What would my Turkish kaynana (mother-in-law) think? On working women and workaholism


From Mary Yücel's article on Turkish matriarchs from Today''s ZamanThe Karagöz puppets would like me to announce that they are taking a sporadic vacation this month – and will only make occasional appearances here on Slowly-by-Slowly. They are exhausted and in need of a good, long nap. Instead, you will be hearing from me, Liz Cameron, as I have taken on the challenge of writing via dictation software for the coming month as part of Blogher’s December NaBloPoMo challenge – to write on the topic of “work” each day for the whole month. As some of you know, the past month has been a tough one for me, one in which I have realized that things are way out of whack for me when it comes to how I address my approach to work. Upon reflection, work is a central theme in the discussions and arguments that M. and I have as each half of a Turkish-American marital union, so I am hopeful for this to be a month of rich reflection on how east and west approach – work.

Lately, I have been realizing how my workaholism has caused iceberg-like problems in my life, problems floating just beneath the surface that are both medical and mental. Now that I am stuck without a writing hand and meekly dependant on dictation software, I have been unable to work, and have had a lot of time to think. And I have been spending a lot of thinking time sitting in our living room drinking glass upon glass of Turkish çay with lemon, meditating on the tiny tinker’s sound of demitasse spoon on glass as I stir the sugar into oblivion. And sitting there, with my çay, in our living room, I sit with three achingly gorgeous black and white photos of my kaynana (Turkish for mother-in-law). And as I sit with these photos, I think about my current-day workaholism and about how my life might be different if I was a wife in Istanbul in my kaynana’s era…and how there might be some middle path that would work for me, and for M.

When I get burned out on analyzing my situation too much, I just go back to the content of those photos of my mother-in-law again. Clearly, my kaynana is the epitome of graciousness. Always dressed to the nines, she poses perfectly in those photos, nary a hair out of place and always looking at me with what can only be described as a deeply kind, understanding and warm-hearted smile. She has a muted glow emanating from her, even in these photos, and it gives me great comfort to feel that glow from her. I can only imagine what my kaynana must have looked like in real life, as I never had the chance to meet her. She died the same year as my biological mother.

Now, many people joke about the best mother-in-law being a dead mother in law – and all I say to that is “how crass!” Although, truth be told, I have never experienced a terrible one, I suppose. As a woman married to a Turkish man, I have noted that many write about the challenges of marriage to a Turkish man – especially with regard to the relationship with their kaynana – just try a google search and you will come up with a veritable cornucopia of commentary on the topic. Mary Yücel, for example, provides a typology of Turkish mother-in-laws – but takes a positive spin. Natalie Sayin, for example, writes with hilarity about her short-lived membership in the elite Turkish housewives club in a way that is a tiny window into her life with her kaynana. Zeynep Kilic writes about her “exotification” in the dating process – after two marriages to Turkish men ended, with a slight but large enough mention of the ways that their mothers, perhaps, got in the way. American women who are married to Turkish men often find solace in a secret conversation with me about the challenges of their relationship with their kaynana – knowing that I won’t spill the beans. And Turkish women that I know too, have referenced the struggles with their particular kaynana as well. Clearly, the Turkish male worship of their mothers rivals that of Mary, Mother of God worship – or the Virgin of Guadelupe, perhaps, but perhaps in less of a healthy way. And it is for this reason that I feel extremely lucky, as I have a wonderful, imaginary relationship with my phantom kaynana.

And so over these past weeks on medical leave, sitting in my pajamas at mid-day, depressed as all get out with my arm in a sling, reflecting on the past 7 years of my workaholic academic life and floundering about where to go from here, I can only imagine what my kaynana would think of me. I must admit, I would rather keep the glowing image of her in these three photographs, with an idealist image of a friendly, respectful relationship in which she taught me all she knew about Turkish cuisine, for example. But I can only imagine what she might have thought of her American daughter-in-law, the workaholic with fly-away hair, unkempt fingernails, microwave meals and a racing, workaholic heart most of the time. Now, although she did have household help given the family economics and culture of Istanbul at the time, M. tells me that she did much of the cooking and tending to her boys. So, as a feminist, of course, I must honor the fact that she, too, was a working woman.

And as these last couple of months came crashing down into my shoulder injury and parallel major depressive episode, it was, in part, the observation of these photographs of my kaynana as I ran out the door to work in what can only be described as a harried and frenzied state, that made me realize that my life was indeed massively out-of-whack, so to speak. While we cannot afford the luxury of the life my kaynana led, there is a lesson in the need for self-care, order and calm seas in one’s life.

Tomorrow, I will talk about how I have imagined the presence of my kaynana during a typically crazy American academic work day. I hope you will stay tuned!

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9 Responses to What would my Turkish kaynana (mother-in-law) think? On working women and workaholism

  1. Turklish says:

    I’m looking forward to your reflections on working styles and work-life balance. I know these are big issues a lot of us (by us I mean women in general and, from my experience, women in academia especially) grapple with on a day to day basis.

  2. Alan says:

    . . hmmm! Introspection can be like a bacterium – helpful or dangerous

  3. Nancy says:

    Ah, but you and M fell in love in the midst of huge working years, PhD years, tenure years, and your love blossomed into marriage. If it were Turkish homebodies M were drawn to, he wouldn’t be here. And he fell in love with the spirit he saw, felt, heard, in a woman so fully engaged in her life. Not a woman living quietly, traditionally. Something in him opened to you, American working woman. But now you are hurt. And grieving. And recovering, And revisiting childhood where so much love lived that is no longer walking around this earth. And slowly by slowly you are returning to this world, leaving them to their next world, emerging again from the ocean of tears. Work may not be the thing that has hurt so . . . . . . . healing takes time, especially when loss has been huge . . . go slow, drink cay, keep writing . . .

  4. gold account says:

    Elti (two brothers’ wives to each other), baldız (the wife’s sister), bacanak (two sisters’ husbands to each other), kayınço (kayınbirader) (the wife’s brother), görümce (the husband’s sister) kayınvalide or kaynana (mother-in-law), kayınpeder or kaynata (father in law) are the relatives you have by marriage.

  5. Pingback: Take your kaynana to work day: A Turkish mother-in-law’s observations of an academic | Slowly-by-Slowly

  6. E. says:

    Dear Nancy, thank you so much for these thoughts, which means so much to me. Of course you were right all the things I am dealing with are not directly about work. What I am coming to realize is that the way I became a workaholic and got so out of balance was in response to not dealing with some of the pain of all that. But I feel I am on a good course now, thank goodness. Sending love, Liz

  7. E. says:

    Dear Alan, how true this is. I think I am in a very introspective phase after years of not doing so when I really needed to. So a bacterium yes but perhaps a good one for now. Sending love, Liz

  8. E. says:

    Dear L, Would that I had the answers on worklife balance. I feel for you as you are in the thick of your doctorate, as I understand it. And worklife balance is elusive there. My sense is that in Turkey, there is an easier path to worklife balance in large part as a result of the way the economy works, and the availability of household help. Although I have also seen female colleagues and friends who Really struggle with the expectation to be the supermom or super wife and have a job that’s meaningful. I mean here, in my professor role, it is something like an 80 or 90 or even 100 hour work week just to be as good as they want me to be – some of that is my own making an choice but I don’t want to be seen as slacker like some of the other people I work with. It’s not healthy, but it’s what’s required and a big part of me wants out of that rat race. There’s going to be a big choice for you about whether you go into the industry to a teaching university or research university well I suppose that’s if you guys staying the states but I think it’s a bit different in Turkey. I wish my mother-in-law or rather I should say my phantom mother in law had the answer. But I Think nobody has the answer. It’s just trying away for yourself, with your partner. So obviously this dictation software lets me blather on and on and we really should be having a telephone conversation. I’ll be in touch soon. Best, Liz your sister in the joy and struggle of Turklish marriage

  9. Pingback: Yavaş yavaş: On the work of managing childhood trauma | Slowly-by-Slowly

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