I’ve just finished reading Mychael’s post Monster-in-law at Scott’s new blog, Morally Contextualized Romance, and skimming through the comments. There are several good stories there about the positive role a mother-in-law can play in her daughter-in-law’s life, but the question asked was how to avoid becoming a MONSTER-in-law to your (potential) daughter-in-law. I’ll never have a daughter-in-law since we have only daughters and no sons, and (despite some tensions early in our relationship) my own mother-in-law is not a monster, but I do have a thought on what would make a terrible mother-in-law.
I think a terrible mother-in-law is someone who seeks to influence important decisions in her son’s and daughter-in-law’s life according to her own agenda. Equally important would be the problem of the son who seeks to involve his mama in marital decisions overly much. Allow me to provide an example that I have mulled over for years.
Two years ago, the self-help author Susan Jeffers, a not-infrequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, passed away. She was born Susan Gildenberg, got married young, had two children, and decided that she was meant for “more” than “just” raising a family (her words). So she went back to school, biding her time until her husband was making enough money to afford daycare, and then divorced him, giving him full custody of the children so she could pursue a full-time career as a psychologist and self-help author.
After getting divorced, she changed her name to “Jeffers” because she liked the way it sounded. Among her many words of bad advice for women, one of them is that as soon as they are old enough, women should randomly pick a surname of someone they don’t know and change their name to that because to keep their fathers’ names or take their husbands’ names is sexist and implies that the woman is owned by the men in her life. In her view it is better if the woman is just disconnected from everything and everyone, I guess.
“Jeffers” first popped on my radar one morning back in the early 2000s when I was watching the Today! show (back when we still had TV) while feeding one of our daughters. There was some segment on the Mommy Wars with careerists squared off against the stay-home mom crowd. I’ve always found that debate tiresome, but I watched it idly. Jeffers asserted that women should NOT have children but if they are stupid enough to have them, they should never, ever have more than one, because it would limit their career success, and their careers should be the most important thing in the world to them. I thought, “What an awful woman.”
But a week or so later I was at the library when I saw a book she’d published in 2000 entitled, I’m Okay, You’re a Brat. The book claimed that it would debunk harmful myths about raising children, so on a whim I grabbed it and read it. It was an absolutely disgusting piece of trash, it turns out. The book grumbles over all the challenges of raising children, but the real gist is that “Jeffers” did not like being a mother and therefore believed that most women probably dislike being mothers and instead should devote their entire lives to their “careers”.
But one anecdote she told in the book horrified and disgusted me at the time and has stuck with me these some ten years or so. At one point, Jeffers’ son came to her and told her that he and his wife were thinking about having a child and asked her if they should do it. I wish I could find the direct quote of what she said to him, but the gist of it was that she told him that he and his wife were fools to even consider having children, that they absolutely should not, that they would hate every minute of it, and if they had children, to understand that they should never imagine that she would want to take care of their child for them for even a moment.
Now, I don’t know why a man would go to his mama to ask her whether or not he ought to have kids; one would hope that by the time he is a husband, he is a big enough boy to make decisions like that for himself. But for heaven’s sake, what kind of mother would give that kind of advice to her son? It’s none of her business whether her son and his wife have children or not! I felt sorry for Jeffers’ daughter-in-law, and I would say Jeffers epitomized the Monster-in-law in that example.
My advice to young single women would be Don’t marry a man who can’t seem to make decisions without asking his mommy first. My advice to mothers would be Don’t raise your son to be the kind of man who runs to Mommy for advice before he makes decisions for his family. And my advice to wives would be Don’t set yourself up as some kind of authority over your husband such that he feels like he needs to get female permission before he makes decisions for his family (go to Dalrock’s blog and search “mother-in-law” for a good post on that topic).
In terms of how to treat a potential daughter-in-law when first meeting her, though, I think Mychael pretty much has it right when she says:
I have told Scott that what I would like to do is really pour on the sweetness and submissive attitude toward him, in the girls presence so she can internalize “this is what my guys mom treats his dad like. Does he expect that of me?”
And then maybe give the girl a chance to ponder that. It may be the first time she’s seen a woman who treats her husband with a sweet, respectful attitude and she may very well be intrigued but unsure. Gently influencing her (potential) future daughter-in-law with her good example is likely to be the most helpful thing a mother-in-law can do.