05/11/2012 03:58 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

In Defense of Mothers-in-Law

On this day of celebrating mothers for their love and hard work, how many of us are secretly (or not so secretly) dreading the brunch or dinner we're required to have with our mother-in-law?

Maybe not as many of us as you'd think.

Mention the mother-in-law and people still roll their eyes, imagining an old busybody who barges into our homes, stays too long, and criticizes everything from how we raise our kids, to how we cut our hair, to how we clean (or don't clean) the house. But is this fair? As times change, minds open, and other stereotypes loosen their grip, why do we continue to cling to the image of the mother-in-law as a pestering shrew?

"For good reason!" said Sheila Martin, a New York mother of three who made the mistake of asking her mother-in-law to feed the cat while the family was on vacation. When Martin's mother-in-law saw the answering machine blinking in the kitchen, she not only listened to all the phone messages, but returned each of the calls. "So people wouldn't know we were away," explained Sheila, who asked that her name be changed to prevent her relationship with her mother-in-law from becoming worse than it already is.

Spread the word you're collecting stories about mothers-in-law, and you still hear plenty of doozies: The mother-in-law who snuck into her son's closet and then criticized his wife for not ironing his clothes. The one who told her daughter-in-law -- who had converted to Judaism to marry her son -- that the challah she had spent all day baking tasted like cardboard.

Though some of the stories can really shock, as my own teenage sons get older, I find it easier to understand the mother-in-law's predicament. She loves her child madly and can still so clearly remember the days of being the center of her family's universe. At an age when she is starting to feel more invisible anyway, she must relinquish her most cherished role to someone who may not share her style or most basic values. No matter how strongly she may not like what she sees, she must keep her mouth shut.

But a growing number of women -- many motivated by the desire to spare their daughters-in-law the misery their own mothers-in-law inflicted on them -- seem to be rising to the challenge with sensitivity and even flair. The mother-in-law who leaves groceries with the doorman when her daughter is busy at work. The one who traveled across the country to help with the kids when her daughter-in-law was being treated for cancer.

The good news about the persistence of the evil stereotype is that mothers-in-law who fly in its face may as well have negotiated Middle East peace for the way they're praised. "My relationship with my mother-in-law was one of the joys of my life," said Lisa Adams, a writer whose mother-in-law, Barbara, was the one who traveled across the country to stay with the kids when Lisa was having chemotherapy. Lisa's treatment went well and she survived her cancer. But Barbara was killed in a car accident three years later. Today Lisa will not be rolling her eyes at the prospect of having lunch with her mother-in-law: she'll be missing her very much.

Do you have a great relationship with your mother-in-law? Take to Twitter to show your appreciation for her using the hashtag #LoveMyMIL