Sources in Rabbinic literature identify the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship as one of considerable complexity and stress. Having been both a daughter-in-law, and more recently a mother-in-law, I would like to offer both camps a perspective on this peculiar tension.
THE NEW BRIDE
A young bride enters her marriage starry-eyed, romantic, fully expecting to be the exclusive "woman" in her husband's life. Generally, she is young and a relative newcomer to her husband's world. Consequently, she is unsure of herself and insecure.
The young wife wants to please, to meet her husband's needs, forge a lasting bond, and build a good life together. She finds herself, however, at a great disadvantage. She discovers that she is competing with a woman who has, for better or for worse, nurtured, molded, and shaped her husband's life since his birth. In addition, when it comes to a perception of women, for the young groom his mother has been his role model.
The home of his upbringing, created by his mother, is the blueprint of his expectations. Implicit or explicit, there is in the marital discourse, the unverbalized statement of "my mother did it this way."
This may apply to the state of housekeeping, meals, personal appearance, raising of children, etc. The expectation to adjust to things done differently is terribly threatening, no matter what the young wife's intentions.
Under the best of circumstances, for a newlywed, the mother in-law is a cloud hanging over her head.
Meanwhile, the young wife needs the constant reassurance that however differently she may do things that she is, nonetheless, worthy, competent, appreciated, and valued.
Under the best of circumstances, for a newlywed, the mother in-law is a cloud hanging over her head, comprising a pre-existing standard by which she is invariably judged, and to which she frequently believes she cannot measure up. These formidable insecurities drive the conflict into a cycle of accelerating tension, testing both the spousal and the in-law bonds.
On the other side of the fence, the mother-in-law has her own set of issues. She has birthed and raised this now-married young man. She has seen him through the normal day-to-day passages of life nurturing, agonizing, giving, and caring as only a mother does. While she has known all along that someday he would leave home, get married, and create a life of his own, she is not always prepared, emotionally, to let go.
Hers has been an enormous investment and adjusting to the new reality may take some time. Even us "normal" mothers, who want nothing more than to see our children happily married and accounted for, will still get a little pang when we see our sons walk off into the sunset with this new woman, his wife, at his side.
Of course, part of us is delighted, even ecstatic, and we certainly pray for their everlasting bliss. Nonetheless, there is that occasional twinge.
Daughters-in-law are on the ascent, young and strong; mothers-in-law are aging and on the descent.
Admittedly, some of the uneasiness may be traced to the fact that our daughters-in-law are on the ascent -- young, beautiful, and strong -- while we, in contrast, are on the descent (even if we don't want to admit it). Age is beginning to take its toll, and our strength is on the wane. We don't look and feel quite as vital as we use to, and just when we most need affirmation, love, and caring, our children are busy and preoccupied with their own wives and lives.
These are the natural and at times even subconscious insecurities affecting the mother-in-law.
All of my sons are special, including Efraim who has been a unique treasure since the day he was born. In nursery school his teacher warned me that on a given day if I don't find him there when I come to pick him up, it would be because she had whisked him off and claimed him as her own.
Efraim left home to go to school out of town at the tender age of 10 -- first to New York, then to Switzerland, then to Israel. He never complained. Everything was always perfect by him. When he would bid me farewell after a visit home, his eyes would well up with tears as he turned away to hurry off.
God blessed him with a wonderful wife, and ever since, when he visits and subsequently takes leave of me, his eyes no longer well up with tears. Thank God. Yet a tiny little voice inside of me protests to the tune of "so, if you have a wife does that make your mother chopped liver?"
As daughters-in-law, we need support. We need to find our own way escorted by encouragement and validation that yes, while we might make mistakes enroute that nonetheless we are okay.
Early married years are full of learning experiences, part of the "becoming" process. We don't have to be replicas of our mother-in-law. We are entitled to our own unique style. At the same time, it doesn't hurt for a daughter-in-law to have an open mind, to be willing to observe and learn from someone who has a track record, who has lived, experienced, and tested life more than she has.
Ideally, if the context allows for it, a closeness should be fostered by seeking advice and insight from the more seasoned traveler. This exercise can be a mutually satisfying and beneficial vehicle. The daughter-in-law will gain knowledge and information, and the mother-in-law will feel respected and valued.
A MOTHER'S COMPLAINT
Clarice, an intelligent, hard working and devoted mother shared her frustration with me. Her son had been married for a number of years and her daughter-in-law, Esther, wanted no part of her. When Esther joined the family, Clarice was eager for her to be everything that she had envisioned as a mate for her son. In her zeal, she encouraged her son to take Esther to Torah classes to upgrade her spirituality. Needless to say, Esther did not appreciate her meddling. As the relationship began to suffer, Clarice turned to me for counsel.
I advised her that though what she wanted was laudable, she had overstepped her bounds. Esther undoubtedly felt diminished in her husband's eyes when his mother constantly pushed for her to become what she was not. I urged Clarice to meet with Esther, apologize for being out of line and assure her that she loved her, thought highly of her and wanted a relationship with her that would be free of unsolicited advice.
It's difficult at times for a mother-in-law to see things done differently than she is accustomed to.
It's difficult at times for a mother-in-law to see things done differently than she is accustomed to. She has to stop short of making a value judgment. Different need not mean inferior or unacceptable. Rather one has to adjust one's view and perspective to include the "different strokes for different folks" approach.
Unsolicited advice, criticism, cynical or caustic comments are deadly to a relationship, regardless of how "well meaning" they may be. Meaning well is no defense. The saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is most apt in these situations because "hell" is the best description for the arguments generated by insensitive remarks and observations.
GET A LIFE
Furthermore, it's very important for a mother-in-law to have her own life so as not to live vicariously through her children. As a rule, mothers-in-law should come when invited and make "drop in" occasions scarce. We have to let go. After all, it was meant to be this way. The Torah advises, "A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave onto his wife," and so it has to be.
One last cautionary note.
Our children watch very carefully and observe our every move. Our behavior and attitudes inform their lives. In our roles both as mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, we are modeling. Our children are taking careful mental notes. It should give us pause to make our interactions -- the thoughts, words, and deeds -- that comprise this relationship well considered.
Rabbi Israel of Salant taught that the loudest sound in the universe is that of a person breaking an attribute of personality, modifying baser inclinations in deference to more appropriate responses.
The area of in-law relationships is undoubtedly one of the most challenging of all. But commensurate with its difficulty is the sense of victory when the better part of us prevails, and we behave not as we would like to but as we know we should.