Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Take my mother-in-law, please!

It's not just a punch line:
true-life tales of monster moms

The upcoming 'Monster in Law' (starring Jane Fonda, l., as 'monster,' and Jennifer Lopez as her son's fiancee) show how M.I.L.s get a bad rap.

Doris Roberts as 'Everybody Loves Raymond's' manipulative matriarch

Even former librarian Laura Bush couldn't resist poking fun at her 'sweet, grandmother-ly' mother-in-law, Barbara. At last weekend's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, she joked that Barb's as tough as mob boss Don Corleone in 'The Godfather.'

While many are planning to commemorate moms with flowers and showers of love this Sunday, mothers - especially mothers-in-law - are taking a hit on the public stage. We all know the archetype: the critical, meddling, demanding, even evil matriarch who never quite got over the loss of her son to another woman. So she terrorizes his wife by interfering in their marriage or, worse, by trying to prevent it. We've seen it played out on television shows like "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Huff," and in books like Jane Green's super-popular "The Other Woman." It's even coming to the big screen in "Monster-in-Law," starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda.

Even sweet old Barbara Bush was battered, jokingly of course, at the hands of daughter-in-law Laura, who compared the other Mrs. Bush to "Godfather" Don Corleone.

But if you think the character is merely a funny stereotype, think again. There are more than a few women who will be able to relate to Lopez's experience with her fiancé's nightmare mother, played by Fonda - a role based on screenwriter Anya Kochoff's real-life ex-mother-in-law - when the movie hits theaters May 13.

"My mother-in-law is one of the biggest reasons my husband and I got divorced," said Jeanette, a 40-year-old Queens woman (all the women in this story requested their names be changed).

"The woman drove me crazy for six years. She kept a picture of my husband and his ex-girlfriend on display in her living room. She changed our bridal registry so that we would get the china pattern she wanted us to have rather than the one we wanted. Then she changed the menu for my wedding without even talking to us. She was always causing problems like that."

Familial love triangle

And though it's a story as old as time, the nightmare mother-in-law is a recurring punch line. "It seems like something out of old comedy routines, but in real life, it is still very common for mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law to have friction," said Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Mothers in Law and Daughters in Law: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation," who runs ongoing psychological studies on the subject.

"The relationship between them and the husband/son is a triangle," said Barash. "These two women love the same man in different ways, and they're very territorial. It's a rivalry. They're also from different generations, so they each have their own ways of doing things, which they each think are right."

She added that in her most recent study, only 8% of daughters-in-law said they got along "very well" with their mothers-in-law.

Sasha, 35, clashed with her mother-in-law on the topic of breast-feeding. "She hadn't done it, so she just didn't understand why I would do it - it wasn't her thing," Sasha recalled.

"I made Thanksgiving last year, when my son was only 2 months old. I needed to feed him in the middle of making dinner for 14 people from scratch, and my mother-in-law kept saying, 'Just give him a bottle, just give him a bottle.' I sat down and nursed him for a while and then when I stood up, she shouted at me, 'You're starving him!' "

That isn't the only time Sasha and her husband's mother haven't seen eye to eye.

"She was angry that we bought a house in Westchester instead of New Jersey, where she lives," she said. "She saw it as me trying to get away from her, but Westchester just made more sense for us. We took her on vacation to the Hamptons, and we argued over where to go and what to do.

Manipulative mama

"I told my husband I didn't want her to come with us on vacation anymore, but he pointed out that we need her help, now that we have a baby. And that she has been alone since her husband died.

"My poor husband tries to be Switzerland," Sasha continued. "He tries not to take sides, but I get mad at him for not standing up for me."

According to Barash, husbands need to take a side - their wives'. "The sovereignty of the marriage is really important, and the son/husband needs to let that be known," she explained. "A mother-in-law needs to recognize this, and realize that she can't have the same impact on her son as she did before he was married."

Of course, this becomes less of an issue when a man has long ago cut loose of his mother's apron strings. "This is all so much easier when you have a guy who has cleared his issues with his family of origin so he's free to give his loyalty to you," Barash said. "If you're with a guy who calls his mother first before he calls you - when he gets a promotion, or sees a great apartment - you're in trouble."

But all hope is not lost - depending on whom you're dealing with. Barash recommends trying to ease the situation.

"In my research, I'm finding that more and more brides are looking to reconcile their differences with their mothers-in-law early on, because they realize they're in it for the long haul," she said. "If you do things like invite your mother-in-law to lunch or to a movie - any kind of gesture like that - she might respond well. That doesn't mean you have to do everything she suggests. You can say, 'No, this is the way I want it,' very nicely, and still be independent."

Jeanette made an effort to connect with her mother-in-law, to no avail. "When her husband had open-heart surgery, I took off six months from work to go and live with them and help out," she remembered. "Well, nothing I could do was right. I couldn't win her over no matter how hard I tried. One day, I thought she was complimenting me. She told me I was brilliant at cooking chazerai. Then I looked it up in a Yiddish dictionary - she was saying my food was pig's slop. When your son marries a shiksa and you have your Jewish best friend's daughter in mind, I guess you never give up."



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