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Bad Daughter-in-Law...Or Good Wife?

Bad Daughter-in-Law…Or Good Wife?

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My MIL just threw us an elaborate baby shower and bought us hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars worth of baby stuff. Even though the whole thing has been vaguely sing-for-my-supper-esque, I’m incredibly grateful.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesRecently, however, she’s gotten into the habit of calling me whenever he doesn’t answer, which is often. See, for years she’s had a habit of calling my husband repeatedly throughout the day for nagging/insignificant reasons (btw, she lives like 7 hours away). When I ask him to call her back, he refuses or puts it off for a long time. Furthermore, he insists that if either of us respond in a timely manner, she’s going to “feel like she has the upper hand” and call us both even more…for, again, really annoying reasons (just trust me). She’s kinda nuts that way, and it’s already happening, so I do believe him. He says to just let him handle it. BUT — Should I listen to him, or insist that he deal with her differently? Would listening to him make me a bad (and ungrateful) daughter-in-law? He’s her son, so his actions are forgivable to her, whereas I don’t have it as easy.

I can’t think of what to do! I’m especially nervous about setting such boundaries with a baby on the way. Oh sweet Jesus.

Thank you very much!!!!

Let him handle it.

So your husband has years and years of experience dealing with his mother and has come up with a system that — on the surface, probably does sound harsh, yes — works for him, sanity- and boundary-wise. I understand and respect your concerns about being a “good” and “grateful” daughter-in-law here, but…still. It’s his mother. I’d trust his judgment. If he thinks she’s simply, say, trying to rope you into some scheme of non-stop manipulation and nagging after a big showing of passive-aggressive generosity, then personally I’d take his word for it and well, let him handle it. Screen the calls. Tell her nicely that you’ll pass the message on, then politely say you’ve got to go. Find other ways to be a good daughter-in-law than being a phone intermediary between the two of them, like being the one to email/mail baby pictures.

Here’s the thing: My husband has a similar-sounding relationship with his mother. Early on, I felt the same way you did. I wanted to have a nice happy relationship with my in-laws and she seemed thrilled by my efforts to NOT keep her at arms’ length like my husband did. Only somewhat belatedly, did I figure out that…oh, there’s kind of reason why he interacts with her the way that he does. And I quickly had to start spinning wheels in reverse, so to speak. I can’t really go into a lot of the nitty-gritty details, but trust me, it sounds like a very similar situation to yours. I had the luxury of being married for seven years or so before the first grandchild arrived, so by that point I’d had plenty of time to get the boundaries more or less set back up between us and aligned with my husband’s comfort level about how we collectively dealt with his parents.

And the same goes for my side of the family. He’s always let me set our boundaries there, to figure out the best way to walk the line between “involved, happy-yet-complicated relationships” and “OH HI I’M A DOORMAT.” He’s never been like, “You need/should do X, Y and Z when it comes to so-and-so,” unless I’ve specifically asked him for his advice or opinion, and I really, really appreciate that.

I will also say that while my husband’s relationship with his parents isn’t perfect — they drive him insane in that special way that only one’s parents can — I wouldn’t say it’s BAD, either. Particularly now that we have children and I have quietly pointed out that gee, I really hope my boys and I don’t end up with a similar-type relationship to Jason, his brother and their mom some day. You know, with the not calling ever and stuff. But that’s about the farthest I’ve ever pushed, and I have definitely seen some softening and forgiving over time and I have no doubt that he loves and cares about them deeply, but…I just don’t think changes to the day-to-day interaction is something you can or should try to force.

In-law relationships are so fundamentally tough, because they will never, ever be about Your Own Personal Completely Independent Relationship with them. They will always include your spouse and his/her relationship with them and his/her baggage (justifiable or otherwise). Some troublesome in-laws will try a divide-and-conquer approach, either by ragging about YOU to their child or vice-versa, though the goal is usually the same: A level of control over their adult child’s life that they simply aren’t entitled to anymore. Your primary familial responsibilities involve being a good wife to your husband and a good mom to your child-to-be. Let him worry about his relationship with his mom for now, and aim for working TOGETHER on how best to deal with things once that relationship expands to include the grandma and grandchild labels.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • lolismum

    April 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Spot on advice. I wholeheartedly agree. I have a very complicated relationship with my parents, who are also completely financially dependent on me. My husband lets me handle the best and the worst, and the financial side of it. I shield him from the worst and never make large financial decisions without consulting him and that way my parent’s problems/manipulations do not affect him and our relationship as much. His parents are sweet and uncomplicated, so at least we have it easy with one set of grandparents. Listen to your husband, let him handle it. He is the experienced one. 

  • EB

    April 25, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    My mother in law, who I totally love and have a great relationship with, does this to me. My husband works long hours and doesn’t have cell phone reception in his office. We email and IM a lot to communicate during the day, but for some reason she’s never picked up on that being the best way to get a hold of him, even though it’s been mentioned numerous times, and even though she uses her email a lot. Add to this: my husband hates the phone, hates talking on it, hates calling people, just hates the phone! So he’s pretty good at ‘leaving’ the cell in the car, etc., and not answering, and then texting back later. She only lives half an hour away, and we do see her a lot, but sometimes life gets in the way and we don’t see her for a while, she leaves him messages, then she calls me. It’s always, “I just want to make sure he’s okay.” or “I miss him and hope he’s well, I can bring him something if he’s not well.” I myself am not yet a mother, but I guess she just thinks that he might be sick or hurt if he’s not calling, and she wants to mother him. Sometimes I find myself a little hurt that I am perceived as unable to care for him, or that he even *needs* to be ‘cared for,’ or the presumption that if he doesn’t call 3 times a week he must be dead. I know, I know, moms and their boys, etc.
    All this to say, last year when he was in his first teaching year and very busy, both his parents (they’re divorced) were calling ME all the time, asking how he was, how it was going, how he was feeling, how stressed he must be, etc. etc. We’ve been together many years, but this was the first time I started ‘filling them in’ on his life, since he really was too busy with career and our life to see or call them more than once a month if that (which, really, should be okay? Since he’s no longer a child, you know?). So once I started giving up the info, they stopped even trying to call him and just called me. All. The. Time.
    It totally back fired – beyond my getting 10 calls a week from them. When we would then go and have dinner with them, they’d be like, “EB said this, EB said that, we are so worried, you should sleep/eat/exercise/call us more, etc., nag, worry, fret!” He did not take this well, and since then I’ve had to draw a very thick boundary line with them. He knows he should eat more, sleep more, etc, but he really doesn’t need his parents to tell him to do that. And I don’t nag him much, which I think has been a great relief compared to his parents. But then I went and broke down our boundary with his parents and let them know too much! I opened the communication flood gates, basically, and in thinking I was doing a good thing, that if they just had the info, ie “He’s really busy and tired but fine!” that they would back off. Wrong. Because he knows his parents better than I do.
    So, yes, defer to your spouses wishes, keep it simple, say, “I’ll pass on the message,” and then just hang up. Really, they’ll be fine. Your husband is a big boy now, and so is mine. ;>
    Oh, and if you have boys? Please resist the urge to mother them after they leave the nest. Especially after they’re married. Please. Even if you don’t think you are, you are. Even if you don’t think that will ever happen, it will.
    Love, daughters-in-law everywhere.

  • BD

    April 25, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    This exact issue is the reason my dad went and bought my mom one of the first answering machines on the market. His mom was lonely and calling all day and driving my mom nuts. The day I left for college, my mom told me, “I’m not going to call you. If you want to talk, you call me, and that way you can set the expectation and I won’t be driving you crazy.” It’s worked beautifully, and we’re in touch all the time.

    Separate cell phones and caller ID are your friends – ignore what comes to your phone from her, and let him deal with her on his terms.

  • Emily

    April 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    I have good relationships with all my inlaws (hubby has two sets of parents) and my own parents. I definitely agree with what Amalah said here. His parents, let him be the strategist. but, to add to the discussion.. call your parents every once in awhile, okay? Cause guess what – they love you with the intensity that you love your own kids. They are proud of you and want to hear what you’re doing. Everytime I look at my own daughter, I wonder how my mother can stand the fact that I live 10 hours away. She tells me that it’s because she’s so proud of me, that she is okay with the distance. And I hope that I can be just as supportive after my child is gone. But call them every now and then. Remember how you feel about your own child and watching them grow and do new things and remember that your parents and your spouses’ parents are just as in awe of you both.

  • Christina

    April 26, 2011 at 10:35 am

    My experience and EB’s are interestingly similar. My husband hates phones and is unreachable during the day. His father is really difficult in a lot of ways. At some point a few years ago FIL took to calling me at all hours because he thought it was a way to get in touch with his son. I took to ignoring some of his calls but answering while at work and kindly telling him I was at work and couldn’t talk or answering when I knew there was lots of background noise. He realized quickly that I was not useful to him. So he gave up.

    It makes me sound unfeeling when I type it out like that but like so many others, my relationship with my in-laws is difficult and not being their conduit is better for my marriage. They aren’t able to hate me because it isn’t like I was rude and I do speak to them on occasion.

  • JB

    April 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Agreed 100% with this advice!

    I (fortunately as this doesn’t always happen) heard this advice earlier on and have drawn more of a thick boundary than is probably needed with my S/O’s parents. If I have a question for them (they live overseas and ship us stuff sometimes, etc), I’ll ask S/O to ask them or email them for me. Even though I’m perfectly capable of calling/emailing them myself. They fortunately don’t see this as my being rude. I don’t know if they’ve noticed that I’m “purposely” doing this, actually….Unless they are visiting (obvs), I get S/O to funnel all of “our” communication through himself.

    And Amalah is right, you’re not going to “really” have an independent relationship with them, ever. Even though they may be lovely people, but there’s just no way you can have an objectively independent relationship with your MIL. So basically….I haven’t tried to achieve that. I know that might sound mean, but, trust me, it’s working very well with our “S/O is the only point of contact” plan. (And btw, his parents are perfectly nice! This just works a Lot better as I can envision them starting to complain about him, etc., if I tried to have a more independent relationship with them).

    Though, it helps that they live overseas and several time zones away……

  • Kathleen

    April 26, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Hmmmm…I actually disagree a little bit. My MIL is just like yours — she calls often, for no apparent reason. It drives my husband crazy. When we first got together, we had the “your family, your rules” policy at first. But then I had a baby, and I was at home, and his mom was calling for no reason, and it was really easy to yammer on the phone with her for half an hour. She got grandchild updates, I got contact with the outside world. And yeah, she would ask a ton of questions about my husband. Stuff she should ask him that he should answer. But my husband doesn’t do small talk and it was so easy for me to chit chat with her about how my husband was doing. I’m the one she calls now when she wants to make plans, and I’m the one who sends photos of the grandkids, and I’m the one she talks to the most. But she and my husband are closer than ever — he doesn’t have to deal with all the chit chat, but she knows the general stuff going on in his life and doesn’t drive him insane with all the phone calls. I don’t think you should try to change your husband’s relationship with his mother. But you can define your own relationship with his mother on your own terms.

  • EB

    April 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I think I should clarify a little, because it sounds like I just kind of shut down on my in-laws. I didn’t. I still talk to them all the time, but about me, our general plans, and about future dinners and trips and stuff. When they ask how my husband is, I say, “Fine!’ or “Good!” or “He’s good, you know, just very busy. He’s fine. Email him.” Because I do care much more about being a trusted partner to my husband than ‘ratting him out’ to my in-laws. So I do agree with Kathleen a little – it’s fine to have a friendship/relationship with your MIL/FIL etc., as long as your partnership with your SO always comes first.

  • KateMac

    April 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, to Amy’s advice. I agree unequivocally, because I too lived through it, with pretty much the same kind of mother-in-law. I wanted to be a good daughter-in-law, and I couldn’t really understand my husband’s complicated feelings toward his mother, or the way he ‘handled’ her. It turned out? He was totally right. I should’ve listened to him and I’m glad I eventually did. (After all, I wouldn’t expect him to understand *my* mother better than *I* do.)

  • APL

    April 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Just as an FYI…MILs like this become decidedly more pushy and willing to ignore obvious boundaries once the baby comes. Be grateful your husband has established those boundaries and has no problem enforcing them. I promise if you interfere with his system now, you’ll eventually wish it was still there…

  • getgoinggirly

    May 3, 2011 at 9:20 am

    I guess I am in the minority here but I am coming at it from a different place. I have lost both of my parents and my father in law. When they are no longer here you come to realize that maybe they were so desperately trying feel like they were still a part of their baby’s world they crossed a line but unless they are dangerous I say if you have to set some boundaries then set them but keep in mind some day you will miss them and their nagging. Plus remember our kids will be saying the same stuff about us someday and how will we want to be treated?