Girl Talk: My Monster-In-Law

Like most freshman wives, I assumed that my mother-in-law (MIL) and I would enjoy an affable relationship, for she is no monster-in-law Jane Fonda and I am certainly no J.Lo daughter-in-law (DIL). I mean, why wouldn’t we be as close as bona fide mother and daughter? We are intelligent, respectful and kind women who care deeply for the same man. My naiveté conjured images of us laughing over tea together, trading recipes and wrinkle secrets, and bragging to anyone who would listen how we were best of friends.

One year later, that idealistic notion of a legitimate mother-daughter relationship is laughable and overrated at best. If I had a time machine, I would go back and hunt for the ultimate handbook on how to handle MILs from A-Z and read it top to bottom with a highlighter. No one warned me about the multifaceted nature and complexities of a MIL/DIL relationship. Nor did I realize the toll it would take on my marriage.

Before you jump to conclusions and label me the DIL from hell (AKA “the she-devil that stole my son”), let me start from the beginning…

After my husband and I got married, we moved overseas to be closer to his family. But soon my husband was presented with a business opportunity in another country, which he accepted, meaning we were separated by an ocean for the majority of our early married life. In his home country, I had started to pursue a Masters degree full-time and it was not feasible to pick up and leave. So, faced with returning to student housing sans my husband, my in-laws invited me to occupy a spare room in their house. Not only was this option easier on my budget, but I earned instant brownie points with my husband for pursuing a relationship with his parents. Although my second home quickly became an overlooked desk in the university library, I looked forward to the time I spent with my MIL. In an alien place without the companionship of my husband, I was grateful to have a MIL who prepared me home-cooked meals, tended to my dogs when it was crunch time during mid-terms, and was always eager for a glass of wine and a good laugh. Reminiscing about this time is a deeply nostalgic activity, almost enough to erase the resentment that arose later on. I wish it could have always been that easy.

In any relationship, time naturally divulges the flaws and misconceptions of a trusted friend or lover — and the MIL/DIL relationship is no different. Our initial pleasantries — mine to have her believe that I was an A+ DIL and hers to ensure I had no reason to come between her and her son  — became redundant when a certain level of comfort was attained between us. This turning point reminds me of when my husband farted in front of me for the first time. My MIL would never do such a thing, but metaphorically, the fart that forever changed our perfect perceptions of one another came during a conversation about my career-orientated attitude. My MIL’s tragic flaw is her vocality regarding the life choices of others and I learned firsthand how hurtful and unapologetic she could be when she told me I shouldn’t bother having any children if I was going to have them raised by a nanny like all those other “selfish women.” I felt as though I had been slapped in the face. Not once had I implied that family life would take a backseat to my career, let alone had a conversation that even mildly hinted at plans for children. My father-in-law (FIL) was flushed with embarrassment over her comments, so I was positive my disbelief wasn’t an overreaction. I felt betrayed, as though this woman that cheered me on through my arduous post-graduate education built me up to tear me down.

Perhaps it was the umbrage I harbored from this initial rude remark, or the fact that I never told her how upsetting her comments were (because, remember, I lived under her roof!), but her failings quickly came to light. It was as though she had pushed the first domino in a long line of upsetting episodes. She repeatedly failed to invite me out with “the girls,” my two sisters-in-laws, even though she reassured me I was like a real daughter to her. I often felt left-out in my new family. If I did something cool with one of my nieces, like the time I took my 13-year-old niece for her first manicure, she had to top it by taking her out the next week for a full day of spa treatments. I’ll never forget the time I handed my four-year-old niece a fairy wand in front of her and she exclaimed, “Oh, Nanny has an even better present for you than that!” Sure, the fairy wand was a fancy pipe cleaner from the Dollar Store, but it was no reason for a grown woman to act so immature.

As time passed, I started to notice how she veiled her insecurities and need for approval in this constant sugary-sweet fake demeanor. She desperately wanted to maintain her matriarchal position in the family and felt jealous of accomplished career women and trumped them with “jokes” that were clearly nasty comments. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the time I had a bad day and she offered more of the insidious advice I had come to both expect and loathe. My MIL subscribes to the myth that life should be perfect and any bumps in the road should be ignored. Instead of offering a shoulder to cry on, she told me that if life was too hard, I should fly back to my home country, abandon my husband, and give up. Naturally, I tuned out the rest of her spiel — but I do have fuzzy flashbacks of her calling me materialistic, a perfectionist, and questioning if I really loved my husband! My subconscious has since worked overtime to block out any other insults for my own peace of mind.

There are two sides to every story. This is no exception. Although my husband confronted my MIL about her rude tendency to exclude me from the girly mother-daughter lunches (she denied it, huge surprise), he gently suggested that I could be exaggerating the situation. I was under a boatload of stress from class, which in turn repressed an even bigger boatload of anxiety from his continued absence. Perhaps I was the problem, not her. Over a glass of scotch (or five), I reflected on my own behavior and tried to make sense of the situation. Was I projecting my own issues?

My actual mother and I are not very close; she is a strict Italian and her love was not unconditional. I had diagnosed her as a textbook narcissist eons ago and moved on with trying to appease her temper tantrums and guilt-tripping (think: the mother from Arrested Development with an accent). Speaking of my mother, my Italian family was like day and night to my husband’s gang. Although my husband’s family is extremely tight-knit, they did not abide by the Italian Family Code that was instilled in me from a young age. They didn’t make food for each other when tragedy struck, they didn’t speak openly and superstitiously about everyone’s issues with so-and-so, they didn’t invite first, second, and third cousins to every family gathering even if no one liked them, and they didn’t treat the spouses of their children and the spouses’ families as their own blood. Was I devastated that my MIL was not perfect and didn’t measure up to my impractical expectations? Certainly. Was I depressed that we weren’t besties as I had hoped? Of course. I knew I had a tendency to be passive-aggressive and employ the silent treatment when I was upset. Had I over-utilized this tactic and come across as an ungrateful DIL?

The Libra in me craved balance. I decided it was time to see a psychologist at my university. I was desperate for a third party to verify that at least one of us was crazy. After an hour of much head-nodding, she told me to move out.

So I did.

Fortunately at that same time, my husband’s international work stint came to an end and he joined me back in his home country. Our move to our own home coincided perfectly with my necessity for physical and mental freedom from my MIL. At long last, I believed the distance would allow my MIL and I to return to the early days of our relationship, that happy, golden time when I actually liked her instead of tolerated her.

However, I soon discovered that my MIL was awfully clingy of her son. I had never realized this before because he was never in town (duh). Maybe I should have realized it, considering he was the youngest and the only boy in a family of all girls. Daily telephone calls (and why always during sex? Did she have a sexual activity radar?), frequent excuses for weekly visits, and familiar guilt-tripping, nagging, and temper tantrums (I thought she was my own mother in disguise!) became the focal point of my ever-growing dislike towards her. If someone needed to cut the cord, it was this woman. Being a rational individual, I again considered the option that I was acting melodramatic – that is until she told me point blank that she didn’t believe anyone could take care of her son like she did and proceeded to come into my home one day uninvited to cook him food. There was no need for the psychologist’s advice this time. It was one thing to be offensive to me, but another to be blatantly intrusive in my marriage. I was pissed.

The consequences to my marriage felt cataclysmic. My whining here and there about her possessive nature and off-the-cuff comments mutated into full-blown arguments between me and my husband. I felt that it was my husband’s job to stand up to her; the message that she was meddling in our marital life could not come from me. The one time I even insinuated that we needed space ended in her barking, “You will not speak to me that way!”, whereas my husband could tell her to go get hit by a car and she would smile approvingly whilst running into traffic. But of course he was torn between his duty as a son and a husband. He loved both of us and didn’t want to take sides. The whole debacle reminded me of why I married him – he is always the quintessential good guy.

Nonetheless, I felt that I should be the top woman in his life, not her. By ignoring her bad behavior and refusing to give her boundaries, I inevitably felt that by default, he took her side and not mine. My resentment grew the more I realized his likeness to Oedipus. I turned to prayer and meditation (and more scotch) for guidance, but detested the lingering feeling that these were the cards I was dealt and even Jesus couldn’t help me.

A priest I was very close to gave me great advice when I got married. I asked him if he could give one pearl of wisdom to everyone he met, what would it be? He told me that people needed breaks from their problems, even for a little while. With few options remaining to the endless fighting and bickering, I waved the white flag and temporarily dropped the MIL situation with my husband. This is not to say that she didn’t continue to irk me. During my self-inflicted break, I also reflected on how I had my Italian mother to blame for making me a people-pleaser who didn’t stand up for herself in order to avoid conflict. Maybe I didn’t have to go bonkers on my husband every time she behaved badly; I just had to be more assertive with her, like when Super Nanny disciplines a child on the naughty step.

Once I stopped pressing the issue, the hard part took care of itself. Magically, my husband began to give her boundaries, probably because in time he, too, grew irritated with her overbearing temperament. At last, it was as though my message had finally sunk in. He didn’t answer the telephone if she called during dinner, he scheduled less frequent visits, and he told my FIL how displeased he was with a few of the one-liners she had thrown my way. The support made me finally feel validated.

I’m prepared to move forward in my relationship with her. Of course, it may never be the same as it was at the beginning of our relationship. I am aware I’ve been known to hold a grudge and have the memory of an elephant, but I’m working on it. When something priceless falls out of her mouth, I don’t let my anger fester inside until it explodes into a marital spat anymore. Instead, I burn sage and pretend it’s her hair. (Just kidding!) I do burn sage and try to remember my Italian roots. My MIIL is still family and always will be.

At the end of the day, I cannot offer any words of wisdom on handling a MIL, because I am still figuring it out myself. When I get to the point where I feel enlightened, she says or does something irritating and sets me back a step. Oftentimes we do have a pleasant relationship, one characterized by regular texting, supportive gestures, and kind words here and there; it’s just tinged with this undertone of working each other out and pushing a few buttons in the meantime. In order to cope, I have redefined my expectations of her. I no longer think that we should automatically be best friends, nor do I worry about how she might react if I don’t do something her way. I take comfort in knowing that my brother-in-law finds her equally annoying and doesn’t mind having a rant about her now and then. I often wonder what will happen when I have children and enter a new phase of interference with her.

In reality, my MIL and I were raised differently and each developed assumptions about life and family that don’t match. I have come to an equilibrium about the situation, an understanding that what I believe to be true in life, marriage, family, and our respective roles in each as MIL and DIL may not be what she believes —and vice versa.

However, if anyone reading this does possess a copy of the ultimate MIL handbook, please feel free to pass it along.

“Skylar Grey” is a pseudonym for an author who would like to remain anonymous. If you would like to contact the author, send an email to [email protected] and it will be forwarded along.