Imaginary monster: New mum prepares for war with mum-in-law

This new mother was geared up for battles with the proverbial tyrannical mum-in-law.

There's a hairdryer in your bathroom drawer," said my mother-in-law.

It was about 10.30pm. We had just flown to Perth from Melbourne for a friend's wedding, and we were staying with my husband's parents. I was nearly seven months pregnant, and about to take a shower to wash off the aircraft stink.

"Oh, don't worry," I replied. "I'm not going to wash my hair, I'll do that tomorrow."

"But what about drying your elbows and knees?!"

Silence followed, then my husband and I burst out laughing.

"Uh, no. I don't think I'll be doing that," I responded incredulously. My mother-in-law didn't push the subject, and the hairdryer lay unused in the top drawer that night.

I get along very well with my husband's family. It has been nearly 11 years since I first met them, and they have welcomed me into the fold with open arms. (Either that, or I am really thick-skinned!)

But when I became pregnant, my feelings quickly shifted from initial excitement to dread at my mother-in-law's impending visit.

She had decided to stay with us for the first six weeks after the birth of her first grandchild. I became convinced that I would soon be living and breathing every single horror story ever told about mothers-in-law.

Living in Australia didn't help my hormonal imagination. My Australian colleagues and friends were aghast when I mentioned the length of my in-laws' impending visit.

At my Pilates class, my instructor recounted how she was horrified when another client told her that her in-laws would be staying for two weeks.

I didn't have the heart - or energy - to tell her the truth, or explain how trying to limit a mother-in-law's stay in Asian families would be the equivalent of initiating World War III.

To add to this, I wasn't a real believer of the benefits of a confinement period. I rebelled against the idea of being told what I could and couldn't do, especially when I couldn't find the logic in some of the practices.

I knew that washing my hair, going out and getting some fresh air every day, and eating what I felt like would be necessary for my mental health. So anticipating my mother-in-law's restrictions grated at me.

I bristled at any mention of Chinese postpartum traditions. In my mind, my mother-in-law's well-intentioned comment about blow-drying my joints defined the person she would become once the baby arrived. I just knew she was going to be impossible to deal with.

I worked myself up over how I thought the six weeks post-partum was going to play out. I imagined the battles I would have to fight, and strategised about how I would approach each scenario. I'd never faced any conflict with my mother-in-law, so it was unchartered territory.

But for my sanity, I told myself I'd have to Stand Up For My Rights. I told my husband, in a martyred tone, that I didn't expect him to play the referee, I would do it myself.

My hackles were raised each time she mentioned anything related to post-birth care, like when she told me that my first meal had to be fresh fried rice with goji berries, ginger and chicken that she would make for me. But what if I felt like lime Jello from the hospital menu, or sushi?!

Then in March, my daughter Arianna (named after Ms Teoh, not Miss Grande) was born. And I learnt, over the course of the next six weeks, how incredibly misguided my fears had been.

While I recovered in hospital, my mother-in-law got the house ready, purchased special pots, utensils and ingredients to make the confinement dishes and took our dog out for his walks.

When we arrived home, freshly prepared dishes weighed down my dining table at each mealtime ... kampung chicken, fresh fish, lots of veggies, omelettes with mint from our garden, and so much more. In between that, I had nourishing soups, and longan and red date drinks, prepared fresh daily. I gobbled down every single thing.

My mother-in-law was up before 7am every day, ready to watch over Arianna so I could have a nap and recover from the night feedings, or to start preparing ingredients for the next round of dishes. The laundry was washed, dried and folded and the house tidied regularly.

The sleep deprivation and hormonal fluctuations must have meant I wasn't a very nice person to be around in those first few weeks. I was weepy, exhausted and couldn't carry on a conversation to save my life.

Yet, there was not a single occasion when I felt any negativity from the in-laws. Not once do I remember being told that I couldn't do something, or should do something, that I wasn't prepared to do. I washed my hair, I took Arianna out for a daily walk and I even ate ice cream.

I wasn't told how to raise my child, but was left to learn at my own pace. Instead of my mother-in-law being the territorial overlord I had created in my mind, her presence was the best thing I could have hoped for.

I had become so accustomed to being independent that I'd forgotten what it was like to be taken care of.

After the initial shock of having a baby had worn off, I realised how incredibly lucky I was to have someone in my life who was generous enough to devote her time and energy to my well-being. And instead of dreading subsequent visits as I had expected - there are another two booked in the next six months - I am really looking forward to having my in-laws over.

And you know what? After being unable to eat anything for a full day during labour, followed by a drug-free birth, that fried rice she prepared for me was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Born and bred in Malaysia, Sharon Choo now calls Melbourne home. She has pressed pause on a career in marketing and is focusing on being a new mum.