Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Rules of the Game

   By grandparents  Jul 21, 2010

(Barbara Graham, a columnist, is the editor of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper, 2009), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today’s world.")

Since the publication of Eye of My Heart, I’ve been running around the country talking to groups of grandparents, and the single most radioactive topic wherever I go is ? guess what? ? tension between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

I hate it when clichés turn out to contain more truth than rumor, but so many grandparents on the paternal side feel like second-class citizens, compared with maternal grandparents. In many families, the mom’s mom and dad often have easier and more frequent access to the kids. In other families, maternal grandmothers even act the part of what I call alpha nanas. One paternal grandmother who came to my talk in Las Vegas complained that her daughter-in-law’s mother expects the grandkids to be with her side of the family on all major holidays  ? and her daughter goes along with it.

On the other hand, daughters-in-law don’t necessarily have it any easier. There are mothers-in-law who, while not clinically deaf, routinely ignore their daughters-in-law’s perfectly reasonable requests. "Tomorrow is not a good day to visit," one daughter-in-law said to her husband’s mother, but the grandmother turned a deaf ear and showed up anyway ? and not for the first time.

As a mother-in-law ? and one who has worked hard to earn the trust of my daughter-in-law ? I’ve come up with 12 rules to help both groups get along. And the key to them all, for both sides?



For Mothers-in-law    

1. Respect your daughter-in-law’s parenting style ? even if you don’t agree with it. Much has changed since you were raising kids. More to the point, you’re the grandparent now and you’re not in charge. Earn your daughter-in-law’s trust by playing by her rules when you’re with the kids.

2. Respect her relationship with her mom ? and don’t try to compete. You’ll lose.

3. Respect her relationship with your son ? and don’t badmouth her to him. You’ll lose that battle, too. .

4. Remember, good parenting is learned on the job ? and she’s doing the best she can. Give her the benefit of the doubt, and  never forget how sensitive you were as a young parent trying to do your best.


For Daughters-in-law

1. Respect your son’s relationship with his mother ? whatever your opinion of her. You may get him on your side of your conflict with her, but your entire family, especially your children, will suffer as a result.

2. Remember that all grandparents ? unless they are abusive or their behavior is in some way harmful to the kids ? deserve to know their grandchildren, and vice-versa. If possible, let all the grandparents spend time alone with the kids. That is the only way they can establish lasting bonds.

3. Cut the grandparents some slack ? within reason. They may buy the kids two scoops of ice cream instead of one, or ridiculous, overpriced toys ? and then let them stay up an hour past bedtime. They don’t mean to dis you; this is just their way of showing their extravagant love for your children.

4. If you happen to be the mother of sons, beware. Someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll be a mother-in-law with grandchildren, too. Behave accordingly.


For Both Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-law

1. Boundaries is not a dirty word. In fact, it’s one of the best words in the English language ? and in practice, healthy boundaries are what keep us sane and foster friendly relations. Set boundaries for yourself, and respect your in-law’s boundaries. When you do stray into each other’s crosshairs, try to see the situation from her point of view.

2. Let go of your expectations about how things should be and work with the way things are. This means accepting the complete cast of characters who make up your whole crazy extended family, as well as other nonnegotiable circumstances.

3. Always think of the kids. Model the values you want the children to learn. Do you want to train them in sniping and disrespect, or trust and compassion?

4. Remember, the heart is a generous muscle, and there’s enough love to go around. The Beatles said it best: And, in the end, the love you take/is equal to the love you make.

How well do you get along with YOUR daughter-in-law?
















Make a Comment

MyEmptyCanvas by MyEmptyCanvas | KOSCIUSKO, MS
Oct 07, 2010

Good advice. I know women tend to clash about certain things but at the end of the day - communication is key.

jameslicex0 by jameslicex0 | Wayne, MI
Aug 03, 2010

My boyfriend are very stern and involved young parents. We back eachother up 100% and never undermine eachother in front of our son. However, whenever my mother in law is around my son tends to act up. He tells us no, points his finger, gets cranky, and has even told us "you yelled at me and hurt my feelings" or "I don't like you anymore", and EVEN "don't you talk to me!". We follow through by treating our son the same in public or at grandma's house as we do when we are in the comfort of our own home; but grandma always gets in the middle by saying things like "O its ok baby, grandma won't let that happen". I have mentioned it to my boyfriend before and he agrees, he has told her "no he is in trouble - he's not gonna act like that". Its difficult though, I respect her as my future mother in law and value her opinion. She has been around the block a time or two with her three kids and two other grandkids, but I'm sorry, this is my son and what I say goes!

queenjackson by queenjackson | Blackstone, VA
Aug 01, 2010

I've had a difficult relationship with my mother in-law. She would overstep boundries often. I told her to take care of her home and I'll take care of mine. Giving helpful advice is different from insult and control. We now respect each other opinions and she tries not to tell me what I should be doing for her son(momma's boy). When I need her she is there, when she needs me I'm there. She just needs to remember my marriage is between me and her son, not me, her son and her.

Nichole32now by Nichole32now | Ozark, MO
Jul 27, 2010

I have learned to take it all with a grain of salt. Try and compromise whenever possible and most important stand up for myself when needed and always be ready to apologize if I am indeed wrong. It has helped to at least attain a mutual respect between the two of us.

Jul 27, 2010

The article did give me lots of advice in regards to my new born and allowing my mother in law to bond with her. How about when my mother-in-law puts me down straight up in my face? I dont know if she's too straight up and just tells me what she thinks or if she's really just trying to put me down. There has been times were I've cried from the things she's told me. I tried telling my husband, but he just thought that I hate his mom. I really do want a good relationship with her. Sometimes I think she already has enough with her other daughter-in-law but she has also told me secrets about her that were not right. Now I wonder if she's also talking trash about me with her. I dont know what to do.

EmmesGrami by EmmesGrami | Livonia, MI
Jul 25, 2010

I just became a Grandmother to my SON'S baby. This article said all the things I was thinking. I love my daughter-in-law and I know things are the way they are because she has a mother and that OK with me. My son is a fabulous husband and his wife comes it should be. I know that things will be different when MY daughter has a child. The bottom line really is exactly what the article says to daughter-in-laws...#4...beware ...if you're the mother of a son and you're lucky enough to be a mother-in-law someday...what goes around...comes be careful. I will always do my best to be respectful of the way my kids raise their children. Anytime there is a ton of love surrounding a's all good!!

KrissKross by KrissKross | North Haven, CT
Jul 23, 2010

I found the article enlightening and refreshing. In my first marriage my ex mother-in-law was extremely passive aggressive and my ex ALWAYS took her side. Her and my ex had their secrets and often it would come out and she felt she had the right to do whatever she pleased regarding her son. We never had a good relationship and I never got to really enjoy the whole experience. Needless to say, among other things, it did not help our marriage. Now that I am re-married, I love the daughter-in-law mother-in-law experience. My mother-in-law is easy going and often calls just to shoot the breeze and talk. She is supportive but knows when to saty out of it. Love her to death!!