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June 10, 2011

How to be a Perfect Mother In Law

by Barbara O'Neal

216411_10150157611105893_698160892_6602988_6015592_nMy son was married on April 7.  This means that I am a new mother-in-law. I have to forget everything I knew about mothering, and adopt a new approach.  

This is not the simple transition I imagined it would be.  For one thing, the son who got married is my mama’s boy, a child so devoted to me as a baby that I called him my joey.  He was two weeks late emerging from the womb, and then I carried him on my hip for the next ten months because he wouldn’t allow anyone else to so much as change a sock.  He’d howl piteously even if it was his father. 

He’s grown into a strapping man who towers over me and has tattoos all over his arms and shoulders DSCN3392
(including, natch, one for “Mom” (please note the quill)).   His bride is a serious, level-headed Air Force sergeant who looks at him with enough love in her eyes to make any mother happy.  He’s an exuberant character, and worships the ground she walks on.  I liked her immediately and have only grown to love her more
over time.

All good. 

Here’s the thing: because I love the two of them together so much, I find myself wanting to write a happily-ever-after manual for them.  Offer advice on everything from how to eat (together when you can) to how to talk to each other (kindly and with support) to activities (find a game you can play together). Most of it sounds like it’s been distilled from women’s magazines from the past thirty years.

And yet….I keep thinking about it.  I’m experienced! I’ve been married.  Divorced! My parents have been married for 50 years. My in-laws were married for 60.  I wrote romance novels! I know stuff. 

I find myself picking on my son more than my daughter-in-law.  I want to tell her to make him do housework, even if it isn’t quite the way she would do it, because she’ll want a helpmate.  I want to tell him cook for her more, or take her out. I nag him to go to movies she would like as often as what he would like.

But then I remember my mother in law, who was absolutely marvelous at this.  She always greeted me with pleasure. She didn’t criticize the way I fed her son or the way I raised her grandchildren.  She supported me in all things, in all ways, and that in turn gave me confidence and allowed me to trust her.  It also made me feel like a million bucks in her company.  Smart, loving, wise.  (She died seven years ago and I still really, really, really miss her.)

In all of this, I’ve realized that I have had as much trouble letting go of my mama’s boy as he had letting go of me.  He is, like me, creative and curious and inclined to crash through the wilderness than take a path already made.  He hasn’t yet found his place in the work world and I get anxious about hat (even though he’s the ripe old age of 26).  As I’ve monitored myself for offering unsolicited advice toward my daughter-in-law, I’ve noticed how much I nag my son. 

Rather than trusting him. Respecting his ability to make good choices and live a productive, loving life.  (And yet, look at his choice of brides! How smart was that?)

The wisdom in being a great mother-in-law is the same wisdom there is in being a great mother of adults—I can offer my faith in their intelligence and good sense and earnest desire to build a life of meaning and joy.   (And look at them! Some good potential for joy there, huh?)

So unless I am asked directly for advice on any subject, and by directly, I mean, “Mom, what do you think I/we should do?”, not just telling me about a problem or challenge they face, I am not offering any. I can trust them to live their lives without me at the helm.  They’re doing a great job, both my sons as adults and my newlyweds. 

Will this be easy? Not on your life.  But it’s the only sane and loving way to be a mother of adults, and it’s great practice for grandparenthood.   <gulp>

 How have you navigated the transition to being a parent of an adult, being an in-law, being a grandparent?   What advice would you offer me? 



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Barbara, what a wonderful blog.
Here I am after midnight awaiting my third grandchild who will arrive today.
I was greeted on the phone this evening by my thirteen year old grandchild who ended the conversation with "I love you, grandma."
When my girls left to be married I felt like my arms were cut off..it hurt so much to see them go.
However, I have been blessed with wonderful son-in-laws and I try to stay out of their business unless asked of my opinion.
Barbara, I love the picture of your son and wife.

And I really miss my dear late mother-in-law also.
Off to sleep, perchance to dream of all things family.

Oh, I forgot..it will be a boy. LOL
Thanks for the indulgence.

I'm working at home today for the second day in a row, because my 20-year-old is too sick with a bad cold to take care of himself (and I refuse to contact my ex-wife, half a block away, for help, for too many reasons to list here).

But then, he's a boy, so that may factor into it.

Just let them read this blog post. It's beautiful.

So is that photo. That is one happy couple! May they always be so.

My mother in law and I bonded within the first minute we met, and I miss her to this day. The single greatest piece of advice she ever gave me about how to have a happy marriage is "Do you want to be Right... or do you want to be HAPPY?"

Over the years, I've genuinely come to appreciate the wisdom of that statement. Don't sweat the small stuff...and if you take a hard look, it's stunning how much of it IS 'small stuff'.

Not a lot matters, but what does matter, matters a lot. Focus on what's really important, and let the trivial stuff go out the window.

What William said...with one addition. Talk to each other and listen to each other. I love my son-in-law dearly (he and Cath met as friends their first day in college) but since I know I have that maternal protective streak, I keep advice to myself. Unless they ask...and then I give them my opinion and make sure they know it's just that. They were married 9/20/97 and are still "on the same page", maybe because they respect as well as love each other. And they talk...and listen...to one another. Wonderful post Barbara :o) Have a wonderful Friday!

What a beautiful post, Barbara. And a real tribute to your son and his bride. It doesn't sound as if you need any advice. You've figured it out as you wrote this post. Congrats to the newlyweds. And to you.

I never had a mother in law; she died a yr before I met him. We had many rocky times but my parents never interfered. I was blessed with two wonderful sons and they got married about a year apart. I like both young women, they are beautiful, smart, hardworking, and they have that 'gaga' look in their eyes when they look at my sons. I couldn't ask for more EXCEPT i had this great big fantasy that they would love me, too. and they don't. they aren't mean but no warm fuzzies. they are close to their moms. my younger son apologized for this, he said he just didn't understand why she didn't like me. But for his sake she tries. An old friend of mine, knowing it hasn't turned out the way i dreamed said, sometimes it's just 'put up, pay up and shut up.' yeah, kinda cynical, huh?

Barbara, just looking at that last photo, of your son's strong arms holding his wife so well, you can see they have such great love for one another. It's as though they have drawn a circle of love all their own; you can almost see the force field of it. They will do fine. You taught the man to be a super-good hugger!

I've had three mothers-in-law (my first husband's parents were divorced when he was in high school, and they both remarried long before I met them); they collectively taught me many things. Some things they taught by example, some by negative example. Do not call newlyweds before 10 AM, I'm just telling you. Especially on the weekends, capisce?

My oldest daughter and her husband have been married for 11 years, but they've been living together now for 17 years, almost 18. I called Jeff my "sin-in-law" for a long time, and love him dearly as the son I never had. He was such a good big brother figure to my other two daughters, and they still look up to him; he's been part of the family for most of their lives. As a son-in-law it's almost unfair to anyone the younger girls marry, Jeff has set the bar so high. We've spent a lot of time with them, since they have lived away most of their time together, and they've stayed with us hundreds of times. He has taught me how to be a good mother-in-law, I expect.

My son was two weeks late and both of us almost didn't make it. But we did and I was glued to him too.
His father and I didn't agree on how to raise him. He was a punishment monster and I wanted the kid to enjoy being a kid so we got divorced. We're talking stupid stuff like letting him eat birthday cake!
Anyways, his father then tried to keep us as far apart as possible getting him in the hoity toity private schools miles from the house so I couldn't possibly get off work to pick him up...stuff like that.
He sent him to Walnut Hill in Natick his junior year in High School. So the apron strings have been getting thinner and thinner now that he's going to be a senior next year at the Boston Conservatory. Kills me he's been so far away.
But not out of my life so that's good. He really has not had any time for a serious relationship so I don't have any opinion to express here but as Andy Rooney said:
There are only two reasons to give your opinion...when it's a life threatening situation or when you are asked."
Thanks for asking Barbara.
I'm going to call my baby as soon as I post this!

I took my mother's advice, which she took from her mother: Button your lip. I know I appreciated the non-interference, and I'm doing my best for my own sons-in-law.--But, oooh, it's hard sometimes!

Marie, can't wait to hear the baby news!

Barbara, I share this in common with you - I don't ever tell my son-in-law what to do, but I do sometimes nag my daughter. Our situation is a little bit complicated by the fact that we all live together (although Brenden is at sea right now). The simple fact is that we've been practicing the mother-daughter relationship for far longer than we've been practicing the two-adults relationship, so it's easy to fall back into the former when we need to be working on the latter.

All I can see is keep practicing :) It's been working great for us, and I'm sure it will for you as well.

I was criticized for not being "a Godly wife". She complained to my mother that I should give up my church and go to his/hers and that I should be more like HIS EXWIFE. Then over the years, when I tried to be accomodating as possible due to her incredible responsibilities at home (6yo son, invalid husband, elderly mother, and full time job) and fixed holiday huge meals, only to have her cancel or leave early. My children were always on their best behavior, but I was accused of either letting them run wild or being too strict. Because Dear Hubby has chosen to take my side in all of this, he is basically ignored by his mother. She and his grandmother wrote him off years before I appeared on the scene and still ignores his children.

My SIL asked why we didn't have much to do with her or why my BIL always was the one calling to make sure we got together when they were in town. My BIL told her a few of the stories...some worse than above...and she told me, "I am so sorry that I have such a different MIL than you do." My response to that was, "Well, thank goodness she can be a nice person when she wants to be."

I don't like the woman, but I respect her and all she had to put up with during those years. She has a great 2nd husband and as far as I'm concerned, she deserves all the happiness she can get and has her spot in Heaven reserved.

Just don't make me spend eternity next to her.

I was just remembering what a genteel lady my mother-in-law was. Not the la de da genteel, but graced with ability to embrace each of her seven children's new spouses.
I think that the key to her wisdom was to treat each newcomer to the family as an individual. Each of her children had distinct personalities and needed something different in the way that she interacted with them.
Her preconceived idea that I was a city girl vanished when we both realized how similar our backgrounds were and how we appreciated what we had.

The old stories of walking through the snow up to our necks were a reality for us.
When I had my first baby we had the conveniences of the "modern age" and she sometimes reminded me of all the differences in basic needs.
My kids are still appreciative because they work for what they get but sometimes I long for the wonderment of the old days when even a coloring book and crayons could whisk you away to another world.

Save the criticism for the really important stuff. Just ask my MIL, I am WRONG several times a day.

Listen to your children. Said MIL managed to combine taking the princesses to McDonald's for a 1000 calorie "snack" with, princess one having too much belly for a bikini.

Why are you napping/ why are you sleeping are just not questions future grandmothers should ask.

On another note: Shaken and Street Heat joined my kindle today.

Yay, Shaken hit Kindle yesterday! And Tim Hallinan graciously sent an epub file to me, after I forwarded a copy of my Amazon receipt. Can't wait to get to it.

Marie, I'm holding my breath, waiting to hear about the new little prince's arrival. Best of luck to all.

Alan, your MIL should kiss the ground you walk on, you take such good care of Molly and the princesses.

I had a terrific MIL for the almost 2 years I was married. At our first anniversary party she took me aside & said "You know, I am too young to be a grandmother." I didn't tell her that I already decided that there was no way I was having kids with her son . . .

She had raised 3 kids with tempers and I didn't have much of one so we bonded on a lot of levels. I never saw her again after the split up and sure hope she has had a great life.

Since my sisters ex-husband still visits my mom and helps her out, I am thinking my mom is a pretty good MIL.

Marie - is the baby here?

Alan, your MIL experiences made me smile

DH, in his droll way once commented that being that My Mom was no longer with us, he felt that I was a good candidate for marriage,. HA!
Little did he know that I was looking for someone, unconsciously, of course to be a take charge person.
He thought that I didn't talk much..another HA! I was good listener and we were engaged in less than eight weeks.
His mom and I could have staged a stand-up routine, much to the chagrin of the rest of the family.

So, in other words, you do, what you have to do.

BTW, you will love STREET HEAT!

Wonderful, loving post. I'm afraid that "button your lip'' is the best advice I can give too. I have a crush on my son-in-law, and they do very well without me. It's wonderful to see the real love, concern and caring that exists between the, But I think she is pretty great, too. Shaken is sitting on my kindle waiting for me to read-like so many books.

Gayln, the baby will be here after twelve thirty pm.
I am anxious, excited thrilled and I thank you for asking.
I will update everyone when I return from the hospital.
I created a blog to share my experiences.
When I start to babysit two days a week, gulp, I will tell the tales of being seventy and thrust back into diaper-hood..baby's, hopefully not mine!!

What a darling couple! I love them and the way they so clearly love each other. Much happiness to all of you, Barbara.

I had a thoughtful, discrete, generous mil to whom I never felt close, but I knew that she had a "cool" rather than warm personality, so it wasn't personal. She was fine. I considered myself lucky.

If I could give my son one piece of advice if he marries, it will be: Don't just sit there while she works her tail off around the house. Get up. Move! Wash. Clean. Cook. Shop. Tote. Give her girlfriends reason to whine, "I wish MY husband would do that."

Nancy P. I second that! Nothing worse than getting taken for granted by your 'partner' as you do all the work.

Barbara, that second photo says it all, lots of happiness to them both.

My parents met in his mother's kitchen. Mom said finding the future mother-in-law first is a good way to have a happy marriage.
My own late mother-in-law had three sons, but said she, "Always knew my sons would bring me daughters." We stayed friends even after the divorce.

The "transition" was easy for me. My daughter started bossing me around when she was about eight. Never quit. Both she and her husband are smart and wise; what could I say?

Baby Jacob is in the HOUSE!! Woo, hoo!

I had lunch with my son a few weeks ago (and my grandson) and he is right now making a decision that I really disagree with. But, I held my tongue and told him that I loved and supported him (and his sweet wife) in whatever path they took. I didn't tell him that I would be here when it all fell apart (he already knows that) and I didn't tell him that it was going to all fall apart because I don't know that for sure.


It's so hard to keep your opinions to yourself, but you are right, it's the only way to be the parents of adult children and keep their respect and love.

I, too, had a good example in my mother in law. She has been gone now for almost a decade, but I can still feel her love and support and will always treasure our relationship...

Woohoo, Marie! I hope mother and son are doing well.

And may Baby Jacob live a long and healthy life, and bring nothing but joy to his family.

Thanks, Karen.
It is such a relief to see him here. My daughter has already used media to post pics..what an age we live in!

I have had such a negative experience with my inlaws as a family that I've already decided to take DIL's to lunch and let them know what I will not do...
ie If I have a key to your house, I will never use it to let myself in, especially at 8:00 am on a Saturday morning, unless you send me to your house to get something.
I will never offer you unsolicited advice and then yell at my son because you don't listen to me.
I will never insist that you have dinner at my house weekly, then get mad at you and my son when you miss a week. And then call, and give you a lecture on the importance of family.
I will never invite myself over for dessert when you are having friends over for dinner and then stay the rest of the night.
I will never insist that walkers were perfectly fine for my kids, and put your child in it when you aren't around. Then when my grandchild falls in the walker at 8 months, mashing his beautiful face, and causing two black eyes, and a goose egg the size of Disney on his head, pout for 3 days because you are upset.

In other words...DIL will like you more the less she feels you are interfering.

Maybe you could write your son a letter, telling him you feel you need to get this off your chest, and you will never mention it again. And he can ignore the whole letter if he likes, but you will just BURST if you don't at least say it. That way you'll feel better but he won't feel pressured or nagged and DIL won't feel like she needs to move 4,000 miles away like I did to get from under your thumb. :)

Congratulations Marie! I just love me some baby!

Marie, a big congratulations on the arrival of Jacob!

Oh Marie, I went to your blog - Jacob is so sweet. I love squishy squiggly new babes!

Marie! Hugs you! Hugs Jacob! Hugs everybody!

I don't know . . . my mother-in-law didn't have any trouble offering advice. I didn't have any trouble giving it right back to her. We didn't hide our feelings, and sometimes we hurt each other. But . . . we had great talks and were able to argue and, I think, out of that grew respect and reasonably free exchange of ideas.

When she had the kids at her house for visits, I let her carry on with them without giving her rules and instructions. This way they all had a good time with a trusted adult, and the kids had her to turn to at those times when they needed someone close and not-a-parent.

It worked for us, and we had a good relationship.

Marie, thanks for the good news!! Wishing health and happiness to all!
Alan, I second Karen's assessment -- we've both seen you with your very beautiful and intelligent daughters. The McD's meal and bikini assessment sounds like every women's magazine I've ever read . . . eat this/now diet/repeat. No wonder women have such confused self-images!

Really touching post, Barbara. As others have said, you don't need any advice, you've already figured out the hardest thing - keeping your opinions to yourself (unless asked). It's SO hard to do. But as a new grandmother, that's what works for me. And being available for babysitting! Congrats to your son and his beautiful bride.

The Chick Dick Blog

So much great advice and many good (bad) experiences to keep in mind. And thanks for letting me share that picture. It's my favorite. (And yes, he's a great hugger.)

marie! Congratulations on the new grandchild!! (I do so look forward to that part, even though I suspect it will be awhile, since they are young)

The basic rule of thumb seems to be: keep your opinions to yourself and be loving and supportive. Which is not that different from other adult relationships, right?

Oooh, Marie, mazel tov! What a beautiful baby boy!!!!

Talk to each other and listen to each other. I love my son-in-law dearly (he and Cath met as friends their first day in college) but since I know I have that maternal protective streak, I keep advice to myself. Unless they ask...and then I give them my opinion and make sure they know it's just that. They were married 9/20/97 and are still "on the same page", maybe because they respect as well as love each other.

Thanks, everyone for the good wishes.
I held Jacob and he is so precious and perfect.
I am so happy he made the journey to meet us.

Marie, did you post your blog link and I missed it?

Hi, Karen.
If you click on myy name it has a link to my blog.
It has been an exciting day.
Thanks again.

Oh, there he is! What a good-looking boy, Marie! Give him some Tarty smoochies from us all, okay?

Aww. Karen. Thanks..this boy will be loved for sure.

I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

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