Mother-in-law problems

Our emotional health expert Allison Keating answers one woman question about how to deal with mother-in-law problems that have affected her confidence and relationship.

Q I have two children aged nine and five. My husband and I manage really well as a team – we both work full time. Life is hectic but we cope well. There is one issue that really gets me down – my mother-in-law. She constantly puts my mothering skills down when we are alone and shows me up in front of other family members. She picks holes in the way I do things and it’s really starting to affect my confidence and I doubt my own mothering skills. I have ended up snapping at her and then she gets upset. I can’t win! My husband is aware of the situation but doesn’t seem to acknowledge just how much of an effect his mother’s words have on me. How can I make my mother-in-law aware of how much she is upsetting me without causing a family rift?

Thanks for sending in your question. This is a situation many women will relate to. Psychodynamics look at how our past relationships impact our relationships now. Why we behave in a certain way, respond either positively or negatively to a situation, and our core belief system is deeply embedded in years of unconscious learning from our family of origin.
So here’s a weird question following your question. What is your relationship like with your mother? What type of mother was/is she to you? Look at this historically from your parent-child, parent-adolescent and parent-adult perspective?

Mother analysis
In your mind, if I said the word ‘mother’ what word, images or thoughts come to mind. Write ‘mother’ in the centre of a blank page and start writing the first words that come to you. Don’t judge them, just let it flow out. The reason I ask you to do this is because we are looking at one of the most important roles in your life, that of being a mother. As a mother you are bringing up your children, and for some reason, people, in this particular case, your mother in law, feels like she can add her tuppence to the pot. How your mother-in-law brought up her family and how you raise yours will never match because you have different children, in a different time and with different values. Different is the word you must lean into. Different does not mean better or worse. You need to accept that your mothering, because you didn’t say parenting, isn’t up for open discussion. So why are you letting your mother-in-law’s opinion overrule your own?

Work out why it upsets you
What does she say that really upsets you? I can hear from your words that it really does bother you; my question is why? What core emotion is it bringing up? Is it anger, sadness and/or guilt? Again, write out the sentences or words that have really stuck with you and draw out the sting of why these words, actions or gestures have hurt. Listen to your body’s response; your emotions never lie, they will tell you exactly why it has hurt you. Does it affect you more or less when she criticises you in public or private?

Talk to your husband
Once you have established why you feel so upset by your mother-in-law you need to now speak with your husband again. Keep it non-confrontational; if you don’t, your husband will become defensive and protect his mother. Set aside some time, and tell your husband that you want to speak to him about something that has really upset you. Pick one instance where you felt hurt and relate that. For example, you could say ‘When your mother (fill in the blank) it made me feel very upset.” Explain why that hurt and how it made you feel.

You are not asking your husband to pick between you and his mother. But you can say to him that you are not accepting her behaviour anymore because it is having an impact upon your confidence. You can add a positive point by reiterating to him that you feel that you do work as a team with everything else so you are asking him to be supportive with this situation. It’s important for him to hear and really understand why it is upsetting you. You are not asking him to fix it. Avoid triangulation ; don’t have your husband be the go-between. You can create new healthy boundaries together as a couple and then relay this back in a constructive way to your mother-in-law.

Try to empathise
From the list compiled of the hurtful comments and actions, ask yourself what was your mother-in-law’s intention? Did she think she was being helpful? Does she feel that her purpose and role as a mother has gone? This is her issue though, not yours. But this can help you perhaps understand why she is acting the way she is. This is not to say that you have to accept this blindly, but it can perhaps help to cultivate empathy for her.

Support is out there
If there are certain issues that have arisen from the CBT and psychodynamic questions above it can be helpful to get support. These are deep-rooted responses – you sound like you feel attacked, criticised, judged? This is why I asked you at the offset about your own mother-daughter relationship. Did/does your mother criticise you? Do you feel the need to be perfect?
The reason I ask this is because so many women try to be the perfect mother, wife and career woman. Perfection is the root of a lot of burnout. You mentioned that you both work full-time, you have two children so it’s fair to say that you have a busy household. You also say that you cope well. Is that a good quality of life though? I know parenthood is a serious juggling act, the ones I see falling between the cracks though are exhausted mothers. Are your needs being met?

Perfection does not exist
If your mother-in-law questions you or criticises you it may feel very threatening to you. The problem with perfection is that it does not exist. I am going to repeat that for you and for every woman out there. Stop trying to be perfect, stop feeling guilt and shame. The stress on women today is phenomenal. Your mother-in-law, may be making cutting remarks, but it is affecting you. The question is why? I am not saying your mother-in-law is right, far from it. But you can’t and won’t change her.

Be kind to yourself
You can establish healthy boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not. But when someone makes remarks that really hurt they can resonate with something we may feel ourselves. Any form of criticism can lead to a major dent in the illusion of perfection and this is why it can be so overwhelming. You say it is affecting your confidence, so you need to be more accepting, compassionate and kind to yourself, your self-esteem and your self-worth. You don’t need her approval, yours is enough. Perfection is an affliction upon the female psyche, maybe do a life audit of how perhaps you could go from coping well to enjoying your life more.

Enough is a powerful word
You can be surprised by how small changes can really make a big difference. You need to believe in yourself, and that you are enough. Enough is a new buzzword in Positive Psychology that would serve us all well in this modern world. Look at your life and when you feel yourself seething, irritated and full of passive aggression, you need to reflect on what you can do to rectify this. Place and maintain your new healthy boundaries.
It is very likely that manipulation tools such as being told you are upsetting your mother-in-law, or tears on her part may come into immediate effect. This needs to happen and you can very compassionately say ‘I’m sorry, I did not mean to hurt you, but I am not comfortable with what you said to me and I hope we can work together to have a nicer relationship.’

Explain why it upset you
Explain honestly and with sincere integrity that what she said hurt you because it made you feel insecure and/or inadequate as a mother. If she immediately becomes defensive, you can say: ‘You may not have meant it like that but I was hurt’. Many unresolved disputes end at the point with someone yelling back they ‘didn’t mean it like that’. At the end of the day if it hurt you, it hurt you. Express this sentiment and then take a deep breath and have some space, literally.
You can’t go through this without some degree of conflict and change. Conflict, like anger, can be a healthy response whereby your body and brain is saying, ‘no’. Listen to your response; this is how you feel, then you need to relay this back to your mother-in-law in whatever way you feel most comfortable. But you need to make it clear to her when she steps over the emotional boundary, which is less visceral than physical boundaries.
Words are your way to get the message across. If she responds with tears, or an angry outburst you can say that you are not trying to hurt her and you hope that she is not trying to hurt you.
Don’t be afraid of conflict. You can talk this through. Become aware of all the emotions that you feel about this so you can communicate your boundaries loud and clear. You may even be surprised as a potentially healthy equal adult relationship could develop. Best of luck with this, but like all difficult conversations they are the ones that need to be had the most.

More expert advice from Allison Keating

Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.



Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.