Hugo Schwyzer looks at the role men play in the dynamic between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law.
My last column, You’re Not Your Daughter’s Handsome Prince focused on father-daughter relationships, warning my fellow dads against seeking emotional validation from their girls. Several commenters both here and on my Facebook and Twitter feeds suggested that I ought to look at another classic emotionally incestuous dynamic, that of mothers and sons.
I wrote that piece as a father of a daughter, writing to other dads. I’m not a mother, so I won’t venture on to exceedingly well-trodden ground and proffer advice to moms about their sons. But I am the son of a mother to whom I have always been close. And I can say that one of the most challenging tasks I’ve had as a man has been learning to set good, healthy, adult boundaries with my mother. Judging from what I see in my friends’ lives, I’m not the only one.
Epic battles between wives and their mothers-in-law are constant themes in literature from around the world. From Chaucer’s The Lawyer’s Tale to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we see venomous power struggles between moms and the women their sons married.
It’s not just the stuff of fiction: psychologist Terri Apter found that two-thirds of married British women complained of “long-term unhappiness and stress because of friction” with their mothers-in-law. In her 2009 bestseller, What Do You Want From Me? Apter noted that “this impasse divides women who should have so much in common, and who could benefit from each other’s friendship. It causes both sides terrible unhappiness and distress.”
In literature—and all too often in real life—the husband/son is strangely absent from the domestic battlefield. In the celebrated Williams play, the character of Brick famously hides in the bathroom while his mother and wife fight over how best to care for him. More than a few straight men I know do essentially the same thing, ducking out whenever it seems like the two women who presumably know him best head towards conflict. It’s something I did in my first two marriages. And as I saw in my own life and see over and over again in the lives of my friends, the emotional cowardice of the husband/son is at the very heart of the fights between the women who love him most.
Terri Apter’s book locates the source of the conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law in a struggle for alpha female supremacy. She comes close to suggesting it’s virtually innate, which is why the press coverage of her book tended to feature headlines like Why wives are programmed to fight their mothers-in-law. This claim that women are hardwired to battle over him lets the son/husband off the hook. How can the fact that his wife and mother are fighting be his fault if this is simply the way women are? Best to hide in the bathroom until the storm’s over because there’s nothing you can do to stop the trouble. That’s what far too many men believe.
One source of the problem is the refusal of so many guys to grow up, a problem in which mothers are certainly complicit but which adult men are solely responsible to change. This is another manifestation of the myth of male weakness, in this case the myth that every adult male is simply an over-grown boy who is essentially helpless without the devotion of a woman. As countless wives will surely attest, among the most common fights they have with their mothers-in-law are the struggles to see which of these two women can better care for a man who is apparently incapable of taking care of himself. (Let’s be clear, too, that there are many moms who are good friends with their sons’ wives and girlfriends. That’s usually a testament to the maturity of all involved.)
It is not the fault of little boys if they are raised to be domestically and emotionally incompetent. It is not a 10-year-old boy’s job to demand that he be taught to cook and clean as well as his sister. It’s not his job to demand that he be allowed to express his own feelings thoughtfully and articulately, or to be instructed how best to nurse himself back to health when he’s sick. Boys are not to blame if they grow up hearing the scornful refrain that “men are all just big babies who need women to take care of them.”
But when boys become adult males, they are responsible if they expect their girlfriends and wives to assume the same role that their mothers once played. (Of course, it’s young women’s job to question their own socialization; they do well to break as early as possible any connection between their own self-worth and their ability to nurture a lover. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to care for someone who can’t care for himself, but that’s why we make babies and adopt puppies. Healthy men and women don’t go to bed with the same people whom they parent.) If a guy’s wife or girlfriend is fighting with his mom over how best to care for him, the real cause of the conflict isn’t estrogen. The problem is that he isn’t making it sufficiently clear that he is an adult who doesn’t actually need the care they’re so frantically proffering.
When I was first married, I was still in my early 20s. One day, I came down with a really ghastly flu and was bedridden. My mother called, and when she heard the symptoms, she asked to speak to my wife. Mom then gave Alyssa a shopping list and a careful explanation of what soups to make that might help me heal. My first wife was upset, but too polite to challenge my mom and too young and uncertain of her own role to demand that I set a boundary with my mother. I remember thinking at the time that it made perfect sense to have the woman who knew me best teach the woman who was trying to take over that #1 spot how to give me what I needed. I was thinking like a child. I was thinking like someone still in thrall to the myth of male weakness.
What I should have done—and in time, would learn to do—was set a basic boundary with my mother. When we pledge in marriage vows to “forsake all others,” it’s not just a pledge not to cheat. It’s a pledge to prioritize our spouses over our birth families. It means saying to my mother (as I finally did a few marriages later) that if I’m sick and need help, my wife and I together make the final call on how best to care for me. A married man who is a genuine adult makes it clear to his mother that he still loves her (presumably), but that his wife now comes first. If mom has an issue with that, she needs to take it up with him, not her daughter-in-law.
Lest it seems like I’m only holding men responsible, it’s worth noting that there’s a partial parallel in the relationships between fathers of daughters and their sons-in-law. Some dads do criticize and compete with the guys their daughters date or marry. Sometimes, this is rooted in a refusal to see the daughter as an adult who doesn’t need a man to protect her any longer. And yes, it’s the daughter’s job to make it clear to her dad that their relationship has changed and he is, in fact, no longer most important man in her life.
I love my mother very much and honor all she did for my brother and for me. I delight to see her as a doting grandmother to Heloise. But my mama knows that my wife and daughter come first now—and she knows that I have lovingly released her from the job of ensuring my well-being. That act of releasing was my responsibility alone. And when I finally learned how to do it, I liberated both my wife and my mom to become the good friends they are today. It wasn’t easy. Growing up rarely is.
The rivalry between mothers and their daughters-in-law is an ancient one. But the fact that this particular conflict is so old doesn’t mean it’s encoded into women’s DNA. Rather, the root of the conflict is our collective belief that sons and husbands are perpetual little boys, in need of care, feeding, and careful female management. It is the task of adult men to prove that myth to be a lie, both by demonstrating self-sufficiency and by demonstrating the capacity to set good boundaries with their mothers. When grown-up guys do that, they destroy the root cause of the quarrel between the women who raised them and the women they wed. That’s our job, and ours alone.
photo: ivko999 / flickr