The Mother-in-Law’s Manual


Today we welcome Susan Lieberman, Ph.D. for a Virtual Book. We found her book, The Mother-in-Law’s Manual: Proven Strategies for Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Married Children, to be so chock full of good information that we have asked her to stay on with us for two days, so send in your comments and questions. We’ll highlight them again on Friday with her answers.

When her boys married, Susan had no idea that there was an entire new learning curve waiting just around the corner. She had expected parenting to be demanding, but it never occurred to her to think becoming a mother-in-law would bring its own challenges. Where was Dr. Spock on this stage of development?

Nourishing Relationships: Welcome, Susan. Being mothers-in-law ourselves, we know it can be a complex relationship. How did you come to write a book about mothers-in-law?

Susan: I always assumed that when our terrific sons met women they loved, we would love them as well. And beyond that, I also assumed those women would consider me a bonus. Honestly…I was quite surprised when it didn’t happen that way. At first, I wanted to blame the wife, and then I came to my senses and realized that making this work was my work to do.

I thought I was done with parenting when the kids grew up. Now I see this mother-in-law gig as the last act of parenting…but Spock and Brazelton and those other parenting gurus stopped too soon. I wrote this book to figure out what I needed to learn to get the good relationships I want.

Nourishing Relationships: What is the most important thing you learned?

Susan: The most important thing, I came to see, is that the fewer expectations we have, the fewer disappointments we will have. And if we think we have no expectations, look again. Odds are they are there, hidden just below the surface.

Nourishing Relationships: Why is this mother-in-law stuff so difficult? MILs didn’t expect tensions and yet they are there.

Susan: There isn’t one reason, of course, but here is a cause that I think affects many of us. If we have a job at work and our employer decides to shift us to another role, he or she calls us in, and, perhaps, says something like this: “Thanks for doing X all these years. You have done a great job. But now we want you to do Y.”

You might say, “But I really like doing X and would love to continue.”

Your boss says, “I am glad you have been happy, but from now we really need you to do Y and we know you will do that successfully as well. Such and Such will be taking over X.”

So you leave the office and it quite clear that you have been reassigned. But nobody calls us mothers in and says, ‘You have been a great leading lady for a couple of decades but you are no longer going to play the role of leading lady. You have been downsized and now you have a character actor part.’

Maybe it took us quite a while to get that leading lady role down. But now we are good at it. We like it. And the replacement…it’s possible she or he is young and green and not nearly as adept as we. Nonetheless, we have a new script, a new place to stand on the stage. This is tough, and many mothers don’t get the message. They keep reading from the old script and the new lead doesn’t like it.

Another reason has to do with type and temperament. It’s natural to enjoy people who are like us, make meaning the way we do, respond similarly. New people in the family can be different. Sometimes, we think that’s “wrong” or hurtful when it’s just different.

For example, I’m an extrovert. I like to talk over what is on my mind. Both of my daughters-in-law are introverts. It is not in their nature to pick up the phone and call to chat. This is painful for me…but it is about ME not about THEM and expecting it is one of those expectations that will lead to disappointment.

Nourishing Relationships: We presume you interviewed women who had good relationship with their married children and their partners. Is there something about these people you can tell us?

Susan: Such a good question. These women said things like,
“I got to lead my life and now they get to lead theirs.”
“I don’t always agree with their choices but know I didn’t want interference and I’m sure they don’t either.”
“I want them to be happy and have good lives, but I’ve done my part. Now it is up to them.”

Nourishing Relationships: Thanks for your candor and insight, Susan. We look forward to carrying on this discussion tomorrow. If you’d like more information about her book, click on the title of the post. And, readers, send in your questions and comments for Susan.

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