The Vine: May 18, 2011
I am hoping you and your readers may be able to provide me with some advice on dealing with my mother-in-law.
I have been with my partner for almost six years. He is one of three children and the only one who has a consistent relationship with his mother. His elder brother was estranged from her for 13 years and while they semi-reconciled two years ago, he lives overseas and communication is limited to sporadic emails. His younger sister, who has two children, fell out with her mother over two years ago and has had no contact with her since. The MIL has been divorced from her children's father for over 20 years and is as bitter as if it was yesterday, despite having remarried a lovely man 15 years ago.
My partner loves his mother but learnt at a very young age that he needed to keep an emotional distance from her so he would not be caught up in the bitterness between her, his father and his siblings. He has a caring, and reasonably close relationship with his immediate family. He is always adamant he will not get involved in her disputes with his father, brother and sister and refuses to discuss these matters with her. Her whole approach to conflict is "that's it – I'm never speaking to you again!" and it mystifies me, but it certainly makes me appreciate my own family and my partner's freakish normalness.
I find my MIL to be a selfish, insecure, irrational, moody and tactless person and after a few years of trying to find a way to like her, I eventually came to the realisation that will never happen. However, after the relief of realising this had finished washing over me, I vowed to myself that I would be as polite, cordial and friendly as I could with her and I wouldn't take her occasionally sporadic psychoanalytical emails about how her son and I were emotionally crippled personally. I figured if he could find a way to handle her, I could too. However, I have always known that when someone is as easily offended as she is, eventually we will become estranged too and it will probably be something to do with me. She lives interstate and we see her about twice a year, so keeping our relationship light and casual has not been too difficult so far.
I feel the estrangement time is impending as we are expecting our first child in June. She is very happy at the idea of being a grandmother again as she has three grandsons that she never sees. I will say, she is accepting of me being the mother of her grandchild. She has taken the opportunity to increase contact with us (two years ago she decided that she had made enough effort with her children and they can contact her from now on) and now calls weekly. This wouldn't be so bad, but now she wants to talk to me as well as her son. In her last call, she again expressed her disappointment that the baby is most likely not going to be a girl and her hopes that maybe the scan was wrong. I gritted my teeth and said, "We don't care as long as it's healthy and really there is nothing anyone can do about it anyway." I then changed the subject, until I ran out of things to say, so I said I needed to get to the shop to get her off the phone.
The problem I have now is that because I have spent a few years not providing any personal insights or information to her about myself or my family (for self-preservation purposes), she has made a number of incorrect assumptions about me. She seems to now want to be a mother to me (I have a perfectly happy relationship with my mother and have told her as much) and wants me to be more like her own daughter — the one who is just like her and doesn't speak to her as a result. She is frustrated that I don't have any desire to confide in her and that I seem to have a very casual approach to impending motherhood. Keeping our relationship light and casual is easy when I see her twice a year — but now I have to work out how to manage this person I just don't understand at all more frequently.
So, my question is — how do people deal with mother-in-laws they don't like? Particularly when kids come along? Are there any tips or tricks anyone has for setting ground rules and getting her to respect them? I have already told her that she is welcome to come and help with the baby if she wants to, but I would prefer her not to stay with us — explaining that in our small house help would be appreciated from someone who had a decent night's sleep the night before — and she said she didn't see the point of coming if she didn't stay with us. So now I haven't said anything further about her offer and it seems the baby's gender has put her off the idea anyway…
Picking boy names is hard, but MILs are harder
The best and most important strategy for dealing with a difficult MIL is to get your partner on the same page with you, about everything — your feelings about your MIL; the boundaries you would like set as a couple, as a household, and as parents; how to manage your boy's relationship with his grandmother as long as he's too young to grasp what's going on.
It sounds like your partner tries to maintain a pleasant relationship with his mother, but is not in denial about who she is or how she behaves, which is good. That said: make sure he's not assuming a greater tolerance on your part than you can carry, and do it now, before the baby arrives, because it's not a conversation you want to have while riding the Estro-Cyclone with 49 minutes of sleep between you.
The next time she calls, manage it the way you usually would, and afterwards, take the opportunity to tell Partner, "You know, it's awkward, and I don't want to overstep…but we need to discuss your mom and some boundaries I'd like to establish with her." Tell him, gently, what you've told me. Suggest that, sometimes, if she asks to speak to you, he tell her you can't come to the phone; mention that, sometimes, you just…won't come to the phone. Talk about how you can jointly handle remarks you don't appreciate, or offers to visit that will create more hassle than goodwill. Decide who's going to be the bad guy. Rehearse "keeping the baby on a schedule"-type fibs that can reduce your exposure in the future.
In the conversation, listen and compromise; remember that he's your partner, and you want to find a way to deal with MIL that's comfortable for both of you. Remember too that you can't change her behavior, only your own and how you react to her.
And don't underestimate the motivational power of a comment like "if you're uncomfortable with how we do XYZ, you're probably not comfortable seeing your grandchild either," chilled to a refreshing 32 degrees and served with a sprinkle of sugar. Nobody wants to go there, but sometimes you have to, and not every grandparent is worth the diplomacy, sad to say.
Readers, any personal stories about clueless, borderline, bitchy, or even merely annoying MILs, and letting them have a relationship with the younguns without sacrificing your sanity?
Tags: kids the fam