I’ve decided that there should definitely be rules for mothers-in-law; or at least some kind of instruction manual! I’ve been a mother-in-law for about two years now, and I can assure you that I’m still learning how to do it. Like most worthwhile relationships, being a mother-in-law takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, and effort. Whether you have a wonderful daughter-in-law that makes it easy, or whether your relationship with your daughter-in-law is challenging, I believe that there are a few “rules” you can follow that will help you nurture and grow that relationship. Today I’m sharing ten “rules” for mothers-in-law. I believe these “rules” apply whether you have sons- or daughters-in-law, but because I only have a daughter-in-law so far, I’m primarily going to refer to that relationship throughout this post.
1. It’s Not About You
The first thing to remember? It’s not about you. You have been replaced as the primary woman in your son or daughter’s life. Step aside with grace. The couple comes first. Research shows that good in-law relationships are a key determinant of marital happiness. That means the way you treat your daughter-in-law or son-in-law can help or harm your child. When a young adult gets married, it’s another step toward independence and adulthood. (Remember, this is what you worked to get them ready for!) Unfortunately, some parents can feel rejection when the loyalties of a child turn toward their spouse. Maybe your son used to ask you for fashion advice, and now he defers to his wife, or your daughter used to ask for decorating advice, and now she’s looking to her husband for his opinions. Try reframing any feelings of rejection you might feel. This is appropriate and healthy behavior for a married couple!
2. Honor their Commitment to One Another
Your kids and their spouses need to make their own choices. This will undoubtedly be true in everything from financial decisions to parenting choices. Do not interpret their choices as a rejection of yours. The day they got married, they became their very own family unit. It’s important to honor that and let them establish their own identity as a family/couple. (Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them!)
3. Be Intentional
If you want a good relationship with your daughter-in-law or son-in-law, it’s going to take some effort. When my son married, Sarah, I (only half-jokingly) told her that his table manners weren’t perfect, and I was grateful to hand over the reins for her to take it from here! Be warm, welcoming, and friendly. My own mother-in-law did this well. The first time I spent Christmas with Bob’s family I was amazed that I got the same number of Christmas gifts as everyone else! It sent a message of inclusion that no mere words could.
4. Build Them Up
Words are powerful. Use them to bless, encourage, and build your relationship. Our daughter-in-law, Sarah, is an only child who was raised by incredible parents who did an amazing job. She’s a second-grade teacher, and she’s gentle, loving, and kind. (Yes, all of her students are in love with her!) I take every opportunity to ask about Sarah’s life, upbringing, family, job, friends, church, etc. and I always follow up with a compliment. (“Do you think the parents of the kids in your class realize how blessed they are to have you teaching their children?”)
5. Give It Time
Even if it seems that you and your daughter-in-law don’t have a lot in common, you share one critical thing: You both love your son more than anyone else! As an only child, Sarah was raised in a calm, quiet environment. When she married into our family, she married into all of the noise and chaos that go along with a family of five. Be sensitive to adjustments like these and to the family dynamics that are at play. This can be especially challenging if your daughter-in-law marries into a family where there are already close mother/daughter relationships. It’s up to you as the mother-in-law to set the tone and example by inviting your new “daughter” into the family with love. One of my friends has three daughters and one son. When her son got engaged, she gathered her daughters together and laid the “ground rules” for welcoming the new daughter-in-law into the family. She reminded her daughters to be inclusive, welcoming, and non-judgemental, and told them she would not tolerate gossip or criticism of this girl who was (bravely!) entering into what could be a challenging family dynamic. Our daughter-in-law, Sarah, had always wanted a little sister, and my daughter, Becca, had always wanted a big sister. I encouraged their relationship by urging them to do things together, even if it meant I was left at home alone, wishing I was with them! (Remember, it’s not about you!)
6. Back Off
A young marriage has it’s share of issues to work through, and your kids don’t need another party involved in their relationship. If they come to you for advice, or even just a listening ear, proceed carefully, knowing that anything you say can and probably will be reported to the spouse at some point. Guard your tongue! One of my friends didn’t like the way her new daughter-in-law seemed to boss her son around, but she told me she just had to trust the way she’d raised him, and know that he’d push back if needed — without her help. When I married my husband, I suspect my mother-in-law thought the same thing about me! Sensing this, one day I told her that, although she might not like everything she saw in me, I wanted her to know that no one would ever love her son more. 🙂
7. Always Invite & Include
Whether your relationship with your daughter-in-law is strong or needs work, make it a point to invite and include the couple in all family events. (Although there may be a few exceptions to this, it’s generally the right thing to do.) When you start leaving people out, there’s potential for hurt feelings or resentment. We always invite Weston & Sarah to join us for something that involves other family members, like performances, graduations, birthday celebrations, etc. This is true whether or not we think they want to attend/can afford it, etc. Our motto is, let the “no” be theirs to say. Our job is to invite and include.
8. Be Generous
When Bob and I first got married, my parents told us that whenever we came to visit them, they would pay for it. Wow! As poor newlyweds, this was such a generous offer, and it allowed us to use the money we’d budgeted for vacations to do other things while getting family visits in as well. As in-laws, we try to be generous with Sarah & Weston. Sometimes that generosity is financial, but many times it’s not. Here’s what it’s looked like at various times over the past two years:
- “Sure, we’d love to help you move!
- “It would be so fun for us to keep your puppy while you go out of town!”
- “We miss you guys! How about a double date so we can catch up on what’s been going on with you two? Our treat!”
- “I’d love to give you a ride to pick up your car in the shop. It will give us a chance to catch up!”
- “It’s no problem for us to take you to the airport and pick you up when you get back. That way we can hear all about your trip!”
Did you notice the enthusiasm in each of those statements? The bonus for us is time with them. It’s a win-win. 🙂
9. Be Yourself and Let Your Guard Down
As in any new relationship, it’s normal to be on your best behavior at first. But nothing is more endearing than vulnerability and authenticism, so at some point, you’ll have to be yourself. As you can see, my daughter-in-law is a natural beauty. Me? Let’s just say that it takes awhile for me to coax my natural beauty into emerging! Her style is easy breezy and casual; mine is curated, cultivated, and fully coordinated. ( I so wish I were more like her!) As the mother-in-law, your willingness to be authentic will set the tone. I’ve found that if I can just be myself, Sarah feels more comfortable letting her guard down too. Make it a point to notice and express appreciation for what your daughter-in-law brings to the family. When it comes time to make big family meals, I’m so grateful for Sarah’s skills in the kitchen, which far surpass my own. I tell her that constantly!
10. Don’t Make Assumptions
Even when intentions are good, offers of help can be seen as criticism. One of my friends told me that after she had a baby, her mother-in-law offered to clean out her refrigerator and organize her pantry. Even though she welcomed the help, the “offer” felt like a criticism of her homemaking abilities. Tread carefully! Even though you’re more experienced and may have good advice to give, hold off on sharing until you’re asked.
Recently, Bob and I went on vacation with Weston and Sarah. Before we left, we sat down with them and thoroughly talked through plans, expectations, activities, etc. It was so helpful! We loved having them all to ourselves, and being in one condo with just the four of us for a week strengthened and solidified our relationship. I’m always looking for fun things to do with Sarah, so I asked her if she would be open to doing a photoshoot together. She agreed, and we had such fun shopping and shooting together! Our outfits are no longer available, but we had such fun together! Recently, Bob and I took a fun weekend trip with Weston & Sarah, and I somehow talked them into doing a photoshoot on that trip too! You can check it out HERE and HERE.
Are you a mother-in-law? I’d love to know your tips! Got any additions to my rules for mothers-in-law? Please leave me a comment and share your wisdom!
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