Mothers-in-Law

This title may suggest the beginning of a joke, about whom many have been made.  Searching Google for an example, a particularly telling one popped up.  A son tells his mother he has decided whom to marry.  He brings home three girls he has dated and asks her to guess which one it is.  She picks one and astounded, he asks her how she guessed right.  Her reply, “She was the one I didn’t like.”

Jokes are funny when they speak to universal feelings or truths that people recognize.  In this instance, the recognizable truth suggested is that mothers of sons are never going to like the women their sons choose.  The further implication is that of impending rivalry and loss – a mother’s loss of a special place in her son’s life.  The nature of the jokes also seems to suggest that it is these feelings that are responsible for difficulties in the relationship between wives and mothers-in-law – hence the jokes.

Mothers’ Day may be a good time to reflect on the issues as well as the jokes that may lie behind the Hallmark cards.  Fairy tales as well as children’s books are rife with stories about the good fairy and the wicked fairy – or as in Cinderella, the good mother who dies and the wicked step-mother who replaces her.  In the early years of development, the good mother/bad mother conflict is a central theme.

To a small child a mother is both the source and withholder of gratification.  When she meets the child’s needs, or gives him what he wants, she is the good mother.  But in a flash, when she sets limits or is withholding she can turn into the bad mother – the wicked witch.  One of the challenges of maturity is to integrate both the good and bad mother into a single person – someone we love but also one we may hate or toward whom feel anger.

This is a significant challenge because it is part of the task of accepting both the good and bad in ourselves, the part we approve of and the part we would like to disavow.  Often we continue to struggle with this challenge well into adulthood, seeking to reject the part we don’t like and at times would prefer to attribute to others rather than ourselves.

Marriage may confront us anew with the two mother conflict.  To whatever degree we may still be struggling with this issue, along comes a second mother to take over one of the roles in the conflict.  Now there is someone to blame for whatever we may not like about our mate, as well as about ourselves, complicating the adjustments marriage requires.  Of course in some cultures the rule is that the wife moves into her husband’s home where his mother rules the roost.  No lack of opportunity for conflict – that is not allowed – in that situation.

A recurrent theme in wives complaints is that of feeling criticized by mothers-in-law.  This is especially true about their own role as mothers once grandchildren arrive on the scene.  Below the surface perhaps there is an unspoken rivalry about who is the better mother.  New mothers have enough anxiety without that added pressure.  Parents today are very interested in the latest theories about child development and raising children.  The message may be that they are going to do it the “right” way, meaning unlike the grandparents who did it the wrong way.

All of this has been about wives and their mothers-in-laws.  What about husbands and theirs?  Most of the jokes seem to reflect their negative attitudes – a topic to be left for another day.  However, both kinds of relationships may reflect the underlying ambivalence we all have towards our mothers – and therefore our mothers-in-law.

Actually, it is the ambivalence that is universal.  Something to think about beyond the  Mothers’ Day cards.