No More Drama with Mama (In-Law)


Sarah Pachter

I know what you are thinking as you read this title… Let me give you a disclaimer about my own relationship with my mother-in-law:

I love my mother-in-law tremendously. I am grateful to her for her constant support of my work in the speaking and writing field. If we didn’t enjoy a mutual relationship of love and respect, it would be impossible for me to write this article.

Recently, my mother-in-law shared a fascinating story with me. Her neighbor’s daughter was discussing a recent exchange with her own mother-in-law. “I tried to give my mother-in-law a compliment by saying, ‘Your son is so easy! I just feed him leftovers and he’s happy.’ to which she replied, ‘Well, you know, variety is the spice of life!’ There I was, trying to give her a compliment, and I took it as though she didn’t want me feeding him leftovers.”

My mother-in-law had sage words to share with her neighbor’s daughter: “I can understand that it feels frustrating, but maybe it can be looked at differently. Perhaps your mother-in-law wants to have the type of relationship with you like a mother would act towards her real daughter, free and comfortable. Perhaps it was a statement of love.”

A few weeks after my mother-in-law shared this story with me, I attended an event for an offshoot of Bikur Cholim, where young mothers come together for an elegant luncheon with elderly widows. To my surprise, a widow confided in me about her strained relationship with her daughter-in-law. According to her description, her daughter-in-law seemed, “a little rough around the edges.” The widow explained that she went to visit her grandchildren and her daughter in-law greeted her and said, “You aren’t welcome here… and your son is useless.”

When I heard this, I was shocked by the choice of language and lack of respect – how those words must have devastated and hurt. The widow replied, “It happened a few years ago, but I still hear her words, they still linger. And my son feels stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

I was not expecting to hear about mother/daughter-in-law drama at a function like this, however, I found myself feeling grateful for the conversation. I am not yet a mother-in-law, and realize I have only a limited perspective of the side of being a daughter-in-law, and yet, suddenly, it opened my eyes to a very real and raw perspective of what a mother-in-law might experience.

Imagine you’re the CEO of an extremely successful company, one that you created. It has now gone public and is worth millions. Suddenly, the board informs you that you will be demoted – and then they introduce you to your new boss. In walks this pretty whippersnapper, most likely younger than your child, posing as the new CEO. She is half your age and bossing you around like you haven’t been doing this for twenty-something years!

This is how it feels for many mothers when their child marries. You carried this person for nine months. You raise this child giving all your heart, blood, sweat, and tears, sleepless nights, hours of prayer, worrying over curfew – all the things a mother experiences…and for what? For some young man or woman to swoop in and take your place!? And what’s worse, you are left feeling muzzled. You don’t dare say a word of opposition!

These relationships are tricky for all three parties. The mother-in-law feels trapped with a loss of control, the daughter-in-law feels encroached upon, unable to live her life without fear and criticism, while the son feels stuck in the middle – unable to do much at all.

Finally, I took this as an opportunity to ask the widow who spoke to me, “What do you think is the solution in helping this delicate relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law? Do you have any words of wisdom after what you’ve gone through?”

I was pleasantly surprised and informed by her answer: “The truth is, years have passed, and I have learned to accept her for who she is. This is who my son married. I would tell mother-in-laws around the world to seek out the good. It would have saved me a lot of pain. Even though she does a lot of bad, she does have some good. Life is too short otherwise.”

So far I had learned two things:

  1. From my own mother-in-law: change your perspective.
  2. From the widow: acceptance.

But I was still curious to learn more. After the event, I went on a ravenous hunt for information, surveying hundreds of people that seemed to have very healthy and happy relationships with their in-laws. I asked them what they felt they were doing right (or wrong), and what their in-laws were doing right (or wrong).

Despite the differences in the details of the answers, I found a fascinating common thread between them. I also found it in every article, book, and written piece of Jewish wisdom on the topic. Most daughter-in-laws expressed a desire for boundaries, while most mother in-laws expressed a desire for inclusion. For example, one daughter-in-law said, “I love when my mother-in-law respects that my husband and I need our time together. She never comes over unannounced!” And one mother-in-law said, “I love that my daughter-in-law asked me to be in the labor room when my grandson was born.”

Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that both mother- and daughter-in-law play vital and complementary roles in the development of the “man in their life.” The mother, through great sacrifice and dedication, constructs the inner sphere of her son, preparing him to become the very best man he can be. The wife, with great sensitivity and support, extends this inner potential to the outer sphere, enabling him to go forward in the world as the best man he can be. These two spheres of influence, when respected and appreciated by both mother and wife, can exist simultaneously and harmoniously when the appropriate and necessary boundaries are honored.

I found the inner workings of this push-pull relationship to contain boundaries, inclusion, perception, and not taking things personally, and although the above elements tug in a challenging, seesaw-like manner, a happy balance can and should be achieved.

For the mother-in-laws: Be aware of boundaries, do not give your opinion unless asked, try to see the good and accentuate it, and try to ignore the negative. Do not try to raise your grandchildren. Do not go over unannounced. The more you move away from trying to keep control, the more control you will be given.

For the daughter-in-laws: Give your mother-in-law the feeling of control, and she will loosen her grip. Include her when you can by asking her for advice or even recipes. Make her feel important and useful. The more you include her, the less she will feel the need to encroach. After all, she carried, bore, and raised the man you found worthy to marry.

For both mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws: As Rebbetzin Twersky likes to say, “Q-TIP!” Quit taking it personally. By shifting our perspective, we can learn to look at every interaction in a more positive light.

I often teach my students: Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. I want them to recognize that I gain just as much from them as they do from us. We can learn from everyone, even our mother-in-laws.

From a broader perspective, your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law is precisely as she “should” be, as is your spouse, or your child, or your grandchild. In the consciousness of releasing our tenacious grip on our own personal story, our script, our point of view, we grow more whole. We become adept at loving all family members for who they are, allowing us to become all we are capable of being.