Recently, I sent a list of six questions to my women friends asking about their relationship with their mother-in-law or their daughter-in-law. The answers came back almost immediately, telling me this is a hot topic.
I remember the day my son announced his engagement. I was thrilled — just filled with happiness for him and his intended bride. But soon after came the realization that I’d be a mother-in-law. I wasn’t quite as thrilled.
Why? Well, to be honest, mothers-in-law have a bad reputation. They are the butt of jokes about their heavy hand, their unwanted advice, and their tendency to see no wrong in their precious sons, even when they’re acting like rats. How to combat the stereotype? How to do better?
One place to begin in understanding this uncertain relationship is to think of our own nuclear families. Ideally, relationships between parents and children are based on a foundation of unconditional love. We love our parents and they love us. We love our children and they love us. But even in this most natural of relationships, there are tensions. Add to that a merging of two different family backgrounds and traditions, and the room for misunderstanding and animosity is multiplied many times.
So what were the findings? What themes ran through all the successful relationships and what trouble spots reared their ugly heads over and over?
Here are the six questions I asked. You might want to jot down some answers of your own.
• If you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, name three reasons why.
• If there are problems in the relationship, give the general areas of tension, e.g. parenting, holidays, communication, etc.
• Name three areas that might be “touchy” in the relationship.
• When you experience tension or misunderstandings, what helps? Conversation, heart-to-hearts, letting it go? Other?
• Talk about the role of advice in your relationship. Do you appreciate it? Feel confident in giving it? Hate it?
• What would be the ideal in-law relationship in your opinion?
Not surprisingly, the most successful relationships were built on mutual trust and understanding. Many younger women spoke of uncertainty and lack of confidence in their role as daughters-in-law in their early years of marriage. As they were learning to be a wife, they also had to take on the responsibility of a relationship with a woman they barely knew. Those who developed a positive relationship, even a friendship, went through a time of testing, learning to trust, and deciding to “let it go” when there was the possibility of misunderstanding words or circumstances.
One of the loveliest answers I got was from a woman in her 50s who spoke of accepting her mother-in-law just as she is — a quirky, sometimes inappropriate, and seemingly unloving woman. She has learned to accept strange, random re-gifts rather than store-bought ones, she has learned to understand the woman will not play the role of a loving grandmother to her children, but still she determined to love her as she is and not as she wishes she would be.
Another young woman spoke of feeling offended and even attacked by her mother-in-law when she received unwanted advice and criticism about things such as time management, finances, and discipline of her children.
The solution to this relationship in jeopardy came when the husband stepped up and stood with his wife. Once the wife felt affirmed, she was free to see words of advice in a better light, not as condemnation, but as alternate choices and ones she was free to follow or ignore. The key was not feeling ganged up on by a mother-and-son combo.
Almost universal was the concept of mutual respect. Respect doesn’t mean taking advice or believing the same ways. It doesn’t mean managing another’s behavior or changing their personality. What it does mean is letting the other person be themselves, warts and all.
I’d have to add that kindness and a sense of humor go a long way in any new or awkward relationship. Giving the benefit of the doubt relieves the tension of perceived competitive or jealous ambitions, the tendency to judge or be judged, and the possibility of offending without meaning to. Many pitfalls are avoided if both women see the other through eyes of love and acceptance, ascribing positive motives to their sometimes less-than-admirable behaviors.
• Allow your mother-in-law to continue to play a role in her son’s life. She’s earned it.
• Know that strong relationships take time to build. In the meantime, be willing to let things go for the sake of a future relationship.
• Don’t assume your mother-in-law will be just like your own mother (or any other person you know).
• As much as possible, keep conversation positive, free of gossip, and respectful.
• Agree to disagree on touchy topics.
• Appreciate efforts to help even if you have to set boundaries.
• Learn to listen to advice without necessarily taking it.
• Be patient. You may one day become a mother-in-law.
• Accept the fact that your son has chosen another woman to love and respect.
• Display love and affection honestly. Know it may take some time for the relationship to mature.
• Overlook flaws or failings in your daughter-in-law. Try to remember what it was like to be a new wife.
• Speak positive things to her and about her.
• Understand she is young and may change some of her opinions and habits.
• Refrain from giving unsolicited advice, even if you’re “right.”
• Be supportive and willing to help if needed.
• Be patient. You were once a young, inexperienced woman.
In general, the answers to the six-question survey were heartfelt — the topic mattered to the women who answered.
Very few reported a perfectly smooth road to a healthy relationship, but rather they learned over time to build a friendship based on acceptance, kindness, and love.
Jan Pierce is a retired teacher and freelance writer specializing in education, parenting, and family-life. Find her at www.janpi