Care and Feeding

Does Becoming a Mother-in-Law Turn You Into a Monster?

I’m terrified of becoming a bad one. But maybe it’s inevitable?

A woman puts her hand to her face as she sits next to an older woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Motortion/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

As a mother of boys, a daughter-in-law, and a reader of this advice column, I have one question: Do all mothers-in-law suck?

Seriously, it is my fear that, no matter what I do, in the very distant future, my relationship with my boys will never be close if they get married. I know there are a few amazing mothers-in-law out there, but the vast majority of them seem to always be tolerated at best.

—Am I Doomed?

Dear AID,

I think something very important to remember is that we do not see good mother-in-law relationships in pop culture because good mothers-in-law are dull as dishwater from a comedic perspective. We also do not see good mother-in-law relationships in advice columns because very few people are going to take time out of their day to say: “Dear Abby, I am a woman with a warm relationship with my mother-in-law, who respects my boundaries and has made me feel included and welcome in her family’s life. I hope you are well also.”

I have witnessed numerous functional, positive in-law situations in the wild. What may be helpful for you is to think about what those situations have in common! There are no guarantees in this life—people will experience friction and moments of conflict and misunderstandings and basic incompatibility, regardless of our best intentions. But there are absolutely some things you can do your best to control from your end of the bargain.

Be kind. Be warm. Respect your adult child’s choices. Don’t complain about their partner to them. Don’t complain about their partner to their partner. Don’t wear white (or full black Victorian mourning attire) to the wedding. Don’t keep a spreadsheet of visits to your home versus visits to their partner’s parents’ home. Don’t keep score, period. Try to be open and interested in their lives without being intrusive. If they have children of their own, give them the freedom to raise those children in the way they see fit. Unsolicited advice in marriage or child rearing is rarely wise. Don’t go through their personal possessions when you are in their home. If you return one of their children to them minus two fingers, do not push for future unsupervised visits until they are comfortable with that, which may be never.

Some of these are easier than others, but it’s almost always best to focus on what you can do than spend time worrying about the variables beyond your control. Things may still go pear-shaped, but being able to say “well, I did my best” and actually mean it is very important.

I hope your sons’ partners will all think you’re absolutely darling and also that you do not spook them by being overly concerned that they might not.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3-year-old has discovered humping her stuffed animals. I know this is normal, and I usually ignore it. On her more persistent days, I would like to tell her to do it in private, except her room is upstairs and she doesn’t go upstairs unattended. I have twin newborns, and I’m not about to pack them up from the living room and go upstairs to sit around waiting for her to move on.

Teaching her that the kitchen or the bathroom is an OK place seems like a mixed message. I’m just not sure how to handle it.

—Privacy Please

Dear PP,

I think that, while it is wonderful to support and destigmatize natural childhood self-exploration, it is not necessary to accommodate it at the precise moment of your child’s choosing. “Honey, that’s something you do in your room, so you can do that this afternoon during your quiet time” is perfectly adequate.

We can sweetly teach “in private” without needing to immediately create conditions of privacy, and that’s just fine. Humpy the Hippo will still be available at 1 p.m. EST. He has nowhere else to be.

My blessings are with you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old daughter and 2½-year-old son love to assume the names of their favorite characters from movies, TV shows, and books. I think this is a great way for them to explore the world and learn about how others think and feel.

The problem is that from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they fall asleep at night they have new, ever-changing names. They get rather indignant when I call them by their birth names—which my wife and I worked hard to select!—and even when I don’t call them by any name. “Please go wash your hands” is met with an impassioned “But I’m Elsa!”

This has been going on for over a year now. I’m sick of it.

I need to know when this stage will end. I’m tired of being yelled at for calling my kids by their birth names. I’m tired of having to explain to friends and strangers alike that their names are A and B but they’re going by C and D today. I also need to know how to handle it in our daily lives. I don’t mind playing pretend for a while, but this is old. What can I do?

—Nameless in North Alabama

Dear NiNA,

You never have to let your kids yell at you. Now, the 2½-year-old is likely just along for the ride, so you’re mainly going to be focused on your 4-year-old, but you’ll want to be consistent with both. It sounds like something that was adorable for a while has curdled into a system of expectations that feels disrespectful and annoying to you, and that’s why it’s generally good to cut things off before you get deeply aggravated by them. Your kids don’t know that something you have always let them do is now driving you bananas; they’re just proceeding with business as usual. Which is why you need to change the rule, now, instead of internally fuming.

Just wake up tomorrow and proceed like you are living with children who go by their given names. “Beth and Tommy, breakfast is ready.” If they correct you, tell them that they can call each other anything they like while playing but you are going to use their real names and so will other adults they encounter in the world.

Then hold the line! Yelling at you is rude and unacceptable, and you are the adults and can set the new standard and enforce it. But first, plainly tell them what you want and expect: for them to not flip out when you ask them to do something, and to respond to the names you have given them.

They’ll be fine. You were going to have to cut this off at the knees before they started school anyway, and they can be as imaginative and fantastical as they wish between themselves.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother to two wonderful little girls (4 and 2) with a third child on the way. I am married to their fantastic father, Mark, and although his parents live on the other side of the country, they have an incredible relationship with our kids. We visit in person several times a year; we video chat and send them pictures on a regular basis. I’ve been amazed at how my kids have built this incredible relationship with their grandparents mostly from a distance.

Mark’s father came into his life when my husband was 2 years old, and he has always been an incredible father to him in every way possible, even though he wasn’t his biological father. Mark always knew he wasn’t his biological father, but it wasn’t discussed openly in his family. This past year Mark’s biological father tracked him down after 35 years and some social media sleuthing. They talked and he seemed like a decent guy but also like someone who never really grew up. He blamed Mark’s mother and her father (now deceased) for pushing him away. He never apologized for not being there for him—they were both very young when Mark was conceived, so it would be understandable. But Mark didn’t like the way he talked about his grandfather and how he asked him to trust his version of events over his mother’s.

Mark was relieved to finally know more about the situation and discuss it with his parents openly. However, he doesn’t feel a need to get to know his biological father further, as he has wonderful parents who have always been more than enough for him. My question is this: How do we discuss this with our kids? I know that with social media and the small world we live in, “bio dad” will likely be able to make contact with them when they get older without us knowing. I don’t want this to be a deep family secret that is one day “discovered,” but I also don’t want my kids to be confused about who their grandfather is and think anything different of that relationship.

—Grandfather Who?

Dear GW,

The great thing about young children is that everything, and hence nothing, is strange to them. It sounds like they have lovely grandparents with whom they have a close relationship. That’s fantastic. As your children grow up, you’re going to have conversations about adoption and divorce and blended families and all manner of things that exist in the world, because you will want them to understand a variety of circumstances that they will eventually encounter in the lives of their friends and their extended family.

One of those conversations, ideally taking place as they near puberty but are not yet given untrammeled access to the internet, can be that your husband has a biological father whom he never really knew as a kid and whom he has spoken to as an adult but who isn’t someone he actively wants in his life. That really doesn’t have to create any confusion whatsoever as to their existing relationship with their excellent and present grandparents, who are their dad’s beloved parents. Make it clear you’re happy to field any questions about it. There are secrets and there are age-appropriate unfoldings of information, and if you set the right tone on the latter, no one has to feel like they’re in an episode of Scooby Doo.

You have a very long time before this is a factor, but start thinking about how you would want to handle it if your kids decided they want to get to know Mark’s biological father, either because they are curious about him or because he has tried to message them on whatever app people are using for that in 10 years. I don’t have an answer for that part; I just want you to think about it so that you have a plan when and if it comes up.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My son’s father and I divorced amicably two years ago. Neither of us is remarried or in a relationship. My concern is that he doesn’t feel “at home” in either of our homes. My son refers to our house as “my mom’s house” and his and his dad’s house in the same way. He and I are currently moving, and he told someone, “My mom is moving.” Is there any way to help him feel like he has two homes and belongs to both?