From Mother to Mother-on-Law

January 7, 2019
portrait-woman-motherinlaw

How to avoid a tense relationship with your new daughter-in-law. 

by Jessica Eyre

The mother-in-law in pop culture is a meddling nightmare, someone to be managed or even feared. At best, they’re some nut to be tolerated when you can’t avoid it.

“Whenever someone says ‘mother-in-law,’ I don’t know, it just seems mean or something,” my friend Jen tells me over the phone.

And Jen is about to become one. Her son is getting married in a few months, so she’s now trying to prepare for a family that is once again growing. She doesn’t know how to be a mother-in-law any more than she knew how to be a mother almost 25 years ago. It’s a completely new phase of life, and it’s unclear if it’s going to come gently or slam her in the face.

(And hey, all you young adults out there! I know your mothers probably spent an inordinate amount of time telling you that she knows best, but let me clue you in on a little secret: Your mom is a regular person trying to figure things out as she goes along. Cut her some slack.)

So what is a gal to do when she’s welcoming new in-laws? Here are a few suggestions for making the transition.

Understand the struggle

A mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is unique, and clinically speaking, is by nature potentially fraught with tension.

“As they struggle to achieve the same position in the family as primary woman, each tries to establish or protect her status, each feels threatened by the other,” says Dr. Terri Apter, a psychologist and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge University. “Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflict often emerges from an expectation that each is criticising or undermining the other, but this mutual unease may have less to do with actual attitudes and far more to do with persistent female norms that few of us manage to shake off completely”

Remember, this is just as new for her as it is for you. If you want her to be patient with you, you have to extend the same courtesy.

Remember, this is just as new for her as it is for you. If you want her to be patient with you, you have to extend the same courtesy.

Get to know her

Your child has fallen in love with someone. Your job now is to them love them, too.

Jen has started a Snapchat group with her son, his fiance, and herself. She also has another group going with her second son and his girlfriend.

“I don’t talk about anything serious or deep. I’m not asking them when they’re coming over or anything like that. It’s just silly stuff,” Jen tells me. For example, she recently sent a picture of a recent snowstorm and sent it out with the caption, “I’m hibernating until spring.” She has fun with the filters and voice changers and hopes it helps her future daughter-in-law get to know her personality and see her as approachable.

“You put on one of those filters, and you look amazing!” she jokes.

She says she chose Snapchat because it’s both her sons’ communication method of choice. These new relationships with her grown kids are important.

“They aren’t always calling you with their problems, you’re not seeing them day to day, so it’s a fun way to keep in touch.” And her boys seem to like it. She even heard about an ex-girlfriend who missed her Snaps after they broke up.

(Mental note: Nobody texts anymore besides 40-something women.)

Be open and understanding

Even if you come from similar backgrounds, everyone does things differently.

“Every generation thinks the one after them has it easy,” says Dr. Angharad Rudkin. She recommends asking about their views and to share your own to gain understanding and open lines of communication.

In business, listening (versus just hearing) is often cited as one of the most important skills a person can have. Among the benefits, an employee who listens is better able to build rapport with their coworkers. It’s pretty easy to make the comparison to in-laws who are suddenly “working” together.

Building and keeping these relationships is important. Jen says that as her kids are starting to leave the nest now, she feels like she’s gaining a whole new set of friends. And that group will only be getting bigger.

“These are my people,” she says. “And I’m looking forward to this new chapter.”

Jessica Eyre is a writer and marketing strategist. She loves movies, going to see live music, and has a firm belief that most any life situation can be related to an episode of “Seinfeld.” She is a mother who does her best “I’m interested” face when hearing about the latest YouTube video her kids want to re-enact for her, and yet, at the same time, finds them to be the most interesting people she knows.

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