So we were reading this piece on HuffPo today that gives some great tips on navigating the waters in the In-Law Trifecta—you, your mom, and your soon-to-be mother-in-law, with the author spelling out a bunch of great tips and pointers for each of those players, specifically—when we were reminded of a fabulous article, “Mother-in Flaw,” written by PW contributor Jessica Remo several issues back.
We want back and read it, and just had to share, because wow, does it still hold up. It breaks down the four different types, shall we say, of those less-than-favorable mothers-in-law out there—but also gives some great advice on how to handle it all from Philly therapist Tracey Ellenbogen. You can read it below, and then tell us: You experiencing another type we left out here?
When my ex and I called it quits, I didn’t immediately realize that I was breaking up with his mother, too. Though he and I agreed we weren’t meant to be, I had no such reassurances when it came to leaving his lovable mom behind: As I’d heard, the mother-in-law pool was filled with more potential for Chernobyl than the dating pool itself. By passing her up, I’d just chucked a winning lotto ticket.
Okay, so maybe I was a little pessimistic—it was that kind of time in my life. But I’d heard horror stories. Ladies who had endured the overbearing, the intrusive, the completely disinterested, the overly attached. A newlywed who swore her MIL inspired not only Marie Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond, but also Jane Fonda’s character in Monster-in-Law. Here, dear reader, are their stories—though not for the faint of heart—plus tips from our expert on how to deal with the most prevalent of mother-in-law woes.
Perhaps the most classic MIL is what we’ll call The Molder. She cares not for your taste, interior decorating or wedding-planning choices, and for one simple reason: Hers are better. She’s done this before, she knows what her son likes, and you, well, know nothing. Or so goes her logic, as she “molds” you. Over time, her sins accrue, stoking your quiet inferno. First, these unwelcome bits are meant to be sweet—like when she tearfully bestows upon you her dusty and not-quite-your-taste wedding veil. Then, it’s advice, couched and almost tactful—“You know, dear, if I were serving this, I’d add more salt.” And finally, words become deeds.
It was stage three for Danielle* from Newtown. Before they were married, her fiancé’s house was styled “eclectically” by her MIL. When Danielle moved in, she decided to make the space her own and set about, um, revising. “There was this urn,” says Danielle. “It was hideous, cheap, and had to go. My fiancé wouldn’t let me toss it, so I put it in the garage. And one day, after my mother-in-law had been over, it reappeared inside.” With the uncomely urn came another intruder: “Then I went to show the living room to a friend, and someone had installed curtains.” Handmade curtains. Unrequested “gift” curtains.
As far as MILs go, this archetype is common, says Tracey Ellenbogen, a Philadelphia therapist who specializes in life-transition issues and runs workshops to help brides cope with matrimony-related stress. According to Ellenbogen, Danielle’s MIL probably means well, but in a new relationship, roles and boundaries aren’t clear yet. It’s better to assume her intentions are good and communicate, gently, that you’d like to make these decisions as a couple. With unsolicited advice, says Ellenbogen, “You can always say, ‘I’ll take that into consideration.’ Don’t feel you have to accept or reject it on the spot.”
A notch worse than The Molder: The Meddler. She’s gone beyond doling out advice and whipping up window treatments. In fact, she’s got a hand in everything, from your honeymoon plans to your bank account. She’s memorized your social. She finagled a key to your house. And if you invite her to be part of your wedding planning, she’ll take over.
Or so went the case of Kristin from Bryn Mawr. “When my mother-in-law offered either a lump sum towards the wedding bill, or to be put in charge of some task, I thought it would be kinder to let her help,” she says. Her MIL requested to oversee the flowers, and all seemed fine—until the flowers became the linens and then the lighting, placesettings and, eventually, overall decor. “Not only did she steamroll ahead with the planning,” says Kristin, “but she became belligerent. She insulted the caterer, the hotel manager. My friends joked that she would wear the wedding gown. My fiancé and I fought. I should have taken the money,” she says. And then, rethinking: “Or, we could have eloped.”
When it comes to your wedding, says Ellenbogen, only assign tasks that don’t matter as much to you. “Say something like, ‘You know what would be so helpful? If you could make welcome baskets for our guests.’ If your MIL is rushing you, explain that you know she’s excited and so are you, but the pace is making you anxious.”
Also, be mindful that your relationship with your fiancé doesn’t suffer in the fray. It’s hard to talk to him about his mother, so broach the subject with care: “Approach this like he’s the expert on his mom and you’re asking him how to best communicate your feelings to her,” says Ellenbogen. “Or talk to her together. He’s going to feel torn, but if your mother-in-law is being hurtful, he should step in.” (And if he balks at that … well, that’s a whole other article.)
Kristin’s sister Rachel had the opposite problem with her MIL. Enter The Ice Queen. She’s either altogether absent or simply aloof, and wants nothing to do with you or your wedding. That “gaining a daughter” thing? It’s lost on her. Even if you’d like to form a relationship, there seem to be no avenues for it to grow, no shared interests, no bonding-time together.
Again, it’s best to assume your MIL’s intentions are pure, says Ellenbogen. “Some people are aloof because they have social anxiety.” Start with a task-—ask a crafty MIL to help with favors-—or an outing—like a dress fitting and lunch. Then, bring out the sweetness. Says Ellenbogen: “A great gesture is to send her flowers on your fiancé’s birthday, to thank her for him.”
And yet, sometimes the dilemma seems to be that two women are in love with the same man, creating the most stomach-churning of MILs: The Babyer. You see, he’s her bayyybee, and you, devil woman, will not get in the way of the very, very special bond she shares with her little boy. When you first started dating him and she told you hilarious stories about how he called apple juice “abba juice” as a toddler, whilst dusting off his sixth-grade soccer trophy in his old bedroom, still as it was before he left for college, you should have run. But now, you’re in love with the boy—er, man.
Love it was for Kim from Cherry Hill and her then-boyfriend Christian, when she first had dinner with his family. As all at the table served themselves London broil, potatoes and peas, Christian sat still. His mother made him a plate with the appropriate portions of each item, cut up the beef and finally laid the neat work before him. Now married, Kim says the woeful behavior continues. “She’s always worried he’s not eating enough,” she says. “She tells him when to wear a heavier coat and when he needs more sleep.” Says Ellenbogen: “With dependency issues, it comes down to how he feels about it. If he doesn’t like it, it’s his job to say ‘Stop, this is enough.’”
Yet Ellenbogen claims truly devilish MILs are rarer than we think, and through all her work with brides, she’s only seen a few tough cases. But (as evidenced here) the horror stories are far more fun to recount than the love stories. And though there is a scientific term for fear of one’s mother-in-law—pentheraphobia (symptoms: heart palpitations and nausea)—and experts who will treat it, most MILs are just lovely, or commit only venial sins. Like, say, starting you a collection of Hummels.
I know this, too, because I found love again, not only with my now-boyfriend, but also with his gentle, endearing mother—who encourages my mediocre cooking and permits me to give her son a smack if he gets fresh. Maybe I’m just lucky. But even if I weren’t and even if you aren’t, we’ll simply repeat this: You love him. You would do anything for him. Even put up with the woman who calls your new hairstyle “fun” and writes his name inside his gym shorts. For these things, forgive her—because it’s only because of her that there is him.