont want to go and join them because I am sick of being in the same room as them!

  17. CommentsKristin   |  Friday, 29 May 2015 at 8:34 am

    LOVE this post – thank you thank you thank you. I am currently working through living with my Korean MIL for 6 months – she came over to the US to help with my infant daughter. I lived in Korea previously and have a cultural background there, but it’s still challenging to blend the two. I was looking for insight from others who have experienced similar situations and have similar cultural sensitivities, and it’s refreshing just to read that someone else has followed a similar path and ultimately figured out a way to balance things.

  18. CommentsChristina   |  Friday, 12 June 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Wow, I am not alone. It makes me happy to know I am not the only one but then I feel bad for all of you for being in my situation. I am hiding in my room right now from my in-laws. I am american and my husband (of 15 yrs) is Indian. I try to be friendly, I can cook really good Indian food but my God they are so nitpitcky and critical I can’t take it. They are only here for a week but I can’t go in the kitchen without an inquisition-what are doing, why are you cooking, and on and on. Painful is the only way to describe it.

  19. CommentsKrista   |  Thursday, 09 July 2015 at 11:49 am

    I’m going crazy! Mother in law has lived with us for 4 1/2 yrs and she’s a dirty nasty slob. She does zero house cleaning and leaves garbage and wrappers all over the place. Her room is wall to wall garbage. Year before last I spent a whole year in my room. She walks past me and whispers ‘Bitch’. She tells people how bad I am cuz I took her son away from her. Ever since her husband died she dug her nails into her son and she’s clinging for dear life. Everyday I want to run away. I can’t take her abuse and nastiness anymore. He is very close to his mom and his mom watches his daughter when she comes every other day. So the ex is also close to his mother. BUT I AM HIS WIFE! I get no respect. I’m too good to be treated this way. May be time to leave but I don’t want to divorce or leave my husband. But his argument is he’s in the middle and it’s stressful for him. Ugh! I want to get away from her!

  20. CommentsCharlie   |  Thursday, 08 October 2015 at 9:50 am

    I guess this is a common problem. I am American. She is from Europe. We had our (first) kid 11 months ago (I’ve been happier than I ever imagined at being a father. Let’s see, what could ruin that…..). Two weeks after his birth, the mother in law showed up from Europe with a one-way ticket. At first, I was quite happy with her being here. I generally liked her. But, she’s still here, almost 11 months later, and as far as I can tell, has no plans to leave. Ever. I’ve tried to discuss the situation, and there’s not even a discussion. There’s eye-rolling and distraction, but no honest discussion, other than “but she does so much for us…” That is partially true. Well, it is true. But at great expense. I have ZERO relationship now with the woman I love. She’s absorbed in our son (which is great) and her mother (which is, not so great.) That literally leaves zero time for “US”. She is now a different person– she went from the sweet, loving girl to a clone of the cold, hard mother-in-law. And I have what feels like “supervised visitation” with my son. They follow me around when I spend time with him.
    From what I can understand, the mother in law interfered in her daughter’s previous marriage after an extended stay (thankfully, no kids involved in that one). I don’t want that to happen again, especially because I value my son having BOTH PARENTS growing up. Her folks are divorced (and, now i can understand why). I come from a family that hasn’t seen a divorce, so the thought is not pleasant. But I am absolutely at the end of my rope, and there seems to be no room for discussion.
    We’ve scheduled a one-on-one discussion in a few days from now. I hope that can get somewhere. If not, I guess the next step is counseling. I have tried to be understanding, and I feel that I have been way too understanding for almost a year.
    But I feel like it’s now time for the three of us to become a family. Right now, Papa is the fourth wheel, and the family is the three of them. It’s a terrible feeling. When I’ve tried to push to be more involved, they set up a “challenging task” and then tell me how poorly I accomplished it. Hey, I admit I’m not a professional at this. I admit that they are better at it. But they use that as an excuse to say “see, without mom here, the poor baby would be in trouble, so she needs to stay”. I ask “How long?” and there is no answer (For the first six months, I was getting “just another month”. After that became an obvious lie, I won’t buy it, so now I get blank stares.
    This can’t be a healthy situation. I really am regretting ever becoming involved in this situation.
    Help! What can I do?

  21. CommentsRobert   |  Sunday, 08 November 2015 at 6:50 am

    This article is great and gives me hope that I can somehow get my marriage back on track after almost four years of living with my MIL. My mother in law is great and if I didn’t have to live with her, our relationship would be fine. It is my Chinese wife that is the problem (I’m Australian). She has no interest in being a mother to her daughter and does not want to sacrifice anything from her life to raise her child. I’m happy to be doing more of the parenting, but I would prefer to do it without my MIL in my house 24/7. All I want is for my MIL to live in a separate house and then she can still do some baby sitting most days of the week. I’ve been asking for this for almost four years and my wife is not following through on doing anything about it. She was meant to be out of the house yesterday and then she turns up to the house this evening. It was not my MIL fault, she was not told yesterday that she should head back to her house. So today, I was expecting complete time on my own with my daughter and then she trundles in the door. It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back because I was mentally prepared for her not being here. Anyway, what’s another day….haha.

  22. CommentsRenee   |  Saturday, 05 March 2016 at 7:24 pm

    This article and some of the ensuing comments was familiar yet frustrating. I have a mother-in-law who takes up a lot of space and has made efforts to run things, but this is not her culture – this is who she is. While culture plays a large role in enhancing the divide, there is still a clash of personalities and generations mostly at play. My MIL is white North American, I am also North American, but not white. Her attempts at imposition of her will are most commonly notice along a cultural lines, but it is really a matter of her deciding what is “best” because she feels as the older person, her opinions are more important, and should also be unquestioned. She is also an insecure person, so when dealing with her first grandchild, she was all over the kid and wouldn’t give her space unless I stepped in to give her some. The fact that I appreciated her help, but also set clear boundaries to solve the problem was my personality, even if she attributed this to my culture, which it was not. Where the differences most obviously manifest is when things are done differently bases on culture. It’s a symptom, not the problem.

  23. CommentsRealist   |  Monday, 08 August 2016 at 6:41 pm

    Or you could have had a beautiful white baby with a man from your own culture. Not enough drama in that.

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