We welcome to our blog today Ruth Nemzoff, the author of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children and family dynamics. Ruth is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and you can find her on the web at RuthNemzoff.com.
Ruth is also the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. Whether you’re a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, or out-law, her books will help you gain a new perspective and learn about her insightful strategies for improving relationships with your new family members.
Mentors: Why did you write this new book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes?
Ruth: I wrote the book because on my book tour for Don’t Bite Your Tongue when I visited over 300 venues in 5 countries around the world, I found that the most common question about parents and adult children was about in-law children. Usually, the question was about a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship— i.e. a mother-in-law feeling pushed aside or a daughter-in-law feeling criticized. Questions about sons-in-law tended to be about issues with the SIL not earning enough of a living or failing to do jobs around the house. What these questions said to me was that our society has not caught up on changing gender roles. The expectation still seems to be that the husband will be the earner, if he’s not, it is suspect to the older generation (his in-laws).
Mentors: Why are in-law relationships historically so troublesome?
For one thing, in the past, marriages were very much a business deal. They were a way to secure a family fortune, or if you were having trouble feeding your child, you might ship them off to another family to be fed…and married. In these cases, a daughter-in-law was really just a servant of her new family, and a baby-making machine.
All of the jokes and parodies about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law and son-in-law/father-in-law relationships set the foundation for difficult relationships. Many such jokes exist, but some examples include:
Two men were in a pub. One says to his mate, “My mother-in law is an angel.” His friend replies, “You’re lucky. Mine is still alive.”
Question: What is the definition of mixed feelings?
Answer: When your Maserati goes over a cliff with your mother-in-law in it.
Fathers-in-law are depicted as ridiculously bereft at losing their daughters:
Question: Why would you rather deal with a vicious dog than your father-in-law?
Answer: A vicious dog eventually lets go!!
Mentors: Did you write this because you’ve had problems with your in-laws, in-law children, or their parents?
Quite the opposite, I have found my in-law children, parents, and siblings have added texture and richness to my life, so I know it’s possible to achieve. They have taught me a great deal.
Mentors: From a cultural point of view, why do we make in-laws into outlaws?
In-laws are related by neither blood nor choice, but rather by someone else’s choice. Sometimes tensions can arise when people have to live with decisions made by others.
In-laws are also increasingly turned into outlaws because most young people now are marrying partners who don’t come from the same community. Unfamiliar modes of interacting and differences in communication can make it difficult to connect to in-laws from different places or cultures. For example, in some societies it is assumed that the generations are tied when a couple marries, whereas in other sub-groups that type of tight-knight relationship is not taken for granted. Certainly in regards to the extended in-law family, different societies have disparate notions of who is actually a relative.
Additionally, these days people are not always marrying but rather just coupling long-term, which leads in-laws to wonder if they are legally connected to this new person in their child’s life and if that matters for developing a relationship with them.
When expectations for an in-law relationship are subverted—the SIL refuses to help fix the front door or the MIL doesn’t want to babysit—in-laws can become outlaws.
Mentors: Can you provide a few hints on how to foster better relationships with your in-laws?
I give a comprehensive list of tips in Chapter 11 of Don’t Roll Your Eyes, and here are few of the highlights:
- Try to put yourself in your in-laws shoes.
- Don’t make a big deal out of everything—we all make mistakes, and we need forgive each other for slights.
- Reframe things with a positive view. For example, if your kids don’t call you, don’t complain that they never want to talk but rather consider that it’s nice that they’re good parents who who are spending time with their own children
- Forget fantasy, deal with reality. As mother-in-law, you may be frustrated that your daughter-in-law isn’t very physically affectionate towards you, but you should be pleased at least that she’s very polite—enjoy what you’ve got!
- Don’t hold on to grudges.
- Be curious about your in-laws’ culture, beliefs, traditions, lives. Try to understand why people think they way that they do—don’t discount and dismiss their ideas out of hand.
- Remember that we’re all new to this game and trying to figure out how to make it work.
Mentors: Thank you, Ruth, for joining us today, sharing your wisdom and giving us a peek into some of the valuable tips you present in Don’t Roll Your Eyes. Whether you’re the parent, adult child, sibling or the “other” in-laws, you’ll find Ruth’s book has scenarios that resonate for you. And with your new perspective you’ll come away with practical methods you can use to create more harmony and lasting bonds with your new and extended family.
Now, readers, it’s your turn to ask Ruth questions that have been on your mind. Use the “Leave a Reply” box below to make a comment or ask a question.