Mothers-in-Law: Navigating One of Life’s Most Challenging Relationships

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When Travis and I began dating, we were both in our twenties and living hours from where each of us grew up. Thus, we had not introduced each other to our families quite yet. (You want to know you really like a guy before you take him on a four-hour road trip to meet the relatives, you know?)



We were becoming more intentional when Travis’ family called to say they were taking a vacation to Hilton Head Island, and they’d like for him to join them. Since his siblings were married with children, Travis thought he’d enjoy himself more if I came along. They eagerly agreed to host me in a separate room. Hesitantly, Travis asked if I’d consider accompanying him.

 “Of course!” I agreed.

“Really? You’ve never even met my family,” he questioned skeptically.

“It sounds fun! Besides it’s a free week on the beach with my boyfriend!”

As I finished packing the night before the trip, panic swept over me. What was I thinking?! What if I don’t like them? What if they don’t like me? I’m going to be trapped across the country with these people for nine days! It’s a thirteen hour drive each way! What kind of medical emergency could I fake that would allow me to drive myself home…..?

Thankfully, Travis does not come from a family of crazies. In fact, they are all wonderful. I spent the next week and a half becoming quite fond of his niece and nephews, his sister and brother-in-law, his aunt and uncle, his dad, and especially his mom. Cheryl is one of those moms that is just a great mom. I loved her right away.

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Fast-forward eight years later, and I still have a great relationship with each of Travis’ family members, particularly his mother. I think it’s mostly due to her being so wonderful (really I think 90% of the effort has been on her part), but I think I can analyze reasons why it’s been a success for each of us. I’d like to give some insight to mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law reading this.

For Mothers-in-law:

  • There will be moments when you disagree with the way your daughter-in-law is parenting your grandchildren. This is the time to close your mouth and pray*. Trust God that He loves those kids more than you do, and that He is watching over them. Pray He gives wisdom to your daughter-in-law and your son. If she asks your opinion on a topic, give it delicately. If you are confused about why they are doing something a certain way, ask with a pure heart. If your skin is crawling because that baby is not on a schedule, don’t bring it up. If you don’t understand why you can’t give your infant granddaughter a cookie, it’s not the time to push. It isn’t worth damaging the relationship to win such a little battle. Trust that God is leading them, and if they aren’t seeking Him, pray even more! My mother-in-law has always been very respectful of our preferences, even when they are quite different from her own. She sees how much we love our boys and she trusts us. I’m sure there have been times she’s been confused or disappointed, but she has put our relationship ahead of her opinions.
     *Of course this guideline does not apply to extreme situations in which a child is being harmed.
  • Serve her. When she has a baby, bring a meal or cook for her. Hold the baby while she takes a nap. Offer to clean her bathrooms for her. If she has older kids, play with them so she can focus on the newborn. Maybe she hasn’t just had a baby. Watch the kids so she can get a haircut (Cheryl did this one for me recently.) Maybe you could even go for pedicures or a movie together. Try to see what she needs, and do your best to bless her. Remember your days as a young mom? What did you want someone to do for you?
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  • Give generously when you can. As I’ve shared before, my in-laws (including my amazing sister-in-law) are very generous. They love to shower the kids with great Christmas and birthday gifts, and little “just because” items when they visit. This really blesses me. Staying home with our kids is a choice I will never regret, but it comes with budget constraints. I can’t always give my kids the toys or experiences I’d like them to have, so I really appreciate that Cheryl takes my input on Christmas and birthday gifts. That way she knows the kids will really play with the items too! Cheryl also gives me very thoughtful birthday gifts. This isn’t really about the money, it’s about the investment. Maybe you are on a strict budget too. Give of your time when possible. Giving your son and daughter-in-law a date night so they don’t have to pay a babysitter is an immense blessing! Perhaps even more than your money or time, she may need to hear she is doing a great job. Be generous with your praise. Look for ways to affirm her, and it will open doors in your relationship.
  • Have healthy boundaries with your son and your grandkids. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away in January. We all really miss Bob’s presence. For the first few months Travis called his mom every night to see how she was doing. Sometimes this cut into our family time, but of course anything I wanted to talk to Travis about was less important than his mother’s heart. What I appreciated was that Cheryl was thankful for this and told me so. As time has gone on, Travis has called every few days instead of every day. At some point, perhaps it will be just a weekly call. I think these are healthy standards. At some points a mother may need her son more than others and it’s okay to talk more. However, make sure it’s a season and respect that the biblical standard is for mothers to become less of a priority than the wife. ("Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Genesis 2:24) This guideline goes for relationships with grandkids as well. Understand that you are a grandparent, not a parent. Make sure there is time for your son’s family to be a family. This is important especially if you live nearby. Just because you miss them, doesn’t mean you have to be there. I would ask, “Is today a good day for a visit, or do you need some down time as a family?” Try your best not to be offended. It’s not about you. It’s about them becoming a family on their own…. and maybe being able to relax in their pajamas for a day. :)
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  • Be faithful, not pushy, and look for cues she wants more. If you do all of the above, chances are you will have a great relationship with your daughter-in-law. Try to be aware of her wanting to develop it even more. Cheryl and I now love to leave the boys and go shopping together. It’s a really special time for us. We didn’t do it at the beginning of our relationship, but now we are very comfortable together. It’s amazing to have a mother-in-law that invests in me, as well as my children and husband.

For Daughters-in-law:

  • Include her. When you have a new baby and go for a doctor visit, share the stats with your mother-in-law. When they complete a new milestone, send a pic or a text her way. If your mom would want to know, chances are your mother-in-law wants to know too. This is an area you can watch for cues as well. If she responds gratefully, keep it up! If you don’t get a response for several days, maybe she doesn’t want to hear about everything. Make sure she is invited to special school events. Ask her to come over if she hasn’t seen the kids in awhile. Make sure she knows she’s welcome in your home.
  • Let her spoil your kids. We try to limit sugar and food dyes in our home. When we visit Grandma, we cheat a bit. We don’t go crazy, but we let it be a special time. They eat more cookies and candy there. Cheryl has been really great about buying the types of candy I feel okay with. If you can give your mother-in-law a few treats your kids really enjoy (and don’t send them to the moon on a sugar high!), tell her so she can have them on hand. Maybe it takes a little time for your kids to readjust when they get home from Grandma’s… in the scheme of life, is this the biggest deal in the world? I’m not asking you to throw caution to the wind, but rather to value relationship over preferences. I have a friend that really hurt her mother-in-law’s feelings over a tortilla warmed in the microwave instead of over the stove. Granted, she was days from going into labor, and was quite hormonal. When she told me the story, I could so relate! I am guilty of letting my latest conviction hurt my mother-in-law’s feelings. I feel awful for the times I thought a type of bread was more important than our relationship. In hindsight, I would say that you should pick just a few things you stick with at Grandma’s house, and let the rest go. You will get home and reset. If you live close to your mother-in-law, I would establish guidelines that are more consistent with your daily norm. Try to explain them in a kind way, “I am fine with Ryder having a reward, but is it okay if we use raisins or these dye-free suckers? I’ve really noticed that his personality changes when he has food dye.” She make think you are crazy, but she will most likely oblige. If she doesn’t, it may be time to have your husband step in and kindly reiterate your values.
  • Encourage your kids and your husband to love her well. Are you going to celebrate your mother-in-law on Mother’s Day? Forgo the bitterness and tell your husband your day will be Saturday. Make homemade cards with your kids. When the kids want to FaceTime with Grandma, carve out some time.
  • Be open and share your struggles. It has been so nice to have conversations with another mother about parenting. Cheryl and I have recently talked about how anxious having sick kids can make a mother. Of course I will continue to surrender this to the Lord, but I was thankful to hear I wasn’t alone.  It was nice for Travis to hear that this was a normal response too. I want Cheryl to know my struggles because I need prayer. I don’t want to put on a facade that I have it all together. If I am doing something wrong, I want the Lord to reveal it to me and give me wisdom! I think this is important especially when there are parenting differences. Parent with conviction and humility.
  • Believe the best and pray for her. If you get frustrated with her, try to remember how much she loves your husband and your kids. Pray for her to have wisdom to love all of you well.
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At the end of the day, this relationship is no different than any other: it requires dying to oneself to flourish. Be Christ to her, and see the fruit come. I do know there are in-law relationships that have legitimate emotional abuse. In those circumstances, perhaps stricter guidelines have to be set, and it is extremely important for the husband and wife to be on the same page. I would recommend getting counsel in these cases. For most of us though, I think it is just another relationship that takes effort, humility, and love.

After the gender ultrasound for my third child… after I found out I was having a third son…. I waited until I got home and then I crawled into bed and let myself cry for a little while. I didn’t cry because I wasn’t going to have a little girl to dress up. I didn’t cry over the missed tea parties, or ballet recitals. I cried because boys grow up and leave home, and many of them rarely call their mothers. It’s no secret that the mother’s parents are usually the closer of the grandparents, or that mothers of the groom are barely involved in the wedding. I hope to be a properly-involved parent of my adult sons, and I still hope to have a daughter someday. In any case, I will probably be a mother-in-law. God willing, I will be a blessing to those young women. I am so thankful to Cheryl for her loving example of how to do this.

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Posted on May 18, 2016 and filed under Building Your Family.