On Mothers-in-Law

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18 Jun 2008

Did you hear the one about the woman who showed up at her daughter-in-law’s door? The younger Mrs. opened the door and cheerfully asked, “How long are you staying?” Her mother-in-law answered, “As long as I’m welcome.” So she replied, “You’re not going to even stay for a cup of coffee?”

There’s something about a good mother-in-law joke that is guaranteed a good laugh. Many people can relate to the insecure relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Perhaps sharing a good one about this common phenomenon relieves tension and makes the self-doubting daughter-in-law feel like she’s normal and that it’s not really her fault that she doesn’t get along so well with her husband’s mother.

But is that fair? How will she feel when she’s on the other side, when her sweet little cherub grows up and goes off and marries some stranger that she suddenly has to build a relationship with? Will she keep giggling at those jokes then? Maybe at that point she’ll start searching out some really hysterical daughter-in-law jokes.

The precarious in-law relationship is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the gemara in Yevamot (Daf 117) discusses this problem, analyzing why it is that mothers-in-law hate their daughters-in-law and daughters-in-law hate their mothers-in-law.

If it is a tale as old as time, it almost seems there is nothing to do about it. Perhaps we should just throw up our arms, give up and face the fact that we will never get along with our mother-in-law. That’s that. But I find it hard to believe that giving up is what Hashem wants from us. The statement in the gemara is not a doomsday prediction. It simply states a natural tendency, much like the statement that people do not pay back their loans before the due date. Both gemaras are not saying that it is necessary or preferable. It’s just human nature. But we are not always supposed to do what comes naturally. The many successful mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships prove that long-lasting hostility is avoidable. After all, the Torah commands us to love peace and pursue peace. With a little work and a lot of persistence, women can develop a warm relationship with the women who raised their husbands.

What is it about this relationship that makes it so shaky? After all, if Shaina chooses to make Chaim her lifelong partner, his mother couldn’t be so bad. And we all know that men tend to choose someone similar to their mothers. So why can’t they get along?

Some of the shakiness may stem from insecurity on the side of one or both of them. Some women secretly fear that their husband loves his mother more than he loves her. Especially if he is close with his mother, and even more if he is careful with all the laws of honoring one’s mother, she may feel that her husband respects and cares for his mother in a way that is beyond his actions towards her.

A friend told me that for years it bothered her that her husband was so close with his mother. They would get on the phone and chat for a long time every week. It sometimes felt like he spent more time talking to his mother than to her. But one day it dawned on her that it was healthy. She realized that his solid relationship with his mother had given him the tools to be the wonderful person he became. And when she thought about it a little more, she knew that he actually spent more time talking with her than his mother. Not to mention the type of conversation was different.

Of course we cannot throw all the blame for the uncertain relationship on the daughter-in-law. To be fair, some mothers suffer from insecure feelings towards their daughters-in-law. Such women fear that when their son gets married, they are no longer a significant part of his life. Especially when they hear famous clichés, such as “Your son is yours until he marries a wife; your daughter is yours for life.” With such a phrase floating around her head, her new daughter-in-law becomes the one who stole her precious son from her. How can she develop a solid, warm relationship with her arch enemy?

Some women may also compare themselves to either their mother-in-law or daughter-in-law. My friend told me that she knows that her mother-in-law is very self-conscious in her house because my friend is quite orderly, while her mother-in-law is a more easygoing type. When her shvigger (mother-in-law) visits, my friend knows that she feels pressure to constantly clean up after herself, which causes tension.

Some young wives have the opposite situation. They are always nervous that their mother-in-law will drop in unannounced and see the house in its natural state. What will Mom think of her then? Or maybe she is self-conscious about her children’s behavior. She fears that a normal temper tantrum or sibling rivalry will make her mother-in-law’s eyebrows raise in consternation.

While some of these fears may be founded, often they are based on the illusion that her mother-in-law is out to get her, to catch her and finally prove that her son’s wife is not really as great as everyone thinks. Usually, this is no more than an insecure worry, not based on reality. More likely, each one is more concerned with how the other one is viewing her than proving the incompetence of the other.

Sometimes, concerned mothers-in-law want to help the young couple, but come across as fault-finding. What Mom may say with good intentions, the young daughter-in-law may interpret as criticism. After one woman visited her son’s home, she insisted that they get a cleaning lady to come. Of course, the young new wife took this as blatant disapproval of her housekeeping. Only years later, she realized that her mother-in-law had had cleaning help all the years and felt that her daughter-in-law worked too hard, between her job and the upkeep of the home. What she had interpreted as criticism actually stemmed from genuine concern and a desire to help.

With time, many women come to realize that their mothers-in-law are not out to criticize and belittle. More often than not, they want to please their sons and wives, and help them when they can.

When a young wife gets to the point of understanding her shviger, she can work on building the relationship. Instead of focusing on pleasing (or not displeasing) her mother-in-law, she can work at reassuring her that she respects her. Pirkei Avos tells us, “Who is the honored one? The one who honors others.” This rule applies to mothers-in-law as much as anyone else. When the older woman feels loved and accepted into her children’s lives, she will feel at ease and reflect the warm feelings.

A woman can write her mother-in-law thank you notes, or verbally praise her. She can ask her for advice in the many areas that she has gained wisdom in, through time and experience. Both women will gain from this kind of interaction.

My older friend told me that once she was out shopping with her new daughter-in-law, when the young woman asked her for the recipes of her son’s favorite foods. My friend was beaming. This simple request put her on the same side as her daughter-in-law and assured her that she is not new competition, but rather someone she can help.

Maybe I make this all sound too easy. Perhaps, my own experience with a wonderful mother-in-law disqualifies me from writing an article about in-law problems. But usually respect and warmth shown to one’s mother-in-law have a way of breaking down barriers that this precarious relationship tends to have. Why not thank the shviger for doing such a great job raising her son? If not for her, your husband wouldn’t be who he is. That deserves a large dose of thanks, doesn’t it?

Blima Moskoff is a freelance writer, editor and translator living in Kiryat Sefer with her husband and children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.