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Mother-in-law Problems

Mother-in-law Problems


Dear Rachel,

My mother in law is constantly criticizing me and my ability to parent. No matter what I do she makes a comment, and often in front of other people. If I give my child a cookie she will say, “Don’t you think he has had too much sugar today?” and yet, if I don’t, she will snap, “Do you really think it is fair not to give him one when the other kids are having one?” I can’t win. What should I do when we are out in public and this happens? So far I have chosen to stay silent, but I feel like I am about to burst.

Renee S.
Brooklyn, NY

And you probably will. If you continue to be the silent martyr, smiling as you feel that your mother in law is berating you, you may end up eventually saying (or screaming) something that you will regret.

The first thing is to consider that while you are interpreting her behavior and comments as critical, there is the possibility that she is really trying to be helpful. While she may seem threatening or powerful to you, in truth, you most likely seem those very things to her Sometimes we are quick to feel that someone is out to get us, when in truth, all they are looking for is an opportunity to feel needed and wanted. I’m not saying that this is the case in your situation, but it is always something to consider.

Let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. You are married to her son. You are the mother of her grandchildren. Basically, you have a major role in the lives of those most important to her. While she may seem threatening or powerful to you, in truth, you most likely seem those very things to her.

I would be curious to know how you react to her suggestions. Do you roll your eyes, bite your tongue and walk away? Do you stay silent but make it clear that they were not appreciated? Do you smile and do what she says but resent her terribly?

There is the Torah concept discussed in the Ethics of Our Fathers, that we have an obligation "to judge everyone favorably" -- basically, to always give one the benefit of the doubt (Avot 1:6). So in this case, let’s say that she really does want to help, that she really does want what is best for her grandchildren. Maybe she doesn’t know the best way to approach it, but that is her intention.

If you could view her comments as her desire to be helpful, and take them seriously and with consideration, she may not always feel the need to say something. I would try responding to her when she says something with, for example, “Really, you think it would be better if I didn’t…” or “What do you think I should give him instead?” Let her be part of the solution. Put it on her to help figure out then what to do when your kid is screaming because he didn’t get the cookie, or when he won’t eat his dinner an hour later because he did.

Another option is to kindly explain to her why you made the decision you made. If you're convinced that you made the right decision, there is no need to be defensive. So you can simply explain, “Usually I would let him have a cookie with the other kids, but today he has had so much candy and if he eats any more Let her be part of the solution not only will he be up all night, but he will get a terrible stomach ache.” Or, “I don’t always give him cookies for a treat, but today he was so especially good that he really deserves it!”

Problems arise not so much because of what you say but, because of how you say it. If you are confident about your parenting abilities and decision making, then you can calmly and warmly justify your choices without sounding annoyed or upset. If you trust how you parent, that will come across, and others will naturally come to trust how you parent as well. But if you become reactive, then your behavior will appear erratic and defensive as opposed to a carefully made choice.

Ultimately, you are your children’s mother, you have the final word, and most likely everyone knows that. But your mother in law is their grandmother, and I would guess she adores and loves your children and wants what is best for them. While this is easier said than done, when she makes her comments try to focus on the idea that her desire is to help them, as opposed to criticizing you. If you can start to see her words as an expression of love and not ill will, you will most likely be able to either consider that perhaps she is correct, or when she is not, to be able to explain to her that while her comments are coming from the right place, you feel that what is truly best for the children is something else. And you are the one to decide that. For as everyone knows, mother knows best!

"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Discussion (70)
January 7, 2015
Young wives should not take disrespect from their husband's mother. Your home is not her home and she has no control over you or it. She needs to go to her own daughter's house if she needs to give someone some advice.
January 6, 2015
Interesting article. I was drawn to it, because I too have an overly critical mother in law. In addition to being critical, she is extremely controlling. Before I married my husband I made it clear that he had to take an honest look at his mother, and promise me that he could truly be head of our household, and not concede power to his mother. He fought me but I told the truth until he listened. He began to stand up to his mother, so I married him.

I brought our newborn baby home a couple days ago, and his family visited our new son. My mother in law could simply not stop. Things like the child had socks on his hands to avoid getting further scratches on his face, or I changed diapers on the pack and play changing table instead of the bed were topics she was opposed to. I said, "He's fine." or "This works." And I moved on. She upset me greatly so I told my husband. My husband made sure he was present on the next visit, and he defended me. Now visits are much more pleasant.
November 10, 2014
Wives Need To Put Their Foot Down
If young female wives would learn how to stand up to their husbands and put their foot down, they would get more respect.

Mothers in law have no right or say so over a daughter in law or her home and children and it takes a female who loves herself and has high self esteem to speak up to the mother in law. If she wants to boss someone, tell her to visit her own daughter. No woman has any power in another woman's home, I don't who she is, her power is nil in another woman's house and the husband needs to do the right thing and support his wife or go away.
November 10, 2014
I don't like the top answer.Mother have the first pirority to take care of her children.
October 26, 2014
Not right or role of a mothe in law.
A husband must tell their mothers not to bother or try to control his wife. That is not ther right.
October 25, 2014
This answer is absurd. 'If you are confident about your parenting abilities and decision making, then you can calmly and warmly justify your choices without sounding annoyed or upset' If its not going to kill the kid, a mom shouldn't have to justify anything to a MIL. They raised their children. Why can't they just enjoy their grandchildren without tormenting their DILs? Have fun with the kids and stop sucking the life out of people with the relentless nitpicking and constant contradiction no matter how good your intentions are.
October 6, 2014
Please don't attack husbands in general. Or wives in general. People aren't perfect. The home is not a wife's home or a husband's home. It's a family's home. The parents run the home and parent the children together. People are entitled to their opinions but be supportive of each other. Whoever makes the decision first, mother or father, the other parent must support the decision in front of the child / MIL unless it is life-threatening.

Don't keep the children from the grandparents unless they harm them. Let them visit the grandparents even if they aren't allowed in your home. You don't have to go but it's better if you do... it's easier for you to leave early than push the MIL out. Set the example for your children that you are able to deal politely with conflict so they will have the confidence to do so themselves.
September 20, 2014
When a husband does not support his wife, he is not being a good husband. Husbands would want their wives to protect them from any of her relatives that were unkind.

Why are husbands that way?
September 19, 2014
I am not a cruel person, but a husband must respect his wife as the queen of her home/castle. If he is not supportive of her, then she will need to make decisions for herself regardless of his feelings. A man must respect his wife as a wife of her home. He must be man enough to tell his mom that she is being hurtful to his wife.

If she does not follow the wife's and husband's rules for their home and children, then do not allow her to,enter your home. When your husband goes to visit her, he can go alone while you and your children stay at home.

Stand up for yourself and do not be pushed around in your own territory.
September 19, 2014
Difficult MIL
The good way to handle your MIL is to put her in her place. She has none. She ever complains or criticizes you, shut her down by isolating her and giving her and her entourage no response. Ever! Not responding to her rants and her associates is the best way to get rid of her. Please, make sure your husband is on the same page with you. After that, just ignore her, like she ignores your when you pleaded with her for many, many years. Time to give her her medicine.
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