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What You Need to Understand About the Other Woman — Your Mother-in-Law

She may not be who you think she is.

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Shadows of two women back-to-back, over a man caught in between
Sam Island
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This year my college boyfriend and I celebrated a half-century of marriage. Just yesterday, we were sophomores, canoodling all over the campus. Now, we’re escorting one another to colonoscopies. This means I’m now ditch-the-bikini-years-old, cataract-surgery-years old. It also means I will have had a mother-in-law (mine is going strong at 98) far longer than I had a mother.

For many of us, life presents a variety of complicated partnerships. Husband/wife. Boss/employee. Boobs/bra. But few can trip you up as predictably as the matrimonial choreography of dealing with The Other Woman. I speak of our husbands’ mothers.

Yes, urban legends exist of idealized mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duos. Consider Dorothy Stern. Well into her 80s, she routinely got on a bus to schlep her beloved pea soup to her hungry daughter-in-law, my pal Patricia Morrisroe.

Beatrice Baraf is also enthroned in the MIL hall of fame. Following family dinners, she always sent her son Donald’s wife, Marlena, home with leftovers and an opulent bouquet of homegrown roses. Yet, for every Dorothy or Beatrice, there’s a mother-in-law who’s far less giving, remains stubbornly tone-deaf to her son’s wife’s virtues and refuses to even try to get her. I speak of those who despite having daughters-in-law who wear only gold jewelry and designer duds, invariably give them clunky silver pendants and peasant blouses for birthdays.

Clueless gifts are harmless, bottom-of-the-food-chain misdemeanors. Manipulation, passive-aggression, controlling behavior and blatant narcissism also make the list of complaints when many DILs speak of their MILs. Mothers-in-law get such a bad rap that in April 2022, no less an authority than Pope Francis addressed them in his weekly audience. “I’m not saying we see a mother-in-law as the devil, but she is always presented in a pejorative way.”

The Pope may not have a MIL himself, but he prayed for his followers to give these poor women a break.

When you marry, one of the biggest traps is to avoid buying into the tropes that exist about mothers-in-law, says Geoff Greif, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “They are often portrayed as overbearing and interfering, and this convinces DILs to keep them at bay.”

Would I describe my own MIL with antagonism? Hell, no. But I admit it took years — OK, decades, but who’s counting? — for our relationship to evolve into mutual admiration. When I married, I was North Dakota-naive, eager to kick-start a career and in love with my husband.

My MIL was New York-polished, eager to play bridge, and loved my husband. In a Venn diagram, the only overlap would have been our feelings for that boy.

Initially, I was intimidated by his mother, who treated me with the polite, stiff-armed distance accorded to someone you don’t expect to stick around for long. I doubt anyone in my husband’s family — or my own — expected our wedlock to last even two years. The hubby and I might as well have been tattooed with “starter marriage."

Then … plot twist. Despite dumb mistakes but thanks to a cocktail of love, good humor and what some would call devotion (others might call it inertia), we hung in, made a life, and raised two fine sons who have each produced two fine kids of their own. I suspect it’s the way our children have turned out that gradually changed my MIL’s perception about me.

At my end, the career happened and with it came maturity that allowed me to see her as an approachable, smart woman who happened to have given birth to my husband. Reader, we bonded. And it has stuck.

“A clan has to get used to an outsider, and an outsider has to get used to the established patterns of a family,” says my wise friend Marlena Baraf, who has two daughters-in-law she adores — and who adore her back. “The DIL/MIL relationship is a new connection that really is not meant to replace the mother/daughter bond,” she adds. The takeaway: If you enter into marriage hoping you’ll become the daughter your MIL never had, fuhgeddaboudit.

I learned that lesson as soon as I became Mrs. Koslow 2.0. The attachment Mrs. Koslow 1.0 shares with her two daughters requires a password I would never try to crack. With both of my husband’s sisters, my MIL shares not only history (“remember those dresses with the giant poppies?”) but physical traits. They sound alike, walk alike, think alike. I will always be the outlier. I can live with that.

If you have a son, you may find yourself a MIL. This turns the table in a jaw-dropping way. Within five months, both of my sons married. The evening before the first wedding I felt a stab of anxiety as it struck me that my time had run out on fulfilling my motherly role to turn my baby into a man with all of the traits I hoped he would have. Like it or not, I had to hand him over to another woman.

“Studies show that mothers-in-law want to continue in their active parenting, but are often faced with a role transition,” explains Andreea Nica, of the department of social sciences and cultural studies at Western New Mexico University.

I felt the pain of that transition big-time.

Now that I’m both a DIL and MIL, I have new respect for that role, which is — in a word —daunting. Because when a son marries, you have to figure out how to create a new relationship with him.

“Mothers often worry that her DIL will pull him away from her.” Greif points out. “When grandchildren come along, in most families the mothers provide access to the children and the MIL may feel she has to play her cards right to keep that access. Finally, in some families, she has been the emotional center of the family and may have to give up that role when another woman comes into the family.”

How can MILs avoid being cast as monsters-in-law when their sons marry? According to Nica, start with respecting the boundaries a son’s marriage implies. (If you bulldoze through them, psychologists may accuse you of emotional incest, and who wants that on their permanent record?) You should also zip your lip.

“Never offer advice unless it is asked for, and sometimes not even then,” stresses Greif. “Don’t put your son in the middle. He will almost always side with his wife. And don’t bad-mouth her to him.”

Why are mothers-in-law buried 20 feet deep, a comedian asks? Because deep down we’re really sweet. At least we act that way.

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