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Co-Parenting With a Mother-in-Law

Co-Parenting With a Mother-in-Law

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My husband and I had a lovely yearlong romance before getting married. Soon after our wedding we were pregnant and moving across the country to start our life together in California, where my mother would be (and currently is) the day-care for our beautiful son. Along with us came my 14-year-old stepdaughter to live full time. Her biological mother is not in the picture and my husband – though he has always had an involved and loving relationship with his daughter – hasn’t recently lived with her until we all moved out to California. It has been a giant transition for all of us, especially my stepdaughter. She moved across the country, got a new stepmother (and a new brother), started at a new high school and had to make all new friends. She has done this with grace and courage, and a few hiccups. Nothing we can’t handle.

The advice I need, however, is about my mother-in-law (my husband’s mother), who had been my stepdaughter’s primary caretaker since she was a little girl. Although we encouraged my mother-in-law to come with us to California, she is a very independent person who very much does things on her own terms (and has other grandchildren and family back where she lives). Although we asked for her permission to bring my stepdaughter along as we started our new family, and we all agreed that it would be good for her to have a few years with her father fully involved in her life, she has been blaming us for taking her “daughter” away from her.

My stepdaughter calls my mother-in-law “Mom”, and has for a long time, even though she knows it’s really her grandmother. Their relationship goes far beyond your average grandchild/grandparent relationship. I don’t doubt that their separation weighed heavily on them both. It was why we tried to get my mother-in-law to move out to California with us, and why my stepdaughter goes back to the east coast every summer. We know it’s not easy for her to be away from where she grew up. But I also know that there is a benefit to having my stepdaughter live in our family. We provide more structure, more discipline, a more functional family setting, higher expectations.

My mother-in-law makes accusatory statements, that we are overbearing, controlling, borderline abusive. That we are too hard on my stepdaughter, demand too much in terms of grades and chores, and don’t let her do things that she should be able to do – like get a driver’s permit or a smartphone. We believe, on the other hand, that my stepdaughter has some issues that came precisely from being raised by a coddling, overloving grandparent – namely, a bit of laziness, selfishness and lying. She has little experience with enforced consequences, discipline or simply the word “no.” We believe things need to be earned, and sometimes taken away when trust or promises are broken. We believe in working toward goals rather than having things handed out. In other words, we have a vastly different parenting style.

It is clear to me that my husband and I are being a little insensitive in trying to newly raise a teenager who was raised just-fine-thank-you-very-much before we intervened and changed their worlds around. But we also feel that there will be some good that comes out of our approach, some balancing out to the coddling that has gone on for more than a decade. But it’s currently shattered our relationship with my mother-in-law and strains the one with my stepdaughter.

At this point I feel I have a good relationship with my stepdaughter, with a fairly equal amount of “this is great” and “this sucks”. But with my mother-in-law, it is a dead zone. She doesn’t speak to me, I don’t speak to her. Her conversations with my husband are more loving and polite, but often turn to screaming matches about how we parent. What I’d like to know from you is, who do you think is right?


Yeah, I don’t think this is really a question of one side being “right” and the other side being “wrong.” And I couldn’t possibly make that call, especially since your entire letter is written in a way that clearly presents your side as the right one. (It’s okay, I’m used to that.)

Of COURSE, structure and limits and discipline are important. Of COURSE overly-permissive parenting has behavioral consequences, and I have no doubt that you are doing worlds of long-term good by teaching this girl the word “no” and personal responsibility and all that.

But quote marks around “daughter” and “Mom” aside, it’s clear that both your step-daughter and MIL are hurting so deeply right now, grieving over their separation. A 14 year old just moved across the country away from the only mother she’s ever own, and a woman went from raising a child to living alone. We can all agree on paper that the arrangement is good and “what’s best” for your step-daughter, but dang. I can’t imagine being in either of their shoes. I’d be a mess either way. Grieving, hurting people lash out and sometimes say things they don’t mean, or say things they DO mean but the feelings behind the words are rooted in grief and anger. It’s not right, but it’s also not something I’d call “wrong” because grief is an irrational mood monster.

Now, you may have left this out, but since it’s not mentioned specifically: Family counseling. For all of you. Get MIL on the phone for a few sessions, and also get a professional your step-daughter can talk to on her own. If she can vent to a third-party who will both validate her feelings of grief and upheaval while also upholding your behavior expectations, maybe she won’t feel so compelled to run back to her grandmother to tell her how mean y’all are being. Make sure she knows the therapist isn’t there to “fix” her or is some kind of punishment for the “hiccups along the way,” but is really just a safe space for her to talk about her feelings about having her entire life turned upside-down.

If she is in therapy/counseling, awesome. If the three of you have attended family counseling, great. Even better if you have a counselor who is willing to include your MIL with a united goal of successful co-parenting. You may be dealing with your MIL, but in this situation it’s remarkably similar to dealing with an ex-wife with a different parenting style. Only it’s your husband’s MOM, which…yeah. Family counseling, dudes.

I certainly can’t fix this from my computer screen. Obviously it’s your step-daughter’s best interest for you guys and her grandmother to present more of a united front, and I don’t know if your MIL is capable of that, at least not right now. I know it must SUCK to constantly be made to be the “bad guys” over what you see as appropriate parenting, but since your step-daughter spends every summer with her grandmother this is not a relationship that you can just let ice over or ghost from. (You KNOW she’ll just overcompensate for your mean-y meanness with even more indulgence, which will just make everything much harder.) You guys need to take this to a neutral third party — one other than me, and thus more qualified to help you all work through the differences and accusations and grief.

Published October 30, 2015. Last updated October 30, 2015.
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 [email protected].

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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  • Elizabeth

    October 30, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Oh man that sounds so rough for all of you! I was a high school teacher and have seen all sorts of different family structures and situations. I’ve noticed that kids who had family members leave or die even when they were young tend to revisit their grief when they hit young adulthood so your step daughter has a lot of different things she is dealing with. I would totally shelve the “right or wrong” idea. There is nothing to be gained by that and a whole lot to be lost. And I think Amy is totally right about the counseling. One last thing, teenagers can be a bit selfish and short sighted that’s kind of the nature of the developmental stage, they are breaking away and establishing their own identify sometimes it is hard to do that gracefully!

  • K

    October 30, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    I was adopted by my aunt and uncle at 15, after struggling along with my biological father (a sort of functioning alcoholic). This meant that I had zero rules, boundaries, expectations, anything prior to entering into my pretty strict aunt and uncle’s world. This made things really tough, because while they were trying so hard to create order, they forgot that the things they thought were so straightforward (responsibility, consequences, general consideration for other people) were completely foreign to me. They meant well, but in a lot of ways set me up to fail because 1) they assumed a lot about my upbringing and 2) forgot that while his way wasn’t the “right” way, it was the only way I’d ever known, and therefore I was not going to adapt over night to their lifestyle/rules/whatever. We struggled along for quite awhile, and eventually went into therapy. And then I left for college (I probably wasn’t ready yet) and things fell apart. We went back to therapy, and eventually we settled into a really nice relationship. So, this is my big vote for counseling. And I would also recommend some humility (for all adult parties). While I’m sure you have an idea of how one should raise a teenager, try to remember that this teenager has already experienced some less than ideal circumstances, which will color her lens for the rest of her life. She’s got a background that differs from your “average” teen, so you’ll do well to bring in some professionals to teach you guys and her how to have a healthy relationship. Good luck!

  • Kay

    October 31, 2015 at 11:51 am

    You’re not going to like this, but you need to face the fact that Grandma’s role as a co-parent didn’t end when you moved and she declined to come along. It’s not just that your step-daughter calls her “Mom”, it’s that your step-daughter THINKS of her grandmother as her sole maternal figure. If the bio-mom is alive and just not involved, recognize that there could be additional attachment and parental preference issues that can’t just be chalked up to your not letting her drive and making her do chores that Grandma didn’t require.

    Regardless of what you think of her as a parent, it sounds like Grandma stepped up to house, feed, and basically raise this child. I think this needs to be acknowledged and gratitude shown for her efforts and sacrifices in raising a girl to 14. Being a parent is already a thankless job, but this woman has also been put through the wringer here: she filled the role of a parent, but had few of the rights of a parent, and is now getting the message she was never the parent at all and should stop doing everything she’s been doing for the past 14 years. Even thought it seems like you want her less involved, I actually think you need to get her more involved, in order to get her on board. Everyone will have to make compromises to come up with a united front, which she’s more likely to do if she feels like a valued co-parent.

  • tsm

    October 31, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    I’m…fairly turned off by the tone of the OP’s letter. You think you MIL was “overloving” and “coddling”? Right, because you can totally “overlove” children. You think your stepdaughter is “a bit spoiled and lazy”? Why, because she doesn’t want to bend over backwards to fit the rules of a set of new people, neither of whom have EVER filled the role of a primary parent or raised their own child to teenager-dom before?

    FWIW, my own stepmother, while a decent enough human being, thought similar things about me. Knowing that this woman I was supposed to love believed that I was, in essence, spoiled and lazy and in need of some good ol’fashioned limits HURT. Maybe you could find it within yourself to give this kid the same sort of emotional margin you have for “your beautiful son.” I had a fairly rough childhood, and I have come to realize, now that I have my own children, that the emotional indulgence and unconditional love of my parents, despite their many issues, was what made it possible for me to function as a parent now. I’m not saying don’t have limits. I’m saying, try to love this girl unconditionally, and try to let her know that you do.

  • tadpoledrain

    November 1, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    I wanted to second the fact that if your stepdaughter calls your MIL “Mom,” that is because to her, she IS Mom. And she just moved across the country from her mom. I just… I know you had your reasons for moving to California, and I know that families with two parents who don’t like together (which is, basically, what is going on here, regardless of the other relationships involved) make all sorts of situations work, but having the two parents live on opposite sides of the country just seems so, so, hard for this poor girl. And especially so since she had not been living with dad prior to the move. Which, again, maybe there were good reasons for this that you didn’t go into, but I really, really question why, if he was so loving and involved, she wasn’t actually just living with him, at least some of the time. Why wasn’t he the one parenting her? And who decided that now was the time for him to start? I know you asked MIL for permission to take her, but did anyone ask her what she wanted? (Again, maybe you did and just didn’t mention it. But since you didn’t specify – you say “we all” but I can’t tell who is included in the “we” – I’m wondering.) MIL seems to have done a perfectly good job raising your stepdaughter. She bonded with her and kept her alive and kept her happy in the midst of what sounds like a pretty bad/turbulent situation. I’m sure it’s really hard for your stepdaughter to be caught in the middle, and I’m sure she also picks up on the fact that the way you are trying to raise her now (which, I wasn’t sure what word to use, because she’s pretty much raised at this point – I know she’s not an adult yet, but you’ve missed a lot of formative years, and you can’t just sort of start from scratch when what you have in front of you is a teenager) is an implicit criticism not only of who she is as a person but also of her mom, who chose to raise her this way.
    I think looking at this whole situation through a right/wrong lens isn’t going to get you anywhere, and in fact will just head you toward a trainwreck. I also think that at this point, you can’t expect to change your stepdaughter very much. Yes, absolutely have boundaries and natural consequences, but do it because that’s how you choose to live your life, not because you think you can go back and fix the harm that someone else’s parenting caused. Which it doesn’t sound like there was much harm done anyway, given the circumstances and the fact that your stepdaughter developed a loving relationship with an adoptive mother.
    Clearly I have a lot of feelings about this… One last thing, in response to something Amy said. Others may disagree with me, but I don’t think a good therapist is going to both help your stepdaughter deal with her trauma and also uphold your rules and boundaries. A good therapist will help her process her trauma and work on coping skills. Full stop.

    • Christen

      November 2, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      YES! to this entire comment.  I was wondering the same thing: why, if Hubby is just the dreamiest ever, wasn’t he raising his own child, at least part time? Did it ever occur to Stepmom that maybe this young girl carries some resentment toward her dad for a.) not claiming her at some point before he remarried and b.) seeming to be willing to be a husband/dad/stand-up guy for the New Family (with a SON, no less!)?  That’s some pretty major stuff that she’s absolutely able to identify but it doesn’t sound like she’s been given a lot of space to express herself.  Plus, they moved to be closer to the stepmom’s family; I’m guessing this teenager doesn’t know these people well and feel just absolutely uprooted and expected to abide by rules she’s never had.  Therapy is definitely in order for everyone, though.  That much is obvious.

      • z

        November 2, 2015 at 10:17 pm

        +1 to all of this!  If he’s such an involved and loving father, why did he allow her to be raised by someone whose parenting is so problematic?  And why couldn’t she live with him at least somewhat?  If he was in the military or something I understand, but otherwise, why couldn’t he influence how she was raised?  Frankly, if my son expected me to raise his child for 14 years, then yanked her away to prioritize his new wife’s family, and criticized my parenting to boot, yes, I would be pretty angry.  Similarly, you can’t just waltz back into a child’s life and expect her to respect you like you had been there all along.  Definitely not if you’re changing all the rules, uprooting her for the sale of your new wife and baby, alienating the only real parent she’s ever known, and telling her she was raised badly and lacks character.

        This sounds like a typical second wife case of None Of This Is My Husband’s Fault.  You write as if you and he are in agreement about how she should be raised, but if he really feels that way he would have done something about it years ago.  And he is now reaping the consequences that his choices have sown.  Open your eyes to your husbands role in this.

  • Karen

    November 2, 2015 at 12:55 am

    I highly highly recommend the book “hold onto your kids” by Neufeld. I am six years into parenting myself and can’t imagine the grace and humility it would take to begin my parenting journey with a teen. I think it’s probably a testament to this girl’s character, which at this point is mostly the result of her grandmother’s parenting, that things are going as well as they are at all. I can’t imagine how she must feel, raising her granddaughter after raising  her own children, a time when her friends are taking cruises and bus trips to play slots, she’s at school watching the Halloween parade. And now she is seen as outdated and replaced by something better. Def agree with the others about a good therapiat who can help the family became a family which is what this girl so needs right now as she heads out on the crazy journey of high school. Because rules and boundaries don’t make a family a family.

  • Karen

    November 2, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Also, I bet it would be so meaningful to your MIL if you might think about all the awesomeness you see in your step daughter and phone or write your mil and tell her “I see these wonderful traits in Jane, and I thought you’d like to know how much I see your positive influence in her, how she is making new friends, getting involved at school. Etc.”

    Also, selfishness, laziness, and lying are pretty much hallmarks of being a kid, even a 14 yr old. It’s been kind of crushing for me as a parent to think i have the secret sauce to avoiding those things in my family (boundaries, check! Discipline, check! Working toward goals, check!) and then see them in my kids. Humbling. Take time to really develop a connection with her (see book rec above).