Mother-in-law: enemy or ally?

A happy mother-in-law is the best defence. He can't possibly resist both of you.
A happy mother-in-law is the best defence. He can't possibly resist both of you. Photo: Thinkstock

It's strange, isn't it, how an ordinary family event can really make you concentrate your mind on a serious political issue.

This Sunday, 75 people are coming to lunch. We have carnivores and vegans, gluten-free and gluttonous, 90 years old and 90 weeks old.

Yes, it's my mother-in-law's 90th birthday, and we're having the party at our house.

As soon as I tell people this, they roll their eyes. They say, ''Oh, you poor thing.'' And they recount some experience they had with their mother-in-law, or, more lately, their daughter-in-law.

But hell, people, I'm a daughter-in-law. And I vote. What I'd like to vote for now is a complete rethink on this primal relationship. It's the relationship between the woman who had the child - and the woman who married the child when he became an adult.

Of course your mother-in-law isn't perfect, but neither are you. And honestly, I'm hopeless more days than I care to count

So on behalf of feminists everywhere - in fact, on behalf of women everywhere - I want to campaign on behalf of one particular sector of women, a group which has been much maligned through the centuries.

The mother-in law.

We've all heard the endless stories: the mother-in-law who arrives and runs her finger through the dust on the mantle; the mother-in-law who criticises the way the kids are dressed, eat their dinner and where they go to school.

But how much of this is just what we do to each other anyway? I doubt I'd have a single female friend who thinks the way I keep house is perfect - and if any were amazed by the cleanliness of my home, I'd be booking them an appointment with an ophthalmologist very quickly.


And parenting criticism? My God, that's what our friends are for. They're the ones who tell us it's a bit important that kids don't pick their nose in public. Of course I know I should remember to remind my darlings to blow and not pick, but between making sure they know their times tables and making sure they don't run in to oncoming traffic, my brain is full. And somehow, when my female friends remind me of these things, I'm okay with it.

And so I wonder why it's suddenly not okay when the advice comes from a person with 30 years more experience than we have. That's the bit that puzzles me.

Here is a person who - at least initially - knows our partner better than we do. Here is why she knows him so well: he grew in her body, in those days most probably delivered him through her vagina, fed him at her breast. She cleaned his bum, nose, clothes. Fed him thousands of meals, listened to his worries and successes. Nagged, stroked, chided, encouraged.

Of course your mother-in-law isn't perfect, but neither are you. And honestly, I'm bloody hopeless more days than I care to count.

When you dismiss your mum-in-law and think her advice isn't worthwhile, you're just making sure your daughter-in-law can do that to you, too. It's not a pattern that's worth repeating, and it does so much damage. I'm not sure and have no evidence, but surely even the most independent son has a secret yearning to reconcile the two women he loves.

To be honest, I'm going to struggle being as good a mother-in-law as the one I have. She doesn't judge me, her son or our kids. She sees us regularly but isn't needy or nagging. She remembers birthdays and Christmas and is complimentary about her son's cooking (my cooking not so much, but I think she's a pretty honest person).

Me, on the other hand? Well, I'm querulous, think my own children are perfect, and am already pretty sure no-one will ever be good enough for them. But I'm already conscious of the idiocy of that mindset, and of the damage it can do.

There's lots of research out there about the relationship between daughters- and mothers-in-law, and it's clear that there are different tastes in what we want from these relationships. Some of us want distance; some of us want presence.

Christy Rittenour, an assistant professor of family and interpersonal communication at West Virginia University, has had her findings summarised this way:

''A mother-in-law helps to create a family relationship by making the daughter-in-law feel as if she can come into the family just as she is. Not only does the mother-in-law listen, chat and share stories with the daughter-in-law, just as she would with her own daughters, but she also does so without ignoring or trying to change the things that make the daughter-in-law unique. She embraces the daughter-in-law for who she already is.''

And, of course, that's ideal. But just remember that your mother-in-law is a woman who doesn't always do the right thing. Neither do I. And neither do you.

In the meantime, remember this: a happy mother-in-law is the best defence. He can't possibly resist both of you.

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