What are mothers-in-law afraid of? For many, it turns out, it's their daughters-in-law.
When I asked a writer friend of mine recently about her relationship with her daughter-in-law as it relates to her grandchildren, she barely skipped a beat before saying, "My motto is: Keep your wallet open, and your mouth shut." It surprised me at the time, but as I began to talk to other mothers-in-law, I found that the sentiment is hardly unique. (I myself am a daughter-in-law, and when I told my own mother-in-law about the conversation, she smiled then laughed what seemed to be the laugh of someone who could totally relate!)
Over the past two months, I've been on a mission to find a writer to blog for Grandparents.com about her relationship with her daughter-in-law -- nothing scandalous, no dark secrets, just the normal ups and downs that come with the territory. Go to any parenting site and you'll find lots of daughters-in-law weighing in on the good, bad and ugly of dealing with their mother by marriage. I wanted to turn the tables and hear the other point of view. In fact, we already have a chat group on Grandparents.com of 3,000 mothers-in-law who regularly discuss everything from long-distance grandparenting to how much they can discipline their grandchildren.
I've approached dozens of writers, and the response has been the same -- "Our relationship is too delicate," "It will do more harm than good", and the neutralizing, "We have a great relationship -- there's not much to say." I'm not suggesting that all mothers- and daughters-in-law have terrible relationships -- in fact many get along great -- some even better than with their own moms. But the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is like no other that we experience, especially when grandchildren are involved. A daughter-in-law can often feel like she's not doing enough for the kids in the mother-in-law's eyes, or worse, that she's doing it wrong. A mother-in-law can feel like she's unwelcome -- she's in the way, she's commenting when she shouldn't, she's overstepping her bounds.
The more I began to ask people about the relationship, the more I began to see what lies at the heart of the matter: mothers-in-law are afraid. Yours may come off as being in-your-business and opinionated, but really, she's afraid of being shut out. She clams up and "opens her wallet" as my writer friend said, in order to preserve the peace. Because if she doesn't do that, there is the possibility that she can kiss the grandkids goodbye. Though most people probably don't consciously think of the scenario this way, grandkids are for many grandparents, their biggest joy. And that joy can be taken away in an instant by the parents of the children. Translation: Don't annoy your daughter-in-law or there could be hell to pay.
So what's a mother-in-law to do? I asked the followers of our Facebook page what they do to make their relationship with their daughter-in-law run smoothly. Within minutes of the posting, we had loads of comments that ranged from the practical, "Be her friend, not her mom," to the philosophical, "Respect the fact that she is your son's wife, and treat her how you would want your MIL to treat you," to the often-cited "Mind-Your-Own-Business," to the perplexed, "I wish I knew." To me, when it comes right down to it, it's a matter of respect -- respect that your mother-in-law is afraid of you, her daughter-in-law, and you'll cut her more slack; and mothers-in-law, respect that your daughter-in-law knows what she's doing, and she will embrace you. Until then, I'm still searching for a blogger.