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According to the Book of Genesis, right after creating the heavens, earth, and humanity, God created marriage. And I’m pretty sure that the next day, somebody invented the mother-in-law joke.
Okay, maybe not the very next day because, as one of those jokes states, “Adam and Eve were the happiest, luckiest couple on earth because neither of them had a mother-in-law.”
Mother-in-law jokes have been around pretty much forever. Do a quick online search and you’ll turn up dozens of them, including these…
- Do you know the punishment for bigamy? Two Mothers-in-law.
- A pharmacist says to a customer, “I’m sorry but you need a prescription to buy arsenic. A picture of your mother-in-law isn’t enough.”
- My mother-in-law was banned from playing professional poker. She keeps all the chips on her shoulder.
It makes sense if you think about it. The blending of two people with two completely different sets of family backgrounds and traditions creates a fertile field for comedy. And since humor is highly valued in my house, I think these jokes are pretty funny.
But I thought they were a lot funnier before I became a mother-in-law.
Joking aside, being a mother-in-law is no laughing matter. It’s a role I take very seriously. So should you.
As a mother-in-law, you have a tremendous opportunity to impact and influence the relationship between your married child and his or her spouse, for good or for ill. Take a look at any list of the top things couples fight about and you’ll see in-laws in the lineup, right up there with sex and finances.
Your attitude and behavior in this role has a potentially big impact on your relationship with your married child, on that child’s relationship with his or her spouse, on the health of your child’s marriage and even, by extension, the security and happiness of your grandchildren.
Being a good mother-in-law matters.
But it isn’t always easy. There can be a lot of stress in the relationship, especially when we’re looking at the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law combination. Studies have shown that about 60% of daughters-in-law report stress in their relationship with their mother-in-law. However, only 15% of sons-in-law felt the same way.
Fortunately, I was blessed with a truly wonderful mother-in-law, a woman who set a positive tone and tenor for our relationship from day one. But maybe you weren’t so lucky. Maybe your relationship with your mother-in-law was stressful, strained, or even hostile. That’s all the more reason for you to break the cycle now and become the mother-in-law you wished you’d had.
How? Here are a few tips I picked up from watching my own mother-in-law.
Don’t criticize. Ever. To anyone.
There’s a reason that this is first on the list. Avoiding criticism is the absolutely, number-one, most-important rule for mothers-in-law. Don’t say anything critical about your son or daughter-in-law, not to them or to anyone else. Assume that anything negative you might say about your in-law will eventually come back to them because, if your family is like most, it will.
Bottom line – if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Don’t give unsolicited advice.
This can be a hard one, especially after grandkids come along. Having spent much of my adult life getting good at being a mom, it’s natural that I want to share what I know. Still, most of the time, it’s better to wait to offer advice until you’ve been asked. I admit to failing in this area from time to time but then again, so did my mother-in-law.
Mom never came right out and said she didn’t think I was dressing the baby warmly enough but her opinion was evident in her choice of gifts. She sent several gifts during the first year of our son’s life. Every single box contained a hat.
Give your kids some space.
For nearly two decades, you saw your child on a daily basis. It’s natural that you want to stay involved in his or her life. But once your child is married, you need to back off a bit. Even if you live in the same town, don’t drop by unannounced. Your kids need their privacy and space to build a strong family of their own.
Also, when it comes to holiday celebrations, don’t insist on doing things the you always have in the past. Make room for your son or daughter-in-laws family traditions in your holiday celebration. And if your kids want to have the party or dinner at their house, yield your role as holiday hostess to become a gracious guest. Don’t pout or feel hurt if your kids decide to spend the holidays with the other in-laws. Look on this as a chance to change things up and create a new holiday tradition.
Who knows, you might actually find Christmas at the beach and lobsters on the grill preferable to fifty hours slaving in the kitchen and stuffing yet another turkey!
Be helpful. But not too helpful.
The occasional home-cooked meal for a busy working couple or offer to clean the house for a brand new mother will likely be greeted with much appreciation. But it’s possible to go overboard in your efforts to be helpful.
Rushing over with a pot of your famous homemade chicken soup when your son gets a cold might be interpreted as a hint that you don’t think his wife is capable of caring for him. Too many offers to clean might be considered a silent signal that you think your in-law is a bad housekeeper.
Remember, what you do matters just as much as what you say, so only offer your help when and where it is truly needed.
No two families are alike, so it’s natural that your son or daughter-in-law, wherever and however they were raised, will have some habits, traditions, or attitudes that seems strange to you. That’s normal. Accept your in-law for who he or she is, just as you hope they will do with you. Whether you know if or not, the thing your son or daughter-in-law craves most from you is approval.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, his mom came for a visit. I was a young bride, only nineteen, and understandably nervous about hosting my mother-in-law for days at a time.
Would my house be clean enough? Would my meals be as good as hers? Would she approve of me?
Three days into her visit, as we were raking leaves in the yard, Mom looked at me and said, “You’re a good wife to my boy.”
I could have cried with happiness. That one simple statement set us off on the right foot and cemented a relationship that spanned three decades.
My mother-in-law has been gone for five years now. I miss her every day.
When my time comes, I hope my daughters-in-law will be able to say the same of me. If I do my best to follow her example, I believe they will.