Mothers-In-Law: Then and Now

Women's lives and ambitions have greatly expanded in the 98 years Mother's Day has been celebrated in the USA. Have relations between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law improved as well?

           By Meryle H. Gellman, Ph.d. Psy.d.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated this weekend since 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May to be a national holiday. Times have changed in 98 years, but in some ways, not at all.

Women’s lives and ambitions have greatly expanded, and we have become major players in the world. However, in the family, the perception persists that a woman is mired in jealousy of her child’s spouse, and a daughter or son-in-law still may view her as intrusive and domineering.   

Daughters-in-law are perceived as having to set strict boundaries in order to ward off the intrusive mother. Mothers feel frozen out of a relationship with a child, and daughters-in-law feel a nagging sense of disapproval from their mother-in-law. Navigating through the transition is no easy task..

It is safe to say that everyone wants to feel valued, supported, and appreciated. My patients report a similar refrain, that relationships are far easier with a son-in-law than a daughter-in-law. Why? Is it just that men are hard-wired to not become as emotionally entangled as women? As discussed in my recent article in Patch:  “Mothers and Sons: A Test of Endurance,” a mother and son are in a never-ending state of push-pull.  Are we too close or not close at all? This dynamic is different from a mother’s relationship with her daughter which needs less evaluation for closeness. A daughter is less likely to push her mom out of her life, and in her own way,  reassures her mom that she is still much needed. Mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law are engaged in a balancing act. We work, play, relate, are involved, and lead lives as independent thinkers.

Children have a difficult time today trying to live up to their parent’s generation. It may be of significant value from the beginning for each of us to assess the relationship to our own mothers. What worked? What was lacking? Reflecting  will help focus what each is looking for and expects in this new relationship that has been thrust upon us. Our expectations may hinder what is really possible.

I cannot help but reminisce about my mother and my mother-in-law. Both have passed on but leave me much to hold and value. I remember clearly, as though it were yesterday, how my mom responded when I asked her to baby-sit. There was always a pause. I knew it. I felt it in my body. The pause was communicating something vital. The pause was telling me, do not take me for granted, and do not assume that my life revolves around you. Yes, she was there to support me, to be with me so that I could achieve what she was not permitted to do.  She was not allowed to accept her admittance to Hunter College at age 16, but instead, had to work to support her family and younger siblings.   I think of my mother-in-law, and how I wish I knew much earlier what she could realistically feel toward me. Why should she love me? How much richer it would have been for both of us to be aware that we had to work at our relationship.  My mother-in-law could not possibly change what was problematic with my own mother. My understanding and coming to terms with that reality might have made a difference for us.


  • Stagnation versus process, moving through difficulties. From the beginning, it would be helpful for a prospective daughter-in-law, son-in-law, mother-in-law to have a conversation about what makes them thrive.
  • Be Mindful of your relationship with your parents and its impacts on you, which may affect your relationship with your mother in law. Think about cultural differences, religious differences, etc.
  • Expectations. Do not expect to cherish each other merely because you have come into each other’s lives. You did not pick each other. DO THE WORK.
  • Respect.  Give due respect to the woman who raised the person you love. A daughter in law needs to think about  what are minor vs. major aggravating issues in your significant other’s personality that you resent and blame on your mother-in law.  On the other hand a mother needs to constantly remember that this person loves her son or daughter. It is their choice, and you could not do anything about it even if you tried.    
  • Interest. Recognize and pay attention to each other’s lives. I do not believe women today want to intrude or build boundaries as much as they need to know that the other recognizes that they are each a person of substance.


Communicating and sharing in each other’s lives sustains an ongoing connection. It takes work and communication and will hopefully result in a collegial relationship rather than one that is static, ending  up reinforcing age-old stereotypes. For Mother’s Day, I call on all mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law to reach out to each other and communicate in a respectful, loving way. It will be appreciated and may lead to relationships that are more than just being merely tolerated. Happy Mother’s Day!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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