The mom-in-law myth
Mothers-in-law have a reputation for malevolence that they don't deserve, says Catherine Eden, who would like to improve their image before she joins their ranks.
Read any fairy tale and you'll come across a clutch of classic archetypes: the beautiful princess, the handsome prince, the evil sorcerer, the fairy godmother, the knight in shining armour...each of them a blueprint for stereotypes that play out to this day.
The ‘mother-in-law-from-hell', like the cruel stepmother, is a variation of the wicked witch archetype. The mythical mother-in-law is critical, meddlesome and demanding; she finds fault with your cooking and disapproves of the way you discipline your children. She's the butt of silly jokes, the reason for almost compulsory eye-rolling, and her mere existence provides ammunition for that stinging insult in the heat of matrimonial battle: ‘You're just like your @#* mother!' 'Oh really? And what's wrong with my mother? She's a whole lot better than your @#* mother!'
Mothers-in-law get dragged into squabbles, blamed for misunderstandings and accused of having all kinds of troublesome traits. How did they get such a terrible reputation? Perhaps there was a bad batch somewhere along the line. As happens with inferior wine, there must have been a generation of mothers-in-law who went off, leaving a sour reputation as their legacy.
One of the good things about the age we live in is that we are learning to recognise and release old patterns of behaviour that no longer serve us. Bad-mouthing your mother-in-law, just because she is one, is one of the habits that must go. After all, she didn't choose the role. You foisted the title upon her the moment you picked her child to be your mate.
It would be different if you were like Asha from Delhi, who had an arranged marriage. ‘My mother-in-law was very kind and understanding,' she says. ‘She chose me for her son, so she was well disposed towards me from the start, and did everything in her power to help us make a success of our relationship.
'In traditional African culture, a bride has great respect for her mother-in-law, who welcomes the young woman into the family as if she were her own daughter.
‘You move into her house the moment you are married,' explains Nomsa, ‘so it's very important that the two of you establish a good relationship. Of course, some mothers-in-law do push their luck and expect you to take on all the domestic chores, but if you get a good one, she'll become your friend and ally, acting as a mediator when your husband is troublesome, and taking care of the babies while you go shopping!'
Later, when the female grandchildren reach puberty, it is the mother-in-law and her female relatives who take the young girls through their rites of passage and prepare them for womanhood.
In our fragmented Western society, however, there are no rules for how a mother-in-law should behave. She could be a high-powered businesswoman, a nipped and tucked aerobics instructor, or a retired nature studies teacher who can't wait to sew some tray cloths for you. It's just the luck of the draw.
If you are fair, you'll agree that it's impossible to generalise about them. I have known some saintly specimens: women who have helped out with money, time and expertise without asking for a thing in return. And I have known some mean-spirited mamas who have seen newlyweds' struggles as some sort of karmic payback for their own distant difficulties. (‘Oh, how I suffered! Don't expect any sympathy from me!') The point is, they would have been saints or sinners anyway, regardless of their status. Your mother-in-law will mutate into a monster only if you create an environment that encourages her to do so.
I confess that I wouldn't be thinking so kindly of these much maligned creatures if there wasn't a good chance that I will become one before too long. Given their current profile, I don't want the job. The label ‘mother-in-law' sounds so official, bossy and controlling. No wonder we have a preconceived vision of their ruling our households with a rod of iron.
It's time to break the mould. I'm more likely to be swimming with dolphins or ballooning over Bolivia than bullying my children and their partners into submission. I really don't mind what they do as long as they do it with conviction and as long as it makes them happy. When the time comes, I'd far rather be called a mother-in-love than a mother-in-law. After all, isn't it love that gets you the title in the first place?
It may sound mushy, but think about it: it's not as easy to moan and groan about a mother-in-love. Change one little word and you change destiny. If you start off looking for the potential beyond the myth, you may discover a person you'd really like to know.
Words by Catherine Eden
From May/June 2002 ClubCard Magazine