Look At Life: Mothers-in-Law

9th March 2018

Why they should be an ally, not an adversary…

By Lisa Botwright

The jokes just keep on coming… ‘Do you know the punishment for bigamy? Two mothers-in-law...’ My mother-in-law and I were happy for twenty years – then we met each other...’ ‘My mother-in-law’s other car is a broomstick… Boom boom. What is it about the matriarchal figure of the other family camp that inspires so much suspicion and derision? Why are they the eternal target of the joke?

Writer GK Chesterton once said ‘it’s much harder to be a nice mother-in-law than any other conceivable relation of life. The caricatures have drawn the worst mother-in-law a monster, by way of expressing the fact that the best mother-in-law is [still] a problem. It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth.’

My own MIL was lovely, and is sadly no longer with us, leaving a gaping hole in all our lives. She liked me because I’m ‘sensible’ (I think she meant family-orientated) and I got on well with her because she had a brilliant sense of humour, and had done a pretty good job with her son.

And yet... I could sometimes sense a sideways glance. A slightly cool way about her every now and then, when I knew I hadn’t quite measured up. I used to joke that I could have the beauty of a super-model, the intelligence of a member of MENSA and the forbearance of Mother Theresa, and I still wouldn’t be good enough.

I wish I could tell her now that I understand.

When I first met my future MIL, I was holding my 18-year-old boyfriend’s hand proprietarily and wondering why she was making such a fuss over her son. He was a grown man. Why was his mother cooing over him so? With the hindsight of nearly 30 years, I realise that we were mere babies – especially now that we have a teenage son all of our own.

And so now I realise how she felt. No one will ever be good enough for my son either. That’s just the way it is. The cycle of nature. When I met my husband-to-be, he was – to me – a grown man. To her, he was someone who just moments ago was a cuddly toddler climbing onto her lap for stories and reassurance. The centre of her life.

When my son was little, he too needed me for everything and I was in control of everything he did or wore or ate, and everywhere he went. At that age, that makes you a good mum. Now he’s growing into a young man and I’m taking ever bigger steps back. It’s hard, but it’s the right thing to do: it’s my job to foster independence. Wanting to be in control is not a good thing when they’re teenagers, even less of a good idea when they grow up – and the worst sin of all when you’re a mother-in-law.

Naturally, I want my son to have relationships and be happy. But I also hope fervently that his girlfriends will be ‘sensible’.

‘A daughter’s a daughter for all of her life. A son’s a son until he has a wife.’ What if this saying comes true?

A scroll through parenting website Mumsnet makes me even more nervous – albeit tempered by my amusement of the irony of lots of uber-controlling mummies expressing shock and outrage at any hint of similar behaviour. ‘My MIL has baked my son’s first birthday cake without asking me first,’ complains the instigator of one thread. ‘She’s just trying to steal your thunder,’ comes the caustic reply. And the irritation begins even before birth... ‘I’m pregnant and my MIL is buying so much stuff for the baby. Maybe I’m hormonal, but I’m finding this really annoying.’ Would she prefer the woman to take zero interest in her future grandchild?

In order to build a good relationship with my future daughter-in-law, I learn I’ll have to bite my lip and refrain from offering any suggestions unless they’re asked for. I’ll have to ensure I strike exactly the right balance between being helpful and supportive without overstepping the mark or ‘interfering’. Oh my goodness, it sounds exhausting.

Can we not have more empathy? Do these Mumsnetters not understand that they are complaining about fellow mothers? That the insanely intense love we feel for our offspring won’t disappear just because our little ones have grown up, left home and got married?

So this Mother’s Day, spare a thought for all our lovely mothers-in-law too. Let’s cut them some slack. We mums might be mothers-in-law too one day.

I’m genuinely looking forward to one day meeting my future daughter-in-law, and I really hope we’ll be friends.

On the other hand… maybe I should be starting to get that broomstick measured up…

Find Your Local