Navigating the Sandwich
When this Mom Became a Mother-in-Law
It’s a tricky role to navigate, even when you’re set on getting it right.
A few months back, I attended a benefit dinner and was seated next to a woman in her 70s. We got to chatting and I told her my son would soon be married. It was then she offered this tidbit of advice regarding my impending mother-in-law, or MIL, status. “As the mother of four sons, I will tell you one thing I’ve learned about getting along with your daughter-in-law,” she said. “Mind your own business.”
I chuckle to myself as I remember her unsolicited words of wisdom, but the truth is, I could use a little guidance right now. It’s been a very long time since I’ve navigated an entirely new role in my life — not since I became a mother nearly three decades ago — and I want to get it right. I also want to understand — and hopefully embrace — what becoming a MIL means in terms of my own identity.
Whether or not it’s true, the first thing that comes to mind is that becoming a MIL means I’m old — not exactly elderly, but old enough to have a married child. I don’t feel old. I’m still curious and fun-loving, and I’m more fit now than I was a decade ago. Along with the bride and groom, my husband and I got swept up in “shredding” for the wedding and I must say that my triceps, formerly a source of shame, are looking pretty good right now. But even with our newly toned bodies and younger than springtime attitudes, there’s no fooling Father Time. The shift from mother to mother-in-law signifies a milestone in aging, indeed. As labels go, can grandma be far behind?
Before I became a MIL, I was the MOG (mother of the groom) at a gorgeous wedding full of love and laughter. Yet despite the perfect day, being the MOG stirred up conflicting emotions for me: joy, for sure, but surprisingly, a sense of loss as well. Although my son, now 29, hasn’t lived at home since college — and had been with his mate for five years before they wed in May — their vows made it official: I am no longer the primary woman in my son’s life. Of course, this is as it should be, but I miss the days of him turning to mom first and relying on me to fix just about anything — even if it had already been a while since I fulfilled that role. The fact that his wife is both compassionate and competent somewhat eases that pain since I know he’s in very good hands, but still it stings in a “mommy and me” kind of way. A secondary sense of loss stems from missing my own mom, who died when I was 18. She would’ve loved both the wedding and getting to know her new granddaughter-in-law.
As I watched the bride glide through her wedding weekend, I thought about who I was when I walked down the aisle 32 years ago. My daughter-in-law seems much more self-assured than I remember being in my 20s. For example, I made almost no decisions about my wedding, leaving most choices to the country club’s catering director. My daughter-in-law facilitated every detail, from the food to the flowers to the flip-flops in the welcome bags. When I got married, my father negotiated all the nuptial expenses. In contrast, my daughter-in-law showed up to every meeting with an updated spreadsheet of every cost and wasn’t shy about challenging those she thought were high. Her career has progressed rapidly in a straight line (mine did not), and she consistently handles Type 1 diabetes, a lifetime condition, with grace and strength. In other words, she’s got this. She doesn’t need my motherly advice since she has a wonderful mother and sister of her own. When I was her age, I had neither, so I may have relied on my mother-in-law more from the get-go than my daughter-in-law needs or wants to rely on me. But I don’t feel rejected. On the contrary, I feel proud of her and proud of my son for marrying her.
As strong mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships go, I could do no better than modeling my own experience. I adore my MIL, now 85, who has been nothing but caring and kind for as long as I’ve known her. Even when it wasn’t easy to keep her mouth shut about some of the choices my husband and I made, she seems to have also gotten the memo: Mind your own beeswax. I know this isn’t always the case. I remember the day a colleague came into the office and groaned as she put her head down on the desk. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The Antichrist has arrived,” she replied. “My mother-in-law.”
When my friends and I were having our babies way back when, plenty of them opted to care for their newborn on their own rather than have their bossy/nosy/not-helpful mother-in-law descend upon the household. Recently, I watched a misguided MIL — an acquaintance — pit herself against her daughter-in-law in a battle for her son’s allegiance. Guess who won? Now the MIL is on the outs with both of them. So, some of us do indeed deserve the nickname of monster-in-law, typically because we overstep our boundaries and/or don’t respect that our child’s relationship with his spouse is both paramount and none of our business.
It’s not surprising that British psychologist Terri Apter, an expert on family relationships, reports that 60 percent of women use words like “strained” and “infuriating” to describe their MIL/DIL relationship. In fact, in-laws rank right up there with infidelity when it comes to reasons for marital strife.
When Dr. Christy Rittenour, an Assistant Professor of Family and Interpersonal Communication at West Virginia University, analyzed MIL/DIL relationships from the perspective of daughters-in-law, she found that being patronizing or giving unwanted advice topped the list of reasons DILs reported dissatisfaction with their MILs. I’m saying it now: That’s not going to be me, so if anyone ever sees me behaving otherwise, please remind me.
I’ve also been pondering how it feels to add this new label to the ones I’ve worn for decades: daughter, sister, wife, mom, friend, writer. Each of those roles carries a sense of how I’ve defined myself over the past 50+ years, and a sense of belonging to something larger than myself. And each carries a sense of responsibility to fulfill that role as best I can. What does being a MIL ask of me? To love my daughter-in-law (a cinch, so far) but also to be available but not intrusive, honest but not judgmental.
Becoming a MIL is a new role for me, but being a DIL is new for my son’s bride, too. We’ll likely make missteps along what will hopefully be a long road together, but that’s okay. Her other new role is much more important: Wife!
Amy Barr is a veteran magazine editor. She started her career as an editorial assistant at Working Mother magazine and rose through the ranks before joining Time Inc. to launch the online edition of Parenting, where she served as managing editor. Her essays have also been published on huffpost.com and tuenight.com. You can find Amy on Twitter at @amylbarr.