06/11/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

How To Be a Good Mother-in-Law

The warnings began when my sons were still in diapers: Enjoy them while you can. After all, they're boys. They're going to grow up, leave home, get married, and the next thing you know you'll be a mother-in-law.

No one had to go any further. We all knew what this meant: I'd be pushed aside by a woman who resented my role in my son's life. At best, she would tolerate me. At worst, well, we'd all heard the stories.

I didn't like to think about this. Nor did I have to. For many years the boys thought the sun rose and set on me, and it was so nice. But now they're shaving. And dating. The older one leaves for college in the fall. And I've found myself wondering: Am I on the road to becoming the punch line of another bad joke? Or if an African-American can be president, and same sex couples can marry, can a mother-in-law actually hope to be liked?

In honor of Mother's Day, I called and emailed almost everyone I know, asking for stories about their mothers-in-law. And I am so pleased to report that as our culture becomes a little smarter about emotions, a little more tolerant of personal differences, a growing number of women really do seem to be figuring out how to do the job well. Many of the people I spoke to, and many of the readers who commented on my story, not only spoke highly of their mothers-in-law, they positively gushed.

This raised the next question: What are these mothers-in-law who are so adored doing right? What advice would they pass on to those of us who wouldn't mind being as loved ourselves?

And so began round two of calling around, this time to the mothers-in-law who had been spoken of so glowingly, as well as to experts who had written books on the subject. The things they said were remarkably consistent, starting with the need for the mother-in-law to accept, deep in her heart, that she no longer plays a starring role in her child's life. A woman who can acknowledge that someone else has taken the part will have an easier time than someone who is clinging to her old position and who therefore represents a threat.

"The lack of kindness mothers-in-law often report stems from a feeling on the part of the daughter-in-law that she is trying to take over, [to] be the greatest influence in her son's life," said Terri Apter, a psychologist and the author of "What Do You Want From Me?," a book about how to get along with in-laws. According to Apter's research, about 60 percent of daughters-in-law and only 15 percent of sons-in-law report some degree of tension with their mothers-in-law, a difference Apter attributes in part to the fact that daughters work harder than sons at reassuring their mothers that even though their role has changed, they are still valued.

"It's hard to turn off the mommy faucet, but it's critical," said Leanne Braddock, a family therapist and the author of "Taming the Dragon Within: How to Be the Mother-in-Law You've Always Wanted." "Our children-in-law are not our children. They are new people coming into our lives. When my son got married, I said to his wife, 'I want to have a relationship with you. What kind of relationship do you want us to have?'"

In addition to acknowledging your child-in-law's position, it's important to accept -- and better yet, to adore-- the person herself. When I spoke to mothers-in-law who are treasured by three or four current daughters-in-law and even one or two exes, I realized this was their secret: Not one had a less than enthusiastic word to say about any of her sons' spouses, current or ex. Sadly, not all of us can be so magnanimous. But according to the women I spoke to, we can all learn to have greater appreciation for our children-in-law by focusing on their good qualities, ignoring their bad ones, and by even reading up on their personality type if we have to.

That's what Leanne Braddock did. When her college-age son told her he was going to marry his girlfriend, Drea, Braddock tried to talk him out of it. She worried about their relatively young age and the fact that Drea was painfully shy. "We're a family of extroverts," Braddock said. "I didn't know how she'd fit in or [how] we would relate." Initially there were difficulties when the family would get together and Drea would disappear with a book. But one day Braddock read one of Drea's books, "The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World." "I learned that her brain is wired differently than mine," she said "When she leaves the room, she isn't saying she doesn't like me -- she's just doing what she needs to [do to] recharge her batteries. The more I started to understand her, the more I liked her, and now, oh my God, I think she's fabulous."

But no matter how much you come to love your children-in-law, there will be times you disagree with their choices. Here, too, everyone I spoke to agrees about what to do: nothing. Unless you feel the well-being of a grandchild or someone else is in question, you keep your mouth shut. "No material thing is ever worth mentioning," said a mother-in-law I know who is regularly and happily included in her son's family's life. "They buy a lamp I think is ugly and too expensive and I say it's beautiful."

In those cases when someone's well-being is indeed at stake , you may say something. But carefully, the experts say, and only once. It's important not to let your feelings dribble out in a steady stream of nagging. "You sit them down and say, 'There's something really on my heart. May I talk to you about it?'" said Braddock. "Explain your concern simply, nonjudgmentally, and then it's often a good idea to ask what they think. If they make a suggestion that's not totally out of the ballpark, you can say, 'That's great!' We do this with our best friends. Why do we think our children have to be perfect?"

Yes, there are a lot of rules. Being a good mother-in-law, like being a good anything, requires hard work. But the effort can bring great rewards -- not only for the mother-in-law, but for the family that benefits from her wisdom and nurturing. I was on an airplane last year when I noticed a woman across the aisle who was traveling with her son, his wife and their two kids. Far from being a nag or a shrew, the woman was a focal point, and the members of her family were jumping up every two minutes to ask her a question, tell her a joke, show her something on the computer.

The woman was so busy with her family that it took a while to get her attention. But finally I managed to ask her secret. "My secret?" laughed the woman, a filmmaker named Nancy Cooperstein Charney. "There's no secret. I'm lucky. My children and children-in-law are wonderful people. Not that they don't make mistakes. But when they do, it's coming out of a good place so it's easy to deal with."

"What about you?" I asked. "Do you make mistakes?"

"Oh, sure," she said. "I overstep, I say things I shouldn't."

"Then what do you do?"

"Say sorry! Call them up and say, 'Oh my God, I said something I shouldn't have said, something I didn't mean.'"

I had more questions. But a little boy was tugging at her arm. "Sorry," she said. "But I have to go -- I'm going to spend time with my grandson."