How to Be the Mother-in-Law You Always Wanted

Welcoming a newcomer to the family even if you don't mean it.

Posted Mar 04, 2020

“Someday, some little girl who’s probably not even born yet is going to steal you away from me, and I hate her already.” No, I didn’t say it and I don’t remember even thinking it when my son was born, although when I met my daughter-in-law-to-be, something similar may have flitted around in my head. 

Echoes of that time reverberate in my coaching practice when clients discuss their grown kids’ upcoming or recent nuptials, and their efforts to accept the Other and adapt to their new role in their child’s life. It’s one of those significant life events, and everyone responds to it differently, viewing it as either a personal gain or loss, but in either case, determined to do the best they can to support the couple.

“Do I wish she’d married someone else? Absolutely.  But do I want her to be happy? Of course. I just can’t stand him,” said a client.  Another, with more pressing concerns, was pondering what to do about offering his son’s partner a job in his business, and how it would impact both his family and his firm. And a third is arguing with her husband about attending a gay daughter’s wedding.

It goes without saying that we all want what’s best for our kids, even if what —and who—they want isn’t up to us. And I’m remembering how my mother responded to the news of my elopement to a man she thought was wrong for me; to me, she said, “You can always come home if you want to,” and to everyone else, she said, “Isn’t it wonderful? Yes, we’re having a party for them, please come.” She found things to praise about him, like his manners, which were excellent, and his charm, which was considerable. And to her credit, she only said I told you so a few times, when it was over.

I was more discreet about my own daughter-in-law, and approached her warmly, or so I thought. Only my own daughter sensed I was less than wholly enthusiastic “I can tell you don’t like her,” she said, “but nobody else will, including my brother.”

And so I learned by doing—by focusing on how happy she made him, by stepping out of their way and being thoughtful of her needs, by maintaining the degree of closeness and distance they, as a couple, managed. In some ways, it was better than I hoped; I saw more of my son, and later, my grandson, than I had before he was married. She was close to her own mother, and seemed content with our relationship, and when she and my son divorced, I was truly sorry for both of them.

In the aftermath of that, she and I have become remarkably intimate friends, which we attribute now to the fact that we’ve both grown and changed since then, although I still haven’t curbed my tendency to write about my family (sorry, Jen). I call her, like my former son-in-law, my putatifs, which is French for my putative, or ‘as if’ family members.

There are obvious ways to be a good in-law, most of which involve reconciling your boundary style with theirs; that is, let them, individually and together, regulate the distance and closeness between you. That goes for not demanding their presence at every holiday, proffering your advice only after they ask for it, refraining from expressing your judgment on their choice, taste, lifestyle…you get the drill.

It means not taking sides, even when it’s obvious who’s at fault—don’t let your feelings get in the way of theirs, be a sounding board if that’s what they need but otherwise just offer them comfort, shelter and a respite from the storm if they need it. And then get over it, which they will. regardless of the advice you couldn’t help giving, without carrying grudges.

If, as a single parent, you’ve been particularly emotionally close to your grown child, it’s especially difficult to respect their couple boundary without feeling shut out of the intimacy you once enjoyed with your daughter or son. It’s also hard to see your grown child as a member of a whole other family; “For so long it was just the two of us, and I felt so diminished by her fiancé’s big, close-knit family,” said one client, “But they welcomed me into their clan, and I’m thrilled.”

One final thing to remember from your seat right behind them as they’re exchanging their vows—smile like you mean it. Or, as my daughter said when my son got married, “Just wear beige and keep your mouth shut.”