The Much-Maligned Mother-in-Law

Guest Column by Michelle Sinclair

(Editor’s Note: Michelle Sinclair is the daughter of columnist Melodie Davis; she is married and works in Washington, D.C. She and her husband have a toddler son.)

Three weeks of just you, your mother-in-law, and a toddler. Sound doable?

Grandchildren really can be the great equalizer. There’s something connective about seeing your mother-in-law love your child too—even at 3 a.m., when the toddler has woken upset for the fourth time that night.

My husband’s work took him away for part of this summer, and since I’m pregnant with our second child, I had the good fortune to have my retired mother-in-law come stay with us to help with my son, James, and the house. And by help, I mean James and I were spoiled rotten. The house was clean, the laundry was always done, and we had a full hot breakfast every morning before heading off to work and daycare. I wish all moms in my situation could be so lucky!

Advice columnists often remind marriage-minded individuals to factor in the family of their potential spouse, because for better or worse, they are marrying both. After seven years of marriage, I am happy to say my husband and I both have positive relationships with our in-laws. Yes, there are irritants and differences of opinion—but who doesn’t have those with their own parents? The fruits of such positive relationships are many (Lots of time with grandkids! Family vacations together! Shameless spoiling opportunities!), but unfortunately many people run aground on in-law friction that can take years to resolve, if ever.

Now that I know how it feels to be on this side of the fence (the daughter-in-law side), I’m taking copious mental notes in the hopes that one day I get to be on the mother-in-law side of things.

One note I’ve collected is that parents can do a lot to avoid conflict with their sons- or daughters-in-law by foregoing any interest in “winning” power games, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the battleground. My mom wrote something about this in a column when my husband and I got married. She noted she has to remember that Brian is now my closest family member, and when push comes to shove, he (and now James) will come first for me. Brian’s parents have also been great on this front, and we dearly miss his father, who passed away a few years ago.

From my perspective, keeping a proper pecking order has been one of the biggest keys for in-law harmony. Certainly we try to meet our parents halfway and to understand their perspective, but ultimately—no matter what our initial inclination might be—Brian and I make a conscious effort to side with each other first in any differences that may arise with one or both of our families. It’s the natural order of things for children to grow up, and—if they want a spouse/are lucky enough to find one—to “cleave” (how’s that for an old Biblical word?) to that spouse ahead of all others, including family. What loneliness for those in marriages where spouses choose their families over their chosen partner in life.

Knowing how it is to have a son of my own, I can certainly empathize with mothers who want to remain first in their sons’ hearts! It must be very difficult to let go—or at least, to lean back. I’m savoring the happy shrieks of “Mommy!” while I can get them.

My mom would have loved to have any kind of relationship with her own mother-in-law, who died several years before my parents met. Some of Mom’s early days of marriage included learning to “bake and cook like (his) mother” with the help of surviving aunts and a brother-in-law who had often helped my dad’s mother in the kitchen. Most of Mom’s family is flung to the north, south, and beachy coasts of the United States, so in the intervening years (we’ll spare her and not say how many) she embraced all her local Virginia in-laws as her own.

On the flip side, my dad gained a full set of in-laws when he married my mom, and at his age (should I spare him, too?) he still has a living, laughing, letter-writing mother-in-law. I know he counts that as a blessing, and has always been dedicated to making sure we kids got to have full relationships with all our grandparents—something I never took for granted once I was old enough to understand that there was one grandparent I would never know personally, and why.

Grandchildren really can be the great equalizer. There’s something connective about seeing your mother-in-law love your child too—even at 3 a.m., when the toddler has woken upset for the fourth time that night, and you go to him only to find her leaning over the crib, asking him “What’s wrong?” in a patient, loving whisper. Pop culture makes a big deal about grandparents getting to spoil the grandkids, going so far as to flagrantly disobey the parents’ wishes, so I am especially grateful that our parents make a point of respecting our wishes and keep the spoiling to minor transgressions. I feel deeply for those parents whose in-laws or own parents use the grandchildren as another platform for competition.

Perhaps the best part of these three weeks with my mother-in-law has been just getting more comfortable around her as a person. We laugh about James’s latest antics, wonder how Brian is doing, and splurge on a few meals out of the house. And then in the evening, we hang out on the couch, recalling the day and watching the sun go down.



Thoughts? Stories? We’d love to hear from you, and I’ll make sure Michelle gets your email or letter. Send to: Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802, or email