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Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law

Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law

A Supercharged Opportunity for Personal Growth


Shavuot—the festival of revelation: Mount Sinai trembles, thunder and lightning sunder the skies, the rocky crests of a barren desert suddenly burst into verdant bloom. The unstoppable, all-powerful Voice of the Holy One shatters the silence . . . and a few million once-wretched refugees, yesterday kvetching and quarreling, today stand together as one nation with one heart to embrace the essence of truth, to receive timeless wisdom—the Commandments, the quintessence of divine law.

And how do we, some thirty-three centuries later, commemorate and recreate this awesome experience? Customs range from the sublime (the reading of the Ten Commandments) to the sumptuous (cheesecake!). But one Shavuot custom stands out as rather incongruous. Among all the books of the Torah, the one we read in its entirety on Shavuot (in many communities it’s read from a scroll in the synagogue) is a seemingly minor tale of a couple of Moabite widows and their Jewish mother-in-law.

Can two women love the same man and live in peace?Why read Megillat Ruth? Some say it is because Ruth was the mother of royalty, the great-grandmother of King David. Others say it’s because Ruth was the first official convert to the Jewish faith, blazing the trail for all of us toward radical self-transformation. But as I contemplate the story of Ruth, I wonder whether its inner relevance might also stem from the quality of the core relationship it portrays. Because Ruth is a rare narrative indeed—it is the saga of a mother-in-law, Naomi, and a daughter-in-law, Ruth, and their implausibly positive emotional bond. As such, it presents us an incredible opportunity to re-examine this often-ridiculed love-hate relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law (let’s call them MIL/DIL for short), and turn it around.

“Why were Adam and Eve the happiest couple in the history of the world? Because neither one of them had a mother-in-law.”

Mother-in-law jokes are a mainstay of comedy. Most of these jokes play on the stereotype that the average mother-in-law is overbearing, obnoxious, and probably unattractive to boot—and most significantly, that the old battle-axe considers her daughter-in-law to be totally unworthy of her son.

A man meets a wonderful woman and they get engaged; he calls his mother to share the good news. He arranges to have dinner with his mom so she can meet his fiancée. He arrives at her home with not one, but three women—a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. “Why three women?” asks Mom. He replies that he wants to see if she can guess which of the women is her future daughter-in-law. She looks at each one carefully, then says, “It’s the redhead.” “How could you possibly have figured that out so quickly?” he inquires. “Simple,” she replies icily. “Because I can’t stand her.”

Unfortunately—one might even say tragically—the world at large has ceased to understand the value of extended family. This is particularly true of the MIL/DIL relationship. (In my research, I found several “I hate my mother-in-law” websites!) “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we tell ourselves. “Judge everyone favorably, give the benefit of the doubt.” Yet when it comes to those sticky, awkward, hypersensitive MIL/DIL moments, there seems to be much more doubt than benefit, and not quite enough love to go around. Daughters-in-law are rarely comfortable enough to engage in open communication with their mothers-in-law, let alone accept their well-considered advice; and conversely, mothers-in-law, convinced it’s for the good of the family, too easily intervene with unwelcome criticism, utterly blind to the resistance and the resentment it engenders. Discomfort turns to judgmentalness, which before long gives way to paranoia, and the MIL/DIL syndrome is in full flower.

Can two women love the same man and live in peace? If the MIL/DIL relationship could work with a minimum of hang-ups and negativity, these two lucky ladies would have worlds to offer each other. A mother-in-law ought to appreciate and honor the woman who will care for her son’s spiritual, physical and emotional needs for the rest of his life. She needs to train herself to look at her daughter-in-law with the “good eye” described in Ethics of the Fathers—seeing the good in her, accentuating the positive, dropping the judgment. And a daughter-in-law should try to value and welcome her mother-in-law’s wisdom, concern and in-the-trenches experience with the man they both love. It’s helpful to remember that our intrinsic worth is not determined by other people’s opinions. Perhaps in that light, defensiveness can take a back seat to true personal growth.

Two mothers appear before King Solomon, the wisest of men, each claiming that a certain young man has pledged his troth to her daughter. King Solomon decides: cut the man in half, and they’ll share him. “Oh no!” says one woman. “Please, let him live!”

“No problem,” says the other. “Cut him in half!”

“Aha!” exclaims the king. “The second one is the true mother-in-law!”

In education, it’s called professionalism: third-grade teachers end a school year by meeting with the fourth-grade teachers, filling them in on the strengths and weaknesses of their future students. In business transactions, it’s called common sense: an educated consumer buys a used car, and solicits the advice of the previous owner to determine the vehicle’s quirks and what it needs to be well maintained. When a woman leaves her home to join her husband’s “tribe,” who is the wise woman who can best enhance this bride’s understanding of his traditions and his ways? And what relationship has greater potential for transmitting sound Torah values from one generation to the next? Perhaps your husband has some quirks that you haven’t figured out; maybe your mother-in-law could fill in the missing links in his maintenance record.

Are they ready for the internal work it takes to transform a persistent sense of uneasiness into continuity, loyalty and love?By the same token, it’s possible that his wife has a few insights to offer that the woman who nurtured and protected him throughout his vulnerable, formative years may have missed.

Yet how often do the MIL and DIL create opportunities to optimize the transition, to bond in a way that will establish peace—shalom—in their everlasting edifice? Are they ready for the internal work it takes to transform a persistent sense of uneasiness into continuity, loyalty and love? Take walks in the park together. Do lunch, just the two of you. Listen, and learn.

Twice widowed, uncertain of her future, Ruth might easily have reverted to her old comfort zone and left Naomi—as in fact her Moabite sister-in law had done. But her devotion to her husband’s familial and tribal lineage is unshakable; and she recognizes in her mother-in-law a quality of kindness and grace that wins her undying loyalty. “Wherever you go, I will go,” she proclaims. “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G‑d, my G‑d.” Our heroine goes so far as to defer completely to Naomi in the raising and education of their children/grandchildren. Now, I’m not suggesting here that we follow their example literally; but let’s look between the lines at the quality of their relationship and take that to heart.

MILs and DILs have so much in common. They both want only the best for their guy, and for his kids—happiness, good health, positive communication, financial and physical wellbeing, a sense of belonging, purpose, integrity and continuity. We want shalom—which means more than peace; it means completeness. When we are complete, we are whole, we are one. There is no perceptible place where you end and your mother-in-law begins. You are united in purpose, and life becomes a banquet, filled with a sense of abundance rather than a sense of “mine-ness,” where no one is wondering if there is enough food. The hall is filled with music and laughter; there is no centering attention on oneself. We are bound by One-ness, and we represent the momentum of generations of souls united in a single purpose—making this world a better place, a holy place.

Practically speaking, we need tools. Here’s one; I call it the Q-TIP, as in Quit Taking It Personally. If MIL says something that feels like criticism, take the stinger out of it and look at it as a positive suggestion. If DIL is too busy with little ones, school meetings or housework to invite you into her life, replace the irritation at having been slighted with a positive resolve to help her have more free time. Offer to do one of her carpools, perhaps, or slip her a few twenties for extra cleaning help. And in those inevitable moments when helpful suggestions or offers of time, service, experience, an extra set of hands, or even money are met with resistance, let it go. From a broader perspective than that of our own personal agendas, your MIL or DIL is precisely as she “should” be. As is your spouse, or your child or grandchild. In the consciousness of releasing our tenacious grip on our own personal territory, our script, our control, our point of view, we grow more whole. We become adept at loving all family members for who they are; and they—we—are freed to become all we are capable of being.

Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb is an educator, spiritual mentor and storyteller. This article is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book, co-authored with her husband Simcha Gottlieb, entitled Wholly, Wholly, Wholly. Fruma has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and was featured in the runaway best-seller Small Miracles.
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Mariana Cordova ortiz June 11, 2016

Shalom This is such a delightful message to be treasure. Especially of Shavout. Thank you. Shabbat Shalom, Hashem Echad. Reply

Anonymous USA March 26, 2015

But.... Frumma's advice is wonderful, but there is a major contingency that needs to be present for her advice to work. Both the MIL and the DIL need to be without mental illness, specifically, each of them needs to NOT have a personality disorder. If you have two women who are both emotionally healthy, there will be points of contention. But, because these women are emotionally healthy, will be able to work through contention and perhaps even develop a bond. However, if either the MIL or DIL has emotional instability, all bets are off. If a mother-in-law is a narcissist, there will be no "happy family" no matter how hard the DIL tries. And if the DIL is a narcissist, she will likely try to alienate her husband from his family. If they are both narcissists, it will be all out war. So, search your heart, put ego aside, and make sure you are not part of the problem. Deal with her with compassion. If you still don't get through to her, best to have NO expectations and set boundaries. Reply

Anonymous April 12, 2014

Never says thanks If I knew this is what my daughter acts like towards her MIL, I would be ashamed. I like my DIL's mother, so I can't' figure out where the attitude and lack of feelings comes from. In all honesty, she does many things that don't seem to be moved by emotion towards me, more like it's the "Jewish" thing to do. Sad....I just wish I could walk invited into their house and feel someone can lift their heads from their e-toys. Oh well....this is the modern family? At least my grandson says he loves me! Something's right...that 's one!! Gran Fran Reply

Anonymous Racine WI November 5, 2012

My DIL wanted my son to actually change his last name to hers. She bought a house prior to marriage , with the intent that he would sell his and move into her house. She told him that she wanted to get married get this one..because her father is very old and she wants him to see her walk down the isle. Then she got pregnant right away for the same reason. When she's angry with someone she sulks and stares at the wall. Won't converse. She knows I don't like her and do not want to be her "friend". My husband and I are not wealthy people and she comes from money. Looks down on us quite a bit and thinks she can fix my son by forcing him to change jobs and earn more money. Well, he got the new job but the money is the same. We spent the last two thanksgivings with her and my son (sans her parents) but with her parents the last pesach. I told my son that this year his father and I would be doing thanksgiving ..just the two of us. So she called my husband and told him to come without me. Reply

RD, Brooklyn, NY BROOKLYN, New York June 3, 2012

RD again glad to hear it
you have an adopted son, then, who loves you and is good to you
sounds like you have the right attitude Reply

Anonymous NC, USA June 1, 2012

Oh thank you, RD, for the sweet remark... We are coping. Right now, we have signed up to attend language school in Israel this Fall. If they get enough students, it is a go! If I was more involved with the one family here who has virtually no time for us, I would find it very hard to be away that long (probably more like 10 months or so). I feel HaShem has things for us to perhaps making it easier for us to go? I do feel our children do love us...they just "go along with the program" with their in-laws who seem not to think our children came from a family too. Strange... They are different from me, in that NO ONE could have kept me from frequent contact of some kind with my family!! HaShem sends unexpected blessings also. There is a young man, now married, who grew up as son's best friend. He has been to us, in every way possible, a wonderful son. He does not NEED us...has good parents. He just loves us and calls us to talk every single week...and begs us to come see him whenever we can. I'm grateful!! Reply

RD BROOKLYN, New York May 30, 2012

just sympathizing oy, vey! Anonymous, I feel for you! "useless appendages," nobody wants to feel that way! and certainly not to get that feeling from one's own children OUCH OUCH OUCH
I am glad there is yet another daughter and I hope it goes differently with her
unasked-for advice: maybe try to see what is needed by the adult children or grandchildren, and to provide it with a smile.... nothing like a little gratitude to bring people closer Reply

Anonymous NC, USA May 27, 2012

Very good advice... Wish I was brave enough to share this article. Oh well...we do our best, we can do no more. We wanted our children to be loved in their in-law families, as I was not accepted in mine. Well, we accomplished that goal so well, in essence we seem to have raised our 2 oldest who are married, for the other familes...we are rarely thought of anymore. Were we interferring types? We tried hard not to be. But we are also not demanding. Never demanding "our time", or "our turn", preferring time with them when they want us around. Tis apparent we are useless appendages for the most part. Part of that could be our faith path towards Torah observance. Which is ok...good things in our lives often come with a price tag. We have one last child there is yet hope for a close family for all sides with whomever she ends up marrying one day. Reply

Rishe Brooklyn, New York May 21, 2012

on the author Frumma is always interesting and original. Reply

Anonymous May 15, 2012

Way to go!! Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA December 12, 2011

I agree, not as simple as it sounds and what if you are a dil at the end of her emotional rope? what if you have gone out of your way to be very nice and kind to your mil, and have only gotten ignorant comments in return? and what if you have tried to talk to her about it, only to be told to get over it, she has done to wrong, etc? that is frustrating, and very disappointing. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI July 28, 2011

Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in Law My mother was lucky to have a good mother-in-law. My grandmother gave her the love and respect her own parents didn't give her, and she absolutely loved me! Reply

Goldiemae Omaha, NE - Nebraska June 17, 2011

I've had two MIL's And they were a study in contrasts. As you figured out, I was married more than once. My first MIL was from Russia, spoke very broken English, and her ways and ideals were very different from what I had grown up with. However, getting to know her better, gave us a sort of kinship, and I knew that despite our disparate upbringing, she had a loving heart and would do just about everything to please me. One example was at a dinner where she served a certain Ukrainian dish. I complimented her on it, and from then on, she served that dish at every occasion. If that ain't love, what is? My second MIL was more modern, and had a very large family. She also had a great sense of humor. She often spoke of her children, now adults. She said, "The Bible tells us to be fruitful and multiply." "That's right," I agreed. "But, it didn't mean that I had to do it all by myself," she laughed. I guess that was the moment when we truly bonded. Reply

jan oxnard, ca June 7, 2011

does it say anywhere... that a SIL may attack his MIL and it's okay? and if the father stands up for his wife, what about that? and if the son and his wife continue to be disrespectful to both, how is that handled? it gets complicated in this age of second marriages, especially if one or more of the parties are angry. Reply

Chana Ruth Miami Beach, FL June 7, 2011

I guess I was lucky I can't stand mother-in-law jokes. It's such a cliche, and they seem so unfair. Maybe I was lucky but my MIL was a blessing--she was kind, loving, and treated all of her children-in-law like her own children, with love and respect. When she passed away two years ago it broke my heart, not just because of my husband's loss, but because I felt the loss myself, and still do. My biggest regret is that she won't be physically present when we have children (b'ezrat Hashem soon). Perhaps some MiL/DiLs need to really work on their relationship as you said, but don't forget that there are some healthy relationships as well. Reply

Anonymous passaic June 6, 2011

not as simple as it sounds... first of all, ruth had it easy as far as being a daughter in law--her MIL was a tzaddeikus (righteous woman)! second, there are often serious harmful comments/actions that a MIL will do to stake out her territory or maintain control, and then it's up to the husband to protect his wife and stand up to his mother (after all, it does say he must leave his parents and cleave to his wife!). Reply

Hadassah Rivkah Milsztajn North Miami Beach, FL June 6, 2011

Yasher koach! May we all experience the personal freedom and oneness you described in all our relationships! Reply

chana givat zeev June 6, 2011

well done for articulating this maybe start an "ILOVE my MIL-DIL site and show that there ARE healthy and positive relationships in this tricky sphere. I personally have daughters- in - law that I ADORE (and I hope it's mutual, even partially).May we all have shalom in our relationships Reply

Sara Shollar Monroe, NY June 6, 2011

Frumma, it's a pleasure to hear from you and a blessing to know you. Your DILs are blessed. Reply

Judy Kitchner Miami Beach June 5, 2011

Valuable incite and productive suggestions with Frumma humor. Yasher koach. Reply

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