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?


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

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