Giving the Gift of Gratitude: Appreciating Your Mother-in-Law


Which extended family members will you see this holiday season? Are you excited or a bit anxious or a little of both?

My husband’s mother is coming to visit us for about a week to make memories with our family. I am fortunate to share a wonderful relationship with my mother-in-law; in fact, I have her to thank for match-making our marriage. She supports us and our family, and, although we live miles apart, we enjoy the time we do spend together.

However, I have been the listening ear to many a girlfriend’s lament about frustration with their in-laws. Their complaint seems to support the stereotypical mother-in-law relationship: You know, the mother-in-law who is critical, covetous, and controlling. And, as we know, holiday stress can exacerbate pre-existing tensions. If you are anxious about being around family this holiday, consider ways to make space for gratitude instead of grumbling. Here are four things to keep in mind, especially in the relationship with your mother-in-law.

woman, mother-in-law
Photo by Thomas Hafeneth on Unsplash

1. Start from common ground. You both, presumably, love your husband. You both, ostensibly, love your children. Start there. Capitalize on what you both share in common, which happens to revolve around love. Praise your spouse in front of his mother. Brag on your child(ren) in front of the grandmother. Ask his mom to share great memories that she has of your husband as a child.

2. Acknowledge you are different. Your mother-in-law is different from you – and from your family of origin. Perhaps she celebrates holidays differently than you do. Maybe her religious and political convictions are completely opposite of your own (agreeing to disagree is okay). It may be that she worked outside the home and you do not or you work outside the home and she did not. She parented differently than you do. That’s okay – difference is inevitable.

3. Address the issues that need addressing. If your differences cause consternation and conflict, find a way to have a constructive conversation with your partner and with your mother-in-law. Do not constantly put your husband in the middle between you and his mother. Refrain from always complaining to your spouse. Imagine roles reversed and you being on the receiving end of complaints about your family members. Instead, have conversations with your partner that look for helpful ways to address particular issues. If you really need to vent, try a journal, therapist, or a trusted friend.

Do not be passive aggressive, willfully manipulative, or crazy controlling. I would give the same advice also to mother-in-law’s; in fact, to all humans. Be grown-ups. Is it possible that you have unspoken expectations of your mother-in-law that need to be either altered or verbalized?

If there are issues that need to be addressed, and most likely every family will have some, decide as a couple which ones to tackle. Ideally, you and your spouse work together as a team. And, some issues require your spouse taking the lead to address them with his family. However, every person has a different toleration level for conflict so, in some cases, the burden for the conversation may fall back to you if you spouse is unwilling to engage.

Does your mother-in-law constantly criticize your parenting? Does she repeatedly ignore your boundaries for unhealthy foods, enforcing naps, allowing screen time? Does she have a different approach to gift giving or discipline? Can you imagine a conversation about your preferences for the food your children eat or the gifts that you would prefer that they have or do not have? The difficult part is, of course, that while you can name your preferences and boundaries, that does not mean that your mother-in-law will comply.

And, you may have the mother-in-law, who is not only different than you, but who is in an unhealthy emotional or mental space and unable to work together with your family towards understanding and compromise. I have also witnessed mother-in-laws who truly are intentionally sabotaging a marriage or are extremely toxic towards a family. If these things are true for you, seek professional help for negotiating relationships.

4. Look at the big picture.

The long view is so difficult to see when we are in the trenches of motherhood. We are often sleep deprived and pulled in a thousand directions. Some days, we are not even sure what we are doing. I remember when I was a brand-new mother. I had doubts about my own parenting. I was sure that my mother-in-law thought I was not doing a great job. Looking back, my feelings were more about my own self-projection and lack of confidence than about my mother-in-law.

Also, remember that the big picture includes a lot of people. This is not just about your relationship with your mother-in-law, it’s your partner’s relationship with his mother, your child(ren)’s relationship with a grandmother. 

And, maybe one day you will be a mother-in-law, and you will have to trust another person with the child you raised. The long view helps you see yourself down the line and it also helps you imagine your mother-in-law as once in a similar stage of life as you. She had sleepless nights, too, and she sacrificed many things to raise her son, your husband. And, if you think about it, we are back where we started, with what you share in common: You are mothers, and that is something you can both appreciate.


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