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?
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.