Mother-in-laws: can’t live with them, can’t . . .

Mother-in-law bashing is a popular sport but she can be a huge support in a couple’s life

 Siobhán Dowling and her baby son Harvey with her mother-in-law Mary Heseltine. Photograph: Alan Betson

Siobhán Dowling and her baby son Harvey with her mother-in-law Mary Heseltine. Photograph: Alan Betson


When new mother Siobhán Dowling was feeling at her most vulnerable in hospital the day after her son’s birth, she felt she was lucky to have her mother-in-law there with her.

For her part, that mother-in-law, Mary Heseltine, was “chuffed” to be invited by her son, Richard Conway, to come into the hospital the day her first grandchild, Harvey, was born some days earlier than expected. She returned the next day and spent quite a long time with Siobhán, whose own parents from Kilkenny were due in the following day.

“I don’t think any of my girlfriends would have had their mother-in-law in with them over those few days. I think it is testament to the relationship that we have – and also the relationship you have with Richard,” says Siobhán turning to Mary as we talk around the kitchen table in the couple’s Portobello home in Dublin 8.

Richard and Siobhán have been together 10 years and formalised the relationship with marriage in December 2016. She reckons they had been going out for about a year when Richard casually dropped into Mary’s Dún Laoghaire home with her one Saturday afternoon.

Since then she and Richard have returned for “many, many a beautiful meal” cooked by Mary, with fine wine compliments of Mary’s husband, Walter. Siobhán believes both she and Mary made a conscious effort to build a relationship right from the beginning. Whereas for some of her friends, the idea of dropping into the mother-in-law’s house every couple of weeks would be strange.

“They don’t have a relationship with their mother in law, it’s just functional. We had that, so when Harvey came along . . .”

“ . . . it just all fitted in,” Mary finishes the sentence. The arrival of Harvey Conway last November has brought a whole new dimension to their relationship.

Now that Siobhán (39) is on maternity leave from a high-pressure job as a director of HR with an Irish multinational, Mary feels she has got to know her daughter-in-law better, through being able to spend time with her and Harvey. It is time that Mary (67) willingly carves out from her own busy schedule as owner-director of her own company.

Domestic accord is impossible as long as the mother-in-law lives

The clearly loving bond between the two generations of women doesn’t conform with stereotypical mother-in-law bashing. Even as far back as 100 AD, the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote: “Domestic accord is impossible as long as the mother-in-law lives.” 

When Berna Cox, a mother of two adult daughters, assumed the role, she certainly knew what kind she didn’t want to be.

Berna Cox and her son-in-law Gordon, and her grandson Aidan.
Berna Cox and her son-in-law Gordon, and her grandson Aidan.

“You hear some horror stories, don’t you?” she says. “I didn’t want to be an interfering busybody and I certainly didn’t want to be the Les Dawson-type parody: ‘The mother-in-law is coming to visit, the mice are throwing themselves in the traps!’”

Another classic of his was: “I’m often accused of saying some pretty rotten things about my mother-in-law. But quite honestly, she’s only got one major fault – it’s called breathing.”

While men tend to joke about their mothers-in-law (MILs), women are more likely to seethe, snipe, or go on parenting forums to rant about theirs. As this piece was being written, the day’s most-read posts on the UK Mumsnet popped up – including, not untypically, one headlined “MIL is full of sh-t” (displaying homophobic traits was among her faults, in case you’re wondering). But that forum’s senior counterpart, Gransnet, is just as likely to have an older woman expressing mystification and hurt at the behaviour of her daughter-in-law (DIL).

On the Irish parenting website Rollercoaster, a common complaint about MILs is unannounced visits. One DIL with a new baby had come to an agreement that if the curtains were closed, her husband’s mother would stay away. Another took the unilateral step of installing electric gates on their driveway to block access.

Psychologist Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws, observed that the most heated and persistent problems arose between a wife and her husband’s mother. Her research found that while 15 per cent of mother-in-law/son-in-law relationships had some tension, 60 per cent of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law bonds were described in strong negative terms, such as “strained”, “infuriating”, “depressing”, “draining”, and “simply awful”.

Family psychotherapist Don Boardman thinks negativity around MILs can be over-blown. It’s not like anybody sets out to confirm the domineering stereotype, he points out.

Indeed, if a DIL has quite a stiff personality and fixed views, it can be very easy, he believes, for her to project issues onto her MIL, regardless of how the older woman is behaving.

If both generations put in a few ground rules at the start and get off on the right footing, he says, it can be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Berna and her son-in-law hit it off from their first meeting about 18 years ago. Her daughter Katy was home in Co Kildare for the summer, after one year at Edinburgh University, and announced she had invited a guy over for a weekend. The only advance information was that his name was Gordon and he was from Dundee.

Knowing that Dundee was the home of comics publisher DC Thomson, Berna reckoned it would be a nice welcome to place copies of the Dandy and Beano on his pillow.

“When I think about it now, he must have thought we were a bit strange,” she admits. “A welcome-pack of comics for a grown man.” But it didn’t seem to put him off.  

“From the get-go, there was an easy, comfortable, one-of-the-family feeling.  He’s just that kind of person,” says Berna. Gordon and Katy have been together since and Berna has the hat and the photos to prove she formally became the MIL in 2012.

“There has never been a cross word between us, and I can’t ever envisage a situation where there would be.” Indeed, her daughters sometimes tease her about treating him as more “golden” than them. 

Your own children can sometimes be a bit dismissive of your “mammying”, she points out, and “be slow to answer your text messages when you’re worrying about them being dead in a ditch or kidnapped by a drug cartel on a Cuban holiday. But the son-in-law can always be relied on to respond and reassure.  He gets me. So yes, he’s golden in my eyes.”

She sees him as a naturally kind person, who makes her daughter happy.  “What more can I ask for? And he fixes my technology issues without making me feel like a moron.”

In Boardman’s experience, “problems typically arise when the role isn’t clear in terms of what each person is expecting from the other”. They shouldn’t presume to know what each other is thinking.

If there are issues, they need to be addressed with an honest conversation – first between the couple and then maybe taking it up with the mother. “If you let these things simmer, they tend to toxify over time.”

The MIL can hold a lot of power in her relationship with a married couple, says psychotherapist Bernadette Ryan. “It’s almost as if the daughter-in-law is usurping her relationship with her son, so it can be fraught.”

When a couple marry, they are forming and reforming three separate families, she points out: their own family and both their families of origin. The dynamics change within all three but how the MIL role pans out is probably going to depend on her relationship up to that point with her future son-in-law or daughter-in-law.

“If the boundaries are not very clear in the initial relationship between mother and son, and the mother and the girlfriend/partner, it will be more difficult.”

If there is a problem in the relationship between the MIL and DIL for no good reason, “I think the husband has to listen to his partner’s concerns and stand by her”, Ryan says. “Sometimes men can get torn between their mothers and their wives. All things being equal, the loyalty needs to be with the wife.”  

An adult son can be caught in the middle of the relationship between the two most important women in his life

For some young men there is a struggle about who to “obey”, agrees couples and family therapist Deirdre Hayes. An adult son can be caught in the middle of the relationship between the two most important women in his life “and may have to ask himself is he primarily a son to his mother or a husband to his wife”.

She worked with one couple where the wife didn’t want her mother-in-law to be giving their children lots of sweets when they visited her. When she told her husband, “you have to tell your mum and back me up on this”, he suddenly understood that this was about more than too many sweets.

“The primary relationship is now the couple,” she stresses, yet some men find it difficult to always put that first.

While Berna (60) has been a MIL for only a few years, she has an enduring and happy 40-year relationship as a DIL.

“From the first time we met, our relationship was always warm and loving. And empathetic – she married an Army man, and I married her son, also an Army man. She understood from experience what that meant – sometimes unexpected absences on duty; long stretches on your own with small children.”

She is full of admiration for her now 93-year-old mother-in-law, who worked as a primary school teacher and raised 10 children of her own. 

“Over the years, she has always been a great ally, and I love her dearly. When my own mum died in 2002, the fact that I had such a great mother-in-law was a comfort to me.”

Since Berna’s daughter and son-in-law became parents, she feels both her relationships as mother and mother-in-law have entered a new phase. When Aidan, her first grandchild, was born in March last year, Berna and her husband, Tom, went over to Scotland immediately to meet him and, with the baby’s parents’ blessing, she stayed on for about six weeks. 

“I wasn’t there to take over and boss them. I was simply there as back-up. Another pair of hands. I think the mutual respect that was always there grew even deeper during those six weeks.”

Aidan’s first birthday couldn’t be better timed, falling on Mother’s Day this Sunday (March 31st) when Berna will be there to celebrate as mother, mother-in-law and now granny.

It will be a first Mother’s Day as a mother for Siobhán, who found the transition from corporate life to motherhood “more extreme than I expected”. A real gift Mary has, she says, “is the ability to give support, guidance and wisdom without overtly telling, which is lovely”.

Those first days, “I hadn’t a clue what I was doing as a new mum and Mary would say things like, ‘back in the day we might have done this’,” and it was the way she said it, “a very gentle way”.

Mary recalls how a friend told her that the main job as a new grandma was “to keep her lip zipped”. And “that’s quite hard”, she admits.

However, Siobhán believes that as both her mother and mother-in-law “have so much wisdom”, they should be sharing it. With her and her peers coming later to motherhood, you want everything to be perfect, she explains.

“You need the likes of Mary and my mum to say ‘back in our day, we didn’t have the internet and you all turned out okay’. There is a huge pressure to make sure you’re always doing the right thing.”

She appreciates the nuggets of information Mary shares from her own experience, but never feels it is advice that is being forced on her. “You might tell a story and in it I’ll pick up, ‘okay, maybe that works’.”

For instance, she remembers one day changing Harvey’s nappy and trying to clean up a complete mess with cold wipes and he was crying. Mary commented that in her day they would have just used some warm water and cotton wool and Siobhán realised that was actually a very practical thing to do.

Google wouldn’t tell you that; it would probably tell you that you have to go and buy something completely different online.”

I would hate to think I was poking my nose in somewhere that I was not wanted but I would like to think I would soon find out from my son if I was

Mary says from her perspective, Harvey has brought “an explosion of unconditional love” within the family, with her own three daughters becoming doting aunties too.

She loves getting WhatsApp communications directly from Siobhán, with the latest photo or video of Harvey. “It makes me feel very special because she thinks of that, or has time to do that.”

Mary’s philosophy has always been she will try not to interfere or advise, but will help or suggest if asked.

“I would hate to think I was poking my nose in somewhere that I was not wanted but I would like to think I would soon find out from my son if I was,” she adds.

“Your ability to encourage from the sidelines,” Siobhán responds, “does not go unnoticed.”

Rules of engagement for a mother-in-law

Don’t be judgmental: “Even if you don’t like your adult child’s choice of partner, you stand by his or her decision,” says psychotherapist Deirdre Hayes.
Stand back: “Wait until you’re asked and don’t hark back too much because people’s lives have changed and how they approach things have changed,” says MIL Mary Heseltine.
Treasure the role as a gift: “You have something to give and they have something to gain and you will gain from that exchange as well,” says family therapist Don Boardman.
It’s okay to say no: “There’s a curious irony that the more available you become, the more invisible you become. Sometimes you need to exercise judicious use of the word ‘no’ so other people can appreciate your ‘yes’,” he adds.
Accept that some things just aren’t your business any more: “It doesn’t mean you’re not needed or wanted, it’s just a new phase with a new job spec,” says MIL Berna Cox.
Think of the benefits: This is relationships therapist Bernadette Ryan’s advice for DILs who may be struggling to get on with their MIL – but it works both ways. “If young mothers can remind themselves that their child can greatly benefit from their relationship with their grandmother, it really can enhance relationships all round.”

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