Q I don’t know how to handle my mother-in-law’s undermining comments anymore. She pours cereal for my daughters and says, “I was a meanie Mom. I never bought sugary cereals for my kids.” Or, she will comment that mothers today make too much of a fuss about peanut allergies as I pack snacks for my daughter’s nut-free classroom. She mentions that she doesn’t like how children today climb into bed with their parents, knowing full well that’s how our family often ends up.
My husband admits his mother is opinionated, but says her heart is in the right place. Maybe, but I don’t think our kids should hear her criticize our decisions. Should I speak up? I am afraid that one of these days I am going to blow up.
This question is answered by Trina Zilla, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Wellesley.
A It is not unusual for mothers- and daughters-in-law to have conflicts, which are often exacerbated when children come into the picture. Mothers want to believe that they are good parents who made thoughtful and appropriate decisions in raising their children. So when your mother-in-law sees you making alternative choices, it calls into question the techniques she used. It is important to remind yourself that your mother-in-law raised your husband, so she likely did quite a bit right. Have you expressed how impressed you are with all she did to have raised such a wonderful son? Compliments are an incredible antidote to negativity and defensiveness.
You must also be cognizant of the loss that she experienced when your husband married. Your mother-in-law likely has a good heart and is struggling with these changes and would appreciate your empathy.
If there are negative remarks too upsetting to ignore, you should speak to her. Let her know that you recognize that you have different parenting styles and although hers was clearly successful, you feel confident about your own and find her “observations” hurtful. The key is to speak to her in a respectful, non-confrontational manner. If you don’t have the kind of relationship with your mother-in-law that is likely to result in a successful conversation, your husband should gently voice his concern (making sure he couches it as his concern rather than yours).
Finally, remember that many things are different now than they were when our parents raised us. For instance, your mother-in-law may not realize that food allergies seem to be more prevalent now, and mere contact with peanut butter can be lethal to someone who has nut allergies. Join with your mother-in-law as often as possible and show her compassion and understanding. You might just be a mother-in-law too one day!
Readers Weigh In
“Give her less access to your children and understand she will not be alive forever. Both of my inlaws who were difficult at times are now dead.”
– Debbie in Bedford, N.H.
“I think that it depends on how often you have to put up with her. If it is once in a great while, then I'll just let it roll off my shoulders. If this is a constant thing, then I'd have a talk with my significant other about how her comments make me feel and have him/her have a talk with his/her mother. I would also follow up with a civilized conversation of my own. Remind her that these are your children and you are their mother. Thank her for the advice but decline it at the same time by kindly discrediting her. You catch more flies with honey.”
– Michelle in Boston
“I always remind my mother-in-law that these kids are mine to screw up however I please! She already had her chance with her own kids and if she wants another one, go adopt. Usually she gets the hint. Or, I remind her, ‘My, how far we've come since those days,’ smile and go about my business.”
– Susie in Attleboro
Email your relationship dilemmas with spouses, neighbors, teachers, family and, of course, your kids to Susan.Flynn@parenthood.com. We’ll ask both professionals and our readers for their advice.