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On Being the Mother-in-Law

Parenting educator Vicki Lansky is the author of 101 Ways to Spoil Your Grandchild (a compendium of great tips which were actually compiled before her grandchildren arrived) as well as two dozen other parenting books.  She wrote the following piece especially for Mother U.


Once, when my daughter Dana asked me about how I would feel about someone whom she might bring home (as a prospective mate), I assured her that I would love him—regardless of whether or not I liked him. That’s the job of a mother-in-law as I see it. As it turned out, my son brought someone home first.

I love my daughter-in-law. Smartest move my son ever made. She is sharp, savvy, soft and as lovely on the inside as she is on the outside. She’s a natural…at just about everything. Did I mention she is Swedish…and a doctor?

Doug met Signe in his travels in Europe during his college days. Over the years, Signe and I slowly got to know each other, meeting in both the States and Sweden. On one of their visits to Minnesota, Signe and Doug hopped into a hammock and the smaller tree supporting it snapped and hit him in the face. Hours later he returned from the hospital, looking terrible but fortunately having no major damage. That week, Signe cared for Doug in a way that won my heart. And at their wedding four years later, I had to agree with her father’s wonderful observation: “I never realized that when I had children that the people they marry or bring into our lives would so enrich our life experience.”

Now that Signe and Doug have children—two daughters, ages 5 and 1 1/2, plus one under development — I am not only reaping the rewards of being a grandmother, but also a mother-in-law.  Besides loving Signe (no matter what), here are a few other mother-in-law strategies that have enriched our relationship:

<b>Discover in your daughter-in-law (or son-in-law) a new way to communicate with your child.</b> Since Signe is not my child she can hear me in ways that my own children cannot. I see Signe tempering my son’s responses and giving him a wider perspective that he can not seem to hear from me. I never tell one something that they should not tell the other. That can only undermine our relationships—in every combination. And I let her know I love her and compliment her when I see things I like, whether it’s her dress, her personal accomplishments, or her parenting.

<b>Don’t judge her parenting style.</b> What is the most fun for me is watching what caring parents  Signe and my son are.  She may not be doing it MY way, but her way is just fine and it is working. As much as we grandmas hate to admit it, parenting methods and values do change from generation to generation. (Remember how we knew the best way…the latest theories… the best advice? Well, so do they.) Each generation is entitled to parent its own way. In Sweden it is actually illegal to spank a child, so I know Signe never will. When I am alone with the girls, I follow her lead on discipline, rather than go on automatic pilot the way I may have done it.

<b>Draw your own boundaries, too. </b>I was not prepared to be the all-purpose babysitter—and I told Signe so. Even though they lived in Sweden, I still let them know not to count on me. Instead,  I’ve offered at various times to fill in. And because they were not expecting anything from me, I think my help is even more appreciated. Once, for instance, when they were out of the house, to their shock I actually changed a poopy diaper.  I couldn’t leave the baby in a dirty diaper for several hours. After all, I had my standards too.

<b>Be respectful and supportive of your daughter-in-law. </b> Even if your daughter-in-law is less than welcoming to you, keep trying; you might be surprised.  This has been easy in my case because even before Signe and Doug married, she told me that my future grandchildren would know their Swedish and their Jewish roots. She kept that promise. Her ongoing consideration is especially important when it comes to long-distance grandparenting.  She is eager for me to see her offspring and to enjoy them as they grow.  She often mails pictures and the older girls’ artwork.  Naturally, I want to return that support.  So I try not to call at times when I know she will be busy with the children, or too late at night. She needs her sleep these days (she works and is pregnant) and seldom gets enough of it.  I also let Signe know that she and the kids are always welcome.  And to make her life easier, I always pick up extra baby items at rummage sales and have diapers on hand when they arrive.  Everyday kindness really matters.

<b>Share some one-on-one time.</b> I sometimes have taken Signe shopping when their budget is tight…and sometimes when it’s not. A little spoiling goes a long way. I have enjoyed spending time with Signe (or her and the children) when my son is out of town. This puts a whole new dimension on our relationship and has helped build it into a stronger one. I have passed on a few family heirlooms to her so that my daughter and she will not vie for them when I’m gone. It also feels good to know she’ll have some special items to treasure and then pass on to her girls.

After all is said and done, Signe knows she is my second daughter. And how ironic that she is a medical doctor and Dana a lawyer.  Thanks to my two daughters, I’m living a Jewish mother’s fantasy!

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