So I looked for father-in-law (FiL) joke websites and found one called ‘Why are there never any jokes about fathers-in-law? Yet there are lots of ‘jokes’ about 'my mother-in-law' (MiLs) and they are all bad.

This is a ‘nice’ one:

Joke: I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for two years. We haven't quarrelled. I just don't like to interrupt her.


Joke: How many MiLs does it take to change a light globe? Just one. She just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around her.

I wonder what that’s all about?

I tried looking up daughter-in-law (DiL) or son-in-law (SiL) jokes too. They do exist but they seem to be largely about what the DiLs and SiLs think of their mother-in-laws.

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Mothers-in-law are often the target of many jokes

So why do MiLs get such a bad press? I once read a study about Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. It was an early twentieth century account depicting close-knit communities living in tenement housing.

For those of you who watch it, the BBC TV program Call the Midwife is evocative of that time and place. It was a matrilineal society to the extent that, when a young woman announced that she was to be married, her Mum would ‘speak for’ her to the rent-man to ensure nearby accommodation. This meant that the son-in-law was pulled into his wife’s family and this was the origin of many of the music hall jokes and stereotypes that persist today.

My own mother knew all about this first-hand. The proud mother of four girls she always protested that she never wanted sons because; “Your daughter’s your daughter for the rest of your life, but your son’s your son till he takes a wife”.

I’m not sure that’s fully true because two out of three of my sisters did a very good job of caring for their mother and their respective MiLs.

Given the labelling and stereotyping it can be very difficult to be a MiL. After all, what is the job description? What is expected? This is a heated topic in a lot in my friendship circles.

Rachel has three sons – one was going out with a girl who really didn’t want to engage with her boyfriend’s family. So Rachel took a proactive stance and sat the girlfriend down for a chat saying; “Listen, if you are going to stay with Adam, we all have to be able to get on. What’s the best way we can work this through?” The girlfriend scarpered.

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Does your mother-in-law love interfering in your family matters?

Linda was distraught. She could do nothing right in the eyes of her DiL. Linda’s a social worker, so chose family mediation as a way to resolve matters. “How was your son during the mediation session?” I asked. She answered, “He just sat there looking miserable”.

Linda’s issue was not just about the DiL. It was also about her relationship with her grandchildren. How would that work out if she and her DiL can’t get along? Two years later it became apparent that the marriage wasn’t working anyway and her son and his wife split. Now the issues are access to grandchildren and freedom to behave with them as she chooses in the face of the strict rules imposed by her DiL.

I acknowledge that there can be good MiL and DiL relationships. I have one myself, though it wasn’t without teething pains. I haven’t dared tell my son that he has married his mother because my DiL is as family-minded, well planned and organised as I ever was and absolutely suited to my son who is so laid-back he is almost horizontal. Makes life easy for him, huh?

“Where are the boys in all of this, that’s what I want to know?” Brenda is the mother of four boys. Her first grandchild had just arrived and she was beginning to realise that she is the non-preferred grandmother. Why wasn’t her son keen to introduce the baby to his side of the family and share the cuddles?

I’ve only recently discovered this concept of the ‘preferred grandmother’. I read it in an article discussing the reaction of a mother to her young daughter’s transgender issues. By supporting the child in the transition to becoming male she felt that she was relinquishing preferred grandmother status.

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The Mother-In-Law Bridge is a historic structure in a city park in Michigan, US

The MiL dynamics are muddled. First of all, some personalities are suited and others are not. The Bethnal Green account suggests that the point of tension is between MiL and SiL, but many of the stories I hear are about MiLs and DiLs. All of this is compounded by expectations associated with grand-parenting roles and inter-generational, possibly cultural, differences in values about family life.

So I had a chat with my friend Rhada. I thought Indian women had this MiL thing stitched-up. Apparently not: “My DiL has loathed me since before she married my son”. So no particular insights or wisdom there!

Anne suspects that MiL tensions have as much to do with stereotypes that prevail about older women as they have to do with in-law relationships. Her argument is that today’s bunch of MiLs are well educated, independent women who do not want to be held to ransom and silenced by DiLs in order to have a continuing adult relationship with their sons. So she flew to New York and had that discussion with her son and her DiL – separately. She had to do it because she felt cornered into not being allowed any opinion lest it be couched as interference.

So, did you hear the one about the MiL who babysat her grandkids all year, provided financial help to her son and DiL and was then left on her own on Christmas Day? Hmmm. . .

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