She's been cast as a villain, but is it possible the modern mother-in-law is simply misunderstood?

May 06, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff


In the story on mothers-in-law in last Sunday's section, the Web site address where readers can find Dr. Terri Apter's advice and research paper was omitted. The Internet address is

You've probably heard a million mother-in-law jokes like this one:

"Hello. Your mother-in-law fell into my pool filled with crocodiles."

"The crocodiles are yours, so you save them."

But did you ever ask yourself why you never hear father-in-law jokes? Or why a loving mom gets stereotyped as a bossy sadist once her child gets married?

Or why there are two words to describe the medical condition known as having an aversion to mothers-in-law (pentheraphobia and novercaphobia)?

The stereotype isn't even evil in an interesting sort of way, like the Wicked Stepmother. Mothers-in-law are just interfering shrews.

It's not always the two women who don't get along -- which you might expect. The most famous television examples involve sons-in-law. Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners" loathed his mother-in-law; Endora on "Bewitched" never got along with son-in-law Darrin. And surely it's the male stand-up comics who have come up with most of the brutal mother-in-law jokes.

Then there are the immortal words of Ernie K. Doe in his '50s hit song "Mother-in-Law":

"If she leave us alone

We would have a happy home

Sent from down below


The mother-in-law / child-in-law relationship seems doomed from the start, given the lowered expectations. The father-in-law usually stays out of the fray, says University of Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter, because men are typically somewhat removed from the day-to-day business of home and family. Many of the conflicts revolve around these issues, which have enormous emotional impact.

"A mother-in-law, even if she has great sympathy for her daughter-in-law, can't help but judge her as a good wife for her son and a good mother," says Apter, who has done extensive research on in-law relationships. A young wife may feel criticized for her skills -- or lack of them. Even an offer of help can be seen as criticism, although the older woman doesn't mean to intrude.

Sometimes it's a matter of very different expectations. A woman who has four daughters of her own may not want a close relationship with a daughter-in-law who needs a mom, points out Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Mothers-in-

Law and Daughters-in-Law," which will be published this month by New Horizon Press.

While the relationship between a mother- and daughter-in-law has the potential to be more emotionally charged, the son-in-law may resent his wife's mother because on some level he's afraid she'll see through him -- and not idealize him as he wants his wife to. Or he may simply be jealous of the close ties between mother and daughter.

"As the mother of [the spouse] she has great power," says Apter. "To demonize her or ridicule her is to minimize that power."

Apter's relationship with her own mother-in-law isn't an easy one. They don't quarrel, but the older woman's assumption has always been that the psychologist's most important job is to contribute to the happiness of her husband.

"I felt very threatened when I was young," says Apter, "But now I just see it as part of the human comedy."

Mothers-in-law have been getting a bad rap for millennia. In Roman myth Venus was snippy about her son Cupid's marrying Psyche, a mere mortal.

More recently, Lord Byron (1788-1824) wrote: "I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law."

Maybe in the 21st century mother-in-law bashing will finally be a thing of the past. Baby boomers are the first generation of women who routinely have had careers of their own. They ought to understand if their daughters-in-law don't always put husband, children and housework first.

Women who are just becoming mothers-in-law and who are used to thinking of their children as contemporaries may also be more willing than previous generations to consider their daughters-in-law as friends.

"Mothers-in-law today are more self-aware," says Apter. "Friendship is possible if the daughter-in-

law can step back. There is much to be gained, a family network."

Finally, with today's greater life expectancies, 21st-century mothers-in-law are statistically going to be around longer than ever before, points out Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociology professor who specializes in family relationships. Their children had better learn to get along with them.

In fact, some professionals argue that the old stereotype has already gone out the window.

"It's a mistake to think [in-laws] don't get along," says Cherlin. "Most do. It's a myth that was more the case in the old days, when the mother-in-law was an authority figure. [For example,] when the oldest generation owned the farm."

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