I’ve been married for just over a year, and my husband and I keep having the same fight: his mother. She constantly drops in unannounced and stays for hours. It’s never clear what she wants, and I’m always livid by the time she finally leaves—so much so that I usually end up taking my frustration out on my poor husband.
During the holidays or other special occasions, she makes a habit of inviting a cast of thousands over to her home, only to put most, if not all, of the meal preparation on me, because she can’t cook but wants to have this wonderful feast magically appear. Another thing that really bothers me: there’s a lack of “family togetherness” on his side of the family, which I (perhaps unfairly?) attribute to his mother and her seeming oblivion to anyone’s needs but her own.
I don’t want my mother-in-law to affect my marriage, but I worry that we will reach a breaking point. I hope that when we have children I can infuse our family unit with the love and support I have always gotten from my parents and siblings. What should I do?
Ah yes, the mother-in-law—possibly the most maligned familial category on the planet. I would be remiss if I didn’t first impart this wisdom from Margaret Mead about stereotypes of race, sex, class, and so on:
“Some people (in each category) are loathsome, some are delightful.”
I offer this partly because my own mother-in-law, who has bent over backward to support rather than intrude, is an example of a delightful mother-in-law, and partly because I’m now a mother-in-law who hopes to be counted among the easy-to-get-along-with. Certainly there is more than one brand of mother-in-law alive and well in the world.
But unfortunately, your mother-in-law’s narcissism may put her in the loathsome category. I say that with all due respect, because however awful she is, your husband no doubt loves her and is used to—even comfortable with—whatever she dishes out. And assuming he survived his upbringing-by-narcissist with some degree of psychological health, he may be willing to help you deal with her, if you can approach him correctly.
First, though, you need to apologize for taking out your frustration on him (outside of the heat of the moment). Tell him you want to be respectful of his mother and their relationship, but constant unannounced visits are unreasonable. Validate any ambivalence he feels and ask for his help—try to work out a plan in which he takes the lead. If he won’t, or feels the need to appease her difficult behavior for some psychological reason like guilt, let him. But don’t let him do it using you.
Now to the issues at hand: You don’t mention whether she shows up unannounced at your husband’s siblings’ homes. Is it possible that she’s taking advantage of the new girl because you haven’t yet set the boundaries you need? What happens when she comes to your house? Does she make demands? Want to chat or talk on and on? Tell you what to do or comment on your deficient housekeeping? Does your husband cut and run and leave her to you? Do you attend to her every demand or need while silently stewing? Does he?
Although you can’t change anyone’s basic personality, be honest about what is reasonable for you. Could you tolerate twice a week, if she called first? Could you have her over to dinner once a week for some of that great cooking of yours? Trying to approach her with compassion, as someone in need of a friend, may help, too. Narcissists always sadden me, because they often don’t have a clue why others don’t like them.
Or try this: when she rings the bell, grab your coat, purse, and keys, open the door and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I was just leaving for (whatever). Maybe Thursday would work, but call first, because I have (whatever) tentatively scheduled.” And then, while she’s still outside, walk past her and leave. She may get the hint.
Then, during the holidays, call her prior to the event she’s scheduled and ask if a new recipe you’d like to try will fit her menu. Bring that one item, and let her do the rest. You don’t need to feel obligated to bail her out altogether, but perhaps just a small contribution to the occasion will help to curb her lofty expectations of your participation in the hostessing.
But do keep in mind that certain patterns—for example, your husband’s family’s lack of togetherness—have evolved at least partly because of his mother. There’s likely not much you can change about that situation, except for how you react to it. And with a spouse’s family, it’s best to try to err on the side of accommodation (but only if you can do it without becoming a doormat, of course).
Above all, do not—I repeat, do not—get in the middle of your spouse’s family’s issues. Create the home you want by being emotionally available, as opposed to emotionally reactive, to your husband and your own family-to-come.
And remember: you may need your mother-in-law at some point, perhaps even as a babysitter. If at all possible, don’t make her your enemy.
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