Don’t have it out with the in-laws


With modern life putting more pressure than ever on the mother- and daughter-in-law relationship, Anna Moore finds ways to thaw the frost and avoid a Christmas showdown

For the first few years of her marriage, Mel’s relationship with her mother-in-law was perfectly amicable. ‘We weren’t regular fixtures in each other’s lives, but we got together for family occasions,’ says Mel, 38, a marketing manager. ‘She could be a bit full-on and my husband could do no wrong in her eyes, but our relationship was fine.’

Then, two years ago, when Mel had her first baby, their relationship became strained, especially after Mel returned to work and her mother-in-law stepped in to provide some of the childcare. Tensions were soon bubbling, and Mel recites a catalogue of complaints. Her mother-in-law feeds her daughter too much, too often. She leaves her in front of the TV for hours, or lets her nap too long, so that by bedtime her daughter is either bored and fractious, or wide awake. 

Working mothers are often reluctant to relinquish control over how their children are raised, especially as the pressure to get parenting ‘right’ is greater than ever and they fear that any ‘mistake’ will damage their child for life

She constantly tidies Mel’s house, sorts through her fridge, rearranges cupboards and makes loaded comments about the general state of their domestic arrangements. Her social media is plastered with posts about Mel’s daughter – but nothing about Mel. ‘I could go on for ever, it winds me up,’ says Mel. ‘So far, we’ve avoided a showdown but I do wonder how much longer before it happens.’

Christine, 66, expresses similar sentiments about her daughter-in-law – in fact, her ‘issues’ sound similar to Mel’s, except told from the opposite point of view. ‘We got on really well until my son and his wife had children, then it became very difficult,’ says Christine, a retired teacher. ‘My daughter-in-law is obsessive about how the children should be raised. She and my son both work full time, they’re busy, super-stressed, the house is chaos, but any genuine attempts to help are taken as criticisms.

If your mother-in-law is providing childcare, there’s much to negotiate 

‘I can’t say or do anything right, yet they still expect me to look after their children two days a week. I am delighted to be able to spend time with my grandchildren, but if I don’t follow my daughter-in-law’s instructions to the letter I’m in the doghouse. I managed to raise three children, including a son she liked enough to marry, so my parenting skills surely can’t be that disastrous. I worry that one day the relationship will break down completely and I’ll lose my son and my grandchildren, so I tread on eggshells.’

Problems with in-laws are nothing new – thousands of mother-in-law jokes attest to that. When new members join a family, the readjustment and negotiation of new roles can be hard for everyone, and it’s natural that daughters tend to remain closer to their own mothers. But modern life has taken in-law tensions to a whole new level.

Everyone is busy, time is tight, more mothers work and childcare is expensive, so grandparents – and it’s mainly grandmothers – are increasingly providing regular childcare, for free. Two thirds now look after grandchildren while the parents work. But working mothers are often reluctant to relinquish control over how their children are raised, especially as the pressure to get parenting ‘right’ is greater than ever and they fear that any ‘mistake’ will damage their child for life. Meanwhile, grandmothers are sacrificing their own lives to look after grandchildren and often believe their own tried-and-tested child-rearing methods are best.

Add to this maelstrom the tricky relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s hardly surprising that last year a study by Cambridge University found that rifts between parents and their sons’ wives are among the most common cause of family estrangement.

These rifts fill online parenting forums and often spill into mainstream media. Recently, a Mumsnet user’s rage when her mother-in-law cut her daughter’s hair (and gave her a fringe) morphed into a topic of debate in newspapers and parenting magazines. (Few picked up on the fact that when ‘fringe gate’ occurred, the mother-in-law had been called on to provide emergency childcare at a moment’s notice.)

Grandmothers, meanwhile, are sacrificing their own lives to look after grandchildren and often believe their own tried-and-tested child-rearing methods are best

Grandmothers, meanwhile, are sacrificing their own lives to look after grandchildren and often believe their own tried-and-tested child-rearing methods are best

Numerous other fallouts have made national headlines: a mother- and daughter-in-law dispute about the correct portion size for children; a new mum who lives with her mother-in-law despairing at being told constantly how to look after her own baby; and, in one bizarre Mumsnet thread, which garnered 1,000 responses, a mother was incandescent because her mother-in-law mislaid her daughter’s hat (while looking after the child) and gave it to another grandchild (whom she minded on a different day). One post read, ‘Let it go, it’s a hat!’

Meanwhile, disgruntled mothers-in-law have found their own places to vent frustration. When first-time grandparent Carol Ball launched her website earlier this year to celebrate her new role, she was surprised by the level of friction between in-laws. Many grandparents have contacted her directly or through social media. ‘There are cases where conflict has resulted in grandparents being forbidden from seeing their grandchildren,’ she says. ‘I quickly realised it’s a bigger issue than I thought.’

According to Carol, many of the problem areas concern child rearing, namely discipline, manners, diet and screen time. ‘If you’re providing childcare – and so many of us are – there’s so much to negotiate,’ she says. ‘And if it’s mother- and daughter-in-law, there is holding back and letting problems fester.’

The in-law relationship is critical. If you don’t get on, it affects everyone 

Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter has conducted extensive research into the relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law, set out in What do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-laws. And it is only recently that she has spoken about her own difficult relationship with her husband’s mother. According to Terri’s research, 60 per cent of women said their relationship with their mother-in-law caused long-term unhappiness and stress, while only 15 per cent of men found that tricky relationships with their in-laws entered their thoughts outside family visits.

Dr Deanna Brann, psychotherapist and author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law, isn’t surprised. Women are the kin keepers – they tend to organise the calendar, invite (or not invite) family for the holidays, nurture bonds, create family traditions.

‘The mother- and daughter-in-law relationship is the most critical in the family system,’ says Dr Brann. ‘If you don’t get on, it affects everyone. The father-in-law sees his wife being upset and that impacts how he feels about his son and daughter-in-law. The siblings take sides. The son feels stuck in the middle and the grandchildren won’t have the relationship with their grandparents that they deserve.’

‘Invite your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law to lunch,' says psychotherapist Dr Deanna Brann, 'just the two of you. Ask her about her life, her job, her interests – and ask follow-up questions the next time you see her.'

‘Invite your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law to lunch,’ says psychotherapist Dr Deanna Brann, ‘just the two of you. Ask her about her life, her job, her interests – and ask follow-up questions the next time you see her.’

So what can you do to improve the mother- and daughter-in-law relationship? First, says Dr Brann, build a relationship that’s independent of everyone else – husbands, sons and, most crucially, grandchildren. ‘You don’t need to see each other a lot or become best friends, but you do need to get to know each other as people – not as your “son’s wife” or your “husband’s mother”.

‘Invite your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law to lunch, just the two of you. Ask her about her life, her job, her interests – and ask follow-up questions the next time you see her. Show her she matters. If she is good at something, let her teach you.’ Dr Brann gives the example of her own daughter-in-law, who works in insurance. ‘I could have gone to my insurance agent for advice, but I asked her so she could show me her expertise.’

Another golden rule is to resolve issues between you as they come up. ‘Don’t go through your son or your husband. Also, try very hard not to take everything personally. Is she really being rude, or does she have a clipped manner with everyone? Maybe your daughter-in-law is tired and stressed and feels ambivalent about going to work? Maybe your mother-in-law is also stressed and tired by the childcare.’


 1 DO approach childcare with caution. Every last detail needs to be discussed before problems arise – and there needs to be flexibility. A granny is not the same as a nanny paid to carry out orders.

2 DON’T use social media to vent your frustration or to get others on side. And don’t unfriend one another.

3 DO get to know one another individually, without other family members around. Have lunch, show an interest in each other’s lives and respect their talents and areas of expertise.

4 DON’T focus on finding faults or take everything personally. Your mother- or daughter-in-law is likely to have plenty going on that you know little about, so avoid jumping to conclusions to explain their behaviour.

5 DO act in the way you would like your in-law to. A big confrontation isn’t necessary. If one person changes their behaviour, the other will likely change theirs.

6 DON’T enlist the support of your husband or son to relay messages or negotiate between you. It spreads the destruction.

7 DO build on what you have in common. You love the same people and want the best for them. Use this as a basis to see the best in each other.

Childcare, adds Dr Brann, is particularly difficult. ‘A grandparent relationship is special,’ she says. ‘It’s about creating loving memories and building a bond. When you become a caregiver, you take on the parental role and are expected to enforce boundaries, structure and discipline. How do you do that and still retain the special grandparent relationship?’ As a starting rule, Dr Brann believes, it should be up to the mother-in-law to decide where the childcare takes place: either in her house where she can get on with her own chores while her grandchild naps, or her grandchild’s home where the setup is likely to be more child friendly.

Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and author of How to Have a Happy Family Life, agrees that it’s a tricky issue. ‘If you’re a granny, you’re not looking after the children for money, you’re doing it out of love. To an extent, you feel ownership. You’re given this huge responsibility but no control – you’re asked to carry out someone else’s wishes all day. The granny really needs to sit down and discuss what is wanted, what she can give. She needs to talk about the issues that are really important to the mum – whether that’s not feeding her children sweets or not allowing them to nap in the afternoon – and the mother-in-law needs to accept that attitudes have changed and many aspects of child rearing are done differently now. At the same time, there must be areas that the mother is not going to stress about, where the mother-in-law can take the lead.’

Social media is another area to watch, warns Dr Brann. ‘It’s something I hear about all the time. The mother- or daughter-in-law takes an issue and posts it with a barbed comment somewhere all the family can see it. My advice is don’t – and don’t “unfriend” your mother- or daughter-in-law. Don’t use social media to fight – resolve to make it an “issue-free zone”. If you use it carefully, it can actually smooth relations. You can share news and photos with your in-laws without having to do it individually.’

Although it’s far easier to maintain a harmonious relationship if you start on good terms, it is possible to turn a difficult relationship around. Suzie, 48, can attest to this. For four years, she and her mother-in-law could barely be in the same room. ‘If I’m honest, we were both guilty,’ she says.

‘She’d always made me feel I wasn’t good enough – the fact that she’d stayed close to my husband’s previous girlfriend made me feel like a disappointment. My response was to find ways to keep her away. By the time our third child was born, she didn’t even mention visiting, she just sent a card. I should have been pleased, but actually it felt horrible. It had been easier for me to keep her at arm’s length, but our children were suffering. I picked up the phone and invited her round – and made every effort to smile.’

Building bridges doesn’t require a massive heart-to-heart, says Dr Brann. ‘You don’t have to be confrontational. You don’t need to fight it out. The easiest way to change a relationship, to get a different outcome, is to start doing things differently and change your own behaviour. Look for solutions to problems instead of finding faults.’

The rewards are many – to all family members. One extensive study by the Australian Unity Wellbeing index found that women close to both their mothers and mothers-in-law reported far greater happiness levels than those with just one set of support.

‘The bottom line is that you’re two women with a lot in common,’ adds psychotherapist Wendy Bristow. ‘You’ve both brought up children, you love the same people – and you really want the best for all of them. If you can keep that in mind, and use it to help you bond, then you’re halfway there.’