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Lessons from the Monster-In-Law

By Kellie Purcill

i have learned - kahlil gibran

I had an entirely different post percolating, when my lanky Lurch said from the kitchen “Hey Mum….”  Long, hard-won experience has told me that NOW was when I had to turn from my computer, my deadline, my headphones and listen. Listen, and ease into the conversational tempo that best works for my son… like a calm ocean strolling onto a deserted beach. Unhurried, considered, and deep.  I, of course, am naturally more like the toddler shrieking and bouncing at the waves coming to kiss my feet, or like the shark telling itself it’s going to nibble off just a little toe…

Turns out, a question I asked more than an hour previously had soaked in, and he was ready to share.  Turns out, it involved feelings, and relationship potential with someone, and rules that her parents have in place, and his request that I more clearly define my rules and expectations on the subject.

Somehow I managed not to stomp my foot and boom “NOT UNTIL YOU’RE THIRTY!” As much as it galls me, I have my monster-in-law to thank for  attribute that to a significant degree.  Know, right from the start, I don’t use the term lightly – she was incredibly awful to me for over a decade. She’s now my EX monster-in-law, but I’ve been thinking of her as my oldest has grown ever closer to legal adulthood, and closer to girls he’s not related to. 

I thought of her surprisingly last year, when I looked around Relief Society at the four youngest sisters, and realised my son had been on a date with each of them, and not that long ago.  I thought viciously of her the other Christmas, when she unexpectedly sent me a gift in with the boys’ presents, and the boys looked at me wide-eyed and asked “Is it ticking?”  (It was Ferrero Rochers, and I threw them away uneaten).  I think of my monster-in-law painfully whenever I saw incredible examples of mothers-in-laws and women discussing how they were/going to approach the women in their sons’ lives, and eventually hearts and homes.

That decision making, that planning and what-if considering is right up in my face and emotions now. It’s gouged the scar of the pain and suffering my ex-in-law caused me – which does not improve my rationality or objectiveness to the situation – and considering my son’s future heart is making my mumma-bear kinda tense and battle ready.  I don’t want my son to have his heart broken.

It’s not my choice though.  But my treatment of his choice is.  So I find myself in my pyjamas at the computer, thinking of every example I can remember of women interacting with their son’s choice.  Like most times I try to work out what to do with parenting (or callings or friendships or decisions), I’m drawing on a rich banquet of choices, a startling selection of “what to do” and “what not to do”.  The do’s are nothing I’ve experienced first-hand, but I have collected a great supply of them.  One woman has given me a truly impressive and horrific catalogue of nots, and that – I’m grudgingly realising – is a weakness finally being made into a strength.

I’m still a while off being a mother-in-law, and I’m seriously plotting to be a never ever off being a monster-in-law. I’ve seen the damage it does, the sourness that digs in deep, the scars it leaves behind. I’m looking forward to my son being in love, and loved, and having a family, just like I also find myself looking back, hoping and praying I’ve taught him and loved him and encouraged him enough to be able to love and be loved as he should be.  I’m hoping and praying the exact same scenario is happening for his future mother-in-law, wherever she may be right now. I hope we all leave our monsters behind us, all the better to dance at weddings, barbeques and whenever we are loved.

What advice, possible rules, do’s and do not’s do you have or intend to follow when your loved ones start dating and/or get married?  What have mother- or monster-in-laws taught you? 

About Kellie Purcill

lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

17 thoughts on “Lessons from the Monster-In-Law”

  1. My parents always said they had great mother in laws. My parents followed this example. As their daughter, I appreciate everything they do such as:
    1. They have never said anything negative about my husband to me or anyone else in the family. (My husband isn't perfect and does not always live up to the standards they raised me with like swearing, skipping stake conference, watching mature shows, etc.).
    2. They enjoy spending time with him.
    3. They are comfortable with his level of comfort in our family culture….he is always included but never forced. They are not offended or hurt at his individual preferences (he doesn't like to play games but our family does).
    4. They treat both of us as if they are our parents who love us, respect us, cheer for us but don't give advice unless asked. They are supportive and think we are awesome even though we aren't perfect.

    My MIL is pretty good except:
    1. She does nice things but doesn't seem to get that I am different than her. I don't love shopping so her taking me clothes shopping makes me uncomfortable, and her trying to give me things that she likes means I can only be polite and appreciate the thought.
    2. She doesn't get me at all. When a talk to her, it gives her openings to sound shocked at my strange (to her) decisions. Making dinner means she is shocked that I made chili in the summer or me telling her about volunteering at schools is an opening for her to criticize teachers or something. I try to include her but if I ask my child to play her something on the piano and she talks through it it makes me frustrated (I convinced my daughter to sing a song, but when my daughter paused for a second to think of the words to the next verse, my MIL said "Sing a different song. I don't like that one." A beautiful song about Jesus…..)
    3. She criticizes me to my husband occasionally.
    4. She's getting old and stubborn with weird opinions. She can't adjust to new parenting and new marriage styles.
    5. She is critical of other members of the family so I know she is critical of us when we aren't around. My SILs are now MILs and they bash their DILs.

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  2. I had a pretty good mother in law (she has passed away) but we had some bumps in our relationship. Part of the problem was a clash of cultures and language. We just truly did not understand each other sometimes. One thing that I feel bad about was that she wanted us to be closer. She wanted me to think of her as my own mother but that was difficult for me. But I wish I had gotten over my awkwardness and I wish I would have overlooked some of the things she did that bothered me, i.e. comment about my weight and cooking, etc…

    When I become a mother in law I hope I will be able to take cues from my son in laws and daughter in law. I hope I will be what they want but I also hope they will be patient with me.

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  3. I overall love my mother in law. Yes, she is very different from me and I often feel like she is out of touch. What I've noticed is if I start being nit-picky of her then pretty soon all I focus on is her faults and I get annoyed and frustrated with her very easily. But if I choose to see her strengths, it is much easier to overlook her flaws. I know she loves me and she has always been very kind and loving, and so that makes everything much easier. I think a toxic relationship with your mil would be very hard. Kudos to the OP for learning what she could from it.

    I have a sister in law who I feel stirs up a lot of trouble and is a bit of a drama queen. She is always attacking my mother for anything and everything. My mother has her faults like anyone else, but she has set a very good example for me by how she treats this certain daughter in law of hers. I know the things my sil says and does hurts my mom a lot, but I've rarely heard my mom complain about it or gossip about her (she used too ever so slightly in the beginning, but hasn't done so quite a few years now). From my perspective, she continues to try to be supportive and loving despite my sister in laws criticism. I can see as the years go by it is wearing her down and I think she is pulling a way a bit too shelter herself, and yet she still continues to speak only kind things and tries to be as supportive as she knows how to be. I am grateful for her example. However, truth be told, I am still not excited for future daughter in laws. ? Hopefully that attitude changes when my son is ready to get married, which is still many, many years off.

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  4. I have many years before i personally get DILs. I'm going to try and approach it the same way that I'm approaching my sister getting married, and the way her future in-laws are approaching it: with open and exciting arms. My MIL is great. Sure she has her peculiarities and things that really frustrate me, but her heart is good and she loves us all very openly. She has five sons and one daughter, so she was very happy to gain more daughters. I do wish she would ask us what we'd like for Christmas and birthdays, but she normally does very well shopping for those of us who she knows well/live nearby. She loves her grandchildren and watches my children frequently without any hint of stress about it.

    I want to react well to my children growing more independent of me, but I probably won't. At least in private.

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  5. My mother-in-law is a wonderful woman, though sometimes we differ on priorities. I had an epiphany a few years ago that has helped me immensely, and that was simply recognizing our different values. I value time for creative pursuits (which means that housekeeping falls somewhat low on my list), but for her, making a nice home for her family was how she showed love for them, so she saw my messy house as a lack of concern for her son and children. Once I realized that, it was much easier to tolerate comments about my housekeeping (and to try and do better).

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  6. My MIL isn't a horrible MIL, but I have a SIL who is a real piece of work and acts like my MIL is the worst person in the land. Fortunately she's turned against all of us and we don't have to see her much.

    I would say the best thing to be is inclusive, welcoming, and keeping your pie hole shut.

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  7. This is such a tender topic to me, and I both appreciate and relate to the OP and each comment. So often, this difficult relationship is much more than just trying to be nicer or more open-minded.
    Cultural and social differences run deep (and are often entirely transparent to everyone involved), and add that to issues like parenting, financial choices, leisure time, extended visits, vacation, political beliefs, marriage dynamics etc., and you have a recipe for lots of hurt, misunderstandings, resentment and defensiveness. Believe me, I've felt it all, and my m-i-l is not a mean person at all.
    I just feel so, so different from her, and I am often incredibly self-conscious and defensive around her. It's funny, because I generally love interacting with a wide range of friends, but this relationship seems to much more rife with angst and baggage. One big sticking point is that I feel like I can't be true to myself around her. I can't say what I really think or want to do (of course, I COULD, but I feel like I can't). She wouldn't "get" me, and it would create a sense of vulnerability in me. I've prayed about this, talked with close friends and thought long and hard about my role and expectations in the relationship, but have sort of consigned myself to just having a cordial, somewhat distant relationship with her. One thing I try never to do is be critical of my in-laws to my kids, even in small ways.
    It's funny that angst seems to be almost always between the m-i-l and d-i-l (i.e., my parents adore my husband and he has no issues or angst about or around them). Sorry I don't have any great insights into what I would do in the future, but I can relate!

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  8. My perspective on the MIL/DIL relationship has really broadened now that I am a MIL. When I was young and first establishing my relationship with my own MIL I had no idea what it felt like to have a son choose a wife and marry. My own MIL was sweet, kind and generous. She has since passed on, but I wonder if she felt as insecure as I did at first around my new DIL.
    When I was young I worried about my MIL: will she accept me? Will she let go of her son so that he can fully be with me? Does she approve of me? Now that I have a DIL I worry: Will she like me? Will she want to be around me? Will she share her children with me? How can I continue a relationship with my son that doesn't compete with their relationship?

    Rather than vilify people we should acknowledge that the MIL/DIL relationship is tricky regardless of how wonderful each person is. The more love we can express, the less fear will lead to poor behavior.

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  9. I have 4 daughters so being the MIL of a girl will never be my lot or joy. I have enjoyed each of my sons-in-law and when we disagree or I recognize I'm out of step with one of them, I try hard to focus on how much he LOVES/adores my daughter and how happy he is making her.

    I don't know quite what I would do if my daughter were unhappy.

    I had hoped they would call me Mom (not Mother as my daughters do), but that was too much for 3 of the 4 and I readily accepted that I was not their mom. I do cherish that one calls me Mom.

    When I became a DIL, my FIL was big on writing family letters – xeroxed and sent to each of his 5 children. I noticed that he often mentioned his DILs and SILs in his letters and built us up. While I do not write family letters regularly, whenever I communicate I try to build my SILs up and let them know all the good I see in them. In every birthday card I mention the specific ways I see them succeeding as husband/father and thank them for the gifts they bring to the marriage.

    Being a MIL is a great role…

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  10. It is healing to see how many of you out there have a positive relationship with your MILs. It makes it seem possible.
    My husband and I try hard to recognize that we have the power to change ourselves, change the cycles and dynamics for our future and hope to be able to contribute to a new generation of family happiness. Basically a lot of what the author is striving to do, and that is a gift, that our future can be greater than our past.
    For the here and now with our current in-laws we generally find that when things get out of hand the best thing to do is politely limit contact, it sounds harsh, but that strategy has greatly improved our in-law relationships. Sometimes we all just need a little more space.

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  11. My darling mother in law has always treated me like gold. She compliments me and tells me how grateful she is that my husband chose me. She adores my children. She never talks behind my back. She ignores my many flaws. I know what a gift she is to our marriage and I have made sure she knows how grateful I am to her. I can only hope that I can show as much love to my daughters and sons-in-law and that they will be willing to let me love them!

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  12. I had a cordial, but other wise superficial, relationship with my mother-in-law, who passed away after I'd been married 11 years. We had very little in common, and I struggled to relate to someone who was much older than my own parents. My mil was very dependent (she never even learned how to drive) and had kept her sphere limited to home and family, and that was hard for me to understand. My biggest challenge was that I had a sister-in-law who had experienced psychological issues her entire life, including extreme separation anxiety. This anxiety led sil to become very angry with her siblings when they married, and to carry that anger toward their spouses (for being the ones to break up her nuclear family). Over time, she let go of her feelings toward everyone but my husband and me. He was the youngest, and there was no one to transfer it to. The family walked on eggshells around her, even to the extent of refusing to stand up to her when her behavior affected others, like brand new daughters-in law (me!). If my sister-in-law (who lived at home) didn't want us to come visit, my mother and father-in-law would cater to that and not have us come visit. When I gave my in-laws a framed family portrait taken at our wedding for my first Christmas as part of their family, my sister-in-law refused to let it be hung in their home, and they complied. I think my in-laws were good people who were struggling to know how to handle a situation that felt much bigger than them, but this enabling of this destructive and wrong behavior directed toward *me* was so foreign to me, and it hurt me deeply. So my advice is that if one of your actual children has an issue with one of your children-in-law, and your child is in the wrong or is mistreating that in-law, by all means stand up for that in-law. Do everything in your power to wrap your love around that new family member and make sure they know that they are a valued family member. Also, when major family decisions are being made (such as putting a parent in a nursing home, etc.), children-in-law should be an integral part of those decisions to the extent that the decisions affect them. When mil was sick and suffering from dementia, the family was making decisions about her care. They decided to care for her close to home at one of the sibling's homes and have the siblings share that care. Even when she had to be in a nursing home, they wanted a family member with her 24/7. Everyone was expected to pitch in and help, which required huge amounts of time for several years. No "in-laws" were included at any of the family meetings discussing this plan, even though the things that were decided impacted the "in-laws" just as much as they did the actual children. Yeah, I was bitter. Not about having to help, but about not being included in the decisions or at least present to offer suggestions or thoughts.

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  13. That is terrible! It makes me happy I have the MlL I have, who has come to accept that she is going in a home when she needs to. But today's assisted living homes are a lot different than yesterday's nursing homes.

    And 24/7 while in care? That is insane. The whole point of a care center is to care for the patient, which theoretically relieves burdens from the family.

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  14. I can only hope to be the mother in law, and hope that my son's eventual wife will allow me to be, the kind of mil that mine is. We come from different religions, different states, different mindsets, but she loved me before she knew me. She brought a welcome basket when I first moved to their area after college (long distance romance), and helped me set up my apartment. I think she set the tone for her whole family — she liked me, so they all liked me.

    She didn't bug (too much) about grandchildren when we first got married, and was ecstatic when her oldest grandchild (my son) was born. She took the kids once a week until we moved out of state, just to have grandma time.

    Cluttery, with a hint of spring dust, might best describe my housekeeping skills, but she learned to overlook that most of the time. When it got so she couldn't stand it, she'd straighten up, but I appreciated it, I didn't resent it.

    We still talk (the above makes it sound like she's gone, but we just moved, so we're not geographically close) but not as frequently. Are there things she does that bug me? Of course, but that's who she is.

    When my husband was being particularly obstinate about something, and mil was visiting, I went to her to ask how she had put up with it for so many years — my fil is obstinate — because she had the experience of her husband and son.

    I'm grateful for her all the time.

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