Q. My mother-in-law is very intrusive. She calls up frequently, says two words to me and then wants to talk with her son. She often asks him to come over and help her with a repair or an errand. When she visits she asks questions which I consider none of her business. She criticizes the children and has even tried to rearrange our furniture. My husband won’t stand up to her because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. We’ve been married for ten years and she still hangs onto her son. Will she ever let go? What do you suggest?
A. In our culture there is often a great deal of ambivalence about mothers as well as mother-in-laws. On Mother’s Day we put mothers on a pedestal and honor them, but in the media mothers are often the focus of humorous put-downs. Mothers-in-law are treated with even more contempt. Mother-in-law jokes abound.
Many of us have mixed emotions about our mothers because mothers are so important in our development. Our "first love" is our mother. This initial attachment is an intense bonding. As we grow up we pull away from mother. We separate from her in order to find our own identity. This can be a painful process for mothers who miss the intimate connections with their children.
Your mother-in-law wants and needs to have a loving connection with her son and his family. Your husband wants a loving relationship with his mom as well as one with you.
There are several things you can do that will help. Notice times when things are going well between you and your mother-in-law. Focus on small positive moments that occur while with her. She needs to know that both you and her son love her and appreciate her. What are her positive qualities? What do you enjoy about her? Share these with her. Give hugs. Tell her you love her.
A mother-in-law /daughter-in-law relationship can be a satisfying and enjoyable one. Call her occasionally to chat on the phone and volunteer news of the family. Go out to lunch or on a shopping trip with her to strengthen your relationship. If you can see her as an ally or even a friend she may be less intrusive.
You cannot change your mother-in-law but you and your husband can agree on limits to her involvement with you. Your husband should be the one to set these limits - lovingly. For example, if she calls during dinner he can tell her he will call back. He may also have to say no to some of her requests for help.
Her interest in the personal affairs of your family and her attempt to rearrange your furniture indicate she does not understand boundaries; she does not realize the importance of her son being separate from her. Your husband needs to realize that it’s OK for him to focus his main interest on his family now that he’s an adult. It’s OK for him to be less involved with his mother.
A strong bond between mother and son puts pressure on many marriages. For additional help with this read Mothers, Sons and Wives by H. Norman Wright, and In-laws, Outlaws: How to Make Peace With His Family and Yours by P. Bilosfsky and F. Sacharow. The book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, though not specifically about in-laws, is very good at defining the need for boundaries and teaching how and when to set them.
Readers: Give extra love and appreciation this Mother’s Day to mothers and to mothers-in-law.
“Honor your father and your mother…” Exodus 20:12