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Mother-in-Law: fiend or foe? I mean friend. Friend or foe?

One of the most complicated relationships that comes along with a new marriage is that of the wife and her mother-in-law. Sure, there are some over-the-top examples of how tough this can be on TV and on screen: Everybody Loves Raymond and Monster-in-Law are the first to jump into my brain. And while most of us are lucky enough to escape such a stereotypical relationship with our own m-i-l, the truth is, these can be tough waters to navigate. There’s something in the bond between mother and son that makes it difficult when another woman — a woman that he’s chosen to be his partner — enters the picture.

I wish I had been given a “How To Handle Your In-Laws” manual along with my engagement ring. Or at least been shown an instructional film. I knew I didn’t want another mother, but wanted to respect her place in Jim’s world. But there were bumps in the road. Early on in my marriage, it was hard for me to figure out where my m-i-l was supposed to fit into my life. She and I couldn’t be more different: from religion, to upbringing, to politics, to lifestyle, we had almost nothing in common. Except for one thing of course: Jim. We could always talk about Jim. But this seemed to bother Jim a lot. So for a long time, we talked about the only other thing we found in common: the weather.

We were polite with each other, but didn’t have the same ease of conversation I had with my father-in-law and sister-in-law. It was a struggle and I found it draining. I spent sleepless nights trying figure out how to develop a relationship with her. And I should say — she’s a kind, loving, and friendly woman. She adores her son and wouldn’t hurt a fly. If I was a stranger, I’d probably think she was a delight…as her daughter-in-law, I couldn’t find an entry point to develop comfort around her.

Jim didn’t help at first. Unconsciously, he threw some wrenches in our works. Here’s a little story to illustrate this…

Jim doesn’t iron. He says he doesn’t know how and he refuses to learn. I told him I would iron his shirts when needed (which is rarely as Jim is Mr. Casual) if he would just learn how to do it. He said maybe. You should know that “maybe” is Jim’s way of saying “no” in hopes of avoiding immediate confrontation. Because we’re both stubborn, we hit an impasse: Jim wouldn’t let me teach him how to iron, therefore, I would not iron for Jim. This can be represented by the mathematical formula: a – b = c (c = 7 years of Jim getting his shirts pressed at the dry cleaners).

One fine weekend, we took the train out to the suburbs to meet up with Jim’s folks. We were all going to attend a wedding together. I packed my prettiest dress and Jim packed a suit and…you guessed it…a wrinkled shirt. He said he’d wear a wide tie and never take off his jacket. I sighed and rolled my eyes. I hadn’t yet learned the meaning of: “You can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.” After getting off the Metra, we quickly changed our clothes in Jim’s parents’ home. I came downstairs first (another stereotype shattered — Jim takes way longer to get ready than I do) and when Jim descended the stairs in a perfectly pressed shirt, I grew fangs and my nails sharpened to knife points. I kept my voice calm as I asked him, “Who ironed your shirt?” He looked like a man facing a firing squad. He gulped. Jim’s mom came downstairs cheerily and chirped, “I did!” See, Jim didn’t get what he wanted from me, so he turned to the other woman who will always take care of him: his mom. I informed her that Jim isn’t allowed to ask us to iron his shirts until he learns for himself. She looked at me like I was insane.

That’s when Jim and I had some long talks about our new partnership, the new team we had formed when we married. There’s no ‘mom’ in ‘team’. The rabbi didn’t pronounce us Husband, Wife, and Mother-in-Law on our wedding day and as far as I remember, there are only two names on our marriage license. Yes, we came from two separate families, we were brought up with their ideals and traditions, but we need to form our own.

That all happened a long time ago and my m-i-l and I are closer now. I look forward to our visits and constantly prod Jim, “Didja call your mother?” It was important to my marriage that I found a happy place with Jim’s mom. Most importantly, none of us is getting any younger, so we might as well just love the hell out of each other while we’re all still on this earth.

But if she EVER irons his shirts again, there’s gonna be a throwdown.

- Robyn Okrant



Your comments

  1. Kate says:

    If you substitute sew a button for ironing, a similar thing happened with me an my ex-bf. Wardrobe issues while getting ready at his parent’s house for a wedding.

    The ending was a little different though, his mother got pissed off at me and sighed and glared at me while asking me to just please sew the button on for him so she would have time to get herself ready.

    We were 25 and for the life of me, I could not figure out why a perfectly intelligent 25 year old couldn’t sew a button. More importantly, why he flat out refused to do it and expected it to be done for him. Before we even left to go to his parents I had told him that I would gladly show him how to sew the button on but I would not do it for him.

    I was completely resentful of her stepping in and pretty much forcing me to do something for him that I felt he could do for himself. More resentful of her not respecting that this was a conflict between the two of us that needn’t involve her. Even more resentful that I was made to feel like an awful person for not wanting to drop everything to please her little boy.

    She and I never had a good relationship and I learned shortly after that, he wanted a substitute mother and I wasn’t willing to be one.

    • Robyn Okrant says:

      You really struck a chord with me — it’s so important for our partners to step up and accept that their relationship with their mother changes when they enter into a commitment with another woman.

      And what is it with men and laundry-related activities?

  2. Michele says:

    My relationship with my MIL has always had its ups and downs. It’s taken me 10 years but I’ve finally come to realize that she sees me as the daughter she never had. Mother/daughter relationships are notorious for their complexity and my relationship with MIL is no different. If I disappoint her, she lets me know (and it is never politely put!). It’s hard for me to see her as my Other Mother, like she wants me to, so there has always been this wall between us that I’ve put up without meaning any harm. But the fact is, she is not my mother, so the relationship she wants with me cannot exist.

    Overall, I’m very lucky. She is a good woman that I respect and love. My husband treats her well but has cut the apron strings. She’s an excellent grandmother. But she can still drive me insane!

    • Robyn Okrant says:

      I love your comment because I so strongly relate to that wall you put up because you don’t want an Other Mother. I think that’s how I might have entered into my relationship with my m-i-l to begin with. Thanks a ton for sharing this.

  3. Sarah K says:

    I won the in-law lottery. I totally love them–in fact, I think they understand me better than my own parents at times.

    They are a very close family, which I love. It can get a little tight, but we’ve negotiated it well I think. And, I knew that going in. Why are people always surprised by things like this once they are married?

    Now that they live in our neighborhood, they are even more careful to give us our space. And, they had us think long and hard about whether moving there would be ok in the first place. We live in a medium sized city, and they could have lived anywhere. But, I found the exact house they were looking for and it happened to be a few streets over from us.

    It’s worked out really well, actually. Someone is always around to check your mail, let the dog out if you’re running late, etc. And, best of all, my wonderful mother in law has promised us free daycare when we have a baby! Can’t beat that!

    • readysetwife says:

      Sarah, that is so cool! I definitely wouldn’t mind my own folks living close. I’m not sure what Jim would think of that, even though he’s very close with my parents. And I think the daycare issue is MAJOR, especially in this economy. It’s lucky that you have that relationship with your MIL that you’re comfy with her caring for your future kiddos! xorobyn

  4. IamSusie says:

    Robyn, I also refuse to iron my husband’s clothes. He knows how to do it, but refuses as well, so all the shirts and pants are done at the dry cleaners. I never had a run-in with MIL about this, but she doesn’t understand why I don’t handle the checkbook and the household bills. I hold my ground on that one and point out that I do all the traditional husband jobs around here like all repairs, and home improvement, and furniture and toy assembly and I absolutely refuse to do the bills (although I took it over when husband was laid up for awhile after a bad car accident.)

    My MIL and I are very close. She is a wonderful, loving, supportive woman. When she visits, she makes the time with our family just a little bit more special. She is not my mother, I am close to my mother as well, but MIL is like a close friend who understands and respects our goals as a family. When she visits, we talk and talk about life, relationships, and the family. She is very kind and never says bad or mean things about anyone. Our politics are different and I had to stop her from talking political topics with my kids. She did and we have not had to revisit the issue again.

    She is less assertive than the women are in my own family and at first we had to get used to each other. During an early visit (about 20 years ago) when my husband and I were dating. I noticed that she waited on her sons hand and foot and they never even seemed to acknowledge her or thank her. I was totally annoyed with the boys who seemed to be reverting back to their teenaged years. I don’t recall how it all played out, but my husband doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore.

    My Father-in-law (they are divorced) is the difficult one. I didn’t even meet him until we’d dated for about 2 years. During one of our first visits with him he drank too much and made me cry. What a jerk.

    • readysetwife says:

      Hey Susie! Great to hear from you. That’s pretty funny about your husband’s shirts. Maybe they can all start a club. Oh — and the whole reverting back to their childhoods when they’re back with their folks. I have a theory about that…sometimes I think it’s because they’ve not developed an adult relationship with their parents. I think the parent/child dynamic is supposed to evolve as we mature, but for lots of us, we never moved forward. I’m not standing firm by that theory, but I’ve been batting it around :)

      You’ve brought up a whole layer of the MIL onion I haven’t experienced — how to handle differences of opinion you might have with her regarding how to raise kids. It sounds like your MIL is really respectful of the boundaries that you’ve set. That’s really terrific. But oy, that FIL of yours. Nice guy. Sheesh.

      xo
      robyn

  5. path train says:

    Nice post… Thanks for sharing your such a nice person!…

    • readysetwife says:

      I’m going to copy your comment and paste it in an email to my husband. you know, just in case he forgets :)

  6. Super! I love these delicate posts.

    • readysetwife says:

      cathleen and i get nervous about writing them sometimes, so the kudos do our hearts good! thank you. xoro

  7. tera hacks says:

    I thought you would have a better conclusion then that. You kind of left things up in the air a little.

    • admin says:

      It’s probably because I have A LOT more to write about on this topic. We’ll see if I come up with a conclusion. Can’t promise anything since it’s an always evolving relationship…