Breaking the monster mother-in-law myth

I don't know of any father-in-law jokes. Nor, for that matter, do I remember ever hearing someone complain about his or her father-in-law.

Ahh, but mothers-in-law. They're the stuff of legends, of sit-coms and J-Lo rom-coms.

Letters to advice columnists are filled with plaintive cries, primarily from wives, asking what to do about the "difficult" mother of their spouse. The stereotype of the overbearing, meddling mother-in-law translates across cultures and apparently eons. An ancient Roman author even said that one cannot be happy while one's mother-in-law is still alive.

This backdrop is why I was so surprised when I was at a gathering of women recently who were asked, "Whom do you most admire in this world?," and three sharp, young, professional women answered: their mothers-in-law.

Three wives proclaiming that in this world they most admired their husband's mother? Really? I had to find out more. Maybe not least of all because I hope to be a mother-in-law to four spouses someday.

We hear all the time about what meddling mothers-in-law are doing wrong. What are the mothers-in-law of these young wives doing right?

So, I asked each to tell me more. One spoke of how her husband's mother, who lives only a few houses down the street, is incredibly loving and encouraging. She doesn't pry, but does appropriately open up about how she is handling struggles she is facing in her own life.

And when my young friend asks for her mum-in-law's input, then and only then it is offered in a way that is constructive. Even though this mum lives close by - maybe especially because she lives close by - she never drops by unannounced or even on short notice. But, she will occasionally do ``acts of service'' that she has reason to know will be welcome. Cleaning a bathroom or delivering flowers before a party as a surprise to her daughter-in-law, for instance. But even there, only when she has cleared it with her son ahead of time.

Another young wife told me how she has watched her mother-in-law live faithfully and have integrity over time, not just in her marriage, but in all her relationships. This young wife has, she shared, watched her husband's mother face real adversity. But she does it so well and so humbly that she is an example of a wise woman my young friend wants to emulate.

And, she said, she and her mother-in-law are able to be very intimate and have open conversations without my young friend ever feeling judged. She said her mother-in-law has a way of focusing in relationships on what is lasting and significant, not what is shallow. She also happily takes the view that her son belongs to his wife, not his mum.

Still another of these women shared that her mother-in-law is encouraging in every way. as well. My friend feels loved and accepted and also able to have an intimate relationship with her husband's mum.

Her mother-in-law is non-intrusive, but makes herself available to listen. When asked to, she will speak truth, my friend said, much of it from her own experience. But she does it in a way that isn't critical, yet with compassion and gentleness calls a person to examine her own actions and motivations first.

Note to (future) self: such relationships may not be the stuff of sit-coms, but they sure are a beautiful result of grace.

- AAP

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