“A mother-in-law should be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.”
Without going to this extreme, many contemporary mothers-in-law make conscious efforts to monitor their behavior, but often to no avail. Once a woman becomes a mother-in-law she’s typically the butt of mother-in-law jokes and pejorative labels. It seems to be ingrained in our culture to view mothers-in-law as monsters-in-law.
Daughters-in-law describe significantly more conflict with their mothers-in-law than do sons-in-law. The prevailing explanation is that a triangle exists between the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law and son where the women are vying for the dominant male’s attention and/or locking horns over childcare and domestic management.
According to the parenting website Netmums, one in four daughters-in-law despise their mother-in-law, finding her “controlling.” In the same study one in ten daughters-in-law initiated moves to get away from their mother-law. British psychologist Terri Apter reports that 60% of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law bonds are highly strained.
As I searched the web for suggestions on how mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can get along, virtually all the scenarios were one-sided, offering advice to daughters-in-law for managing “toxic mothers-in-law.” Where’s the mutual responsibility? Where are mothers-in-laws’ voices heard or published?
Growing up I was indoctrinated into the monster-in-law image. As the only girl in the family I became my mother’s confidant, forced to listen to her endless complaints about my paternal grandmother. I’d hear accounts like, “Your father’s off again to see your grandmother who called saying she’s not well. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just looking for attention.”
I came to understand that my grandmother clung to my father, her only child, because my grandfather, a gambler and womanizer was inattentive towards his wife. My mother acknowledged that my grandfather was a bad character, but that didn’t extend to compassion for her mother-in-law.
When I got engaged and my mother met my future mother-in-law for the first time, she offered this verdict, “She’s tough. You’ll have to watch yourself.” There was some truth to this.
My Russian mother-in-law had immigrated to the US with her mother and three other small children, one an infant who died at Ellis Island. She had to be tough to survive. My mother-in-law became controlling and domineering with her family, intimidating them. I wish now I had sat longer with her story in order to overcome my knee-jerk reactivity towards her.
When my oldest son became engaged a luncheon was held to introduce me to his finance’s family. The scrutiny I received from my future daughter-in-law’s sisters made me feel like they were from the NSA. I concluded that I was being sized-up to determine the extent to which I’d be a problematic mother-in-law.
My son and daughter-in-law have been married for 15 years. We get along fine. She’s lovely. I’m proud of her mothering, her job with preschool kids and her activism.
No matter how hard I try, I seem unable to shake the image of the bad mother-in-law hovering in the background ready to inhabit me and cause havoc.
It’s not just families that program us for negative responses to the mother-in-law; the culture at large does its share. One of the most famous intrusive mothers-in-law in recent history is FDR’s mother, Sara Roosevelt.
She disapproved of her son’s marriage to Eleanor, never accepting Eleanor and constantly coming between the couple. At Sara’s funeral Eleanor confessed to a friend, “It is dreadful to have lived so close to someone for 36 years and feel no deep affection or sense of loss.”
I know friends who have good relationships with their daughters-in-law, but like me they confess to treading carefully. What will it take for us to eradicate the monster-in law-image? What function does it serve? Does it put the responsibility for domestic harmony on the women in the family, leaving the men off the hook?
Is it scapegoating older women so that their authority isn’t respected? How can women in this complex intergenerational relationship speak with honesty and kindness to each other and work through their issues?
Asking the questions is a start. As we search for answers, it seems important to factor in the parts ageism and sexism play in the bad raps against mothers-in-law.