Introduction

Mothers, throughout the ages, have frequently evidenced apprehension of outright mistrust of their children’s future partners. They can be strongly suspicious that the prospective spouses are not quite good enough for their sons and daughters. While it may seem like a cliché or the worst kind of stereotypical thinking, many mothers’ suspicions, sometimes with reason and sometimes without, harden into firm convictions. Certainly, fathers are not immune to a degree of skepticism regarding their children’s intended spouses, but in terms of gender, the strongest difficulties are prone to exist between the mothers and sons’ wives. The proverbial mother-in-law/daughter-in-law problem has provided the raw material for jokes throughout centuries and continues today to be the fodder of stand-up comedy, plays, films and television sitcoms. But are all mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships destined to be strained and painful ones?

In writing this book, my intention is to put forth real examples of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships, in the women’s own words. These have been garnered through my interviews of hundreds of mothers-in-law and daughter-in-laws. Additionally, I will provide a guide through both the negative and positive aspects and experiences associated with a complex bond between the mother of a son and the woman who loves him. I hope to show both mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law that there are remedies and solutions to the many problematic issues that exist between millions of women.

According to the United Stated Census Bureau, fifty-six percent (of almost 111 million people) of the population consist of married adults. Thus, over fifty million women in America are wives. We can estimate that the great majority of these wives have mothers-in-law or step-mothers-in-law, perhaps both. In this universal, age-old dilemma of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law situation, there is a plethora of kinds of mothers-in-law, from those giving unsolicited advice to those who are encouraging and helpful. For every variety of mother-in-law, there are equally enormous sorts of daughters-in-law, ranging from those who are grateful and seek out close connections.

Years ago I eavesdropped on two women in a diner talking about their daughter-in-law. The first woman said, “Gail, you wouldn’t believe the disrespectful way my daughter-in-law Jessie, treats me. She always agrees with my suggestions and then. Behind my back, does whatever she wants anyway.” At that time, I was a new daughter-in-law myself and I remember thinking how clever this young wife must be, fully understanding why she chose to handle the mother-in-law in this manner. Yet, as I’ve matured I’ve come to believe that for the thousands, perhaps millions of daughters-in-law who find it difficult to respond to overbearing or authoritative mothers-in-law, handling them in a duplicitous fashion is not a healthy solution. The truth of the matter is, while this approach might keep the relationship between the two women from completely dissolving, the issue between them will remain unresolved.

Resolving or avoiding conflict should be the goal of both of the women who make up two thirds of the eternal triangle, of mother/ son/husband/wife. While the literal “man in the middle,” the son-husband can help to smooth the relationship, it really falls to the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to create the give and take of relating to one another effectively and to define the relationship’s parameters and boundaries. Through all the activities and interactions of the extended family, from births and graduations, holidays and celebrations to sibling rivalries and financial disagreements, there needs to be an ongoing search for recognition and mutual respect between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

The reality, however is that women, whether newly wedded or ten year veterans, frequently complain about their mothers-in law. In turn, mothers-in-law seem to have many complaints about their daughters-in-law. When these daughters-in-law have babies and become mothers themselves, the intensity of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issues may escalate. Some women, especially those who return to work, are indebted to their mothers-in-law for helping out with the baby, bu t they seem to be the exception and not the rule. Most daughters-in-law, whatever life they lead, will at times find their mothers-in-law to be intrusive and opinionated. How a daughter-in-law internalizes and then acts on such intrusiveness will determine whether a battle of wills ensues cordially reigns.

A mother-in-law, of course has a responsibility to encourage amity with her daughter-in-law. All too often, she may view her daughter-in-law a s ungrateful and unmalleable, headstrong and too independent. Such mothers-in-law may be convinced that their sons are taken for granted and are being depleted both financially and emotionally by their wives. It is very possible that these mothers-in-law, who were once daughters-in-law themselves, had vowed never to impose themselves inappropriately on daughters-in-law of their own. Yet, suddenly finding themselves cast in the role of mother-in-law, rather than being non-judgmental and generous of the spirit, they have transformed into the very stereotype they wanted to avoid. Ironically, many of my peers, most of whom are future mothers-in-law, already muse that whoever their sons marry one day will most likely not measure up to their standards. Already in their minds, these faceless, future daughters-in-law are not entitled to be their sons’ partners. And so, in a society where the family is at the center, compelling and complex, many mother-in -law/daughter-in-law conflicts are perpetrated, in varying degrees of toxicity, from generation to generation.