Who doesn’t remember “Throw Momma From the Train?” What about Monster-In-Law? The image of the overbearing mother or mother-in-law is sometimes wells deserved, and certainly makes for entertaining fare – as long as it isn’t your Dear Old Mum or MIL.
My mother? She was crazy smart and crazy creative and also, just plain crazy – at least some of the time. And not in a good way. To say that our relationship was a problem for decades is an understatement, which doesn’t take away from the love and admiration I hold for her.
My mother adored my ex from the first moment they met. In fact, over the years, I was convinced she loved him far more than she could ever love me. That was a bitter pill.
The In-Law Equation
In theory, we want our parents to like our spouses. In reality, the meddling mother – or mother-in-law – can be salt on the wounds when there’s trouble in paradise.
My mother was one of those women who preferred men, period. She couldn’t hide it, and she didn’t pretend she felt otherwise. I brought home someone I loved at age 22; she quickly made her dislike for him crystal clear. There was another man I was involved with whom she met a few years later. He was a treasure – and she never gave him a chance.
Get Married, Already!
Then came the evolution into meddling over my personal life with constant questions about whether or not I was dating. It was less about marrying the “right” person and more about marrying someone. Anyone. And making babies.
When I got engaged to the man who became my husband, the contentious relationship with my mother improved, generally speaking. Her approval of me skyrocketed when we married, and more so when I had two kids.
Happily (for many reasons), they were boys. And given that she loved boys, she was more or less good to them.
And meanwhile, her son-in-law charmed her at every turn and she fell for it hook, line and sinker. I thought in the end it would make my relationship with my mother better. I was wrong.
From the time he entered “her” world, my spouse was the son my mother always wanted, or so she said in words and actions.
Me? It was still a crap shoot. Sometimes she liked me, sometimes she didn’t. She had plenty to say about how I was parenting (of course), and all of it was unsolicited. I rarely spoke of my marriage, but if there was ever a difference of opinion, I could count on my mother to take his side. And this was with zero knowledge of the loneliness I was living, the self-absorption of my spouse, and my physical isolation in the marriage.
Unsolicited Opinions = Interference?
It’s ironic really, as I think back to the stories my mother told me about her in-laws. She married my father at 23, and my parents put a few hundred miles of distance between their families and the marital home. My father’s dad had a habit of criticizing my mother. I know it must have hurt, and I imagine the distance was in part to reduce any interference.
Sometimes, interference is well-intentioned. Necessary, even, when our experience tells us our children are about to do something stupid. We might view it as intervention, wise counsel, doing what a parent does – not interference at all. We want to step in – prevent problems or fix them – especially if it has to do with their relationships.
But who says we know best? Who says our kids – or us – won’t do better to learn the tough lessons?
And I will add that my mother always, always, always had the support of her own mother – no matter what.
When Mom is a Friend
I’ve known women who have a close relationship with their mothers, relying on their advice, their strong shoulders, their assistance with childcare. They don’t view maternal commentary as interference, but assistance. I’ve known women with similar bonds to their in-laws.
I had hoped I might be close to my in-laws when I married. I liked them both, and felt a special kinship with my father-in-law, in part because my own dad had passed away shortly before my soon-to-be groom and I began dating. Though the relationship with my father-in-law ended when divorce came, much to my regret, I still think of him – often.
As for my MIL, she generally kept mum, but there was one incident when she made unsolicited remarks about my priorities. Those were early days, I had my hands full with two children under two, and she wasn’t aware how much time I was already spending alone – me, the boys, a full-time job. I knew she was motivated by love for her son, so I took her criticism with a grain of salt, and tried not to let it hurt my feelings. But I never forgot it. As I think back, it remained a wedge between us.
I have another model for parent-child conversation. That model is the 86-year-old mother of the man I’m involved with, and I see and listen to some of their discussions, and I have to say that I am impressed.
She may offer an opinion, but never in an accusatory way. Never judgmental. She doesn’t comment on his relationships – best I can tell – not concerning me, as the unofficial daughter-in-law, nor his ex, nor his kids. And yet their bond is a close one, characterized by respect, laughter, honest communication and love.
Imagining the Future: Will I Be a Meddling Mother or MIL?
Worse than my mother’s commentary throughout my marriage was the way she meddled during my divorce. Suffice it to say that she continued to take my husband’s “side,” she interfered with my children, she was cruel to me and made an already painful time far worse.
Not to the man I had married, and that remained true after the marriage ended.
As for my own parenting style, at this point it is fairly hands-off. We had some tumultuous years, my boys and I, but at 21 and 22 – one is in college and the other working – they’re beginning their adult lives.
They have plenty of time before anyone will put pressure on them to settle into a “permanent” relationship, and I can’t imagine myself worried about that state of affairs for at least a decade. If and when the time comes for each of them to pick a partner, I’d like to think that I won’t interfere (as my own mother did), I won’t insist on marriage, and if I don’t like someone they’re seeing, I will hold my judgment and be judicious in my comments.
In fact, I wonder what sort of mother I will be to them if and when introductions are made and input requested. I hope I will be capable of being honest without being interfering.