Mothers-In-Law: Your Questions and Answers

Yesterday and the day before, we hosted Susan Lieberman on our blog for a wide-ranging set of questions and answers. Susan invites women everywhere to join in the conversation about how mothers-in-law can foster healthy relationships with their married children and their spouses. In her book, The Mother-in-Law’s Manual, she covers the full scope – from women’s expectations before their children marry to hopes about how their children will behave when their mothers are really old.

We had so many interesting questions and answers come in about this complex and emotional relationship. Here are some of the questions our readers raised and Susan’s thoughtful answers. We will highlight more of them next week so stay tuned!

Vicki talked about getting along better with a DIL when she didn’t have high expectations about the relationship. She wondered if that was the problem with her other DIL.

Susan’s response: Yes, Vicki, that IS what I mean. We don’t do this consciously, but we have filters that affect what we hear. When we expect, for example, to hear affection and enthusiasm and we don’t, we feel a loss. When we expect nothing, what we hear is what we hear. I want to add something that has helped me in my relationships with my daughters-in-law. I decided that the expectations I needed to set were for me. I expect myself to be a certain kind of parent, to be loving and generous and forgiving…and I keep working on it regardless of what I get back. This helps me feel okay about me.

Another woman asked whether or not to talk to her son and DIL about her expectations.

Susan’s response: What you say, I think, depends on what you feel. If you share your expectations, is it with the subterranean belief that they will then have some responsibility for addressing those expectations? There is, I believe, a question behind this question behind this question…which is why we imagine our children will share our expectations and why, almost all the time, we think they have some obligation to address them. This is a guess, but is it true that you are feeling some anger with your son and his wife? As long as that is there, my own advice would be to stay quiet until you can work your way through it. My own experience is that the anger always leaks through and discolors the conversation. If you are able to subdue the anger…and by the way, disappointment is different than anger…then there might be a time when you could address one expectation by acknowledging that you three see the world differently, noting what makes sense for you and asking for their help in figuring out how to make things work for all of you. If that goes well, down the line you might bring up something else, but, sad to say, we are no longer driving the ship.

Carolyn asked about calling her DIL on the phone when she didn’t get any calls back from her.

Susan’s response: Carolyn, I would love to chat with my daughter-in-laws more, but I, like you, do not have the sense it is a pleasure for them. When I know their husbands are traveling, I might call to see how it is going but otherwise, I seldom call. Instead, I send my gourmet cook DIL NYTimes food articles and recipes I think she will like and comment to my other DIL online about some of the great kids’ pictures she posts. I make sure when I email my sons about family business that I copy their wives. I wish they were chattier and that my being chatty with them didn’t make me feel inappropriate…but that isn’t how it is.

Brenda wanted to know how to have fun with her DIL the same way she could with her son-in-law.

Susan’s response: Brenda, the research shows that the MIL/DIL relationship is, in general, a tenser dyanamic than with sons-in-law. Add to that personality differences. And then add our own expectations of men and women…and there you have your situation…not so unusual.

Some thoughts about what you can do to make the situation with your daughter-in-law better: First, worry less. Can you get more comfortable in yourself when you are around her? Don’t look for things that prove your negative thoughts about her.

Of course, we don’t want to do or say things that hurt or harm, but how much time can we spend trying to suck up? Stick with that humor, even if no one else is easy. It is so hard, I know, not to feel comfortable with the people our children love. For me, I just keep telling myself that the game is not over.

Our thanks to Susan Lieberman for her input this week. Join us again next week here at Nourishing Relationships as we continue to chat about our complex role as mother-in-law. The discussion is always open here. What other issues that have been troubling you in your role as a mother-in-law? What do you think about Susan’s answers?

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