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The prickly relationship with my mother-in-law

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“Is there anything wrong with a good smack?’ These were the words from my mother-in-law, when, exasperated with the tantrums of my toddler, she offered me some ‘advice’

From breastfeeding advice to settling techniques, there’s an abundance of material on how to navigate motherhood. But there is no such manual on how to manage your relationship with your mother-in-law. There are countless scenarios for potential conflict and only a mother can decide what is an acceptable level of input from her MIL. In just a few years of motherhood I’ve experienced both the harmless, and the harmful from mine.

It’s dangerous territory for a mother-in-law to dispense parenting advice to her daughter-in-law at any time. There’s also a point when unsolicited advice can morph into criticism.

“Is there anything wrong with letting her cry”?

This is one of my MIL’s favourites. She prefaces her advice with the word wrong and poses it in the form of a question so that it cloaks her disapproval. It’s a classic case of criticism masquerading as help.

My relationship with my MIL wasn’t easy even before I had children. I had in fact hoped that having children might bridge some of our differences, but it has only emphasised them. My mother-in-law believes in ‘tough love’ parenting, which is directly at odds with my parental approach. She demonstrates help in practical terms, but I yearn for emotional support.

When I introduced her to my first-born baby I sensed she needed an invitation to be involved so I invited her to hold our baby. She did so for just a few short minutes before asking, “What do you want done with her now?” I felt hurt and confused. I didn’t want my baby ‘dealt’ with – I wanted her to be held, touched, and adored.

She also gives me things that “hint”, I could improve my domestic skills. Recently she bought me a new ironing board cover. It’s extra thick and “might make ironing a bit easier for you.” Read, “I think you should iron your husband’s shirts better.” Most of the time I shrug off her inferences. It’s just what mothers-in-law do, isn’t it?

While, offering advice is one thing, my mother-in-law crossed a whole new line when she shared her belief that my two-year-old daughter had Autism. At that stage my daughter had begun to exhibit a few of the behaviours associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She had difficulties with social and emotional situations, a fear of sand, and the need to follow a rigid routine. Despite this, until that moment I had never considered she could have this serious condition.

My husband was not present when she dropped this bombshell. She was armed with supporting documentation, which included a checklist of symptoms, some of which she had had the audacity to tick. I was shattered. I shook on the inside but waited until she had left before I cried.  Her  ‘diagnosis’ unleashed tremendous anxiety for me. I was three months pregnant with my third child at the time. I didn’t sleep and I was consumed with worry for days and weeks. In the ensuing weeks I scrutinised my daughter’s every move for signs that might support my mother-in-law’s premature assessment.

After some initial concern and some research of my own, I was able to put down my daughter’s social difficulties to a passing stage. Whilst my mother-in-law may have had best intentions, her method of delivery was insensitive, damaging and out of line. I felt she had done my daughter a grave injustice and I was hurt that she doubted my maternal instincts and rights.

Almost a year on I am trying to focus on the good aspects of our relationship and to navigate it in a way that works for me, and for my children. I am careful to remember that she was genuinely sorry for the hurt she caused me. Her acknowledgement that she acted inappropriately was important in our resolution. I was also fortunate to have my husband’s total support. He reminded me to trust my maternal instincts and this helped me to separate somebody else’s observations from my own.

Even in the closest of families, the relationship between mother and mother-in-law can be sensitive and hard to navigate. While for the most part, they do genuinely mean well, criticism masked as handy advice can be deeply hurtful, particularly for a new mum. If you can, try to take these comments with a grain of salt and a thick skin. After all, occasionally their domestic advice is actually worthwhile – that ironing board cover really does make ironing easier.

Do you have a prickly relationship with your mother-in-law? How do you manage it?

Why not share this?

  • I went through a similar thing with my MIL when she came to stay with us for two weeks many years ago. We are both very dominant by nature so halfway into her stay when she started voicing how things were in her house when her kids were little (referring to what my son wasn’t doing, that hers was), I couldn’t ignore it. I promptly told her that in MY house things were done MY way. She didn’t like it, but she never voiced her opinion on my child-raising ways again. We actually had a very nice relationship and I think my standing up for myself only cemented that.

    I think conflicts with in-laws are often due to misunderstanding. I do however think it is in one’s right to lay down some boundaries ie letting MIL know that she should refer all opinions and advice to her son, or, just don’t offer opinions and advice unless asked. I think some people need to be made aware that their advice is not necessarily needed.

    • I imagine a lot of women would find it difficult voicing their opinion and standing up to their MIL for fear of offending her. It seems like this wasn’t the case for you Peggy, and that things actually improved and it made your relationship stronger when you did. I don’t have any issues with mine but it’s amazing just how many women do. I wonder why and also wonder if one day I’ll be that MIL!

  • Emmaline

    My MIL plays no active part in our lives. She lives 4 hours away, has visited 2 times in the last 3 years, doesn’t ring the kids or send them cards or emails or anything, hasn’t recognised ‘firsts’ such as first days of school, first days of kindy etc. She is rude to me when my husband is not present. She acknowledges my birthday with a text message if I am lucky (albeit my husband only gets a lotto ticket). She treats another of her DILs this way, while a 3rd is treated as a favourite, and their children are showered with gifts and attention. After years of struggling with her lack of support, consdieration or interest, I have now decided that it is her that is missing out on the joy of being a part of our family, and I am not losing sleep over it any more.

    • Oh no Emmaline that doesn’t sound good at all 🙁 Sorry to hear that this is happening. It doesn’t seem fair. I think you’re right when you say that your MIL is the one missing out. It seems you’ve reached a place where you’re not taking it personally. I hope you stay strong and I do hope that your MIL come her senses.