Advice on navigating the in-laws
The holiday season can put extra pressure on family relationships. Dr Melanie Woodfield offers advice on navigating the in-law dynamics.
The Christmas season is filled with present-buying, pavlova-wrangling and, for many, an acknowledgement of the reason for the season somewhere in the midst. It’s also filled with family. Christmas may be one of the only times the wider family gathers, which adds
a significance (and extra pressure) to the proceedings. Throw this stress into the mix of Christmas preparations, and relationships that may simmer along during the year can start to bubble over – none more so than with the in-laws.
The relationship dynamic with a partner’s family is often different to that of your family of origin, and can change further when a baby arrives. With your own family you can usually be direct and honest, and know that they will love you anyway. You usually trust them enough to be vulnerable. The relationship is long-standing and despite ups and downs along the way, you have plenty of evidence that your parent/s will continue to love you – even after witnessing your hangry meltdowns. But relationships with in-laws tend to have less history, and be (or at least feel) more conditional. At some level you may worry that if they see your warts-and-all true self, then you won’t meet with their approval. And the consequences of that can feel really huge – especially once you’ve had children.
The relationship with a mother-in-law is often more fraught than with a father-in-law. Perhaps there’s an unconscious sense of competition for the affection of the husband/son, or an unconscious tussling for the matriarchal position in the family hierarchy.
Picture this scenario: you’ve employed a young nanny to care for Junior one day a week. She always leaves the house in a mess, is consistently late and makes comments that could be interpreted several ways (“You wear such different outfits!”). As her employer you’d probably have a frank conversation with her and outline how you’d like things to change. But what if this provider of childcare is your mother-in-law? The dynamics are so different. Many people would be reluctant to say anything, concerned that their comments could be perceived as criticism and undermine the relationship. There’s also a different power dynamic here. Being in the role of employer can help you summon up the confidence to have the necessary conversations, but the role of daughter-in-law summons up other things – perhaps a sense of submission or anxiety. You may feel powerless within the family hierarchy and there may also be values, such as respect for elders or being grateful, which hold you back from addressing any issues. Unfortunately, these factors can mean you’re less likely to have honest and respectful conversations with your mother-in-law, and more likely to fume and grumble over a glass of wine to friends.
When comparing notes with other mums, you may have heard comments along the lines of, “If my mother-in-law really cared, she’d offer to babysit. She knows I can’t find childcare”; “They should help us, they’re not working anymore”; “They’re always at our place, I wish they’d give us a break” and “How could she buy him that? It’s far too old/young for him!”. While the grumbling can feel good because your frustration is validated by others, unfortunately it doesn’t resolve the difficulties that contributed to the frustration in the first place. As hard and as toe-curling as they can be, frank and respectful conversations with your parens-in-law themselves (rather than messages to and fro through your partner) can often be a good way of moving things forward.
Common themes that often lead to trouble in paradise:
1. Scenario: Parents-in-law effusively praising your partner (their child) for the smallest of things. “He’s such an amazing father – look at him changing that nappy!” Meanwhile you know it’s the only nappy he’s changed that month.
Can trigger: A sense of injustice and unfairness (“What about all the things that I do?”).
2. Scenario: Constant comments from parents-in-law about another daughter-in-law’s prowess, or the accomplishments of their other grandchildren, along with little jokes about your lack of domestic skills.
Can trigger: A sense of inadequacy.
3. Scenario: In-laws appearing oblivious to your exhaustion, efforts or wellbeing.
Can trigger: A sense of insignificance
A NOT-SO-SWEET SCENARIO
Let’s say your husband’s parents have come to stay. You’ve pushed the boat out with the catering and after a better-than-normal dinner, you offer everyone some chocolates (hoping they’ll think “Wow, she’s so hospitable and caring”). Your husband eats most of the chocolates but you hold back, hoping they’ll think “Wow, she’s so restrained and healthy”. Then your mother-in-law looks at your husband and says to you loudly, “You shouldn’t feed him these sorts of things – think of his health!” Exhausted and stressed, you say something that you later regret.
It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you interpret it that influences how you feel and what you do as a result. Two people can experience the same chocolate situation but respond very differently according to their deeply held ideas and beliefs – about themselves, the world and the future. Thoughts stem from these deep beliefs, and even the most innocent situation can trigger a flurry of emotions when the right button is pressed. Since your actions, feelings and thoughts are so closely linked, you can fly off the handle or blow your top without necessarily being conscious of exactly why you found that little comment, gesture or look so infuriating.
In the chocolate scenario above, perhaps it’s because you had internal rules such as, “If I was a good wife, then I would keep my husband healthy”, or “If my in-laws think badly of me, then I must be a bad person” or “If hospitality is shown, then it should be appreciated”. Viewing your mother-in-law’s comment through that lens, it’s easy to see how injustice, guilt, despair and anger could easily bubble up!
Thoughts can feel true, even when you know deep down that they’re not. You probably know your mother-in-law means well – but she still infuriates you! Sometimes your thoughts and ideas may actually be true, but even if that’s the case, it’s important to step back and think of the impact your thoughts are having on your mood, your behaviour and your actions within relationships.
One of the keys to bringing about change here is to become more aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are driving your feelings and actions. You’re not necessarily trying to change the thoughts, and there’s no need for relentless positive affirmations in the mirror each morning (“I LOVE my mother-in-law, I LOVE my mother-in-law!”). Rather the aim is to mindfully consider your thoughts and then change what you do in response to them. It is easier said than done at first, but changing our responses in this way is do-able with practice.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
More than just helping with childcare, having your parents-in-law involved in your child’s life has the potential to benefit you, your partner and your children in many ways. The solo parents out there might be quietly wishing they had a mother-in-law to drive them nuts! But family dynamics can be tough. Why does it matter? It’s because you care. If you didn’t care what your in-laws thought of you, the stress would be much less. You want them to like you and think you’re doing a good job as a partner to their child and as a parent of their grandchild. You want them to perceive you as competent, productive and caring. The trouble is, how you think they see you and how they actually view you might be two different things. This Christmas season, try to set aside thoughts of “What do they think of me?” and focus on the present. Or presents. Except if your mother-in-law gives you a cookbook.
TIPS AND IDEAS FOR KEEPING IT REAL
◼️ Validation. Try giving yourself and others permission to feel how they feel. It’s hard grappling with the dynamics of joining another family, and the feelings of vulnerability that come with this process. It makes sense if you (or they) feel angry when the situation seemed unfair or unjust. It’s not okay to be rude, to hurt others with words or actions, but it is okay to feel what you feel.
◼️ ‘Shoulds’ are not your friends. “I should be…”, “I should do more…”. Like an undersized fish, catch them and release them.
◼️ Comparison is the thief of joy. Try to avoid comparing the chaos and tension of your family Christmas lunch with the perfectly curated series of images on your friends’ social media pages. Chances are theirs wasn’t perfect either.
◼️ Check out books like Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, which suggests we each express and receive love in different ways. Your mother-in-law constantly buying unnecessary gifts might be the way she shows her love for you and your children. And you might be someone who needs words of affirmation to know that others notice and care. Having this awareness can help take away some of the heat when people miss the mark, with the best of intentions.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, wife, and mother of two boys. She lives in Auckland and counts herself lucky in the lottery of in-laws.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 48 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW