How to Treat Your MIL

In the New MOMs group, we often spend a session talking about mothers-in-law.    It’s a famous thing to joke about the woman who raised your child’s other parent, right? She’s unappreciative?  Clueless?  Finds you inadequate?  Brags about all the things she did that made your partner turn out so awesome?  Expects you to cater to her?  Doesn’t really like you?  Thinks you’re not quite good enough for her precious child?  Wants to see the baby too much, or not enough?  Doesn’t see how weird and idiosyncratic and demanding she is?  Doesn’t do things the way *your* family does?

OK, friends, check it out:  One day you may well be someone’s mother in law.  

Put that thought into your waffle iron and toast it while you make your next set of plans to see your partner’s mom.  What kind of mother in law would you be?  

Today I was reading a humor piece on Huffington Post by a woman with a five year old son, looking ahead to a time when she’s the mother in law, full of demands and expectations of her son’s future wife.  

I don’t think I’ve ever known a mother to obsess over her infant daughter's future spouse, but it's a thing I've seen often among mothers of sons.  Just the other day, I was talking to a group of new moms about their feelings about their babies' gender.  Of course everyone starts out saying, “I'm just happy to have a healthy baby,” but beyond that, many of us also do have some feelings about raising a boy or raising a girl.  And sure enough, one point that is often raised by mothers of sons is:  ”One day he'll marry someone and his wife won't like me and she'll want him to do all the holidays with her family and they'll move away and I'll be left all alone!  Whereas if I had a girl, she'd stay with me forever.”

There are many assumptions here that make me really uncomfortable — hetero-normative, sexist and marriage-normative.  (Maybe your son will be with a guy!  Maybe your son will marry someone who has two dads and you’ll be the only grandma! Maybe your son won’t get married! and so on).  But let’s get away from all that stuff and talk about what else is going on here?

Because assumptions aside, it sure is common for women married to men to incorporate their own family traditions, not in a 50-50 balance with their husband’s family’s traditions, but in a way that prioritizes her family’s access.  In many hetero marriages, the bride’s mother “gets” family holidays and access to grandbabies in a way that the groom’s mother doesn’t.  

Sometimes the new moms I work with who have sons, are already anticipating this imbalance and worrying about being the excluded Mother-In-Law, even when their babies are still in diapers.  This feeling is summed up in the HuffPost piece, which parodies a “prenup” the author wants her five year old son’s future wife to sign — a contract which puts mom at the center of her son’s life forever.

It’s meant to be a joke of course, but it’s not exactly a joke — it’s also an expression of this anxious feeling that one day your son will leave you after all the earnest love you’ve poured into him for these long months and years.  Those feelings, and the anticipation, are normal, and worth exploring.  Who doesn’t feel the bittersweet of a child’s eventual independence?

But you can do more than fret about this.  There’s actually something you can do:  be nice to your own mother in law.  And encourage your baby’s dad to be loving and expressive about how much he digs her, too.  Because your baby learns, more than anything, by watching what you do.  You want him to be good to you when you’re the mother in law?  Give him an example.  

I wondered, reading the HuffPost piece, how the writer treats her precious son’s grandma on dad’s side.  Does she follow the rules she hopes a future daughter in law would?   Does she include her and love her and consider her an equal grandma to her own mother?  Does she encourage her husband to be generous and loving and expressive about how much he loves his mama?  When you do these things — and holyOMFG they sometimes require a LOT of character on your part! — but when you do them, the message your son gets is:  grown-ups are good to their mothers; it has nothing to do with being a boy or a girl.  

Being good to your mother in law doesn’t mean taking away from your own mother.  Likewise, when your husband is good to, and loyal to, and enthusiastic about his mom, it doesn’t mean he is picking her over you.  There’s enough love to go around.  That’s what family is about.

But maybe your MIL is whack!  Recently a student of mine confided that her mother in law had just said something like, “Well, you’re better at being a mother than I would have guessed!  Even though you can’t cook.”  

Sometimes your partner’s mother is so freaking difficult that you absolutely marvel that she created him.  But honestly, your future child-in-law may think just the same about you, right?  So — don’t you think you ought to teach your kid how to behave in case you turn out whack yourself?

It is hard to turn the other cheek.  And I am absolutely NOT saying you should lie down and passively accept anything abusive from any family member!  It is vital to set good boundaries with parents and in-laws who can’t play nicely.

But I think only good can come of a lifetime of showing your child that when it’s family, you try to look for the best in someone, try to focus on what might make a positive relationship, and try to find ways to lovingly connect — because that’s how we take care of our family.