My Father-in-Law Told Me I Didn’t Love My Children. Here’s What Happened Next.

My father-in-law (well, in effect — my partner and I aren’t married) told me several months ago that “it seems you don’t love your children, you don’t care for them, you are not a good role model nor mother”. Admittedly, it was amid our first-ever heated discussion but it’s quite the statement, don’t you think? You’d be right in thinking a wave of emotion washes over you when someone says something like that: shock, disbelief, rage, confusion, white-hot fury.

He didn’t stop there; he repeated it. Three times. So while I possibly would have dismissed it as an unnecessarily vicious and incredibly nasty throwaway comment in the heat of an argument, the fact that it was repeated showed it was sincerely meant.

Despite the fury and adrenalin that suddenly pumped through my veins, I tried to calm down and compose myself. (That took some doing.) Clearly designed to pierce at the very heart of what it means to be a parent, in my head I tried to quickly ascertain the reason behind his weapon of choice so that I could comprehend it. I had been, I had thought, in his good books for almost 7 years. I’m not a drug abuser, neglectful, violent or even remotely strict with my amazing preschooler or darling toddler. Quite the opposite — they are utterly adored all day, every day.

Tempering my voice, I pushed for the basis on which he would — or could — say such a thing. I (finally) managed to ask, “what makes you say that I don’t love my children?”. His wife jumped in to state matter-of-factly that “we have seen that you don’t get up to give them breakfast nor cook as much as [their son].”

I explained that I am up 2–3 times a night to breastfeed and/or change our baby’s nappy (or wake my partner to change her nappy — yes, the burden remains on me to wake him even when I’m asleep and utterly exhausted). And that their son (an incredible feminist and equal parenting partner) had absolutely no problem conceptually with giving our kiddies breakfast most mornings and letting me have a much-needed lie-in. Given I had had 13 straight months of broken sleep with not one single night’s respite, I told them, I thought this was fair and reasonable…and anyway, this arrangement worked for us.

The father’s simple reply? It was “my duty”. Presumably, as a mother, I had to shoulder the burden of broken sleep night after night (I can tell you from experience, far worse than no sleep at all) to nourish my baby and then wake to provide both children with the nourishment they need to start the day.

It would be easy to dismiss my father-in-law’s remarks as the nonsensical rant of an older man from a village in India but that would be untrue or too kind. The fact that he has two progressive sons — one gay, the other having had two children without getting hitched — offers a hint of openmindedness. So digging deeper, it’s clear now that this was an attack solely about me — on me, my mothering and my role as a woman. And it was misogynistic.

As a strong, independent woman (yes, I am the ‘f’ word’ — a feminist), I have perhaps unknowingly surrounded myself with likeminded people. I don’t think I have ever known anyone who I could describe as a misogynist. But now I do.

Quite apart from being ‘sexist’, which is someone who believes in men’s dominance over women, a ‘misogynist’ is one who punishes women — usually an outspoken one — for not behaving the way a man wants her to. I now see that this is exactly what happened. I was verbally punished and publicly (within my partner’s family at least) admonished for not adhering to this man’s standards of my “behaviour”. He all but admitted this when he tried to explain his statement by saying that “my behaviour showed that I didn’t love my children”. What “behaviour” I had wondered? Surely, it couldn’t be just not doing as many breakfasts? I had a gut feeling that this double insult was worse than simply telling me I was a terrible role model and bad mother. I was also apparently badly behaved in general, which in his mind led to the bad mothering in the first place.

I can see now the “behaviour” was simply whatever behaviour didn’t align with his view of what a mother should be: the primary giver of care, nourishment, food, love. That that view would deeply offend his son — a deeply devoted father — is likely of little consequence to this man. His view is simply that it is the mother’s role or “duty” to provide this care.

This is the point where I can extrapolate the good from something so hideously bad. An awareness of this insidiousness towards women that attempts to keep mothers “in their place”. That attempts to shame or guilt them into doing more than their fair share. That attempts to undermine their parenting skills at the same time as admonishing them for apparently not doing enough (you don’t do enough but, when you do it, you’re not very good anyway).

If I were a different woman, I would’ve withered and fallen for it. Or been deeply hurt by those callous remarks or capitulated in the face of such hostility and meanness. I would have borne the brunt of the workload as these words were designed to have me (and all mothers) do.

It turned out those callous remarks had the opposite effect: they exposed this man for the misogynist he secretly is and emboldened me to call bullshit on the disgraceful comments of a man who seemingly prides himself on progressiveness but likely despises strong (or, in his words, “dominating”) women. A small-minded man. A man my father would never tolerate. A man with no class.

Contrarian, activist and idealist. Gender policy adviser by day, occasional writer by dead-of-night. Wannabe hip mum of two.