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Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-law:
Friendship at an Impasse

Terri Apter
Clare Hall, University of Cambridge

An early reference to the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship presents a glowing image of commitment and loyalty. In the Bible, Ruth makes one of the great, classical declarations of love - to her mother-in-law, Naomi. But Ruth's eloquence presents a lost ideal. A modern day Ruth, a 33-year-old barrister, who participated in my study, buried her face in her hands as she described a recent visit from her in-laws: "Normally I'm a reasonable and fair person. Normally, I am quick to appreciate other people's qualities and to key into their point of view. But these virtues fail to materialize in the presence of my mother-in-law." And Ruth's mother-in-law Joyce, 59, is bemused by the split between how her daughter-in-law is with other people, and how she is in her presence: "I see her talking and laughing on the phone, and she's a different person. With me she's sullen and withdrawn." Mother/daughter-in-law relationships often reach an impasse, yet very little research has been done to discover just what's going on - and what's likely to go wrong.

The aim of this paper is 
1) to identify the parent/child-in-law relationship that is most likely to involve conflict
2) to identify areas of conflict
3) to understand the different meanings such conflicts have for mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Twenty mothers-in-law (seven with one daughter-in-law; seven with one son-in-law; three with two sons-in-law and one daughter-in-law; two with two daughters-in-law; one with four daughters-in-law); fourteen fathers-in-law, and thirty-two of their daughters-in-law (18) and sons-in-law (14) were interviewed about their experience of being either a son/daughter-in-law or mother/father-in-law (sister-in-law and brother-in-law relationships were not studied). The subjects had been in an in-law relationship for between one and nine years. The interviews took place in the subjects own homes (three mothers-in-law shared their homes with a son-in-law).

The interviews were recorded and then transcribed. Notes were also taken during the interviews. Subsequently, twelve families were observed during mother-in-law and daughter-in-law get-togethers. These occasions were marked by family events (birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations). Religious holidays, including Christmas, which may include additional stresses, were avoided. Observation of these gatherings lasted between two and two and a half hours. They were recorded. Notes were not taken as this could be a distraction to the subjects.

The transcribed interviews were analyzed using the Potter and Wetherall (1987) method of discourse analysis. Of the discursive themes identified in the analysis, the many faceted theme of discord predominated daughter's-in-law speech about mothers-in-law. (My results were in this respect not very different from Evelyn Duval's 1954 study in which only one in four women said that they liked their mother-in-law as a person.) Ten of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships, as described by daughters-in-law, were "strained", "uncomfortable", "infuriating". The mothers'-in-law account of discord, in one respect was similar: Twelve mothers-in-law described being in the company of a daughter-in-law as "tense", "uneasy", "uncomfortable" - findings that support Estelle Phillips 1995 paper on women experiencing the transition to mother-in-law. Three mothers-in-law felt a daughter-in-law was "a precious friend" or "as good as a daughter". Two mothers-in-law admitted to hating a daughter-in-law. Four sons-in-law felt "close" to a father-in-law, as did one daughter-in-law. While ten of the fathers-in-law said a daughter-in-law was "nice enough", or that their relationships was "all right", four expressed hostility - primarily in defence of their wives, who suffered in the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship.

Complaints by daughter-in-law
1. A large daughter-in-law discourse, centered around the mother-in-law, was on the mother's-in-law failure of recognition or validation for aspects of their identity they themselves valued highly. In this theme are complaints that the mother-in-law showed preference for the son's career, and expected the daughter-in-law to sacrifice her career to that of her husband. One twenty-nine year old woman said:

"I love [my mother-in-law], but I can't depend on her support. She'll always be biassed towards [my husband's] career. If she were my mother, I'd fight back. But fighting a mother-in-law over this is something I can't win. She may be a feminist, but she's a mother first. She wants [her son] to be happy. And let's face it - he'd be happier if I worked less, and looked after him more."

A twenty-six-year old woman says that her mother-in-law (a professional woman herself)

"was generally supportive of women and on the surface, all for equality at home, but when I told her about this new job offer in Manchester, I couldn't see any of her ideals in action. I was really shocked by the way this supposedly enlightened woman said, 'Commuting would be difficult. Greg would get so lonely. You have to consider the whole picture. I know it's hard.' I'm really offended by this show of sympathy when she implies that what I want isn't as important as what my husband wants. I thought she was my friend. She thinks she's my friend. But I can't trust her with this stuff."

A forty-two- year-old woman felt that she could sum up the relationship with her mother-in-law with this story:

"When I was an MP candidate, my mother-in-law said she hoped I wouldn't be elected because her grandchildren saw little enough of their mother anyway."

Another daughter-in-law resented a mother's-in-law praise for her role as wife, seeing it as an attempt to control her and make her feel guilty about her long hours at work. She explained:

"When my mother-in-law tells me what a 'good wife' I am, my heart sinks, and I feel she's trying to control me, telling me I should be a 'good wife'. I can't make her see why I don't want to be a 'good wife' in that sense ... I suddenly feel guilty for coming home at seven-thirty, not helping with supper, and then I get angry - because why should I feel guilty for putting so much into my work?"

2. Another common theme was intrusion - either on the ground that the mother-in-law seemed to "baby" the husband, or on the grounds that the mother-in-law presented herself as weak and needed to be "mothered" by the son. One woman said:

"She phones in the morning, when we're in bed, and she says how sorry she is to disturb us, but she had to make sure he got back safely [from his business trip]. She doesn't see that he's a grown man. She doesn't believe he can be all right without her."

Another woman said:

"She expects him to come round late at night even to change a light bulb. She wants him at her beck and call."

Sometimes a mother-in-law was seen as intrusive because she was too helpful in the home. A thirty-nine-year-old woman (a saleswoman in a department store) said that every visit from her mother-in-law sets her husband back at least a year in her battle to make him carry his weight in the home.

"[My husband] asks, 'Where's the butter?' and his mother jumps up and puts it in front of him. Within a week, he's back to the old routine: 'Where's the knife?' means, 'Get me the knife.' When he opens the fridge and can't find the olives that are right in front of his nose, his mother thinks he's cute. 'I'll fix his lunch,' she says, as though that's okay, because I'm not being asked to do it. What she doesn't see is that I'm trying to downshift his expectations for domestic service."

3. Status within the family was also a significant theme. One twenty-nine year-old woman described the following situation:

"[My mother-in-law] answered the phone when she was visiting and I heard her say, 'This is Mrs Caine.' I've been married to her son for two and a half years, but she keeps forgetting I'm Mrs Caine, and I'm the Mrs Caine someone wants when they telephone my home.

One status issue is over who is "mum" in the family, with final say over all those things most women still dictate: menus, meal times and children's table manners. A thirty-four-year-old woman complained that her mother-in-law takes over as mother when she visits.

"One night she kept passing around the mint sauce. 'Do have some more. I hope you enjoy it. Sally, try some. Aren't you eating well! Now let's put the jelly into this jug.' She takes charge of the entire meal."

4. Daughters-in-law also spoke critically of a mother-in-law in the context of her involvement with housework and childcare. One thirty-three year old barrister said:

"I came downstairs this morning in a rush to get to work, and Joyce was bustling around the kitchen.  'I've managed to get Piers to eat a really good breakfast, and he's ready for school now. We just have to sew this button on his jacket.' Normally I'm a reasonable and fair person, but all this cheerful nurturing put me in a foul mood. I feel she's trying to imply how much better she is with the kids than I am. I feel she's telling me that I can go off to work happy because a safety pin's no longer holding my son's button on his jacket. Basically, I feel she's showing off at my expense."

A twenty-seven year old daughter-in-law said she lost her temper when her mother-in-law, seeing her take clothes from the dryer, offered to save her a job by doing the ironing.

"I came home glowing because I'd just landed a really juicy account for my firm. I started to fold the laundry, and suddenly my mother-in-law is crooning over me about the ironing - a job I hate and never do, because it stinks of the drudgery I'm determined to escape. I exploded: 'It's not my job to do the ironing!' My father-in-law looked at me like I was going mad for shouting at this poor woman who's just trying to help. But the assumption that it was my job to do the ironing sent me over the edge."

In-law visits take place in people's homes, and housework is emotionally laden. Who does it well, may be a sign of who cares enough. But to someone else, doing housework well is a sign of not having anything better to do. 

5. Some of the complaints were vehement, but without obvious cause. One thirty-two year old daughter-in-law, who has been married for five years, said:

"When my mother-in-law comes to visit, I lose the will to live."

When I ask why her mother-in-law makes her feel like this she merely says: "She watches me. She sits and watches me."

6. Several daughters-in-law complained that the mother-in-law is "too nice" and "works so hard to make things jolly." This was thought to create tension.

The mothers'-in-law responses
In general, daughters'-in-law criticisms are far more varied than are criticisms of the mother-in-law concerning her daughter-in-law. The overwhelming response of mothers-in-law was that they did not understand the root of a daughter's-in-law hostility. When asked to explain why the relationship was uneasy, they tended to redescribe the unease, saying that the daughter-in-law was "quick to take offence", or "takes everything I say the wrong way" or "rejects every one of my attempts to make friends" or "conversation with her is forced labour". In the case of mothers-in-law who were married, their husbands tended to support this view: they agreed that the fault lay with the daughter-in-law and that the fault was that the daughter-in-law was "difficult". On the whole, the critical theme was on the effect of the daughter's-in-law hostility. One sixty-eight-year-old woman said:

"She wants everything - her husband, her children, her career, and she wants them all for her. I've seen the grandchildren four times in ten years. I'm not invited to visit. That woman has broken my heart."

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law impasse is a tragedy, dividing women who have much in common, and who could benefit from one another's friendship. It causes great unhappiness to mothers-in-law, who feels her overtures of friendship are rebuffed, and who fear their connection with their son and grandchildren may be threatened by the daughter's-in-law hostility. It causes distress to the daughter-in-law, who feels judged and pressured, particularly on matters involving her role as a woman in the family. 

A question to be raised is why daughters-in-law are so sensitive to what they perceive as lapses in a mother's-in-law recognition of them. The answer may lie in the high demands they put on the response of a mother figure. Indeed, the touchiness or sensitivity often displayed by daughters-in-law to a mother's-in-law behaviour is close to that of an adolescent's to her mother (Apter 1990). Many tensions, too, take place in the broader context of the work/family dilemma that is etched into so many of these women's lives. They want to resist certain roles, but to protect others. So both a mother's-in-law deference within the home (through offers of help) and her presumption of control within the home (playing hostess at a family meal, commenting on and controlling young children's behaviour) are resented. However, a woman does naturally enough have invested interests in the well-being of her son and grandchildren; and when the daughter-in-law perceives her remarks and behaviour within the home as attempts to manipulate the daughter-in-law into her "proper place", the daughter's-in-law perceptions may be accurate.

Problems with in-laws are often seen by psychologists and marital therapists as masking and expressing problems within a marriage (Silverstein, 1992; Byng-Hall, 1980). Though this may sometimes be the case, I suggest work be done to probe the points of difficulty. This would involve the mother-in-law confronting the daughter's-in-law construction of her behaviour, and the daughter-in-law expanding her awareness of the effect her coldness may be having on the mother-in-law. This could be dangerous - since each might see the other as being extremely unfair: but this could also be the only way through the impasse.

Apter, T. (1991). Altered Loves: Mothers and daughters during adolescence. New York: Ballantine.
Byng-Hall,J. (1980). Symptom Bearer as Marital Distance Regulator. Family Process. 19, 355-365.
Duval, E. (1954). In-laws: pro and con: An original study of interpersonal relations. New York: Associated Press.
Hochschild, A. with Machung, A. (1989). The Second Shift, New York: Viking.
Phillips, E. (1995). On becoming a mother-in-law. The New Psychologist.9. 65-72. Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987).
Discourse and Social Psychology, London: Sage Publications.
Silverstein, J. (1992) Journal of Family Therapy. Vol 14 4.399-412.


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