And His Mother Came Too Women and Their Mothers-In Law: The Relationship That Feminism Forgot. A Unique Study by Terri Apter Listens to Both Sides of the Story
Apter, Terri, The Independent (London, England)
Recently I overheard a conversation between two women that stung me like a whip. "How was your weekend?" said one. "Oh well, you know. It was terrific seeing the children. That part was great. But she takes exception to everything I say. I open my mouth, and there's this tension..."
The two women walked on, but I did not need to hear another word to know that the weekend was not a cosy retreat with a lover or a tricky meeting with stepchildren, but an all-too-typical visit with a daughter-in-law. Immediately I saw 100 failed attempts to make friends. I saw efforts to be nice end in frustration as her son's wife bristled or looked blank. I saw her searching for some safe phrase, knowing she would be judged and found wanting, whatever she did, whatever she said. All this was immediately crystal clear, because I am a daughter-in-law.
My mother-in-law is among the most kind-hearted of women. She does not wish anyone harm. Yet in her presence, as she is asking what she can do to help me prepare the family meal, or admiring an outfit I am wearing because it makes me look thin, or commiserating with me because I have to go out again in awful weather to pick up a kid from swimming, I feel as though I am fighting for air, struggling with some suppression of my soul. Feeling this way without being able to justify it is awful, so I took the psychologist's way out: I decided to study in-law relationships. After six weeks of letter writing and phone calls, I had 20 families willing to talk to me and have me observe family gatherings.
The most common in-law jokes are told by men, music-hall style, about the wife's mother: she constantly interferes (dictating where the couple should go on holidays or which schools the children should attend); she fails to respect the husband's sexuality (barging into the couple's room with an early morning cup of tea); she sows seeds of suspicion in her daughter's mind ("you know what men are, trust your mother"). But it is between women that the in-law battle tends to be strongest. Ruth, 33, is a cheerful and confident barrister, yet when she speaks about her mother- in-law, who is visiting her for a week, she sighs like an irritable adolescent: "I came downstairs this morning in a rush to get to work, and Joyce was bustling around the kitchen. `I've managed to get Piers to eat a good breakfast and he's ready for school now. We just have to sew this button on his jacket.' Normally I'm a reasonable and fair person, but all this cheerful nurturing put me in a foul mood. I feel she's implying how much better she is with the kids than I am. Basically, I feel she's showing off at my expense."
Ruth's mother-in-law Joyce, 59, feels constantly rebuffed in her efforts to get close to her daughter-in-law. She is bemused at how charming and friendly Ruth is with other people, compared with how she is with her: "I see her talking and laughing on the phone, but with me she's a different person. I ask her how her day went and she gives me a sullen one-word answer. She says `fine', but she might as well be saying `terrible - don't talk to me'. I try to bring her in to the conversation, but eventually just give up. In the end I only talk to my son or the children. A conversation with Ruth is forced labour."
The mother/daughter-in-law impasse is a tragedy, dividing women who have much in common and who could benefit from one another's friendship. Why is it a relationship which so easily spoils?
Amy, 27, says that it is the domestic setting of the visits that puts her on edge. In-law visits take place in people's homes and housework is emotionally laden. Who does it well may be a sign of who cares enough. But to someone else, doing housework well is a sign that you have notthing better to do. So sensitive are these issues that a request to help with ironing can be taken as an offence. Amy lost her temper with her mother- in-law when she offered to save her a job by doing the ironing. …