Mother's Day is coming up, which means flowers, cards, and breakfast in bed. This year, May 11 will be the day we all offer a collective thanks to the women who gave us life, love, and all those rides to soccer practice.
But what about those other mothers? Not our own, but the women who raised our partners or might help raise our grandchildren? How many American women will be celebrating Mother's Day with a mother- or daughter-in-law? Curious, I asked a few female friends, and was surprised by the vehemence — and the negativity — of some of the answers.
"Only [heavy sigh] because I have to." [Even heavier sigh. And eye roll.]
"No, thank heaven, she lives in Beijing."
"Honestly? I'd be afraid to. I think she's trying to poison me."
Actually, that last one didn't come from my own circle; it was inspired by a letter written to Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe, aka "Dear Prudence," by a woman who suspected and subsequently discovered that, yes, her mother-in-law was really spiking her au jus with a potent laxative.
Talk about intimidating the crap out of someone.
But it illuminates an inarguable fact: the relationship between mothers- and daughters-in-law of heterosexual marriages — women who love the same man, but for different reasons — is one of the most notoriously fraught on the planet. In her 2009 book What Do You Want From Me?, Cambridge University researcher Terri Apter reports that more than 60 percent of the females surveyed described their relationships with in-laws as "stressed," while only 15 percent of males felt the same way.
That's the bad news. The good news is that there are steps that women on both sides of this unique familial dynamic can take to pre-empt and address discord — and improve life for everyone.
Acknowledge the "why"
It's reductive (and a little insulting) to chalk up the issues that frequently crop up between these women to "jealousy." With the exception of a few psychological outliers, mothers do not want to partner their sons, and wives have little desire to parent their spouses.
So why all the tension?
Ironically, much of it has to do with the importance women place on emotional relationships. At some point in our evolutionary history, the male of our species figured out it didn't really matter if he loved or even liked the other guy helping them chase down some protein for the gang back at the cave, so long as everyone got a little steak to see them through the next few days.
Back at that same cave, meanwhile, our female ancestors were discovering the importance of communication, empathy, and network-building to the clan's long-term survival. Flash-forward a few thousand years, and the basic differences between male and female brains and thinking processes persist, and are exhaustingly documented in both scientific research and the popular press.
Modern women, just like their forebears, tend to observe, analyze, and act upon myriad subtle behaviors and other clues as new relationships are established. And the more important the relationship, the more women are going to focus on it. This alone sets a stage for potential conflict, because familial relationships have been, for most of human history, the most critical to survival and success.
The in-law relationship — established relatively quickly without the benefit of shared experiences — is both very important and strange territory. Is it any surprise that the women on both sides of the equation are wary as they enter in to it? And that they are perhaps sending out behavioral and linguistic clues expressing this wariness that might be misinterpreted by the other person as hostile rather than cautious?
One woman's protectively crossed arms can read as another's angry posturing.
It certainly doesn't help that history, literature, and the modern sitcom are so chockablock full of contentious mothers- and daughters-in-law that a bad relationship has become cliché. Understanding why the cliché exists, however, can help you do much to avoid its pitfalls.
Be respectful and polite
Knowing that your partner's mother — or the woman your son plans to marry — might be feeling some trepidation about the emerging relationship between the two of you should kindle some empathy toward her. Now consider respect. Achievements and status are valuable currency in human relationships, and everyone likes to have her worth and position recognized and acknowledged.
Make it a point to look for things about the other person that are admirable and noteworthy. Then note them, aloud, to her:
I know you struggled to raise Greg as a single mother when you were younger. I admire you — you managed to build a successful career and bring up a kind, grounded man.
I've never seen my son so happy. When he was little, I used to hope Greg would meet someone who inspires him the way you do.
I can't help but notice how your entire extended family sees you as its matriarch — I hope one day soon you might be willing to share some history and stories with me as Greg and I establish our own branch of the family tree.
I know you're on track to become partner at your firm — Greg tells me that you're also a very talented pianist. I would love to hear you play one day.
Look — it's natural for you two to be anxious and concerned about asserting your own power in this relationship. That's only human. But a little compassion goes a long way for both of you. Seeking the positives in the other person and being grateful for those qualities will actually help you feel more positive toward her — and act with more natural grace and friendliness as a result.
Of course, because no one is perfect, you will inevitably note some things about your new in-law that you are not so thrilled about.
These are off-limits. Provided she is not trying to kill you or commit some other felony, you do not get to judge the other woman — certainly not aloud. Just because you are "family" doesn't mean you are entitled to launch into criticism of new in-laws. So what if your son's wife has a nose ring? Or your husband's mom is so addicted to Diet Coke she never seems to be without a can in hand? Criticism is never helpful to the establishment of good relations; in fact, it's extremely likely to result in insult and alienation, even if your intent is to be constructive.
If you truly can't stand the other woman who is now your relative — and this unfortunately happens — resort to a time-honored strategy that can be applied to everything from international relations to strangers traveling on the same train: good manners. Sit up tall. Don't fidget and roll your eyes. Keep a neutral smile on your face while in the other woman's presence. Converse about innocuous subjects, like the weather. Say "please" and "thank you," and listen to her when she is speaking.
Don't be passive-aggressive or dismissive. Even if she is talking with her mouth full, using atrocious grammar, and insulting you, your politics, and your beloved Chihuahua Max, don't react. Turn the talk back around to the weather. Keep your cool, put Max on his leash, and get away as soon as you politely can.
Later on, you can more objectively plan the best way to cope with the new she-troll in your life, but, in the short term, stay on the high road of politeness. Who knows? She might even be inspired to follow your lead.
Communicate early and thoughtfully
As early as possible, consider inviting your new in-law to have a frank conversation about yourselves, your communication styles, and your individual expectations for extended family life. What you learn could be eye-opening. Often women enter into their roles as mother- and daughter-in-law with very different perspectives and hopes.
One of you might be an extrovert, eager for stimulating contact through frequent conversations and physical expressions of affection. The other might be an introvert, no less affectionate, but disinclined to hug and more content to catch up through shared letters, emails, and photos. It may be that you are envisioning a mother-in-law who will be thrilled to host the extended family at celebrations and eventually babysit every weekend — even as your new husband's mom is considering selling the family home so she can plan lengthy expeditions to the deserts of the world for the next 20 years.
Some fortunate mothers- and daughters-in-law find that their personal styles and expectations for the relationship fall beautifully in line. More realize that they will need to adapt to another person's personality, plans, and competencies. If you establish a basis of consistent, compassionate communication early in the relationship, you will not only understand each other more, you'll have a solid framework of trust for later on, when you do need to address any issues that come up.
As time goes on, almost all mothers- and daughters-in-law will experience some degree of conflict — as do all relatives. The vast majority of the issues women report as problematic in their relationships with in-laws have to do with boundaries: overzealous mothers-in-law who can't or won't respect reasonable ones, and over-protective daughters-in-law who throw up unreasonable obstacles in an effort to establish her own family's independence. Even within the bounds of reason, it's hard to determine where these boundaries should lie.
Once again, this is an area where communication is critical — and this time, include him.
As much attention as is paid to the females in the mother-daughter-in-law triad, most researchers come to the conclusion that the man in question must play an active role in the establishment of appropriate boundaries. This can't happen if he's cast into the role of a ping-pong ball being bounced between the two of you and your issues, real or imagined. Since many women are confrontation-averse, they often resort to complaining about a man's mother or his wife to him behind the other woman's back.
This can't happen if the three of you agree to negotiate boundaries together. Be specific:
You are welcome in our home, Mom, but you may not rearrange the pantry while you're there.
I love your children, but I cannot be your on-call babysitter.
We will take turns celebrating Thanksgiving with both sets of in-laws.
This kind of clarity and forethought offers all of you the opportunity to feel heard and empowered, and reduces the chance of anyone feeling marginalized or put-upon later on.
Be nice. Be thoughtful. Be fair. There is no one-size-fits-all manual to human relationships; every mother-and-daughter-in-law combination is unique, with its own pleasures and challenges. If, however, you approach the other "other woman" in your life with a combination of good intent and common sense, chances are you will all enjoy the upcoming Mother's Day much more.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The latent sexism of the male marriage proposal
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Bush vs. Clinton in 2016 is the perfect way to make millennials hate politics even more
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- This judge is the reason we're still fighting over net neutrality
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
Subscribe to the Week