Kaynanalık: the Turkish Word for Mother-in-Lawness

Esma Sultan from the show İstanbullu Gelin. The show is entirely based on a mother/daughter-in-law conflict.

The Middle-Eastern mother-in-law, so the common story goes, believes with all her might that no other woman could possibly be worthy of her son. The stereotype is so prevalent in Turkey that Turkish actually has a word – kaynanalık – that literally translates to “mother-in-lawness.” Usage example: Yes, I know your son prefers his stuffed grape leaves without meat, but stop with the kaynanlık. If I like them with meat I’m allowed to make them that way! Despite what you may believe, your son won’t starve!

My own grandmother, herself from a different country in the Middle East, was (she isn’t dead, but she’s mellowed with age) so good at kaynanalık that she could have served as a lighthouse for other bad mothers-in-law who’d lost their way. Her own kaynanalık successes, however, did not stop her from becoming concerned that I may be mistreated by the very culture she so enthusiastically participated in. As soon as she could after the wedding, she sat me down and asked, “So, how’s your mother-in-law?”

I actually have a great mother-in-law. She doesn’t make foods she knows I don’t like, constantly asks me what foods I do like, says things like, “you’re not my daughter-in-law, you’re my daughter!”, gets me to call her Mum, tells me about unpleasant experiences she had with her own mother-in-law many years ago, and enthusiastically tries to teach recipes I’ve taught her to her own sisters, who are skeptical about them to say the least.

Anyway, I told my grandmother that I lucked out in the mother-in-law department, and she said, “Oh, I’m glad to hear that. You know, Middle-Eastern mothers-in-law are famous for being mean.” She paused for a too-short moment of self-reflection. “You know it’s funny,” she said after a while. “Everybody always talks about bad mothers-in-law, but nobody ever seems to have anything to say about bad daughters-in-law.”

My brother would later text me to say that “With one short quote, she elevated herself to Plato’s perfect form of a bad mother-in-law.”

If I’ve learned anything from the little time I’ve been married, however, it’s that mothers-in-law actually do talk a lot about their “bad” daughters-in-law. Mostly I’ve heard about this from my own mother-in-law, who when responding positively to questions about me, is often regaled with stories from other women about their own daughter-in-law-related misfortune.

“I met a friend today,” she said to me one day a few weeks after Adem and I were married. “And was she ever complaining! She said her daughter-in-law never comes to visit and they never invite her to visit either. But they do invite the daughter-in-law’s mother.” She shook her head. “Oh, these women,” she said. “They’re so old-fashioned. Why do they feel like they need to be mean to their daughters-in-law? That’s how it was supposed to be in the old days, not now.”

A few days later, Adem ran into the same lady who, after asking how our marriage was, used the subject of marriage as a springboard to launch into another volley of kaynanalık lamentation. Adem immediately launched into his, “oh my gosh, it’s been really great to see you” routine and extricated himself from the situation with as much grace as he could.

That story reminded me of another story we heard from Cihan, a friend of ours. About five years ago a good friend of his got married. At the time when they were married, the wife was working a better job than the husband. One day Cihan’s phone rang. It was his friend’s Mom.

“Hi Cihan, how are you doing” crackled (I imagine) her voice from the other end of the line.

“Good, and you?” said Cihan.

“I’m good, I’m good,” she said. “Listen, I just wanted to ask you. You know, you know my son well. I just wanted to make sure that his wife isn’t getting uppity because of the employment situation. She isn’t bossing him around or anything is she?”

So far I’d been spared any mother-in-law jeremiads, until today, when I discovered a small table at my local bazaar selling a few products from Armenia. Foreign products are worth their weight in gold in Turkey, so I couldn’t believe my eyes. Pork sausage, condensed milk, halva made out of sunflower seeds! What luck! I asked the lady, a woman in her sixties with severe drawn-on eyebrows, if she came to the bazaar every week.

“Yes,” she said. “I do. When I go to Armenia I bring things back here and sell them here once a week.”

“Oh, you’re Armenian?” I said stupidly, because it was obvious from her accent that she was.

“Yes,” she said. “But I’ve been here 15 years. Every time I travel I have to go through Russia because the political situation between Turkey and Armenia isn’t that good you know.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised. “You don’t come back through Georgia?” (This would be a much cheaper option, and she could bring more stuff into Turkey to sell.)

“NO!” she said. “My daughter-in-law is Georgian! I don’t like Georgia. My daughter-in-law is so greedy. I would rather go through Russia.”

I took some of the halva and left her alone.

I’ve spent the rest of the day feeling smug about my own good luck and trying to think of silly titles for articles or books by mothers-in-law for mothers-in-law. I mean, there does seem to be a glut in the market, no?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

“The trick one mother-in-law has to avoid ever setting foot in the homeland of her daughter-in-law, (and how you can do it too). HINT: It costs money!”

“Uninvited: The mother-in-law story.”

“Why Change when You Can Stay the Same?: Kaynanalık traditions of the Middle East through the ages.”

Yelling: A Guide to Getting Grandchildren without Compromising your Son’s Care.

“How to cope when your son gets bossed around by his wife instead of by you.”

“When bad daughters-in-law happen to perfect people.”

…other suggestions are welcome.

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