Daughters and Daughters-in-Law Are Key to Visits During COVID

Who decides who the family visits during holidays in the midst of a pandemic?

Posted Nov 05, 2020

“Now that the election is over, can we get back to being a family again?” “Oh wait! We still have the pandemic that keeps us apart.” As social and physical distancing continue to keep generations from convening as frequently and in the way they would like, family negotiations around such issues are needed.

But they are complicated. If a couple’s parents are alive, multiple sets of relationships are in the balance: each partner’s relationship with their own parents; each partner’s relationship with their in-laws; and the partners’ relationship with each other. If the couple has children, the number of relationships multiply. Let’s take the example of Pat (for Patricia/Patrick) and Sam (for Samantha/Samuel). What if Pat’s parents want to visit but Sam’s do not because they are more medically fragile, are afraid of catching the virus, or live farther away? What if Pat’s parents’ visiting scares off a potential visit with Sam’s parents because Pat’s parents may expose Pat and Sam’s family to the virus and, given the holidays, there is not time to sufficiently quarantine between visits? What is equitable and keeps alive relationships when family members may not have seen each other for months and as the holidays approach? 

Usually, the daughter/daughter-in-law decides. I know that sounds like a broad and definitive statement and, of course, it varies by family. But in my research with Michael Woolley on in-laws just published in In-law relationships: Mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons (2021), the daughter-in-law is key. It is she, in her dual role as daughter and daughter-in-law when there are children, that provides access to them to her parents and to her parents-in-law. This is not to say that sons/sons-in-law do not play a part in that access; they may play a greater role if they are the child care providers/stay-at-home parent in the family. But in most families, and in the over 1500 we studied, it is the daughter who greenlights the time to her own parents and to her husband’s parents. (Note: in gay and lesbian marriages, different patterns emerged from those we interviewed – see elsewhere in these blogs for more.)

We are not forgetting the centrality of mothers-in-law. They play a key role, too, that was usually described as loving and supportive – but it is just not as central when it comes to seeing her grandchildren if she has a son.  If a mother has a daughter, she is likely to have easier access to the grandchildren. The fathers- and sons-in-law were likely to be engaged in family matters but were more peripheral when compared to the women. We heard over and over from mothers-in-law who walked on eggshells around their daughter-in-law for fear she would cut off access to grandchildren or reduce the frequency of contact. Complete cut-offs were rare but did still occur. We also learned that both daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law were more likely to believe the power in their relationship resided with the daughter-in-law than the mother-in-law if the power was not viewed as equal. For some mothers-in-law, there was a fear that access to their son might also be restricted. This, again, is not to imply that the son is passive in these relationships. He may be weighing the costs of getting in the middle of his wife and his mother and father if that in-law relationship is strained. Assuming a peripheral position may be an option he pursues.

The good news, and consistent with other research, is that daughters-in-law generally (slightly more than half) agreed or strongly agreed they were close with their mother-in-law. A similar number said they admired their mother-in-law, enjoyed spending time with her, and trusted her. Being able to talk openly and to enjoy similar interests were correlated with better daughter-in-law and parent-in-law relationships.

What to do with this awareness of the central role that women (and sisters as we found in our other research) and, especially, daughters-in-law, play during these trying times? Understand that visitation over the holidays is a family systems issue and that the roles that are being played out are gendered, often reinforced by our culture, and hard to change. The men in the family are responsible for their part in family-based decisions and need to make themselves more emotionally available (as I have discussed in previous blog posts) so this does not all fall on the women. 

Families should talk openly about decisions around visitation and use CDC guidelines around the virus to help. Acknowledge the position of the daughter-in-law/daughter and see if the family patterns that reinforce her role should be continued or changed going forward. Use more Zoom and FaceTime, particularly at mealtime and during other holiday activities if visitation is unresolvable or unsafe for medical reasons. Finally, accept that the virus will be around for a while and play the long game with each other. One recurring piece of advice that emerged from all the in-law groups was to not be overly reactive and to understand that relationships often take a long time to establish and to change. There will be other holidays.