To mum (in-law), with love

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Mother-in-law issues don't just dog women. Men, too, have to tread gingerly around their wives' mothers

My mother turned 80 last Friday and the person most excited about the big day wasn't me, my sister or even my mother. It was H.

For months - no, even a year - before her birthday, he kept asking me how I intended to celebrate it.

You better book the hotel early, he said. You need to plan for such things. All the venues will be taken if you keep it too late.

But we're not a family that's big on birthdays, I told him. We never throw parties. Besides, my sister and her family aren't able to come to Singapore to celebrate it; I don't feel up to organising something on a large-scale by myself, I said.

It's not about you, it's about her, he said. It's the right thing to do. How many people get to 80?

Each time he raised it, I'd brush it off and say ya, ya, I'll get down to arranging something, don't worry. (He was beginning to get a bit pesky about the subject and I was starting to feel irritated - she is my mother, after all, not his.)


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I wasn't sure what he envisaged we'd do at the party I was supposed to organise, but I suspected it involved a video of my mum because he kept mentioning it.

When my teenage American niece came to visit us in May, we asked her if she knew how to put together a video. She did, so we said her holiday project was to get a video of my mother done.

That will be your present to your grandma, I said.

Of course she never got down to doing it - so H did.

He spent a whole day collating old and recent photos and videos of my mother into a 14-minute filmlet which he titled Okasan's 80th Birthday. It was his first time creating a video.

It was such a sweet thing to do and I was touched, but I'm afraid my first reaction on seeing the video was to shriek with laughter.

It wasn't just the sight of the old photos where everyone looked so young, long-limbed and gawky, but also the soundtrack he had chosen.

He had mixed Katherine Jenkins' Rejoice with Dean Martin's That's Amore, some Tchaikovsky piano concerto and another classical violin piece (music from his iPhone).

For some reason, the combination was hilarious.

I couldn't stop laughing - not quite the reaction he was expecting, I think.

I told him that he couldn't possibly wait till Sept 25 to show the video to my mum - he had to show it to her at once.

Her reaction was not unlike mine. She found it funny.

She also asked why he had jumbled up the photos such that there was no chronology to the video (a photo of her as a child kneeling at her mother's funeral in 1943 was juxtaposed with another of us as a happy family in the 1970s).

She added dryly: "You can show this video at my funeral."

I'm sure she appreciated the video. But the thing about my mum and H, I've noticed, is that many of the remarks she makes about him - or to him - are laced with sarcasm.

There's often an edge to her words, a double meaning that you might miss if you're not listening carefully.

When H married me, he was in a way also tying the knot with my mother, given that we all live under the same roof.

After five years of marriage (to me), I guess their relationship is best described as cordial but cool.

They try their best not to get in each other's way.

On a normal day, they spend at most half an hour together, at the dinner table. She cooks the food he likes; he likes her cooking and tells her so.

He's respectful and has never shown impatience to her, but he avoids her wherever possible.

They can hardly converse as her English is poor and he can't speak Japanese or Teochew.

The only interest they have in common is sports - tennis, football, boxing. They are most natural and animated when discussing athletes, such as Kei Nishikori's latest win or loss.

While women notoriously have complicated relationships with their husbands' mothers, men don't necessarily have it easy either with their wives' mums.

Just look at all the mother-in-law jokes that male comedians tell.

(I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law.

My neighbour said: "Are you going to help?" I said: "No, six should be enough.")

In the case of women, the problem often lies with the wife needing to establish herself in the family, and the mother-in-law feeling nudged out of her son's life. The older woman gets insecure and does things which leads to the wife fuming about being judged.

In the case of men, issues arise when the mother-in-law feels he is not good enough for her daughter, or is not helpful enough, or if the mother-in-law has a meddling or controlling nature.

Luckily, H has never taken offence at anything my mother has said or insinuated.

It is in fact me who gets upset when I feel she has made a less-than-fair remark about him, but he always tells me to cool it.

I think his fussing about her 80th birthday wasn't so much about her, per se, but partly to assuage his own guilt and regret for not doing more for his mother, who died when he was in his 30s.

Mostly, though, he was fussing because of me. He didn't want me to look back one day and rue not making my mother's 80th birthday special.

In any case, it went well.

She made it clear that she "100 per cent" didn't want a big party. Instead, she had a series of small lunches with her friends to celebrate.

The day before her birthday, on Hari Raya Haji which was a public holiday, it was our turn.

The three of us went out for a nice lunch (and no sarcasm detected during the meal either).

When we got home, H and I gave her presents which she was happy with.

I thought it would be nice for us to re-watch the birthday video he had made for her, but when I suggested it, she wasn't keen and neither was he.

I watched it by myself and this time, it wasn't funny.

I found myself tearing.

The video was actually lovely. It was a tribute to my mum's 80 years and also a present from H - to me.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'To mum (in-law), with love'. Print Edition | Subscribe