Obnoxious, overbearing in-laws have been immortalized in music, “Mother-in-law…Satan is her name,” the movies “Meet the Fockers,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and even websites “Mother-in-Law Jokes by the Thousands.”
Why is this relationship is so fraught with problems? When your beloved child chooses a mate–who you may or may not adore—that new in-law comes as a package deal with a retinue of relatives who may not share your cultural, religious or social values. They may embrace you into the extended family, and expect attendance at endless family events. They may be social snobs and mark all occasions “family only,” meaning you’re not invited. They may come from different economic circumstances, with conflicting attitudes about saving and spending money. They may have a very different take on gender roles that impact your daughter or son: Should mom stay home or work? Is a dad expected to be a handyman as well as good provider?
In other words, “We are faced with a stage set for animosity,” says Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of a new book, “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-laws into Family.” Her name might be familiar because she wrote a classic book for dealing with adult children, “Don’t Bite Your Tongue.” In speaking engagements for that book, Ruth found that the most common questions were about in-law issues, prompting her to write this new book.
A resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, Ruth has become one of a handful of trusted professionals mothering21.com turns to for advice. So it was no surprise that her book brims with practical suggestions on how to handle situations from weddings to grandchildren and everything in between. And, she dispenses advice with wit and candor.
We chatted on the phone, finishing our conversation just before Superstorm Sandy took down power lines. Ruth is the mother of four married children and grandmother of seven; one family lives close by and the others are scattered around the globe
Q. You note that in-law problems occur most often immediately after the wedding, at the birth of a child, and around the illness or death of either generation. Why those times?
A. Change is hard and it’s hard to adjust to a whole new script, with a role that we have never played and have no idea how to play. One of the problems is that we don’t know how to play the role of parents without being central to our child’s life. Our adult child who we know and applaud is moving on to become a married person, and every gain for them is a loss for us.
Q. In-laws are related neither by blood or choice, and are often strangers until the engagement. There are no proscribed roles and the two sets of parents can be from very different economic and cultural backgrounds. Sometimes they can have conflicting expectations of their roles: Some parents very much want to be part of their children’s live. Others feel “I’ve raised my kid now it’s my turn for fill in the blank.” How do in-laws avoid this minefield?
A. Contempt for another’s lifestyle not only prevents in-law couples from connecting but escalates into a moral battle. Everyone has to focus on getting along and not to judge. Be curious about the other in-laws and their ways of doing things. Take the same approach as you would at work. We all work with people we might not love but we learn to get along. Use those same skills with in-laws. Ignore differences, find commonalities and go the extra mile. You can’t change them but can change your attitude.
Q. In some families, once the adult children are married that song “We are family” plays constantly with invitations—and expectations—for attendance at countless events. In other families, the attitude is “nice to meet you” at the wedding, see you again when the first child is born and then at her graduation.
A. Between those two ends of the continuum, there are endless possibilities for misunderstandings. If the in-laws are from a huge family there could be a wedding every weekend; it gets expensive. Communication with your child can help a lot, explaining to him or her, “Here’s what I can do and here’s what I can’t.” You don’t have to attend every event; sometimes sending a gift for a wedding or food after a funeral is all that’s necessary, and all that should be expected.
Q. You write that often being an in-law is a competitive sport, with the weapons of choice time, money and grandchildren. They keep score. Who gives more? Who can pay for nicer vacations? Who can spend more time caring for the grandchildren? What’s the best way to play fair?
First, don’t compete, just run your own race. Particularly when kids are little what they want from you as a grandparent is your time and energy. In terms of vacation, do what you have always done and remember wonderful times are had on camping trips as well as at the Four Seasons. People worry that the grandparents who give more financially will get more love. That’s not true.
Q. You write that most often angry feelings among in-laws are over hurt—hurt about being cast aside, hurt over feeling inadequate, hurt over not being understood, and hurt about not understanding the new rules of the family? How do you cope with those hurt feelings?
A. It takes a lot of practice. One suggestion: When you feel that you’ve suffered a hurt ask your best friend, “Can you help me see this situation differently?” Also, put a statute of limitations on slights. For example, weddings bring out the worst in us all, and we end up with grudges about what did or didn’t happen. What does it serve you to hold that grudge for years? What’s done is done. Rip up the scorecard and be forgiving. Deal with what you have, not what you want. Focus on the future, take the long view, and remember that things change over time. A key point to keep in mind: Being an in-law is a game of sharing and shared experiences; new routines and affection take a long time to develop.