Setting boundaries with Mother-in-Law?


I hope all of my American readers had a good Thanksgiving weekend. (I hope the rest of you had a good weekend too!) I had a much more relaxing weekend than I had anticipated. I didn’t end up babysitting at all, and I had a good time at the houses I visited.

But there was one thing that really bothered me – my mother-in-law’s behavior. When I first saw her, she, as I expected, told me how pleased she was that I was wearing a skirt. Fine, I thought, I do like to wear dresses and skirts sometimes. She made another comment about how I was dressed like a girl and how much she loved it. Ok, still ok.

What bothered me most about her behavior was that one of the very first things she said to us – we had met up less than 10 minutes earlier, for the first time in a few months – was, as she sidled up to me, “So, Flicka Mawa, when are you and Husband going to go on a diet?” Excuse me?! I had always known she would come right out and say things about Husband’s weight, and that it bothered him. As such, it bothered me too, and I thought it was horribly rude and downright mean. In fact, I was apprehensive about seeing her this time precisely because I was worried she would say something about Husband’s weight. But this time, she really crossed the line – saying something about my weight too. How dare she think it’s ok to do that? I was so flabbergasted I was literally speechless. I just looked at Husband, who responded pleadingly and in annoyance, “Ma, let’s not do this today. It’s Thanksgiving.” This was a bad enough breach to leave me pretty annoyed, but I only got more concerned about my relationship with my mom-in-law as the day went on.

We got on the train and there was a decent buffer zone between us, so not much issue there. When we got off the train, she used my arm for support as we walked – her in pointy high heels, mind you, despite her serious back problems. When I had noticed this earlier, I had come right out and commented on it, letting her know that I didn’t think heels were important enough to risk physical pain especially for someone with her history of back trouble. Anyhow, we’re walking down by the side of the train tracks, and she decides to continue to gush to me about how I’m wearing a skirt, and how wonderful it is. As some of my readers know, I’m definitely a feminist, and so this really began to grate on me. You know what? It doesn’t matter if I wear a skirt or pants, I still look like a woman, thank you very much. I believe I started to tell her, in a playful tone, that if she said much more about it I wouldn’t want to wear skirts around her anymore. But then I got a phone call, so I excused myself and left her to walk on her own or grab someone else’s arm while I fished around in my purse. It was my brother, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks, bro!

My husband’s brother’s girlfriend’s family picked us up, and they were all very friendly. Her mom drove Husband and I and my mom-in-law, and the others drove in a different car. Between driving to the first apartment and the second, I sure got to hear a lot from my mom-in-law that didn’t make me too happy. The mom driving us was telling us how she had recently become a grandma and her granddaughter was going to be at the first apartment, which made me very happy because I! LOVE! BABIES!!!!! Anyhow, my mother-in-law was telling her about how her first grandchild was a girl and it was so great after all those boys (she has 4 sons and no daughters), but that she didn’t know what to do with her, because she was a girl. As a baby?  The same things you do with a boy!  The implication that even as a baby you’d need to treat the two sexes differently really annoys me.  Aside from, of course, slightly different care of the privates, particularly if your son is circumcised, there is no difference.  My mom-in-law is, in my opinion, rather sexist, and it never bothers me more than when I am reminded of what kind of influence she could have on my children.

So of course, while I’m thinking about how I really want to minimize how much time she spends with our kids, one of the next things out of her mouth is “And by the time these two have a baby I’ll be retired and will be able to spend all my time with him,” referring to us and our first baby. Great. First of all, she doesn’t work. She’s on disability because of that back problem that I mentioned when I described her shoes. She’s been looking for a decent enough job that accommodates her back issues to risk going off disability (once you go off, you can never go back on for the same problem because you’ve shown that there are still jobs you can hold) since I’ve known Husband, which is about 3 and a half years. So I don’t know what this “by then I’ll be retired” crap is. Second of all, we’re sitting right here! She knows we can hear her. It never occurs to her that she might need to find out if we want her spending all her time taking care of our baby. Husband and I have discussed before how important it is to put up boundaries with her, because she’ll always try and push them until she can come visit us without calling first. I think Husband does an ok job of doing this, but it’s hard – she’s rather set in her ways. Often it results in her leaving for us angry or tearful phone messages because she thinks we don’t pay enough attention to her.

Honestly, once she confided in us that her dream was to move into a house with the two of us. Right, that would work. We do both love her, but we could never, ever, not in a million years live with her. It’s hard enough living in the same borough of NYC. Between all the things she unabashedly said to our courteous host about how much she’s looking forward to spending lots of time with our first child, how to raise babies her way, and how differently she thinks girls and boys need to be treated, I found myself spending most of the second car ride silently wishing I could move out of the area. All the way across the ocean wouldn’t be so bad. The Netherlands, here we come.

Question for my readers: How do you set up boundaries with your mom-in-law? Have they worked? Does she resent you for it? Did you start setting these up before you had your first child, and if so how long before?

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9 thoughts on “Setting boundaries with Mother-in-Law?

  1. Hi Eco – I see your point. The thing is, she’s not the type to do it on purpose…I don’t think she would dig at my perceived weaknesses just to get at me. I really think I am her favorite daughter in law, and my husband is definitely her favorite son. She’s just – culturally different, esp with family issues. She’s Guatemalan and moved here right before she got pregnant with Husband, who was her 3rd son. Add to that her stubborn nature and she’s just unlikely to unlearn many of the stigmas she picked up. In some ways it makes it worse that I know she loves us both so much and doesn’t ever purposely say things to hurt either of us – because then how do you rationalize responding the way you need to to set up these boundaries?

  2. Rules for my MIL:
    1) Don’t volunteer information. What she doesn’t know, she can’t criticize.
    2) Don’t ever say anything but wonderful things about my husband to her. (learned that the hard way when I told her something and she went ballistic on him)
    3) Don’t wear anything that isn’t washable around her. (but that’s cause she’s a smoker)

    Other than that, I’ve found that geographical separation is a nice thing to have on your side. And there are lots of things I like about my MIL!

  3. I think most of the boundary-setting job is Husband’s, since it’s his mother. If you do it instead of him, you’ll end up being the “bad guy.” She’ll rationalize it as you keeping him (and any grandkids) away from her. If he does it, she might actually listen, especially if he follows through with keeping the boundaries in place.

    The boundaries definitely need to be in place before any kids come into the picture, because they just complicate matters. I do completely agree with annejefferson’s rules — I have similar ones with my mother-in-law.

    She and I have pretty much nothing in common. I come from a wealthy family; she is a coal miner’s daughter. I’m an atheist; she puts the “fun” in “fundamentalism.” She watches Fox News; I have removed that vile television station from our channel listing.

    But I think I actually have a better relationship with my mother-in-law now that Vinny is in the picture. We finally have something in common: we both love that little boy to pieces! [You would think that our love for her son would be something in common, but maybe it isn’t because her love for him and my love for him are two different kinds of love. I don’t know.]

    Jeff long ago established the boundary that we were the parents and we make all the parental decisions for Vinny, although she challenges it periodically (e.g. on the last visit she apparently gave him some Sprite, which was bad because we hadn’t yet introduced corn products, since my mom has so many allergies. Luckily he is evidently not deathly allergic to corn.).

    I realized early this year that the reason she always sent a card for every holiday was because she wanted to have cards sent to her, so now her grandson “sends” her cards. So far he’s done Mother’s Day and her birthday, and I have one already bought for Christmas. I get him to scribble on them, and he chewed and drooled on the Mother’s Day card, which adds a bit of authenticity to the supposed origin of these cards. She cried when she received those cards and she has them displayed in a special glass cabinet.

    Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is that we have this relationship through him, and that it brings me a lot of joy. Oh sure, she can drive me batshit insane at times, I don’t always like the way she treats my husband, and she spends way too much money on Vinny, but overall I think that her heart’s in the right place.

    Sorry for the treatise 😉

  4. These things are especially tough when there are cultural issues as well.

    FWIW, I’ve had some surprisingly fruitful confrontations with loved ones when I was really upset with how they were treating me. It took a massive effort to get up the courage and it was uncomfortable for a little while, but it worked out for the best in the end.

  5. The woman I sit for has a crazy MIL, and she told me I need to just tell her that it’s not ok to say these things, but in a non-confrontational way, of course. Husband is really good about it, and his heart is in the right place too, I think we both just needed some ideas for how to go about setting up these boundaries. So the mom lent me a book, and I think I got some really good ideas from it. I’m going to post more about it later.

    Definitely my MIL’s heart is in the right place – she loves us both and cares about us both a great deal. Occasionally she is sad because she knows that really, I am his #1 now, but she manages anyhow. And from this book I read, I see that lots of people with in-law issues don’t even have that – the solid knowledge that their spouse puts them before his or her parents. So Husband and I just need to work on how we actually can respond when she does or says these things that hurt us. I am confident that we will manage to set these boundaries and things will be as good as they an be, given the bit of culture clash that we have between his mom and me.

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