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Child Caring

For new mothers, mother-in-law can add to stress

Virginia Lepore with her three daughters-in-law (from left) Katie, Lisa, and Cindy. (Globe Staff / Jonathan Wiggs) Virginia Lepore with her three daughters-in-law (from left) Katie, Lisa, and Cindy.
By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / February 1, 2001

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When Virginia Lepore of Arlington first became a mother 47 years ago, she and her husband were grateful to live in half of her in-laws' two-family house. Her mother-in-law was a constant presence, though, telling her not only how to be a good Italian cook but also how to be a good mother.

As a struggling new mother, Lepore says, it took great inner strength not to feel put-down.

With three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren herself now, Lepore says she is nothing like the mother-in-law she had.

"When my daughters-in-law became mothers, I wanted to give them what I didn't have: respect for the way they do things. I'm happy to give advice," she says, "but I'm very careful to make sure they want it."

Lepore ought to patent her secret to success.

Feeling criticized and judged is the number one complaint new mothers have of mothers-in-law, often leading to tension and conflict in the family, say psychologists and parent educators.

"It comes up in every new mothers' group I lead," says parent educator Margaret Hannah of Warmlines Parent Resources in Newton.

Parenting is very different today than it was 30 years ago: For starters, breastfeeding is favored over the bottle, more mothers work outside the home and use day care than stay at home, and all sorts of new equipment - from Snuglis (front-packs for carrying the baby) to Boppies (breastfeeding pillows) - are available.

"You'd be surprised at how often the new contraptions are a source of conflict," says Hannah. "Grandparents typically can't help but talk about how they did without."

Unfortunately, whether they are marveling at the ease of a new device, indulging in nostalgia, or making conversation, daughters-in-law tend to hear it as criticism. That's because new mothers feel so insecure, says Wynn Burkett, author of "Life After Baby" (Wildcat Canyon Press) and founder of the Golden Gate Mother's Group in San Francisco.

Given the neediness of a new mother, it's not surprising that it's her mother - and not her mother-in-law - she more often turns to for help and nurturing. The typical mother-in-law may understand that intellectually, but in her heart she feels left out, or at least, says Burkett, "is fearful of being left out."

Even a new mother's mother isn't home-free. While she may feel secure initially, she knows how thin her ice is; there's a whole industry of jokes about mothers-in-law, after all, and they're all written by sons-in-law. (For a rude reminder of how healthy that industry is, check out www.motherinlawstories.com. For instance: How many mothers-in-law does it take to screw in a light bulb? One. She just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around her.)

How does all this play out? Here's a story Hannah says is typical of what she hears:

All new parents are advised to put a baby to sleep on her back to avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; 30 years ago, it was de rigeur for a baby to sleep on the tummy to avoid gas.

When a mother-in-law says, "Gee, sleeping on the tummy gets rid of their gas, that's what I did with my babies," a daughter-in-law tends to panic. Whenever the mother-in-law offers to stay with the baby, this new mom imagines she'll put him on his tummy. In her vulnerable state, it doesn't take long for her to conclude her mother-in-law is not a safe caregiver. The mother-in-law, already primed for rejection, also panics: Hurt and angry, she may lash out and criticize, or she may redouble her efforts to be helpful. Either way, there's more tension.

When Hannah first hears stories like this, she lets new mothers vent. "That's what they need most," she says.

By the fourth or fifth week, when they are laughing at one another's stories, she asks them to consider the mother-in-law's position.

She and Burkett want women to recognize that they each are acting out of love and a sense of inadequacy. "Just acknowledging out loud to each other how different things are today helps," Burkett says.

In other words, a mother-in-law can be supportive and solicitous without being a know-it-all simply by asking questions: "It's been so long since I changed a diaper! Remind me how." Or, "How do you want me to clean the cord?"

A daughter-in-law can be respectful without being dismissive: "I know that worked for you, but it doesn't make me comfortable."

"Don't do anything without permission," Hannah tells mothers-in-law, even if you think it will make your daughter-in-law's life easier. She tells of a new mother who decided one day this was the day she finally was able to cook dinner again. Just at that moment, her mother-in-law arrived with a meal.

"It was a wonderful gesture," the mother said, "but I felt totally deflated."

This mother couldn't say `No thanks' to her mother-in-law, so Hannah urged her to find a time in a month or so to tell her the story, so they could laugh at it together.

It's also not just mothers' insecurities that count.

New dads typically feel left out of the mother-baby duet. "When his mother-in-law is the person his wife turns to for support and help - What does he know about cracked nipples, after all? - he feels even more left out," says psychologist Joseph Powers, director of the Center for Social Relations at McLean Hospital in Belmont.

This can be the beginning of resentment toward a mother-in-law. Just as the wise father's mother supports her daughter-in-law and asks how she can be helpful, Powers says the smart mother's mother offers her son-in-law the same courtesy: She doesn't take over the household, she asks what help he wants.

"I coach in-laws to back off and let new parents establish their ways, then to be as available as possible," says Powers.

This is particularly important in families of diversity.

When new parents come from different cultural or religious backgrounds, ideally they decide before the baby is born what they want to replicate or reject, says counseling psychologist Barbara F. Okun, a professor at Northeastern University.

"Waiting to see if you have a boy before deciding if you'll have a bris puts you under tremendous strain and increases the potential for everyone to be hurt and upset," she says, referring to the Jewish rite of circumcision.

Her advice is to clarify your views before a baby is born, not by saying, "This is the way it's done in my family," but by asking: "What makes sense, given the world we're raising a family in? What did you like/dislike about the way you were raised? What traditions do you want to keep/discard?" Okun is author of "Understanding Diverse Families" (Guilford Press).

When you do make a decision to reject a piece of one of your cultures, psychologist Elaine Rodino of Santa Monica, Calif., suggests telling in-laws before they notice it's missing.

"That doesn't mean they won't be angry, hurt, or defensive anyway, but they may appreciate the kindness and respect you show them. You'd be surprised how much that counts," says Rodino. She specializes in intergenerational relationships.

If your children are older and you have had a strained relationship with one set of parents for a long time, Rodino urges setting the record straight, "even if you think they are impossible people, even if you know nothing will change."

"I'd tell them, `Over the years, we have felt you've been critical of our parenting. We'd like you to support us, not criticize us. We know you mean well, but it hurts.' "

Will that make a difference? "Maybe only for you, but that counts, too," Rodino says.

On the other hand, perhaps the biggest surprise for new parents and in-laws alike is how the birth can turn mediocre relationships into great ones.

"Sometimes it's more relaxing [for a new mother] to be around her in-laws instead of her parents," says Burkett. "There are fewer expectations."

Happily for them, Virginia Lepore's daughters-in-law don't have these issues. Lisa Lepore's 12-year-old is the oldest grandchild and was also the only grandchild for many years.

"He was the center of attention, no question about that," says Lisa. "But I never felt judged or scrutinized."

Cindy Lepore and Katie Lepore agree. "She's always available to help or baby-sit," says Cindy. "She never forces her views on you."

It's Katie who offers the ultimate compliment: "She's my role model. She's exactly the kind of mother-in-law I want to be."

Give grandparents specific tasks

1 As new parents, we need all the help we can get. In-laws on both sides will feel better if you solicit their help early on by giving each person specific tasks.

2 On the one hand, grandparents' role is to indulge grandchildren. On the other hand, if they are spoiling your children, set firm, specific limits: not just 'no violent toys,' but a list of toys that are ok and a list of ones that aren't.

3 If you're an in-law who feels that you don't get enough access to grandchildren, come at it in a positive way: ''We'd like to spend more time with the kids,'' rather than, ''You're leaving us out!'' or ''Why don't you let us see the kids more?''

4 A new mother often looks to her husband to intervene on her behalf when his mother is driving her crazy. If the new father also needs help relating to his parents, it's better if they speak to the in-laws as a couple.

5 If you're a new mother who feels guilty about the way you've treated your mother-in-law, tell her, ''Sometimes I don't even know myself these days. I'm unpredictable, I blow hot and cold. I hope you'll bear with me.''

6 If you're a mother-in-law who feels you haven't been as supportive as you could be, tell your daughter-in-law, ''I'm so excited about being a grandmother, sometimes I just leap in before I think. I hope you'll bear with me.''

7 Many fathers-in-law are anxious to be involved with grandchildren in a way they weren't with their own children. Tell your son or daughter how liberating this is for you so they don't harbor hard feelings about what they missed.