Why is dealing with your mother in law so difficult? The only thing harder, perhaps, is dealing with your own mother! Even the most godly people I know often experience friction with their mother-in-law, and so it just seems inherent into the structure of things that one must be prepared for it. Even if you’ve never had a problem when you were simply married, know that with grandkids comes… Grandma.
I’ve thought very hard about the reasons why this is so. I even went so far one time as to ask a random grandma I met at the park I was visiting. She was kind of young and sporty, maybe 55, with sunglasses, and the not-quite-hovering but very involved with her grandkids type. She seemed pretty free and opinionated, but mild-mannered enough, so we started talking and she made this sort of bitter comment I recognized from my own family… something about what her son and daughter in law believed and “Well, it wouldn’t be that way if I could see the grandkids more, but you know how that goes these days…” She was clearly resentful about it but trying not to be rude, so I asked her. What did she think her daughter in law was doing wrong, and how does being a grandma affect how she felt?
Like many grandmothers, she felt she had a “right” to be involved with her grandchildren’s upbringing. She had raised her own children, obviously, and done well enough if her daughter in law wanted to marry one of them. She had learned how to do it–what was good and what was bad. And she could see where her children were making bad parenting decisions. They were too strict about food and sleep, and didn’t they know that little kids just need to be loved? The grandchildren were not receiving enough doting attention, story times, or the general feeling that they were the center of life not just along for the ride.
Not only that, but she as a grandmother was nothing like her own grandmother—she was young and energetic, going to live a long life, liberated in her opinions and generally not the stuffy old conservative person that knitted and wanted children seen but not heard. She was not really a “grandmother” but more like a second mother. She was wiser than her own grandmother was—about children and the world—and she could afford to travel and see her grandkids a lot. So why didn’t she have the right to parent them the way she wanted (instead of the way the parents wanted), as well as the right to tell the parents the right way to do things?
I am simplifying this two hour talk into oversimplified terms for this blog, but I did not put words into this nice grandmother’s mouth here. She explicitly said these things and was honest about how she felt. Which was nice for me. I didn’t know how grandmothers these days felt about their kids, nor mothers in law, but I had my own opinions. For two hours, she helped me get inside her head, which helped me understand and appreciate my own mother-in-law more. A lot of what she said had merit.
And yet, on the whole, I walked away disagreeing with her viewpoint and understanding why I have the conflicts I do with my mother in law. You can turn on Dr. Phil almost any time he is talking about mothers in law and you see it is the same story over and over again… pushy grandmothers who take over their daughter in law’s parenting, spoil the grandkids, and try to ally the husband against the daughter in law. Generally saying manipulative things, making guilt-inducing maneuvers with the grandmothering, and generally believing (if not acting) as the high hoss of the household. Then the pretending innocent stance, and the inevitable marital conflict as the husband tries to protect his mother, defend his wife, reorient the household/kids, and eventually either blows up or sides with one to defeat the other.
And as I have talked with my other friends and seasoned women, here is a brief list of similarities I see among us:
- Divided loyalties. Husband sticks up for mother instead of wife.
- Bad fences. In-laws show up when/where not wanted.
- Draining physical and emotional energy. Times with in-laws are physically and emotionally exhausting because of change, pace, schedule, intentions.
- Lack of communication. Inability to talk to in-laws about the friction.
- Martyr syndrome. Daughter in law feels the need to please, impress, or placate mother in law at all times. (Mother in law may feel the same way about the daughter in law!)
- No mediator. Husband doesn’t want any part of the problem, leaves his mother and wife to figure it out on their own
- Differing expectations. Husband, wife, and grandkids all see something else as part of the goal/ideal relationship with the grandparents.
- No peers. Husband can’t listen to criticism about his parents too long; daughter in law needs to vent.
- No positive, proactive exchanges. So much time and energy is spent on resolving problems, that the relationship with the in-laws is only managed, it never is relaxed and built in love.
- Oversensitivity. Mother in law and daughter in law perceive nonverbal messages where there wasn’t intended to be any (i.e. especially through things like spoiling the kids, cooking or cleaning differences, privileges or quality time with the kids, etc)
- Immaturity. When the goings get tough, there is fighting, name-calling, storming out, or other rude and childish behavior.
- Overprojection; perceived effects on the kids. Kids are largely resilient but parents and in-laws worry about the other’s policies making the kids’ quality of life too horrible.
Somehow we need to all get along. I do not believe grandmothers have “rights” to parent the grandchildren. One day perhaps the courts will declare it so, but that will not make it so (excepting in the rare cases of actual abuse, etc.). And I do not believe grandmothers today are or feel essentially different than grandmothers in the past. They just think they do—perhaps because they are more liberated than previous generations, work and live longer, are wealthier, more independent, more traveled and worldly, etc. But they really aren’t… all grandmothers have battled staying silent when they see their own children making parenting mistakes. All previous generations of grandmothers have reveled in the fact they have grandchildren and now understand so much more about life. All generations have sought to treat their grandchildren to help them know they are loved, and to illustrate the special and different relationship they have with them in contrast to the parents. And almost all grandmothers have wished to see their grandchildren more, and to influence them with the wisdom they have spent long years and tears attaining. It’s just that we don’t recognize why someone behaved they did until we’re in that position ourselves…and then we swear that our feelings are individual, unique, and different.
My mother-in-law, for example, loves to tease her husband about how he doesn’t like to visit her mother (his mother-in-law). And both my in-laws joke about my mother-in-law’s turbulent relationship with her mother-in-law. My own mother did not tell me of conflicts with her mother-in-law but that was probably because she saw her so infrequently and also because her mother-in-law died before I was 3 years old… so not much time for the Grandchildren Effect to raise its ugly head ;-) So somewhere in the back of her mind, my mother-in-law understands the feelings I have towards her, hers towards me, and that we are experiencing something SO common to woman.
And yet, she continues to repeat exactly the treatment she hated. And I continue to feel the hurt I know exactly will come. Awful!
But I still hold onto hope. And my mother-in-law does too. We aren’t ridiculous enough to appear on the Dr. Phil show, and so we hang onto the fact that we both love my children (her grandchildren) and want them to have a strong, bonded relationship with them even if we can’t all get along. And we have our whole lives to figure out how to get along, so hopefully we can keep forgiving and keep starting over. This is actually the hardest part… the forgiveness and blank slate mentality. Most people replay and rehearse the future of pains so they can’t start over. But we are committed to keeping geographic distance and then regularly braving the reunion as if nothing happened the time before… so hopefully one of these times, we’ll start a new history that will grow positively.
And I do believe grandparents have a special need to see their grandchildren, and grandchildren get a special impartation from having grandparents…so I am committed to their relationship even when I disapprove of their methods. It is just that I see grandparenting as a privilege not a right… something that must, at heart, be respected instead of expected. My hope is that my in-laws can learn to respect us as parents instead of as their children, to generally honor our decisions about how we want to raise the kids, to not take over the kids or house when they visit as though they are theirs, and to look forward to building our relationship with them instead of just the grandchildren’s relationship with them. When these things begin occurring, I know we will have reached a place where I feel they respect us. But I have to continue to offer my intimacy and vulnerability anyway, even if they never get it. This is the right thing to do, the only way to break the cycle.