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A Mother-in-law’s Unique Love

How much time did I waste? How many senseless arguments with my spouse?

Key points

  • Learning how to relate to your mother-in-law or father-in-law can save your marriage.
  • Complaining about your partner's parent is a perfect path to conflict and frustration.
  • Don't take every comment, look and act personally. It is a good chance that their reaction has more to do with the story they tell themselves.
Nancy Kislin
My mother-in-law Joan
Source: Nancy Kislin

Ten years ago, I wrote my first mother-in-law article. It was my first article to be published. I remember being incredibly excited to be published, but terrified that someone in my family—let alone my mother-in-law—would read it.

Last week, we buried my mother-in-law, Joan, next to her beloved husband, Stanley. I did everything you would expect of me—the wife of her cherished son—including arranging a meaningful funeral.

For years, I encouraged (OK, nagged) my husband to call his mother more frequently, to visit her more often, because someday... well, you know.

He did call his mother weekly, and during her last few months, he stopped his life to help care for her.

I led by example, calling her often, sending gifts, handing the phone to my daughters to talk with grandma. Most recently, I helped my daughters to find sacred moments with their grandmother, to search for answers to their questions while gaining a storage of memories to comfort them for years to come.

But I can’t stop the nagging thoughts flooding my mind when I remember some of our visits and conversations over the years. How much time did I waste worrying that my mother-in-law didn’t approve of my daughter’s behavior or something I did or didn’t do? How much time did I waste talking to my husband about his mom’s inability to express love or show much praise to me or my kids?

There are moments when I am overcome with feelings of loss—the loss of what could have been if only I had been able to accept her earlier. Maybe if I hadn’t been attuned to sarcastic comments, I would have relaxed. Joan was not someone who gave praise often. She had her favorites, and she wasn’t afraid to say it. She had the patience of a saint when it came to dealing with her husband and a few others, but other times, she would put her heels down and nothing could change her mind.

During her last few weeks, I saw this courageous woman use the things I had often faulted or taken personally as incredible strength. I truly believe that when a person close to us passes away, it affords us a chance to heal old wounds and grow in unsuspecting ways.

I have an idea of what I want Joan’s passing gift to me to be. But first, I want to share part of my original article from 2011:

Twenty-three years today, I became a wife, a daughter-in-law, and my life changed dramatically.

I did not know that one of the hardest transitions was going to be how to build a relationship with the mother of my husband. I had no warning for the road that lay before me.

My dad’s mom, grandma Minnie, was an “old grandma” who knitted, watched soap opera shows and was loved by all, especially my mom. She passed away when I was 13.

I was not prepared for the road that lay before me. My new mother-in-law took aerobics, wore smaller-size jeans than me and was a good cook.

“How to Relate to Your Mother-In-Law” is an age-old issue. And suddenly it was mine.

I first met my mother-in-law the day I graduated from college. I was excited to meet her and felt that I would have a better understanding of my compassionate, giving, loving boyfriend. I was very happy.

Fast-forward to the arrival of our firstborn, and everything seemed to change in a moment regarding my mother-in-law and my relationship. I slipped into an uncomfortable position of feeling like I was being examined under a magnifying glass. My housekeeping skills, my cooking (or lack of) and even my mothering techniques seemed to be up for commentary.

I became angry and highly reactive. And I did the worst thing: I complained about my mother in-law to my husband.

Lessons Learned: What to Do vs. What Not to Do

1. Ask your M-I-L for advice. DON’T roll your eyes when your M-I-L gives advice.

2. RESPECT your M-I-L. DON’T show disrespect.

3. Don’t fret. The truth is she will probably always think you are not good enough for her son. DON’T react too much.

4. Remember that getting older is not so easy. DON’T take any one comment to heart – look at the big picture.

5. Have a sense of humor. DON’T gossip about your M-I-L to your friends or family when your husband is present.

Above all, remember to breathe. Patience is a gift you give yourself and those around you. When you think you are at your last straw, that you can’t take another critical or demeaning comment, take a few deep breaths. Try to remember why this person is in your life and try to go to a place of gratitude.

A key ingredient for survival for me was learning to set appropriate boundaries that my husband and I equally agreed upon.

Establishing firm boundaries gave us a foundation to respond from when needed, such as what food we gave the kids, values we shared with them, or even what time they went to bed.

Our M-I-L relationship gives us the opportunity to hold a mirror up to ourselves and take a good look. Unlike other relationships, our M-I-L lets us examine the mother-child relationship up close, yet without the “hot buttons” we have or had with our own mothers. It allows us to observe the complex dynamics between an adult mother and child.

It also provides us with enormous information and insight into our partner’s history of intimate relationships. The wealth of information that is available can only be fully accessed if you keep your own emotions of jealousy and insecurity (to name a few) in check.

Relationships change as we grow. My youngest daughter has just left the nest for college, and a fascinating thing has occurred. My M-I-L and I are on the same team now.

We both have empty nests. It is as if our relationship has miraculously shifted back to the days before I became a new mommy. My M-I-L seems to enjoy talking to me. She has let down some defenses and listens to me share.

I could spend days analyzing this, but I have chosen to take a deep breath and enjoy it. There is no doubt that the M-I-L relationship is challenging but put your game face on and face your greatest contender with love. What I didn’t know when I wrote that article 10 years ago was that the next 10 years were going to be the best years my M-I-L and I had together. I called her weekly. I was determined that my husband call his mother every week, and during COVID, many times per week. My now-adult daughters took to texting/calling often, especially during the lockdown. Their relationship as adult women with their grandmother was an intimate mixture of grandparent and friend. My daughters learned to understand that forgiveness isn’t for those who don’t put in the work, but for those willing to feel pain and disappointment, because healing is worth the journey.

Now that my M-I-L has passed, I look at my husband differently. He doesn’t have a mother to call to “protect” him, to take his side and love him no matter what. He has me. He has me, his wife of over 33 years, who now, more than ever, loves his beloved mother for raising a kind, compassionate, and generous man.

Somehow all those things that drove me crazy—his stubbornness, his relentless courage, his ability to cook a great meal, to tidy the house no matter what crisis is brewing—I now see he got from his mom. It isn’t as if I didn’t know this, it's just so clear now.

I want to use Joan's passing gift, or my lesson from her life—to strive to focus on gratitude—to find the positive, the little and big gifts in moments I share with others. I want to continue to not get stuck or even ruminate on "Why did that person say that or what did they really mean?"

I want to continue to remember that we don’t know the shoes someone is standing in or the path they have taken, to recognize that it is likely their comment, "look," or tone of voice had much more to do with what they are feeling than me.

As a therapist, I know this, but really living an authentic life—this is my goal.

And I urge you: If you have an in-law, try on different glasses to see from different views. Time is always of the essence.