Within the last nine months, both of my grown sons have married. They adore their wives and their wives adore my sons, which is everything. To gild the lily, I always wished for a daughter (although to be honest, only for the sort I approve of, which both of my daughters-in-law happen to be), so acquiring two girly-girls who are as kind, beautiful and bright as my boys’ beloveds has made me exceedingly happy. There’s only one snag: I am now her, a woman cross-referenced with bitch and she-devil and the butt of a thousand jokes. A mother-in-law.
What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law? Reload and try again. Ba-dum-bum! Consider the Chinese proverb A bitter wife endures until she becomes a mother-in-law, or that in Mandarin “quarrel” is illustrated by two women under roof. And why would anyone expect the MiL/DiL relationship to be simple, when two women are possibly competing for the same man’s attention? You can diagram it with a triangle, a geometric shape that resembles a wedge.
When your son marries, it’s an outsize high to know that another woman loves your child so much she wants to spend her life with him. On the other hand, you’re expected to let go of someone you’re poured your heart into for decades.
It doesn’t help to hear from Deborah Merrill, Ph.D., a Clark University sociology professor and author of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Understanding the Relationship and What Makes Them Friends or Foe, that this is “the trickiest and least rewarding female relationship. You have family obligations but no benefits from shared history or values, along with stereotypes: MiLs who long to give advice no one wants and DiLs who feel marginalized and worry that their husband’s mothers want to have contact only with their sons and be the person he consults with first about major life changes.”
Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve always found it easy to get along with my own MiL. At 88-going-on-48, Helen is still finessing her golf swing, shopping at Bergdorf’s and playing topnotch bridge. In a biopic of her life, she’d be played by Dame Judi Dench—if the Dame had better gams. I adore my MiL, but I have only to look at most of my friends’ rolled eyes when their MiLs are mentioned to realize how rare that is.
So I’m not pressing my luck. To keep the relationship wheels greased, I’ve analyzed the unwritten rules of mother-in-law/daughter-in law harmony and have boiled them to just seven. They can help new MiLs or those who want to improve a long-standing bond, since it’s always the son’s mom’s game to lose: she’s is the one who usually gets nailed for problems. Here, my manifesto for being a MiL.
The Mother-in-Law Manifesto: 8 Rules for Harmony
- I’ll start with the assumption that my DiL wants to be close to me and is amazing. She has to be — my son picked her. I’m determined not to be a paranoid freak convinced that my DIL is looking for covert ways to steal my son away from me.
- I’ll remember that my son’s wife has her own mom. I won’t take it personally if she doesn’t invite me to help decorate the new condo.
- I’ll butt out. It goes without saying that my ideas are brilliant, but I’ll try to realize that they aren’t necessarily the best for them. “Women our age spent years finding our own voices, and then when our sons marry, we’re in a role where we have to zip it,” one of my friends recently kvetched. “It’s especially hard for women who’ve had big careers. I’m a bossy, controlling person and so I need to try hard to keep my mouth shut.” (Sound familiar?)
- I’ll talk to my DIL like a real person, not an annex of my son. I’ll be interested in her concerns, not just my son’s: her work, her bridezilla friend, her sister’s pregnancy, her grandfather’s health.
- I’ll express my feelings clearly without aggression, and won’t hold on to stuff so long I blow, like why she never wrote a thank-you note for the enormous non-returnable chocolate fountain from Cousin Carol.
- I’ll try to see things from my DIL’s perspective, communicate what I appreciate about her, and offer unconditional love. You want to paint your living room black? Fabulous.
- I’ll learn from my DIL. If I ask nicely, maybe she will show me how to tie a scarf like a chic European or share her recipe for Red Velvet cookies or tell me about her new favorite app.
- I will remember these rules.
Why do they bury mothers-in-law 18 feet under? Because deep down, they’re really sweet.