Mothers-in-law have been the butt of millions of jokes, obscuring the very real truth that the role of mother-in-law is one of the trickiest and yet one of the most important in ensuring healthy family dynamics. One who wants to be a good grandmother should first study how to be a good mother-in-law, as this relationship usually precedes and sets the tone for the role of grandmother.
Mother-in-law relationships come in two basic varieties: Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, in which the biological child is a son, and mother-in-law/son-in-law, in which the biological child is a daughter. Most mother-in-law jokes spring from the second relationship: A male comedian is typically the one making jokes about his mother-in-law.
Interestingly, it is the other variety -- the combination of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law -- that is responsible for most of the truly troubled mother-in-law relationships. That's the conclusion reached by Dr. Terri Apter, author of What Do You Really Want From Me?: Learning to Get Along With In-laws. According to an article in Time magazine, Apter's research found that 60% of daughters-in-law reported stressful relationships with their mothers-in-law, as opposed to only 15% of sons-in-law.
Why So Stressful?
The relationship between a mother and her son's wife is tension-filled because it engenders a natural competition. "Each is the primary woman in her primary family," Apter writes. In addition, no matter how much times have changed, women are still primarily responsible for child care, housework and other domestic matters. Women's egos tend to be wrapped up in these functions, and they take criticism very seriously, whether that criticism is overt or merely implied. In addition, many experts believe that women are more intuitive and empathic than men. That means that they may pick up on subtly disparaging behavior that the males in the family may miss altogether. That explains why a woman may become angry with her husband for not taking her side. The man may be blissfully unaware that the woman is under attack.
The Critical Mother-in-Law
The primary rule for a mother-in-law who wants to get along with a daughter-in-law is "Avoid criticism." Don't criticize your daughter-in-law to her face. Don't be critical of her to your son or even in the company of friends. Don't act in ways that send critical messages, as in the following situations:
- Don't clean up her house. The implication: You're a bad housekeeper.
- Don't give unsolicited advice. The implication: You don't make good decisions.
- Don't give gifts that send a negative message, like self-help books or gym memberships: The implication: You're not acceptable as you are.
Another game mothers-in-law shouldn't play is handing out criticism thinly veiled as praise. The mother-in-law who praises a daughter-in-law's relaxed attitude when she really thinks the daughter-in-law is a slob is fooling no one.
The Possessive Mother-in-Law
The major conflict between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law arises from this: The mother was the most important woman in her son's life. Now the wife is. That is entirely as it should be, yet many mothers have difficulty with it, especially if they are widowed or divorced, or if they do not have close relationships with other children. Mothers should go to great lengths to avoid making a son choose between her and his wife, even in trivial matters. It's a battle that just can't be won.
The Too-Helpful Mother-in-Law
Lots of mothers-in-law are great helpers. They loan money, run errands and help with chores. This is the mother-in-law who often arrives with a home-cooked meal, a bag full of groceries or a gift of a household item. The help may be appreciated at first, especially if the couple is young. Eventually, however, this type of mother-in-law will be the target of a backlash, as the couple realizes that not only are they capable of taking care of themselves, but also that they actually want to do it. By then the mother-in-law's behavior may be so ingrained that nothing short of a dramatic rift will change it. No one wants a young couple to suffer or to go without, but in the absence of real need, mothers-in-law should let them take care of themselves.
The Pushy Mother-in-Law
Pushy is a somewhat deceptive term for a certain kind of mother-in-law, the type who doesn't recognize boundaries. Sometimes this mother-in-law is conventionally pushy, but sometimes she is quiet and unassuming, yet keeps showing up without having been invited. Here are ways mothers-in-law can avoid disputes over boundaries:
- If you are given a key to the home of an adult child, use it only when asked to do so or in case of a real emergency.
- Don't drop in without calling, and give adequate notice.
- Don't assume that you'll be invited along on trips and vacations, and don't expect to be invited to every party and social occasion.
- When your daughter-in-law is pregnant, don't assume that you'll be invited to the birthing room or even to the hospital. As hard as that decision may be for grandmothers to accept, it is the young parents' call. See the discussion on this topic in the grandparents forum.
When Mothers-in-Law Become Grandmothers
Once the mother-in-law has become a grandmother, maintaining good relationships is even more important, as the children are now the gateway to the grandchildren. Grandparents who have carefully cultivated cordial relations will reap the benefits of being trusted family members. Those who have fostered family conflict instead may find themselves helping their grandchildren weather divorce. Even worse, grandparents who promote conflict instead of harmony often find themselves estranged from their grandchildren, which is one of the saddest of situations.
Although it's crucial not to nurture conflict, there is also the danger that a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who are always on eggshells around each other will never develop a real relationship. Apter calls it "self-silencing" and warns that it will not tame the "awful in-law stereotype." Mothers-in-law need to learn the first rule for communicating with adult children: Family ties are no excuse for rudeness. Treat a daughter-in-law the same way you would treat any young person with whom you'd like to build a relationship, and success is more likely to follow.
Read about mother-daughter relationships and about how the birth of children changes the relationship.