The FOUR People in the Mother-In-Law/Daughter-In-Law Relationship
I was speaking at an event recently and my mum-in-law was in the front row. When I mentioned that folk often found it interesting that we’d shared the same house for 20 years and still liked each other, she got the best laugh of the night by shouting out “I’ve told her that if she ever leaves him, I’m going with her!” “Him” of course being my husband, Tom, her only child. We all laughed, but I think she really means it. Ruby and I are lucky enough to get along just fine, but it’s not a happy accident. We’ve both put in a lot of effort.
It hasn’t been just about us though. In my experience, the first thing to understand was that there were THREE women in this potentially challenging relationship – my mother-in-law, me and my mum. What did my mum have to do with it? Well, quite a lot because, if a daughter and her mum are very close, as is often the case and was certainly true for me, it’s easy for a mum-in-law to feel excluded. So, right from the start I knew I needed my mum to help me get on with my new mother-in-law. Later in life, when Tom and I were away with the boys and my mum was in poor health, Ruby cared for her by popping in every day and helping out. Nothing was too much trouble.
And then there’s the fourth key person in the relationship – the son who made it all possible. Appreciating that all four are influential in this important relationship is the key to success as each has some power to make or break the peace.
The other thing to remember is that, all going well, the people we live with for the longest part of our lives are our partners, not our parents. According to research, 75% of Millennials in the UK leave home between the ages of 20 and 34. Parents won’t be the most influential person in the lives of their offspring forever. You may have brought them into the world, but your job is to prepare them to make their own way, let go and then back off. Ideally, always there for advice, support and encouragement, but no longer the guiding force in their lives.
It’s wise parents who embrace this change from the moment the engagement or living together gets underway. Treat the love of your adult son or daughter’s life as important and with kindness, affection and respect and you can’t go far wrong.
After twenty years of sharing a household with Ruby, after her husband Tom died suddenly in the late nineties, we think we’ve learned some things about how to make it work that might help others.
If you’re the mother-in-law – try to be kind, patient, helpful, loving and understanding. Accept that, though always special and important, you’re no longer the love of your precious son’s life. His happiness with his new family takes centre stage and your role is to get on with your own life while being supportive when needed. If you get this balance right, you can still be at the heart of extended family life and make a good friend of your daughter-in-law.
If you’re the daughter-in-law – also try to be kind, patient, loving and understanding. Accept that life has changed dramatically for his mum and she will take time to adjust. Be friendly and open with her and ask for help when you need it. She’ll probably love to feel useful and wanted. Talk through the importance of this new relationship with your husband (and your own mum) to help ensure no-one in the family feels left out. Try hard not to favour one set of grandparents over the other – it’s not fair on them or the grandchildren.
Ruby and I set out from day one to get to know each other and to become good friends. I consulted her and my own mum for advice as the boys were growing up and always invited both to the big family occasions. We were also careful to chat in advance about plans for things like birthdays, Christmas, childcare and school holidays to keep everyone in the loop – an example of good communication heading off arguments and misunderstandings. We also discussed and agreed a set of simple ground rules for living in the same house at the outset and have stuck by them – all based on showing each other respect and consideration.
We’ve always eaten and partied together regularly as an extended family in the belief that children should grow up seeing their parents and older adults getting along, having fun together and helping each other out. Children learn so much from the way adults behave, they watch everything!
All of this is fine if everyone involved gets along and likes each other in the first place. It’s going to be a lot harder if there’s emotional baggage for whatever reason. But, if you appreciate that there’s more than the happiness of you two at stake, trust each other and make sure any precious grandchildren see you all getting along, you won’t go far wrong.
Ruby told me recently that she sees me as the daughter she never had, which was lovely to hear. We’re good pals first and in-laws second – maybe that’s what makes the difference!