LAYING DOWN THE LAWS T
Getting on with your husband’s mom can be make or break here is a type of succulent plant endemic to West Africa. Colloquially known as mother-in-law’s tongue, it is poisonous, spiky and difficult to remove once it colonises your backyard. Sound like som
know? Irrespective of country and culture, mothers-in-law get bad press. Even India’s’ Mother-in-law Spice Mix is named for its definite peppery presence at mealtimes. Add a baby to the mix, and you have a recipe that can sour the most successful marriage. But is there a way to get along?
THE FEELINGS GAME
According to Newsweek magazine, research conducted by Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter shows that some two-thirds of women use words like “infuriating”, “strained” and “simply awful” to describe their relationship with their mother-in-law. This is often due to unrealistic expectations, as Terri says: “Daughters are better at reassuring their fathers that they are still their darling little daughters and will sustain that role, even as their lives change and they draw new boundaries. Sons are not as good at reassuring their mothers that they will continue to have a role in their lives, or confronting her and saying new boundaries are needed. If they fail to do that, the negative conflict is played out between the women.”
This can be escalated when underlying issues between the mother and her son have not been properly addressed, and when cultural expectations intrude upon intimate family life, says clinical psychologist Lungile Ngubane, adding
that the older a person gets, the more rigid they can become in their thinking. “In some African cultures, the mother-in-law will move in with her son and his wife for a specific period after baby is born. Or the wife will go back home to her own mother and her husband will visit her regularly,” says Lungile. “The mother-in-law must then be able to accept the new additions to the extended family. The first addition was her son’s wife; the second addition is the new baby. However, cross-culturally, when a mother-in-law is struggling to accept these new additions to what she sees as her family, it is often symptomatic of an underlying fear of losing her son.”
Clinical psychologist Hlengiwe Zwane uses the weaning analogy: “Chances are it’s you that will be weaning not just your own baby’s attachment to the breast or the bottle (when that time comes), but also your motherin-law’s own attachment to your husband, who is her son. As all moms know, weaning is a slow process and it has to be done gently and kindly. It is critical to see where she is coming from before you fight with her. What are you actually fighting about? Is it about being right about a relatively minor point? Is it about having the upper hand between her and her son? You need to go beyond this and see what the actual objective is here, for example, keeping the child warm, or fed properly, or loved, or played with.” Recognising that you both share the same basic goal – the wellbeing of your baby – doesn’t magically set things right though. Hlengiwe says new moms often have to be skilled negotiators, versed in the art of compromise. “Is she giving sweets to your child even though she knows you hate this? Why? Because she wants to show love to her grandchild. So how do you change this mode of love, while keeping the same objective? Instead of sweets, maybe ask her to bake a pudding for an evening meal. Or if she must give your child ice cream, ask her to give him an apple too. Find another way she can show this love and spend time with your child. That way you turn an argument about sweets into a mechanism for finding common ground.”
Clinical psychologist and author of Babies in Mind, Jenny Perkel, says that a woman and her mother-in-law can often feel that they are fighting for the same man. “The new mom can feel judged for not being a good enough mother. This can make her defensive and brittle. The mother-inlaw can feel sidelined and unwanted, especially if the mum seems to be getting all the help she needs from her own mum.” Jenny advises that you set parameters early as a new mother. This deflects unwanted advice from your mother-in-law, and prevents a situation escalating into open conflict. “You could say, ‘Look, thanks for the advice, but what I really need is for you to cook meals twice a week, or take baby for two hours once a week, or every Saturday morning,’ for example. That way your mother-in-law feels useful. Sometimes, what a new mom needs is for the mother-in-law to look after her, and to allow her the space to look after her baby.”
Thula Baby Clinic owner and midwife Heather Wood says these parameters need to be established the moment you bring baby home from hospital. “This is a profound watershed moment, especially for fathers. You went to hospital as a son, and you came home as a father, with new priorities. The dad is now the keeper of the family space. Dad now has to be sensitive to the needs of his wife and protect her privacy, especially if you have a fussy baby.
“When a woman feels that her husband has heard her and stood up for her, then she is more likely to engage with her mother-in-law. Being a good father can come into conflict with being a good son, but it’s foolish to side against the woman you actually live with, for a woman you are not living with anymore,” Heather says. So it’s not about learning to live with that mother-inlaw’s tongue in your garden, so to speak, but rather about pruning back a few of its thorns and letting it find itself a different space under the sun as you establish your new identity as parents. YB