Managing your mother-in-law


You may have heard a million jokes about mother-in-laws, but when it comes to dealing with your own, up close and personal, especially when you become a parent, it isn’t easy to see the funny side.  Unfortunately, we can’t choose our in-laws – they come as part of the package along with the person we fall in love with. And, here lies the root cause of most problems: the difference in upbringing between ourselves and our partners. Each family has its own values and traditions as well as ways of behaving as a family – some families talk to each other every day, while others go weeks between phone calls; one family might tell each other everything, while another may have clear boundaries about what issues are private, even between family members; some families will be outspoken and not at all backwards about offering advice while others may express disapproval in more subtle, but none-the-less intrusive ways.

To deal more calmly with interference, it can help to try and see the other person’s perspective. If your mother-in-law seems all too ready to undermine you, it may be a sign that she needs to increase her own self-worth, albeit at your expense. After all, she brought up the partner you love and have a child with so she probably feels some credit is due. At some level, your mother-in-law may be feeling that she has to compete with you for her own child’s love and respect (that is, your partner); your different parenting style may be a threat to the way she brought up your partner (or you, if it is your own mother who is being critical).

On the other hand, Grandma may be genuinely trying to make things easier by sharing her hard-earned knowledge or she may simply want to be more involved with her grandchild. Ultimately, the issue here is not who ‘wins’, but encouraging a positive relationship between your child and their grandparents.

Find common ground: Because your relationship with your child’s grandparents will be an ongoing one, it is important to try and find some common ground. Try asking for Grandma’s opinion on a fairly neutral topic or invite her to be more involved and give her positive feedback. For instance, ‘would you like to give him his bath?’ Or, ‘he loves it when you take him to feed the ducks?’

Stay calm: If you are confronted by unwanted advice, no matter how well-meaning, you can either tell her honestly, but politely, that you feel undermined by her advice or you can simply stay calm: take a deep breath and respond, “this works well for us,” or (baby’s name) feels happy when we….  (whatever you are doing that she is advising against). Another option is to thank Grandma for her tips and say, enthusiastically, “I’ll remember that,” then choose what information suits you and your little one and discard the rest.

Share new information: You might like to share some up to date information with your mother-in-law (or mother) by commenting enthusiastically about a new book you have discovered or perhaps some written information or research that reinforces what you are doing. It will work better to do this pro-actively before she bombards you with out of date information, so she isn’t put in a situation where she feels defensive.

Maintain a united front: If your partner starts to side with his mother against you, it is only natural that you want to cut the apron strings between them – with a very sharp pair of scissors!   But again, the best advice is to remain calm: enlist your partner’s support by telling him how you feel without becoming angry or putting him in a situation that makes him feel he must ‘choose’ between you and his mother.  It is also important to tell your man how much you value his parenting efforts (“You are a great Dad! I love the way you…..), then help him see how vulnerable this criticism makes you feel and how much you need his support so you can be a confident, competent mother.

Agree on what really matters: It can be difficult to stand up to your parents, but if you and your partner can agree on what really matters and you can support each other, you are more likely to succeed in setting boundaries. Sit down together and make a list of what bothers you about each other’s families and decide which issues are worth standing firm on. What you feed your baby or how you choose to discipline your child may be priorities that you won’t compromise, for instance. But if your mother-in-law wants to iron your husband’s shirts ‘properly’ or complains about how you mow the lawns (or don’t), perhaps you could let this one go or share it as a mother-in-law joke. After all you, your partner and child are a family now, and it is time to establish your own values and traditions.

family valuesGrandmothersgrandparentsmother-in-lawnew parents; new baby relationshipPinky McKay
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  • Lily

    Oh, Pinky, I usually love your common sense but a MIL complaining about how you iron your husbands shirts is boundary stomping. Seriously, the woman would need to get a life if she is so involved that she wants to iron a fully grown man’s shirts.

    • Pinky McKay

      Lily it sure is boundary stomping – I experienced this when I was a young mum!

      • Pinky McKay

        Oh – and I saw this recently with a mum of 2 little ones whose MILK had come to stay with them. It happens – but they certainly need to get a life.

  • Hope

    Since our little boy was born my FIL kept making comments that he looked like he needed a steak sandwich or hamburger. I am vegetarian and my parnter (his son) became vegetarian since we met but he includes fish in his diet. To make sure it wasn’t something he says about all the grandchildren I rang my SIL and asked, she said he doesn’t make jokes about steak sandwichs with their kids but makes different comments or bad jokes. So when he did it again yesterday my man actually said something to him (so proud he did and I didn’t have to say it) and of course he said it was a joke and that he says it about all the grand kids instead of accepting that it was disrespectful. Anyway, boundary has been set out lets see if it gets respected!

  • Have Faith

    My MIL seems to be jealous over things i choose to do and that i want to be the best mother to my own child. I am a young mum and still learning new things everyday, Routine is very important to me and she does not seem to get it. Whenever we go visit her (she lives interstate) or when she comes visit us, she does things differently and does not seem to care how I would like things done. In turn that upsets me and I tend to be in control when it comes to my baby (i believe there is a fine line between Grandma’s role). She is a very negative person and takes things the wrong way and always thinks its all about her. She complains to my hubby and i feel bad for him cause at times he’s torn in between, The last remark she made was ” i am not good enough !!!” – she send this message to my hubby out of the blue. I could go on and on, and i try to explain to her in the nicest possible way with making comments like “thank you for helping us out”, ” you know you are always welcome to visit us”. Recently my mum came to visit us / help me out. I am originally from another country and have been away from home for 9 years. I have not been back for 2 years and miss my parents dearly. She starts making these remarks more since my mum is here. I tried messaging her and she’s been ignoring me now. I am exhausted from trying to please her. I am due to go back to work next month and still have lots to do.

    • Miss M

      Something you said here struck me based on my experience … You’re exhausted from trying to please her. A good option you have is to just stop trying! It sounds like nothing will please her, so why try! I think you can continue to have her in your lives but just run your life without reference to her preferences or comments (and ignore any snarky asides or things said behind your back as the price of freedom!). Don’t call or message or share unless you want or need to. I have done it, and it’s very liberating!

  • Kim

    Thanks for your article Pinky. I always find them inspiring and they give me the confidence to trust in myself as a mum and know that I am doing a great job. I have MIL issues as well (like most) and I struggle alot with my MIL not understanding that my little one likes his personal space. She also underminds me as a mum and can’t distinguish her role as a grandma and not a mum. It’s like I have to take the back burner when she is around. How on earth do you get them to realise that your baby is not THERE baby!