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How to Make Changes When Your MIL Won’t Change

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

I’ve been reading up on your wonderful MIL/DIL relationship advice and am coming to you for help.

Struggles with my MIL started about nine years ago when my husband and I got engaged, and have ebbed and flowed since then. My MIL has lived her entire life being in charge and in control, she’s passive aggressive, plays the martyr card often, lacks empathy, gossips, is fake, doles out the guilt trips, and is judgmental. She’s undeniably the matriarch within my husband’s extended family and everyone simply falls in-line under her direction. If she wants it, she gets it and doesn’t care about the feelings of others. She’s never had a MIL of her own, doesn’t have a daughter or sisters and was the sole focus of her parent’s attention.

There have been countless hurtful things she’s done… from sending out her own save-the-date cards to our wedding, to having a separate first birthday celebration for my firstborn while I was at work, to even accusing my husband and I of not caring about family because we celebrated New Year’s Day with my mother (who was recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy) instead of her. The latest incident was a hurtful message she sent to my husband filled with her “thoughts” about my mother, sister and I, trying to drive a wedge between my husband and my family. Truly, I could go on and on.

In full disclosure, I am a pretty sensitive person, I’m intimidated by my MIL, I do not like confrontation, I want to be liked by all and I take everything to heart. I’m working on letting things “roll off my back.” I’ve made some improvements, but this just goes against the way I’m hardwired.

My husband has never had a particularly close relationship with his mom (even strained at times), but has also made it clear to me that he is exhausted with hearing about my grievances with her (which I completely understand and have no resentment towards my husband about).

My husband and I have two children and a third child due to arrive in a couple months. My childcare situation is as follows: I work from home one day a week and my mom and my MIL each watch our kids two days a week. We’re so blessed to have this support system – I know… I really, really do.

With baby number three due to arrive soon, I’m looking to make some changes while I’m on maternity leave. After nine years of major and minor issues with my MIL, I’m looking at myself and not liking the woman I see. I’m carrying around so much hurt that I’m bitter and resentful. Even if my MIL does something genuinely nice for me or my kids, I can find fault with it. I’ve noticed I’m spending a lot of energy venting about her to others and stewing internally. I’m allowing this person, who I know I cannot change, to suck up my happiness. I don’t like this about myself. In short, I need a MIL break. I need distance and time so I can forgive and forget. At some point, my happiness and well-being has to take priority, right?

I want to hire a part-time nanny and remove childcare duties from my MIL. I think this will help me, but I know this will not go over well with her. At the end of the day, I want to be a great wife, mom and even DIL, and I just can’t be those things when I’m unhappy and practically hate her.

What do you think about this idea? Am I missing alternative solutions to solving my problem? Any recommendations for kindly communicating a change in childcare to her?

Thank you so much for your advice.

Signed,
I need a MIL break.

Hmmmmm.

So two things I am historically not a fan of: Horrible mother-in-laws and anyone who assumes that “free” childcare provided by family members is always going to be awesome and wonderful and yay. Two things I AM a fan of: Taking control of your sanity and happiness and also paid professional childcare.

And yet I can’t say I’m feeling your plan here 100%.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE YOU’RE SAYING. I get it. I really do get it.

But after reading your letter, it doesn’t seem like most (or any?) of your issues with your MIL actually stem from the care she provides for you children? So I worry by hiring a part-time nanny and doing away with — frankly — the one actually really nice thing she does for your family is not going to resolve any of your issues with her, but will instead open up a whole new can of worms and drama.

You admit that after years of petty slights and personality clashes, your perspective on her is pretty skewed and that it’s hard for you to give her credit for anything genuinely nice or helpful, and I think changing up the childcare arrangement for her (and only her) is an extension of that mindset. Maybe if you were going to get a part-time nanny for all four days, that would give you the disentanglement you desperately want without…well, nuclear-level family fallout with a woman who already is engaged in a weird competition with your mother. I really don’t see ANY way you can tell her you’re replacing her with a nanny (but not your mom) and have this end in anything other than a really ugly, big old mess, and strain the relationship to a breaking point.

So am I saying you’re trapped and are completely obligated to continue this arrangement indefinitely while sinking further into a bitter soup of MIL hatred? No. I’m just thinking that there are better ways to climb out of that soup bowl without blowing up the one thing about her that you COULD actually look at in a positive, grateful way. Or at least just neutral, or zen. And without her screeching off the rooftops about you “firing” her and not your mother and without dragging your husband into an awkward spot between his wife and his mother.

I feel like I’m suggesting therapy and counseling an awful lot these days, probably because I (re-)started therapy a few months and hooooooo boy, it’s been eye-opening to discover just how off your perspective and/or coping skills can get, and how great it can feel to get a clean reset via a neutral third party.

Here are the things you say you want:

  • You want to let go of your bitterness and hurt.
  • You want to stop venting to everyone you know and internally stewing about every little thing.
  • You want to separate her jackass behavior from your happiness.

These are all EXCELLENT, healthy things, and I think they are indeed essential goals in order for you to be happy and focused on being a good wife, mom and person.

But.

A part-time nanny isn’t going to give you any of those things. A therapist won’t automatically give you those things either, since those are all changes that need to be made internally. An external change in childcare might feel good in theory (and even in practice, eventually), but all the ugly feelings you’re hoping to purge will still be there under the surface.

And if — nay, when — your MIL feels super hurt and unfairly treated or infers that you’re making the change because of something babysitting-related she did (rather than all the other crap she’s done), you’ll basically be handing her more ammo to passive-aggressively wield against you. I can already hear it: “She thinks a STRANGER can take better care of MY GRANDCHILDREN!!!111!!”

Again, I don’t want you to feel hostage to your current arrangement. But to maybe first focus on those good, internal changes that need to come from you. Work on the “letting crap go” and a better sense that while she’s never going to be your favorite person, she’s probably not a murderous Disney villain incarnate. Promise to only vent about her to your therapist. Go ahead and rehash and unpack everything nutbar thing she’s done for a few sessions. Then do the internal work on letting it all go. (“It all” meaning the bitterness, old hurts, and the temptation to stockpile every tiny thing — good or bad — that she does into your arsenal of soul-stealing hate.)

Once you’ve done all that and gotten to a better mental space about her (and I’d be remiss not to point out that pregnancy hormones might not be helping you get there right now), you can then objectively re-visit the childcare arrangement with a clear heart and eyes. Maybe you’ll find an ability to kill with kindness or focus on nurturing a feeling of gratitude rather than your grudges. Or maybe you’ll clearly see that yes, your mother-in-law undermines your authority too regularly or won’t let a pick-up or drop-off go by without getting in a hurtful dig. At that point go ahead and say, “I’ve done everything I can to make this work. It’s not working, and I’m not dealing with it anymore. And whatever tantrum she throws over that decision is not going to affect me one way or the other, because I’m above it, and completely over her.”

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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Lindsay
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Lindsay

I agree with all the advice here, but I’d also add the pretty significant question of – where is your husband in all this?!?! She emails him “her thoughts” on your whole family and rather than stand up for you (Ex – “I love her! You are my mother but you may NOT talk about her like that to me. If you continue to do so, you will not be seeing my family any longer”) he instead TELLS YOU all about the awful things she said about you, but now you’re not even allowed to complain about it to him… Read more »

Lily
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Lily

I agree!!! I also have a complicated relationship with my in-laws, and I believe that your husband’s response will make or break this situation.

Caroline Bowman
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Caroline Bowman

I think therapy is a great idea… for both husband and wife. He obviously – and quite reasonably – doesn’t want to be the punch bag for endless whining, and that’s fine, but he is involved too, because, astonishingly, these are HIS children and HIS mother… who organised a birthday party while the parents were at work, who did all the various really awful things. How convenient that he ”doesn’t want to hear it”. Well buddy, you’re in it. When your mother sends her thoughts and they are disparaging of your wife, you respond ”I’m sorry you feel that way… Read more »

ELF
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ELF

I – have to disagree. Even if her MIL is excellent childcare (and that’s a very big if, because people who are disrespectful to you in other ways are almost never respectful about your wishes as a parent – people who are mostly respectful but don’t respect your wishes as a parent are much more common) there is the fact that she needs to NOT SEE her MIL’s face for a while. Proximity makes all of these irritants much worse, and given the childcare arrangement she has to see her MIL at least twice a week. I think Amy seriously… Read more »

Chalkdust
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Chalkdust

I wonder if they could find some arrangement by which the LW’s husband does all the interacting with the MIL–he does drop off and pick up on those days (if childcare is at the MIL’s house) or LW leaves for work early and comes home late on those days (if childcare is at LW’s house). Because I have to agree with the previous commenters, having him demand that she not bother him with her feelings about the situation, while doing nothing to resolve the situation, is not really an acceptable way for a spouse or co-parent to behave.

Christine
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Christine

I agree with Amy’s advice here. And also wanted to point out that if you get rid of her for childcare help, she will likely be desperately missing the children, and YOU will be forced to see her more in your free (non-work) time. (Or, if you decide she doesn’t get to see the kids on weekends, her anger/crazy level will increase even more.) Right now she gets lots of grandchildren time, and you don’t have to be there, hooray! Also, when you mentioned the first bday party without you, I wondered immediately if she provides any childcare, bc our… Read more »