Daily Express, 24 May 2007
When her son married, MONICA PORTER entered in to a relationship fraught with potential faux pas.
Q: What should you do if you miss your mother-in-law?
A: Reload and try again.
We all have our favourite mother-in-law jokes – standard fare of comics since time immemorial. But when you become a mother-in-law yourself, it all gets a bit, er, personal. The last thing you want is to turn into the stereotype, the butt of jokes, but it’s not that hard to do. You must be constantly on guard against the signs.
I joined the ranks of the world’s MILs when my son Adam got married last December. His wife Sara is a lovely girl and we get along fine, but I nearly committed a cardinal MIL error the other day when Adam stopped by for a short visit.
As he was about to leave I remembered the beef goulash in the fridge, left over from the previous night’s dinner. It’s one of his favourite dishes. Now, Sara is a vegetarian and I sometimes wonder whether my son, a lifelong carnivore, is getting enough meat in his diet these days. So I started spooning the goulash into a Tupperware container for him to take home.
‘What are you doing?’ asked my partner Nick. I explained. ‘You are absolutely not giving him a food parcel,’ he declared. ‘Sara would be livid. It’s sending a message that you don’t think she’s feeding him well enough.’
‘But…he loves my goulash,’ I said feebly. Nick scowled at me until, reluctantly, I put the food back in the fridge.
Later, after I had mulled it over, I decided he was right. Your instinct as a mother is to feed, to nurture, to ‘do’ for your children. But this can be in direct contradiction to your role as a mother-in-law. The two are really quite different and shouldn’t be muddled up.
But how much of our behaviour in this area, as in so many other areas of our lives, is in our DNA? Do we inherit our tendencies in inter-family relations as we might, for example, inherit a predisposition to put on weight or have thinning hair? If so, I need to be a little wary, because my own mother was not exactly the ideal MIL role model.
She had many fine qualities and was generous to a fault with her time, energy and resources. When she came to stay with us (she lived abroad) she would happily cook our meals, tend our garden and do household chores. Later on when we had children, she was an enthusiastic babysitter – even for weeks at a time, allowing my husband and me to skip off abroad on holidays without them.
All this might sound wonderful, and of course in many ways it was – particularly for me. But such bountiful and unstinting MIL dedication comes at a price. For example, while she loved nothing better than to spend hours in the kitchen, conjuring up a delicious dinner, woe betide you if you didn’t appreciate it. When my husband waved away her feast, saying he’d had a big lunch and wasn’t hungry, she took it as a personal affront and there would be a sudden ‘atmosphere’ in the house. He wouldn’t be forgiven until he later decided (as he invariably did) that he was peckish, after all, and tucked in.
Because my mother regarded herself not as a guest but an active member of the household, it was difficult to draw the line anywhere. In one incident which still makes me shudder, she poured some disinfectant down the loo which turned the water blue. When my husband arrived home that evening and used the bathroom, the unexpected sight of it gave him a shock. Perhaps he’d had a bad day at work. Over-reacting, he accused my mother of ‘interfering’. She was wounded to the core and vowed never to come back. With my split loyalties, I found it all highly upsetting.
Naturally, my mother did return. But the notorious ‘blue water episode’ became symbolic of the precarious three-way balancing act between my husband, my mother and me.
The situation with my mother-in-law was exactly the reverse. While I wouldn’t for a moment suggest she didn’t care about family matters, she wasn’t one to roll up her sleeves and muck in. She would offer advice, tips, suggestions, but didn’t believe in too much active participation. So, if you were feeling under the weather, you’d wait in vain for her to come over, mop your brow and cook some chicken soup.
Likewise, she loved to see her grandchildren but wasn’t too keen on the babysitting bit. She didn’t regard it as her role to get down and dirty with the nappies, or stay up after her bedtime while her son and daughter-in-law were out partying.
All of which was fine, I suppose, because with her arm’s-length approach you could never accuse her of interfering, and there was no requirement to feel grateful for services rendered (there weren’t any). Although at times you could have done with a helping hand…
So, it’s hard to get it right as a mother-in-law, to walk the narrow line between giving too much and giving too little. I’ll probably make mistakes as I go along. For one thing, while I’m not tempted to toil in Adam and Sara’s garden – as my mother would have done – I have to resist the urge to ply them with little goodies – a practice which would doubtless be considered unnecessary and annoying.
The way I see it, the ideal mother-in-law waits until she is asked to make a contribution before she gets involved, she doesn’t just jump in. But neither does she shy away from doing her bit, if it’s needed. And most importantly: whenever she’s in doubt, she keeps quiet.
So much for the serious stuff. Now, did you hear the one about the man whose doctor told him he had only six months to live? He decided to move in with his mother-in-law, because living with her for six months would seem like forever.
You’ve got to laugh.