How To Survive Your Mother-In-Law

The relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can be…well…let’s just say that while some are fairly cordial or even downright friendly, some (can I say “most”?) are the things that nightmares, and Xanax prescriptions, are made of. Over the course of two marriages, and two completely different MIL-DIL relationships, I’ve learned a thing or two. Not only about how to get along better with dear ole MIL, but also how Mommy-in-law Dearest could shape up just a tiny bit, and how we both could learn to be better at this whole sharing-her-baby-boy thing, and also some things that I’ll want to remember for when my own children venture off into relationships of their own, lest I become that monster-in-law of legend. (Not that I can avoid my legend-status; I’d just prefer it be for awesomeness, rather than as a boogey story to scare new fiances across the universe.) With that in mind, here are some handy little tips that I’ve learned the hard way.

1. The first, and most important, item on this list is your husband. If he’s not on board with the priorities, then you are in for one hell of a ride, and it’s best you get that straight right up front. Mom may have been the most important person in his life, and she’s been loving him since he was merely a twinkle in his dad’s eye, BUT…he’s not marrying her. He’s marrying YOU, and you are trying to build a life together. I’m sure that you get the importance of that, but he may not understand all the nuances of the feelings his mom may have of replacement (resentment?) that are bound to take place, or how to deal with it. Mom may have understood it at one time, (after all, she was a young bride herself once), but I’m here to tell you as a mother myself that letting go is fucking HARD. Some women handle it with grace, while some just dig in their heels and turn it into a lifelong game of “Who do you love more? Who are you going to listen to?” 
(This game is also known as “His balls are in a jar on top of MY fridge, not yours.”)
Your man will not enjoy being the pawn in this game of one-upmanship, so if you love him, do him a favor: Don’t play. It’s HIS move; let him make it. Either he establishes the should-be-clear boundary lines, and sticks to it, or he deserves everything he gets. I mean, really. No one actively wants to piss off their mother, but in the Who-Do-I-Make-Happy game, I’d go with whomever I have to sleep next to every night until death do we part, nine and a half times out of ten.

2. Having said all that, it’s also important that you have the self-confidence to stick up for yourself whenever you need to. Preferably with your husband’s 200% support, but even without, you need to make sure that your presence in your marriage is all you, and not just a shadow of her. I’m not saying you should have a lightning round of “Who’s the Bigger Bitch,” every time you’re in the same room, but you don’t have to lay down like a second-hand welcome mat, either. HOWEVER, if you can assert yourself without disrespecting her, do that. If she’s got advice (and she will), what will it hurt to listen to it? It’s a couple of minutes out of your life to let her have her say. Give that to her, at least. You don’t have to throw away all of your own thoughts and take her word as gospel, but who knows? She’s likely got years of experience and hard-won knowledge about life that just might make yours a little easier. It’s worth a listen. Probably. If not, you go on about your business completely disregarding her advice and let her stew in the inevitable I-Told-You-So’s for the next 30 years.

3. Pick your battles. As cliche as it sounds, it’s going to need to be your mantra right up until you’re holding your husband’s hand for the reading of the will, if you happen to land one of the truly heinous MIL’s that you just cannot get along with. Naming your children, buying a house, holiday plans, educating HER grandchildren, when exactly it is (and isn’t) okay for her to pop by unannounced, when it is (and isn’t) okay for her to remark upon the cleanliness of your kitchen (i.e. never), etc… Whether you like it or not, everyone will have an opinion on how you should be making these decisions and conducting your personal affairs, but none more so than dear MIL. You do have choices here, and it’s important to know what they are, so you can decide which one you want to make beforehand, instead of in hindsight. You could

(A.) Not say a damn thing, one way or the other. This includes uttering white lies, like “We haven’t decided yet. We’re still thinking about it.” Or if you’re the more honest and blunt sort, you could go with something like “We decided that we’re not going to talk about [this decision] with anyone else right now.” Or you could just nod absently with a dazed and vacant look in your eyes and then shrug and abruptly change the subject to Cousin Milly’s gallbladder surgery. If you go with that one, she may end up thinking you’re a little off your rocker, especially since Cousin Milly passed on in 1997, but that’s still probably better than entertaining a catfight in the sitting room over naming your first son after your father versus hers. You could also

(B.) Entertain his mother’s ideas and advice, whether you use it or not. If you choose to go with option B, but make different choices than you were advised, be prepared to back up the choice to ignore her wisdom with a well-thought out line. Preferably something beyond “That’s the stupidest damn thing I’ve ever heard.” I’m just saying. That one doesn’t work very well. Or, you could always

(C.) Move far, far away, and correspond only by hand-written letters sent via snail mail. You can say that you’re shunning technology by not having email, or that you prefer the quaintness of more personal hand-written letters. Whatever. And invest in either an old-fashioned answering machine, or a smart phone with an “ignore” feature in the contact setup that sends certain callers straight to voicemail.

4. Try to remember that she’s a mother, too. As interfering, out-of-touch, or flat out psycho as she may seem, she’s also a woman, just like you, and a mother, just like you. You could very well be staring into your own future every time she graces you with a visit or a phone call. Your own kids will at some point grow up, move away, and then show up at your door one day with some know-it-all interloper trying to usurp your place in their heart. Probably making bad decision, after bad decision, after bad decision, and ignoring all your years of experience at every turn, no matter how sweetly you try to “help.” Can you imagine how that will feel? You can try, but you won’t know it until it happens. All I’m saying is try to cut her a little slack, and try to understand where she’s coming from. And if that’s too hard, or she’s just too much, then take notes and use them as a “What NOT To Do” study guide for the future.

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