Managing Your Mother-in-Law

Ladies, I know how hard it is to deal with your Mother-in-Law. I’ve had one and I am one. This qualifies me as an expert.

So she’s in your family but she’s not of your blood. She cooks things your partner likes but you hate. Maybe she plays favorites among her children, and your spouse isn’t the favorite. She has hurt your husband/wife over the years, knowingly and unknowingly (and you know waaay too much about those events). She has definite ideas about YOUR children – how to raise them, what they should be wearing and eating, when they should go to bed. She may smell funny (my ex-MIL doused herself in Eau de Mothballs perfume), or wear too much makeup (my mother would stick her giant lipsticked lips in my kids’ faces for a kiss – yuchhh). She has bad taste and gives you stupid presents that prove that. OMG – I already hate myself!

But there is also some good to be found in your MIL. First of all, she loves your partner as much as you do (unless she is that favorite-playing type), so you have that  common bond. She may know things about him/her that can be helpful to you. YOU may have learned things about her child that can be helpful to her. She can be useful in drawing out info from your spouse about something troubling him/her. She can be a co-conspirator in getting him/her to change bad habits!

She has experience raising children, albeit during the Pleistocene Era, but she may have helpful tips to share. Experienced older mothers have radar that tells them why a baby is crying or fussing or not sleeping. I can’t explain it, but we just KNOW. Now this is a tricky area, because nobody likes a know-it-all, especially when it comes to your own kid. But her ideas may be worth a try – usually can’t hurt, sometimes might even help.

All of this presumes your MIL is somewhat polite, reasonably intelligent and not mean. If she’s a witch, I can’t help you, except to advise that you move far away from where she lives. But if she’s merely a bumbling fool who is mostly harmless, I do have some advice for you. This works for your own mom too. Pretend she is a sweet but batty neighbor lady who means well but also needs to be affirmed and made to feel she matters.

I used to pretend my mother was one of my clients. If an elderly client complained to me about minorities getting all the government benefits while she was struggling on her “fixed income,” I would never take her head off and tell her what a freaking bigot she is, or snarl and say, “Try raising 4 kids on half of your fixed income, like my other clients have to do.”  No, I would say, “Really? That must be upsetting to you. But I wonder if you know that Social Security Disability benefits are really difficult to get – for everyone, no matter what their color. Did you know that mothers who get state cash benefits have to work full time in order to be eligible for that benefit? And no one EVER gets enough money from the government – I know YOU know all about that.” So affirm, affirm, affirm, even as you gently make your point.  Then quickly change the subject!

Make sure you encourage your partner not to forget about your MIL. Encourage them to spend time together without you or your kids in the picture. Not only does this go a long way with your MIL, it shows your children something important about how grownups should treat their parents. They will see that it’s okay with YOU to let your spouse have alone time with his/her mom, and will absorb that. They will also see that your partner WANTS to spend time with Mom, and will absorb that too. After all, eventually you will be a MIL, and you’re putting money in the bank with this tip. And — it’s one less visit for you to endure.

My final tip may be tough to carry out, especially if you don’t particularly like your MIL. Think about letting her spend time alone with your kids, as long as she is of relatively sound mind. Most grandmothers adore their grandchildren, and giving her time with them is the greatest gift you can give to her, as well as to your kids. If her home is full of dangerous trinkets, invite her to watch the kids at your house.  If she’s nosy, find a place to hide your personal stuff before she arrives. Go on a short outing, like grocery shopping, that you can really savor doing on your own (instead of dreading doing it with the kids). Everybody wins!

It’s such a tricky relationship to manage, but remember, she probably will be in your life for a long time. Assume she has the best of intentions and don’t take ANYTHING personally. Remember all the things you share and try to find some additional common ground. If all else fails, grit your teeth and tell yourself that her visits can’t last forever!

14 thoughts on “Managing Your Mother-in-Law

  1. This post is fabulous. I am really lucky that, like Dena, my mother-in-law is wonderful. She’s just a good human being. She’s respectful of boundaries, but always offers to help out. She loves spending time with the girls and it makes me melt to see how they adore her. Especially since she is the only grandma they have. I’m so, so fortunate and I try to make sure she knows how much I appreciate her.

  2. I just want to say that I have an amazing mother in law! She flat out told me of stories of how her mother in law treated her and that she didnt want to have that with me because she knows how it feels and that its for no reason because we love the same person, her son! Her mother in law was horrendous, she would make her son choose between his wife or his mother or shame her in front of everyone by bashing her child rearing decisions, that she wasnt a good wife or mother, it was a very trying time for her. My MIL is respectful of boundaries, treats me like a daughter, shes just amazing! I always look forward to when she comes and visits and I love staying at her house when my husband is gone for his army trainings.

  3. My mother in law absolutely has boundary issues. I’ve learned to let a lot go and understand that as you said, her visits will be over soon. However, there are times when its so far over the line that it truly affects me. I end up harboring grudges and I don’t want that. I want our relationship to be good. I struggle with finding a way to communicate politely to her that what she has done has been hurtful because I’m a new wife and that it can be scary finding your way in a new role. I want to be very good at it so I’m sensitive about it. However, I’m always afraid that if I do say anything she will take it as a personal attack on her, which I don’t mean it to be. It’s a constant struggle that I’m trying to learn to conquer.

    1. You have the nightmare situation, Krystal. I sympathize/empathize, because there were times my ex-MIL truly drove me mad. I couldn’t even think of any good qualities to balance out the bad, and she wasn’t actually evil — she just rubbed me the wrong way and got on my nerves. Is there anything your spouse can do to make it easier? One of the things we used to do, once I realized that he felt the same way about his family, was to share glances across the room whenever they did stupid stuff, as if we were enjoying a private joke. Then we would talk about it afterward with great glee.
      Unfortunately, there are certain people who simply cannot/will not hear that they may have said something hurtful or out of line. My mother would snarl, “Well, I GUESS I have to watch everything I say to you!” And I would say, “YES! Yes you do — to me and to EVERYONE.” There’s something about becoming elderly that makes people think they have a license to speak without thinking about the effects of their words. Then you have to go into Batty Neighbor mode (see above), or say, “Oh look at the time! I have to go now and water my garden!”

  4. I don’t have a MIL – she passed away almost 12 years ago, when my now-husband and I had been dating a little over a year. She never got to see our wedding, much less grandchildren, and while time has eased the pain somewhat I know it’s been hard for my husband to go through most of his young adulthood without his mom. FIL’s girlfriend of a decade filled something of a MIL role to an extent for a long time, especially as a surrogate grandma to the grandchildren, but she too died last year. Friends tell me that I’m lucky to not have to deal with a MIL but we do feel an absence in our lives.

    I think my husband could use some of these tips with regard to my mom! She is wonderful and I love her, but she can be overbearing and have boundary issues at times.

  5. Haha — thanks for the explanation. It’s funny that she’s so good as a grandma and mom, but not as an MIL. I didn’t have room to mention that there can be jealousy mixed into the DIL-MIL relationship, if the MIL feels that her son has abandoned her or if the DIL is making the son do things the MIL thinks are wrong. That can be a really bad situation.

    I respect your decision re: handling your ILs the way you described. I had a great distaste for my MIL and wallowed in it, reveling in all the assholic things she would do or say. It was kind of amusing in a perverse way. Whatever gets you through the situation is OK!

  6. I love that you can provide both perspectives as a DIL and MIL. It shows that there really are two sides of the coin.

    My mom, though I love her, is an AWFUL MIL. She is a great grandma, though, and I’m lucky in that I can benefit from her “great grandma-ness” while simultaneously having the leeway to tell her to back if I need to. My SIL and my husband are not so lucky – I’m just glad she’s not MY MIL.

    My MIL (and FIL), although they are generally good people (despite the fact that my FIL has a wicked temper), don’t know the meaning of boundaries. It’s a long story that maybe I’ll tell some day, but it has really damaged our relationship as a family because I can’t stand to be around them anymore. Until they understand that, I think I prefer to take the passive approach to my relationship with them. I won’t deny them the chance to spend time with my husband or my kids, but I am not going to make any extra effort.

    1. SORRY! That’s “great grandma” as in “awesome” or “really fun” or however you’d interpret great in that context!

  7. Good points. We can all make efforts towards family harmony. I have a step-mother-in-law as my husband’s mother died years ago. His parents divorced when he was three and Dad married her. She and I are very different. But she is trying and wants our son to visit them in Maryland.

    1. How old is your son? I would have a tough time sending him on his own, unless he’s 20 or so. I’ve done this in the past: We all would go to Maryland (or wherever). Hubby and I stay in a hotel, and the kids stay at Grandma’s. So they get the parent-free time and quality bonding time, but you are close by and also the provider of safe transportation. And you and your spouse can go out on the town!

  8. I agree with you 100%. My MIL died suddenly 1 year ago yesterday and I feel guilty that I spent so much time whining about her faults rather than appreciating her unconditional love for my daughters and husband. She wasn’t perfect, but heck neither am I and I just hope to be half the grandma she was someday.

    1. Alyssa, I’m sorry about your family’s loss. You can honor her memory by talking to your daughters about her and telling funny and/or warm-hearted stories. My father died in 1989 when my kids were 8 and 3, and 2 of my nephews were 2 and 3. They, and the three nephews that were born after he died, talk about him as though they knew him. We had some videos of him (so important!) but mainly we told hilarious stories about him. So they will say, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll drive on top of the snow like Zeza,” who was legendary for never getting stuck. Not a substitute for the real thing, but a wonderful way to keep someone alive in their hearts…and yours! (I’m tearing up just writing this because I feel so sad that he missed out on them and they missed out on him.)

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