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Does Anyone Have a Complicated Relationship With Their Daughter-in-Law?

An older grandma reveals the secrets to keeping the peace.

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illustration of senior woman arriving to her daughter-in-laws house
Pete Gamlen
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Years ago, I would never have missed an episode of the popular television show, Everyone Loves Raymond. I laughed at the interaction between the meddling, controlling mother-in-law, and the unkind banter with her frustrated daughter-in-law.

The character Marie Barone was a constant critic of Debra, her young and overworked daughter-in-law. She forever found fault with her cooking, cleaning and in how she cared for her Marie's beloved son, Raymond.

Recently as I watched some of the old reruns, I no longer laughed. Not only did I find the relationship between the two disheartening, but I also found it very outdated.

When I stepped into the role of mother-in-law, I had no time to meddle in the lives of my married children, like Marie Barone and other mothers-in-law of days gone by.

Many mothers-in-law — even those in their 70s and 80s — are more like women who are in their 50s and 60s. We are healthier and because many of us have been in the workforce, we have learned the importance of interpersonal relationships, which includes respecting our married children’s privacy and their child-raising methods.

It’s not always easy, but letting your kids live their lives the way they want and not how you think they should will work to enhance the relationship. In simpler terms — zip your lips.

Daughters-in-law, too, have made changes over the years. Because women now generally marry later, they are more confident in their roles as wives and mothers. With these societal changes, our relationships with our married children should be nicer, kinder, and well, happier.

When I retired from full-time employment, I wanted to enjoy my newfound freedom. Soon my calendar overflowed with engaging activities. I attended yoga classes. I renewed my earlier love for bridge. One year I ran a half marathon; another year I went hiking in Europe.

Because I was widowed and had extra time on my hands, I joined other active seniors to raise money for cancer care and read stories to young children in my local library. My kids lived their lives; I lived mine. I did my best to be a non-interfering, thoroughly modern mother-in-law.

When my grandkids came along, I was determined not to be a perennial babysitter as I was not about to give up the activities I adored. However, I did plan weekly playdates with the children. When they were very young, it was a trip to the zoo or a ride on the carousel in the nearby park. Activities were planned to have fun memories with Grandma and also to give their parents a break.

When my grandkids were in grade school, I volunteered as a class helper. When they were teenagers, I treated them to special dinners and theater performances.

Now grown, they still remember those outings and sleepovers with their 80-something Grandma, who let them eat ice cream and potato chips for breakfast.

Well, I did have a few slip-ups in the earlier years. When my first granddaughter was an infant with a high fever, I was living in New York; her parents were in Baltimore. I called them constantly with inquiries and suggestions. That is until my son-in-law asked me to stop. “You are making us crazy; we know what we are doing.’’ I had overstepped their boundaries, and I learned to have confidence in their parenting skills.

As the mother of the daughter, I had it easier. Often the mother of the son has to be a bit more careful not to impose her opinions on her daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law tends to keep the family schedule, and good behavior leads to frequent invitations for Grandma to visit.

Sometimes, however, I was the defiant Grandma. One time my one-year-old granddaughter Lyn was having dinner at my house. I told her that unless she ate her veggies, she could not have ice cream for dessert. Lyn refused the veggies, but I gave her the ice cream anyway. Because she was not yet talking, I knew she’d never tell.

Healthy living and increased longevity have given seniors new opportunities, though there are still some cultural changes to overcome. For example, while same-sex marriages are common today, some of the old-fashioned grandparents I know still struggle with acceptance.

But my friend Karen understood from the get-go that acceptance of her granddaughter’s upcoming same-sex marriage was key. Karen shared the news of the upcoming wedding, but did not, at first, reveal it was a woman to a woman, fearful of the "gossip mill" in her 55-plus community.

Years later, Karen proudly passed around pictures at our bridge table of the couples’ twin babies! All the women agreed that acceptance is key to family harmony.

Here are some more suggestions to keep the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship in smooth-sailing motion.

· Compliment her often. On her style, mothering, cooking — everything

· When conflicts arise, take a walk in her shoes. Remember that love is a decision.

· Keep visits short; long visits are stressful.

· Avoid unsolicited advice unless she asks for it.

· The more she feels you think she’s great, the less she will want to prove it to you.

· If you can’t let go of your son, your daughter-in-law’s number one priority will be to keep you at a distance.

· Avoid topics that you know can create tension.

· If your son divorces the mother of his children, don’t turn your back on the ex-daughter-in-law. She holds the keys to your prize possessions — the grandchildren.

· If you tell your son what bothers you about his wife, the first person he will tell is his wife. (Instead, vent to your girlfriends.)

· And if you learn nothing else, keep in mind that the bed is thicker than blood.

Do any of you have a daughter-in-law? How's your relationship? Let us know in the comments below. 

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