a visit from my mother-in-law

My mother-in-law and I are very different people. Almost polar opposites, in fact. (The only reason I don’t say complete polar opposites is because that’s probably her and Seraphine, and I’m just most of the way to the Seraphine end of the spectrum). Nevertheless, we have come to understand, appreciate, or at least tolerate each other better over the past few years. She tries not to rearrange my stuff when she comes to visit (but she does anyway), and I try not to mind when she rearranges my stuff (though I still do sometimes).

Well, this week she has been visiting again, and it’s been pretty good. This has been helped by the fact that we’re temporarily living in a furnished place, with not much of our own stuff (and thus very little for her to rearrange that I actually care about). The only strange part of her visit (and luckily it’s something I am now able to laugh about and brush off, rather than get offended by) is the conversations we have had the last two days.

Yesterday we were talking and (though I don’t know how we got on the subject) she started telling me all sorts of anecdotal stories about mothers who worked, and how they didn’t have energy for their families when they got home, and how it was detrimental to their whole family. One mother only made enough money to pay the babysitter and pay for work clothes, but she chose to not stay at home because her mother had worked and she didn’t know how to raise kids. And wasn’t that sad that she’d rather trust a teenager to raise her kids instead of figuring it out for herself. Another mother started working when her youngest went back to school (only during the times her kids were at school), and she had no energy when she got home, and it hurt her family. One woman, who was a school principal, and a very “sharp” woman, told of how her daughter had just had a baby and was going to stay at home, and how proud she was of her daughter.

Today was a different set of anecdotes. The conversation started with the question, “Vada, what are your goals? When you’re about to die, and you look back on your life, what things do you want to have accomplished so that you can say you had a good life?” I said I wanted to have my family happy and healthy (though I can really only influence this so much), that I wanted to have a graduate degree and some books published, and that I wanted to have seen some of the world (preferably with my husband). This led to a spate of anecdotal stories about women who lived for thirty to forty years after all of their children were married and their husbands dead, and lines like “there’s a season for everything” and “you’ll have lots of time to accomplish all of your goals.”

I wondered what had brought on the spate of “you need to focus on your children and not on a career” stories, and I realized it must have been because I decided not to go to Old San Juan with her, DH, and the toddler on Saturday, but rather to stay home with the baby (who’s still breastfeeding) and do some writing. She’s obviously quite worried by the fact that I want to do something with my life other than take care of my husband, children and house. (It was quite clear that she thinks that these are the only things I should be doing until my children are all married, and possibly until my husband is dead as well. That part wasn’t quite as clear.) It’s a good thing she knows and likes my parents (my dad was the bishop of their ward when we got married). I hate to think what paroxisms of worry she’d be having if she didn’t know I came from a good Mormon family where the father is a good priesthood holder and the mother a stay-at-home mom. Not to mention how often I’d have to endure these frenzies of anecdotal evidence of the glories of not working.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’ve chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, and I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s important for my kids, and it’s evennice for me some days (if I’m having a really crappy day I can usually put Cars in the DVD player and zonk out on the couch for a couple of hours). But while my family is the most important thing in my life, it is not the only thing, and it’s never going to be. While I spend my time feeding kids and changing messy diapers my mind is atrophying, and it’s driving me insane. I have to have some intellectual stimulation. So I read, do our taxes (not fun, but definitely challenging), and have interesting discussions online. And I write. Not as much as I probably ought to if I’m serious about this whole being a writer thing, but I do write, and with the intention of getting published. I also intend to get published (and continue publishing) long before my kids are married. Hopefully it’ll happen sometime in the next few years, and after that I’ll probably spend more time writing, and need to meet deadlines, and I’ll hire someone to watch my kids part-time while I do so. I don’t feel guilty about this. I’m actually rather excited about the possibility. I guess it’s a good thing that my mother-in-law’s opinion about how I raise my kids doesn’t matter too much, ’cause I don’t think she’d be too happy about my plans.


  1. I was nodding and practically calling out “amen, sister!” as I read about your interaction with your MiL. It’s difficult to be good enough for someone’s baby, especially when you’ve replaced the parents as the primary relationship.

    Ironically, I wonder if part of the problem is that too much of your MiL’s life was invested in her child, and not enough in her own identity? Could this be why she part of why she has to continue to try to influence things? I’m sure it’s more complicated than this, and I’m glad that many in-laws are good at giving their married children appropriate space.

    When I married Jana, I knew full well that she would not be focused entirely on me and the children. And I’ve done my best to let my family roles define me more. Ultimately, I think it’s healthier for the parents and the children to not be too wrapped up in each other. “Traditional” parental roles seem to emphasize a mother that is nothing without her children and husband, and a father who has an identity almost completely independent of them (more based on his profession and hobbies). These roles could use some serious redistribution, partly so that children can learn a healthy balance of dependence and independence that isn’t tied to gender.

  2. Um, does your mother-in-law read your blog? Are you comfortable talking about her like this with the world? It’s not as anonymous as “a friend” or “a former bishop.” You only have one mother-in-law. It was not the most flattering portrayal, and I’d be mortified if one of my daughters-in-law wrote that about me in a public forum.

    I think your conclusion was right on target. We can’t please others. And it doesn’t matter if we do or not, it’s your life, and only you are entitled to inspiration as to the path you should be leading.

  3. Naismith, my mother-in-law doesn’t know what a blog is, let alone that I have one, so no, she doesn’t read it.

    That being said, this post was really not meant as complaining about my mother-in-law. While I often have a hard time understanding her, and often don’t agree with her, I think she’s a wonderful woman who loves her children and grandchildren (me included) and would do anything for them. I love her as well. I’m not sure exactly what this post was intended to do. Mostly just share an experience, I guess, and maybe bring to the forefront our different views of the world.

  4. At the risk of psychoanalyzing, I always wonder when I get the “you are trying to do too much” from someone if what they are afraid of is that my life is a statement that they did too little.

    I wonder what would happen if, for example, when your MIL asks about your goals, you said something like, “If I can turn out kids half as good as yours, that’s enough of an accomplishment for any one life.”

  5. Vada,
    It’s nice to hear from someone in the same place in life as I am. I stay at home with my older son who also loves Cars and baby (still weaning).
    Anyway, it’s too bad that your MiL drops such obvious hints about her opinion of your role as wife and mother. Mine has given me lots of space. Of course, she has always worked, from home, part or full-time as the children grew, and has a serious and independent identity apart from her children. She’s my business MiL, the person I call for help when I run into problems with the non-profit board on which I serve.
    I especially echo the brain atrophy complaint. My dh is an MBA student right now and I accompanied him to an int’l dinner last weekend. He introduced me to a friend and they talked about their time at BYU and when they graduated, etc. I was bugged that my dh didn’t mention that I had graduated as well.
    I’m more sensitive because I feel so acutely that I’m being left behind in the education realm, although my goal is to attend law school, it’s looking further and further away as I just found out I’m pregnant. 🙂
    Anyway, in the end, I think you’re MiL is right.
    There is a season for everything, but the thing is, nobody else gets to tell you when that season is. You get to decide.
    BTW, what kinds of things does she rearrange? furniture? pictures? pantry items?
    This seems strange to me. . .

  6. For me, the brain atrophy thing has completely disappeared now that my children are older. Only my just barely 3 year old is in diapers and I spend a maximum of 5 minutes per day changing diapers!
    I have major issues with my MIL. But, here is my two cents about seeing her side of things.
    Treat her like she actually has a brain and has used it in her life. Treat her like she has years of experience and therefore wisdom. You don’t have to follow her advice or agree with her values, but isn’t it sad that she has lived a happy life and raised, hopefully, children who have become responsible adults yet no one is asking her for her to share her wisdom.
    I have almost 10 years of parenting experience now, and let me tell you, I can’t express all the things I have learned. I remember the years when it was just me and two little ones. The year after the birth of my second was the worst year of my life. But time moves quickly and theygrow up. Suddenly they are learning to read and then you are talking about politics and money management and puberty and sex and death and taxes.
    I completely understand your MILs view and agree with it that working can take a toll on your family. My working single mom friend has no choice. Her child has issues and has difficulty at school (behaviorly) and has been suspended from daycare. She really can’t take her of things while she’s at work all day.
    I am so thankful when I am with my kids with they ask me an important question, when I witness something that is going on, or when I notice that they have a problem. I have dealt with some real serious issues and have been happy with how I have dealt with them.
    I was raised by a happy SAHM, and I think that with a little effort you can avoid being martyr SAHM, or must be perfect SAHM, or never has sex SAHM, or whatever else you are worried about. Writing seems like it is something that you can fit into your life.
    Perhaps when you talk to your mother in law, your comments can subtly tell her that you don’t hate being a mother, that you don’t want to write just to “get away” from the kids, that you don’t think women who do nothing but motherhood must have atrophied brains so you would never want to be one of those. Notice the things she did as hobbies even while kids were at home. Ask your husband what kinds of things he appreciated about his mother. Then you can bring them up casually in conversation. “DH said that he loved it when you were room mother and dressed up as a witch and had a cauldron with dry ice with homemade rootbeer. And you were cackling. The kids were amazed that that was MY mom.” “DH said you were the YW president while he was a teenager. Did you go to girls camp?” DH said you read the Hobbit to your kids when he was 10. That sounds so cool!”
    Anyway, that’s my two cents about MILs, about motherhood actually being mentally challenging, and about being grateful that I can take care of my children without too many other distractions.

  7. Anyway, it’s too bad that your MiL drops such obvious hints about her opinion of your role as wife and mother

    Just because she said it, it doesn’t mean it is her opinion.

    Very often in our stewardships, we say things that the Lord needs someone to hear. It may or may not be our opinion.

    That’s why it never bothers me when my adult children ignore what I say and do whatever. Only they are entitled to revelation to know what to do for their own life. My job is merely to say what I feel I should. I don’t assume that when the Lord clearly wants me to say something said that it is his will for them…rather, that it is his will for what I should say, to play my small part in helping their decision.

    It does sound like her comments got Vada thinking, which was maybe the point.

  8. Interestingly enough, I have the exact opposite problem with my mother-in-law. I fully intend to be a SAHM when the kids arrive. I’m also seriously considering home schooling, though I haven’t made up my mind yet. My m-i-l has the best intentions in the world and I know it but still it grates on my nerves when she expresses her concerns (her definition of SAHM seems to bear a lot of resemblance to the 1950’s version) and when she tells me — for the umpteenth time — about how they used her salary to pay off the mortgage. Yes. Lesson absorbed. Really. And if we absolutely need the money, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to work. (Well, much.) And I am, in fact, researching a couple of flexible, do-from-home options. But why do people have such a hard time assimilating the idea that choosing to stay at home is every bit as valid a choice as choosing to work?

  9. I also disagree with your MiL. My wife is a scientist and if she couldn’t go to her scientist job and do science-y stuff and discover new science-y things, she would go bonkers. She wouldn’t be herself. She wouldn’t be the wonderful woman I married.

    On the flip side, I think it’s great that your MiL drops the hints and tells the anecdotes. Because who knows? Maybe one day you’ll agree with her and be glad she kept pushing even though you were so stubborn. Or maybe she’ll just keep teaching you the value of patience and long-suffering. At any rate, according to Elder Maxwell she’s part of your “clinical material”, specifically placed in your sphere of existence for her ability to help bring you to exaltation.

    (BTW I speak of things which I still do not understand — because as of this comment, I still think my MiL is Bat-sh** crazy and can’t wait to put her into a nursing home somewhere. How’s that for hypocrisy?)

  10. Your post reminds me of a similar issue I remember Deborah Tannen discussing in her book I Only Say This Because I Love You. She was talking about how parents talk to their adult offspring, and she pointed out that frequently parents give advice with the goal of maintaining connection while their kids get the message that their parents are trying to control them. I guess your situation is different, Vada, because you don’t have the lifelong connection with your mother-in-law that you do with your mother, for example. But I wonder if she isn’t trying to be more helpful than pushy, as other commenters have already pointed out.

    Of course, this is all easy for me to say; my mother-in-law has always been wonderful to me. And that’s good because I’m not very good at receiving advice. Perhaps my wife warned her. 🙂

  11. PDOE, I’ve thought you were single all this time. I swear, I am going senile.

    It’s really really hard to be a mother-in-law. It’s hard to be the mother of an adult daughter. If I don’t call or act interested in their lives, they think I don’t care. If I call too much (who knows what that is, I hardly call them) I’m interfering.

    When I go over to my daughters, I’ve learned to only express admiration. I mean, I didn’t go over and say, “you suck, this looks awful.” But I might say something like, “oh that’s cute, it would look good with this.” And Sarah gets upset.

    I’ve learned to say “oh, that’s too bad” or “you will do the right thing” —avoid advice or even “the appearance of advice” LOL because if they don’t like the advice, they get mad. If I say “I like hamburgers” it could be construed as criticism.

    I try not to ask questions because that’s prying, even a “how are you?” can be misconstrued. It’s quite tricky.

    I feel sort of sorry for my mother-in-law who is now dead. Although she seldom interfered, but when I was a young wife and mother, I was so touchy.

    So, I feel for your mother-in-law. Obviously she’s concerned and she loves your family. Would it be possible for you to put aside your feelings and say “I really appreciate how much you love us. Trust me to do the right thing” ?

  12. Vada, this does sound like a difficult relationship to negotiate. While I don’t have these kinds of issues with my mother-in-law, who is kind and supportive and completely hands-off, I think we all run into people who communicate their opinions about our lives through these kinds of indirect anecdotes or general observations. (Of course, it’s much harder when the people who do this are part of our families than when they’re random strangers we can ignore.) What’s tough for me, anyway, is the indirection of it. I’d much rather that someone came out with their anxiety about or disapproval of my choices and priorities than that she drop hints for which she doesn’t have to take responsibility. The innuendo makes everything so much harder.

    In the church I’ve sometimes interacted with women of previous generations who sacrificed everything for their families in accordance with the expectations and rhetoric of the times and who seem to want to make sure that younger women do the same. It’s almost a hazing mentality–we gave everything up for our kids, so you should too. If it turns out that there is more leeway in balancing family obligations, careers, personal passions, etc., then they seem to fear that their own sacrifices are nullified. Frankly, I can see why they might feel this way. In the church rhetoric of the fifties and sixties and even the seventies, homemaking and domestic arts were an all-consuming life in which the righteous woman would find complete fulfillment. (There was a GA in the fifties who famously said that if you didn’t like housework, you should get down on your knees and pray to like it.) Choosing to do things on the side for your own interest, like write or work at a part-time job, was less common and more suspect.

    I’m very glad that our rhetoric about homemaking and women’s roles has shifted away from this idea that it’s a woman’s nature to find complete and total satisfaction in it, and toward an acceptance of a greater variety of working and domestic arrangements. But I can see how the shift could be threatening to women who gave up their non-domestic dreams (to write, to attend graduate school, to become concert pianists or scientists or whatever) in the sincere belief that they were doing God’s will could feel that the shift is very unfair and retrospectively renders their heartfelt sacrifices unnecessary and even meaningless. It’s a difficult problem to which I don’t think there is an easy solution.

  13. In the church I’ve sometimes interacted with women of previous generations who sacrificed everything for their families in accordance with the expectations and rhetoric of the times and who seem to want to make sure that younger women do the same.

    Eve–I regularly encounter women of my own generation who communicate the same idea–“I gave up everything, you should too; it is the right thing to do.” That said, I have heard comments from working women about women who only mother, too. In fact, in the short time I have been a mother, I have come to the conclusion that mothers are more judegemental about other mothers than any other group I can think of. I am not excluded–I admit to feeling judgemental about the way my peers mother. I guess it is because we all know the importance of the work that we crave approval from others about how we do it, and if they do it like I do it, than they approve.

    Sorry–that was not very articulate.

  14. Bottom line: Girls are mean to each other. It would be much better if they could just resolve differences with bouts of choreographed violence (e.g. basketball or arm wrestling) and then be friends.

  15. In this day and age when there is an alarming increase of narcissists walking around, I think it’s important for parents to be an example to their children of how to “have their own life.” Teaching your children that the world doesn’t revolve around them (or you) is one of the greatest lessons you could teach.

    I applaud you for working toward your own goals. It took me a long time to figure that out for myself and how I can pass that on to my daughters.


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