Family Relationships

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Mother-in-Law's Manual

Today we welcome Susan Lieberman, Ph.D. for a Virtual Book. We found her book, The Mother-in-Law's Manual: Proven Strategies for Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Married Children, to be so chock full of good information that we have asked her to stay on with us for two days, so send in your comments and questions. We'll highlight them again on Friday with her answers.

When her boys married, Susan had no idea that there was an entire new learning curve waiting just around the corner. She had expected parenting to be demanding, but it never occurred to her to think becoming a mother-in-law would bring its own challenges. Where was Dr. Spock on this stage of development?

Nourishing Relationships: Welcome, Susan. Being mothers-in-law ourselves, we know it can be a complex relationship. How did you come to write a book about mothers-in-law?

Susan: I always assumed that when our terrific sons met women they loved, we would love them as well. And beyond that, I also assumed those women would consider me a bonus. Honestly…I was quite surprised when it didn't happen that way. At first, I wanted to blame the wife, and then I came to my senses and realized that making this work was my work to do.

I thought I was done with parenting when the kids grew up. Now I see this mother-in-law gig as the last act of parenting…but Spock and Brazelton and those other parenting gurus stopped too soon. I wrote this book to figure out what I needed to learn to get the good relationships I want.

Nourishing Relationships: What is the most important thing you learned?

Susan: The most important thing, I came to see, is that the fewer expectations we have, the fewer disappointments we will have. And if we think we have no expectations, look again. Odds are they are there, hidden just below the surface.

Nourishing Relationships: Why is this mother-in-law stuff so difficult? MILs didn't expect tensions and yet they are there.

Susan: There isn't one reason, of course, but here is a cause that I think affects many of us. If we have a job at work and our employer decides to shift us to another role, he or she calls us in, and, perhaps, says something like this: "Thanks for doing X all these years. You have done a great job. But now we want you to do Y."

You might say, "But I really like doing X and would love to continue."

Your boss says, "I am glad you have been happy, but from now we really need you to do Y and we know you will do that successfully as well. Such and Such will be taking over X."

So you leave the office and it quite clear that you have been reassigned. But nobody calls us mothers in and says, 'You have been a great leading lady for a couple of decades but you are no longer going to play the role of leading lady. You have been downsized and now you have a character actor part.'

Maybe it took us quite a while to get that leading lady role down. But now we are good at it. We like it. And the replacement…it's possible she or he is young and green and not nearly as adept as we. Nonetheless, we have a new script, a new place to stand on the stage. This is tough, and many mothers don’t get the message. They keep reading from the old script and the new lead doesn't like it.

Another reason has to do with type and temperament. It's natural to enjoy people who are like us, make meaning the way we do, respond similarly. New people in the family can be different. Sometimes, we think that's "wrong" or hurtful when it's just different.

For example, I'm an extrovert. I like to talk over what is on my mind. Both of my daughters-in-law are introverts. It is not in their nature to pick up the phone and call to chat. This is painful for me…but it is about ME not about THEM and expecting it is one of those expectations that will lead to disappointment.

Nourishing Relationships: We presume you interviewed women who had good relationship with their married children and their partners. Is there something about these people you can tell us?

Susan: Such a good question. These women said things like,
"I got to lead my life and now they get to lead theirs."
"I don’t always agree with their choices but know I didn't want interference and I'm sure they don't either."
"I want them to be happy and have good lives, but I've done my part. Now it is up to them."

Nourishing Relationships: Thanks for your candor and insight, Susan. We look forward to carrying on this discussion tomorrow. If you'd like more information about her book, click on the title of the post. And, readers, send in your questions and comments for Susan.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've gathered that my expectations and those of my son and daughter-in-law are completely different. I'd like to talk to them about it, but I'm afraid I'll say something terrible and make our relationship even worse. Should I tell them what I expect or just keep my mouth shut?

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you said about expectations really makes sense to me. I have 2 daughters-in-law. One seemed so like me that I had high expectations for our relationship. It hasn't materialized and I am very disappointed about her. The other one was very different and I didn't expect to have much of a relationship with her. I still don't but I enjoy what we do have. Is that what you mean? Vicki

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Susan Lieberman said...

What you say, I think, depends on what you feel. If you share your expectations, is it with the subterrean belief that they will then have some responsibility for addressing those expectations? There is, I believe, a question behind this question behind this question...which is why we imagine our children will share our expectations and why, almost all the time, we think they have some obligation to address them.

This is a guess, but is it true that you are feeling some anger with your son and his wife? As long as that is there, my own advice would be to stay quiet until you can work your way through it. My own experience is that the anger always leaks through and discolors the conversation. If you are able to subdue the anger...and by the way, disappointment is different than anger...then there might be a time when you could address one expectation by acknowleging that you three see the world differently, noting what makes sense for you and asking for their help in figuring out how to make things work for all of you. If that goes well, down the line you might bring up something else, but, sad to say, we are no longer driving the ship.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Yes, Vicki, that IS what I mean. We don't do this concciously, but we have filters that affect what we hear. When we expect, for example, to hear affection and enthusiasm and we don't, we feel a loss. When we expect nothing, what we hear is what we hear.

I want to add something that has helped me in my relationships with my daughers-in-law. I decided that the expectations I needed to set were for me. I expect myself to be a certain kind of parent, to be loving and generous and forgiving...and I keep working on it regardless of what I get back. This helps me feel okay about me.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your introvert daughters-in-law - do you call them since they don't call you? If so, how often? Or do you just keep your distance? I tried calling mine (about once a week) for a while but then I just gave up. I thought I was bothering her and didn't want to annoy her.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

: I get along so much better with my son-in-law than with my daughter-in-law. I can joke around with him - but things are so tense with her. What can I do to lighten up my times with her? Brenda

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realized, early on, that my children-in-law had their own families and very busy lives. I played a part, but a small one. Now that they have children, my role has changed. They aren't that much more interested in me, but appreciate my relationship to my grandchildren. Is this typical?

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Susan Lieberman said...

Carolyn, I would love to chat with my daughter-in-laws more, but I, like you, do not have the sense it is a pleasure for them. When I know their husbands are traveling, I might call to see how it is going but otherwise, I seldom call. Instead, I send my gourmet cook DIL NYTimes food articles and recipes I think she will like and comment to my other DIL online about some of the great kids' pictures she posts. I make sure when I email my sons about family business that I copy their wives. I wish they were chattier and that my being chatty with them didn't make me feel inappropriate...but that isn't how it is.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Susan Lieberman said...

Brenda, the research shows that the MIL/DIL relationship is, in general, a tenser dyanamic than with sons-in-law. Add to that personality differences. And then add our own expectations of men and women...and there you have your situation...not so unusual.

Some thoughts about what you can do to make the situation with your daughter-in-law better: First, worry less. Can you get more comfortable in yourself when you are around her? Don't look for things that prove your negative thoughts about her.

Of course, we don't want to do or say things that hurt or harm, but how much time can we spend trying to suck up? Stick with that humor, even if no one else is easy. It is so hard, I know, not to feel comfortable with the people our children love. For me, I just keep telling myself that the game is not over.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Susan Lieberman said...

Is it typical that relationships change and even improve when their are grandchildren? YES. My observation is that our children see our loving their kids as an expression of our love for them -- and, often, love as well that we can help them out. Grandchildren also deflect attention away from the adults and soften potential conflicts.

You are lucky that your children value your contributions. ..and, in part, might it have something to do with your own tactfulness and willingness to let the parents set the rules?

I watch young people and their lives are so busy. If we lived at a faster pace than our parents, don't you our kids are living still faster than we did? You are right that they do not always have so much time for us. My sons assure me that how much time they have for me is NO indication of how much they love me. I choose to believe them.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Whitfield said...

I have been a MIL for over 20 years with my three children and I must say it is my most hated position in life. I think I'm a nice person, never interfere in their lives or tell them how to raise their children, but there is something about a MIL that just makes me walk on eggs. I have had many discussions with my DIL, but nothing ever changes. I have finally learned to accept it (the fact that they NEVER call me to just say hello or to see how I am, even when I had spine surgery)but when I hear my friends talk about their relationships with their DILs, it really brings me pain. Thanks for listening.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think I need to be a leading lady, but I sure would like more of a relationship with my married children and their spouses. I feel invisible - like my part has been completely written out and landed on the cutting room floor. Any ideas? It's not that I don't have other things going on in my life - I'm involved in a lot of activities - but I still would like more closeness with them.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Oh my, I so wish I had a magic wand that would give those of use who want more closeness with our chidren a simple way to find it. Of course, I don't. What to say to a question that so many women hold?

First, it may be that your children love you deeply but are simply lost in their own lives and that's the way it is for now. It may also be that while we think we are, well, terrific, our children see our behavior differently.

Is it possible to ask you son or daughter if there is something you are doing that pushes them away because sometimes you do feel there is a big distance. Could you ask what YOU can do that would be good for them...a terrific dinner sometimes with no help expected before or after, some errands, some gardening?

I don't know if you children have children but as someone noted earlier, grandchildren can open the door to more interaction. When my younger son had his first son, he called to say, "Mom, oh my god, I get it. You love me like I love him!"

Worst case, you have to find surrogate young friends who want what you can offer that your own child cannot appreciate.

Don't give up. Keep holding the possibility of a better relationship. Keep sending them loving thoughts and doing loving deeds even if it seems like you are wasting energy.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Life Goes On ..... :) said...

My problem is that the more I do the more my DIL expects and though I get a little "thanks" it doesn't seem truly appreciated, just expected. I am frugal and practical and she doesn't like that quality in either her mother or me. She spends way too much and seems to me to be totally spoiled and self centered. She pedicures, manicures, and massages, eats out most of the time unless I or someone else cooks for her, while I scrimp and try to get by on a fixed income. Now she asks me to help fund a catered surprise birthday party for my son. My son's business is in dire straights financially, my husband works for him without pay trying to help. My son adores her, they just had thier 1st baby, and I don't want to cause any post partum depression so I just keep trying to ease her sleep deprivation etc but I can feel myself getting more and more upset with her. Plus I have to tell her my $ commitment to the 'party' will be minimal and I dread that conversation. I'm holding it all in but I'm afraid trouble is brewing.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a DIL with a MIL who is making my life miserable, let me fill you in on something. First, MIL's want us to call them Mom. Don't do this to your DIL - it's the first sign that you expect her to be like YOUR family. We have mothers and calling you Mom is a sign of disrespect to the woman who raised your DIL. Second, you should have no expectations on how grandchildren are raised as long as they come from a loving home with two parents who love them, treat them with respect and see to their needs. My MIL did not respect the fact that her son and I are non-religious and wanted our son to decide on that relationship with whomever he called God for himself and even went as far as to say he'd go to Hell if he died because he wasn't babptized. You must let your son and his wife raise the children THEY bring into the world as THEY see fit. They are Mom & Dad now, not you and your DIL went through the 9 months and labour to bring those children into the world - not you. Respect who the parents are because you can find yourself out of the picture really quick because the stress you are bringing to the DIL for not doing things as you would brings stress to the children and we don't want that for our kids - you didn't. Understand that our relationship with you is one of friendship, not the close bond we share with our own mothers and never will be. You, like husbands and boyfriends can be here today and gone tomorrow with the breakdown of the marriage. When that happens, you naturally side with your son so understand that we are inately wired to NOT form bonds with you. It's nothing personal so please stop trying to make it personal. Don't put the expectations you have for your own daughter on your DIL - fastest way to say goodbye. We are not your daughters and we probably don't want to bake your family recipe for cookies over our own. Understand that we come from a long line of women on our side of the family. These are the people who will stand with us through thick and thin - you will not and it's only normal that you won't.

Our relationships with you are one of respectful distance. That will never change. We don't come from a society where a woman forgets her own family just because she got married.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Nourishing Relationships said...

The last couple of MIL comments and this last one from the Anonymous DIL show how wide the gap can be. There are always two perspectives in any disagreement or conflict, no matter what the relationship is.

Listening to the other and trying to understand their position can go a long way. And acceptance of what is may bring you some peace of mind, whether you're a MIL or DIL.

2:22 PM  

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