A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a text exchange she’d had with a mutual friend:
E: I’m sore from yesterday’s class. Lower back hurts and stiff although just got period, too, and that always seems to be the main culprit. Should be a fun family gathering this weekend with the expletive in town.
D: Oh no! Low back can get tweaked with barre & mat stuff if slightly off. You know Susan will take care of you next time if u tell her. Hope you’ll come again. Sorry about the MIL visit.
E: No no no!! Not mil expletive. I mean expletive as in my period! Oh gosh. I have seriously crossed the line when my friends r thinking I call mil a expletive. I’m practically crying laughing.
Ah, mothers-in-law. I’m sure my friend D wasn’t projecting at all when she assumed the expletive was E’s mother-in-law.
It’s an infamously tricky relationship—and it gets even trickier when grandkids come into the picture. All of sudden, your partner’s mother is inserting herself into decisions you’ve agonized over and already settled.
So whereas before kids she might have just completely reorganized the guest room without asking (true story), now she’s loudly weighing in on things like: whether to attach a bumper pad to the crib, what kind of bottles to use (or whether to use them at all), the effectiveness of “crying it out,” cloth diapers vs. disposable, whether your baby should sleep on his stomach, how early to introduce solids, the best way to potty train and whether grandma will be allowed to breastfeed the baby.
YES. You read that right. According to a piece in Slate, one new mom caught her MIL attempting to breastfeed her newborn in the middle of the night:
“I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying, and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn't bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We're at an impasse. Should we call the police? I'm hesitant to let her near my son again.”
Luckily, most of us don’t have such freakish—er, extreme—examples from our own lives. My own MIL does not tend to interfere—although she does regularly note that her son (my husband) never cried or threw tantrums, always slept 12 hours straight at night, was potty trained before age 2 and ate what his parents ate before he had all his teeth.
But I’d take those comments any day over the one made by my friend Diane’s mother-in-law shortly after her son was born:
“She was horrified that we named him Teagan,” says Diane. “The day we got home from the hospital, her lovely advice was, ‘It isn't too late to change his name—you don't have the birth certificate yet.’”
Diane’s mother-in-law lives several states away; other women are lucky enough to get more regular advice.
One Acton mom, for instance, bemoans the fact that when it comes to her MIL, “a good deal of her sentences to me start with, ‘You know what you should do is....’ Ugh. She also loves to discipline my kids when she is over for dinner, when I happen to be sitting right there at the table, too. At MY table, in MY house, with MY kids! I might as well take my wine and head to bed, since she seems to have it all under control. Good thing she lives right down the street so that she can keep my family in line!”
Maybe my friend should move—like the one in 10 women who said that’s exactly what they’ve done to get away from their mothers-in-law. In the same survey of 2,000 women, nearly a quarter said their relationships with their MILs are bad or terrible. And a large chunk said they feel their MILs judge and undermine their parenting skills, and are just generally “controlling, interfering and expletive.”
Of course, some women have great relationships with their MILs; my own mother is one example. And perhaps, for the kids’ sakes, too much involvement is better than too little. As my friend Faith says, “My mother in law wasn't involved enough to interfere. She never even babysat for my boys.”