For nearly two decades, I have been married to a great man with an amazing–and amazingly insane–family. I have often joked with my husband that someday I will write a soap opera pilot based on his family. Now, with soap operas on their way out, maybe it will be an unreal reality show. In any case, his family–complete with the four-time married estranged father with a debilitating neurological disease and a mail-order bride, many full, step and half siblings, a politician, a couple of lawyers, a professor (and a Mary Ann, but not on Gilligan’s Island)–all became my family, too, on our wedding day, including, most importantly, my husband’s mother.
Throughout our marriage, my mother-in-law has been both a source of friendship and love as well as the deep grooves that have formed from biting my tongue so much. I have the dubious honor of being the wife of her baby boy–and the youngest of her natural children and her step-children.
Here, I offer what I think has helped me be a good daughter in law (it makes life easier) and has kept me out of the advice columns.
1. Make sure your husband has cut the apron strings.
This might sound like a recipe for disaster, but it has to happen in order to have a good relationship with your mom-in-law. Until my husband personally told his mother that, no, we were not inviting 200 of her closest relatives to our wedding, she was on her way to ruling our roost. But that last snip cut not only the last of the apron string but all the tension that was building up. Well, at least for a while. Without cutting those apron strings, though, your husband has two women trying to have a primary relationship with him. That won’t work–and that is the source of many of those advice column letters.
2. Make sure your husband calls, texts, e-mails or whatever his mother.
This is advice that came from my own mother. She used it with my dad and his mom. “You haven’t talked to your mom for a while. You should call your mom.” Encourage a new, adult relationship between your husband and his mother. She may or may not realize it is you behind the weekly or so phone calls–but she won’t feel as if she’s lost her little boy.
3. Call, text, e-mail or whatever your mother-in-law.
Yes, you. Call your mother-in-law on your own. Try it–she probably won’t bite. Attempt to forge a friendship with her. You married her son. You love him. Ergo, she might be a compatible friend to you. Don’t know what to talk about? Start with what you have in common: her son. Perhaps it is as simple as telling her what he’s been up to that he wouldn’t have told her himself. It’s amazing the conversational differences between men on the phone and women on the phone. He could have had a botched root canal and when his mom asks how his day was, he’d say, “Fine. What’s up with you?” Your mother-in-law will learn that you are actually the true source of information for what her son is actually doing in life. Conversations immediately become much easier once you and your spouse have children. Then, no matter how different you and the mom-in-law are, you have motherhood and her grandchild in common.
4. Don’t say “no” too often.
This is easier if your in-laws live out of town like mine do. But then again, perhaps saying no is a bigger deal when they want to visit and haven’t seen the grandkids for a few months. Anyway, try not to actually say “no” very often. “We’re really busy next weekend. The kids have x, y and z to do. Is there a better weekend?” That’s both honest and polite–and doesn’t get very negative. Leave the negative out as much as possible.
5. Respect the in-law (aka Remember to bite your tongue)
I yelled at my mother-in-law once on the phone (because we live too far apart to do it in person). And it set back our relationship, my husband’s relationship with his mom and could have impacted her relationship with our kids if I had let it. Big mistake (even though I was right!). It took a long time to feel like we were back to normal. If you feel yourself boiling over, learn to bite your tongue.
6. Watch what you post on Facebook
While we are on the subject of biting your tongue: Don’t post your frustrations with your in-laws on Facebook. Even if you aren’t friends with any in-laws on Facebook, your husband probably is. And surely, you are friends with your husband. Someone is bound to say something. I’m even rather wary about publishing this article! And I’m certainly not going to promote it on Facebook or Twitter.
7. Go out for some mother-in-law / daughter-in-law alone time.
Lunch out, shopping, a museum. Go out with her–do something you both like together. This helps you build some memories together. Most mother-in-laws work, if they haven’t retired yet. Shopping for work clothes or shoes together might help you explore areas of each other’s lives that neither of you probably know much about.
8. Let her baby-sit the babies if she wants to.
Unless she has a history of child abuse, you should let her baby-sit and even have the kids overnight. She’s been in charge of small kids before (her own) who made it to adulthood. Even though cribs are built differently, walkers aren’t used anymore and the average child watches more TV in one year than we did in 10, your mother-in-law will be fine with the basics for at least a few hours. Plus, sometimes grandmas have a magic touch that can help get kids (and you) through a stage you haven’t quite been able to master. My own mom scooped up the 4-month-old baby and stated, “Tonight, she can sleep in her nursery. She doesn’t need to sleep in your room anymore.” And Mom was right. Everyone slept much better. My mother-in-law helped potty train my youngest, and my step-father-in-law taught our middle child to ride a bike with no training wheels. I think it’s a combination of patience and seeing the situation with a fresh pair of eyes. Do not feel intimidated or mad if your mother-in-law teaches your child something new–rejoice that it is one more thing off your mental, maternal to-do list.
9. Begin your visits with a hug and smile. And remember to say “I love you.”