I remember when I was 8, sitting in the back seat of my father’s Ford station wagon as he drove my grandma, my mother’s mother, to the airport for her flight back from our home in Miami to her tenement in New York. Not five minutes into the trip, he belted out, “Hate to see you go. Hate to see you go. Hope the heck you never come back. Hate to see you go.”
My grandmother turned to me, shrugged her shoulders, and we both chuckled. The same chuckle we shared time and again during a week of my father’s interminable mother-in-law jokes.
“Why do fathers-in-law die before mothers-in-law?”
“Because they want to.”
I knew that my father loved my grandma—yet, he couldn’t resist teasing her. I also knew, that when I grew up, I didn’t want to be a mother-in-law.
Now a half-century later, women hold over 20 percent of the seats in Congress. We are Supreme Court justices, neurosurgeons, astronauts, and CEOs. We climb elusive ladders, struggle with high-stress careers, and manage high-stress children. We advocate for social justice, insist on equality, and demand respect. We refuse to take a back seat to anyone—unless, of course, it’s our daughter-in-law.
Because, we’re afraid of her.
When our son slides that ring (the one we helped select and perhaps paid for) on his beloved’s finger, power seeps through the metal. Later, if the couple has children, that power has potential to punish.
A friend of mine confided, “My daughter-in-law asked me to watch the kids next Friday. I told her I couldn’t because I had a doctor appointment.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It was a lie. I didn’t want to admit I was going to yoga.”
I understood. With self-righteous retribution, her daughter-in-law could veto a family dinner, renege on Sunday brunch, or worse—withhold the grandchildren.
It’s time for mother-in-law empowerment.
But, before we can wiggle our way into a mutually respectable relationship, we must look at our own behavior. Have we unwittingly fed the stereotype? Do we attempt to usurp our daughter-in-law’s judgment for our own? A simple, “Are you wearing that to dinner, dear?” is enough to poke the bias. A well-intended, “Don’t you think you allow the kids too much screen time?” can unravel the relationship.
Even if we give no cause for distance, our daughters-in-law may have their own reasons for keeping us at arm’s length. Some may think it’s disloyal to their own mothers if they cozy up to us. It’s not. Others think we’re in competition for first place with their husbands. We’re not—they’ve already won. We just want involved spectator status. A few are too insecure to share their families with us. It’s our job to help them to feel safe.
I have two daughters-in-law. (And a son-in-law to be.) I admit, when I first met them, I tried to swallow my words and blend into the background. That didn’t last long—I leaked through the façade. And, I’m glad.
I offered a relationship based on authenticity and equality. And they accepted. Neither of them marginalizes my self-worth, nor I theirs. But, like desserts at lunch time, I try to exercise restraint and refrain from meddling or judging. Together, we spurned that archaic stereotype. And, hopefully, modeled appropriate behaviors for the next generation.
My childhood fear of mother-in-law bias never materialized.
At my daughters-in-law’s weddings, I did not “wear beige nor keep my mouth shut.” Rather, with their approval, I wore navy to one and black to the other. Not because I was contrarian, but because dark colors are slenderizing.