For as long as there have been stand-up comedians, there have been mother-in-law jokes, which, let's face it, are one of the easiest ways for male comics to get a cheap chuckle. But new research by a British psychologist shows that women actually have more to complain about when it comes to mothers-in-law. And they're not laughing.
In an upcoming book What Do You Want from Me? (out in the U.S. July 2009 and later in the U.K.), Terri Apter, a psychologist at Cambridge University, uses research gathered over the past 20 years to show that the relationship between female in-laws can be far more tense than the one between a man and his wife's mom. After speaking with 163 people, Apter discovered that more than 60% of women felt that friction with their husband's mother had caused them long-term stress. Despite all the gags, only 15% of men complained that their mothers-in-law caused them headaches
For the women in Apter's study, the most common flash points were issues traditionally considered maternal ones: child care and housework. Conflict arises when the newcomer and the more experienced matriarch wrestle over whose way is best. "There's a concern that the values and norms of a different culture will take your son and your grandchildren away from the values and norms embedded in your own family," says Apter. "Sometimes this is an obvious concern about ethnic differences or religious differences"; sometimes it's about whose job it is to do the ironing. "From women of the older generation, there was a sense of being frozen out of the relationship," says Apter. "And from the younger generation, a sense of constant disapproval or intrusion." In Apter's study, two-thirds of women said they felt their mothers-in-law were jealous of their relationships with the sons, while two-thirds of mothers-in-law said they felt excluded by their sons' wives.
I got married just over a week ago, so I haven't had a mother-in-law for long. So far, so good. In the 10 days we've been in-laws, and the five years before that when my husband was my boyfriend, my relationship with his mom has been blissfully stress-free. And while we both like to think we're too charming and too wise to lock horns, there are other factors at play that help us stay friendly. One is proximity — or, in our case, the lack thereof. My husband and I live in London, while his mother lives two hours north of the city, so there's no risk of her popping round to check the dust levels on the bookshelf or calling my husband every time her TV is on the fritz. That means we avoid one of the more common complaints that Apter heard from women: that their mothers-in-law demand too much attention from their sons. In What Do You Want from Me?, one woman describes how her mother-in-law expects her son "to come round late at night even to change a lightbulb." For me and my mother-in-law, distance helps keep us close. (See pictures of the busiest wedding day in history.)
Another savior of our relationship is my husband's relationship with his mother. "If I doubted my son's love for me, I'd be more likely to see you as a threat," she tells me. "But I don't." Apter's research supports that theory; she found that doubt is what drives any conflict between women and their mothers-in-law. "The root of the problem is vulnerability," says Apter, "the fear that the valuable relationship between mother and son is under threat as lives change. Mothers are left thinking, 'Will I still be valued for what I bring to the family?'"
And it's the man's job to let his mother know that she will be — a job most aren't very good at. "Daughters are better at reassuring their mothers that even though their lives are changing, they're still attached to their mothers," Apter says. "Men are less proactive about that reassurance." So every time my husband calls his mother to chat about the latest football scores, he takes us all another step further down the path of familial harmony.
But there is one potential powder keg we haven't come to yet: children. Apter found that, in all the ethnic cultures included in her research and across the generations, child-rearing was one of the most constant and stressful sources of conflict between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. "If I don't see my grandkids as much as I want, if I don't think they're being cared for properly, if I don't think they're being raised in a way that is consistent with my beliefs of a good life," then trouble can ensue, says Apter. "Each family has its own set of norms that usually fade into the background of their lives but tend to come to the foreground when two families merge."
So what happens if my husband and I have children? Raising kids is rife with possible in-law-infuriating issues: disposable diapers vs. cloth, breast-feeding vs. the bottle, video games vs. chess club. How will the decisions my husband and I make about our kids affect my relationship with my mother-in-law? "If you have children," she says, "I'll be blaming you for all their problems, not my son." She's only kidding. But for some women, that's one mother-in-law joke that's no laughing matter.