The old mother-in-law trope is a fairly tired one but it’s a cliché for a reason – they are largely bonkers people and frankly, I believe that they are perfectly entitled to be, especially given how crazy daughters-in-law can be.
When my sons bring home their future wives or husbands I will be ready, poised, with a deliciously evil grin to perpetuate the same quintessential mother-in-law behaviour on them that pervious generations have suffered. It’s my obligation as a mother to pay this lunacy forward and keep comedians in punchlines. And the mother-in-law thing is indeed a bit of punchline regular, my own brother-in-law referenced the fact that ‘mother-in-law’ is an anagram for ‘woman Hitler’ in his speech at my wedding – a pretty risky joke that only the Jewish side of the family laughed at, everyone else just froze in horror.
The mothers-in-law in that instance took it pretty well, though my own mother did make quite an incendiary speech, the gist of which was how I’d never done anything she’d wanted me to do, the implication seemed to be that this very wedding was just the latest in a long line of occasions where I'd gone against her wishes (yikes).
When I first met my own mother-in-law she handed me a copy of Astrology: A Relationship Compatibility Guide with all the pages pertaining to the union of Aries and Leos turned down. I initially saw this as a sign of her blessing the union. Though later, at dinner, she appeared to throw some subtle shade pronouncing Arian-Leo marriages as “passionate but ultimately volatile. Two fire signs. Doomed”. I was fairly miffed despite my not being remotely interested in the zodiac. I raged on quietly to The Man, hissing about how “horoscopes are a complete whoohoo anyway” and “volatile???? I’m the most chill person I know,” I was kind of screaming the last bit.
“Yeah, no... totally,” The Man was clearly not even listening.
“I am f*cking super chill,” I roared.
For a while, after the horoscopes, I wondered whether the mother-in-law was trying to subtly goad me or whether I was just being a psycho. I looked into some of the work exploring how in-laws communicate by Professor of Communications Sylvia Mikucki –Enyart who found that the expectations of clichés often distorts people’s behaviour:
“The mother-in-law can be very aware of the stereotype of being meddlesome and intrusive. So she goes to the other extreme and then the daughter-in-law says she doesn’t care.”
Was I conforming to this theory? Expecting my mother-in-law to be trying to annoy me because that’s the cultural messaging around mothers-in-law?
Then she gave me an unusual gift for Christmas a few years after we were married. A framed, artfully done description of all the traits purportedly possessed by Arians few of which seemed remotely positive. I was devastated to learn that my star sign seems to be the bastard of the zodiac – an attention-seeking, spoilt, self-serving, obdurate, bullish bastard. I began to wonder if the mother-in-law attributes the longevity of our relationship more to my Arian stubbornness than to any enduring affection on the part of her son.
Meanwhile, The Man was gifted a similar epitaph for Leos only with what I felt was a distinctly more positive tone.
This catalogue seemed to read as much in praise of The Man as it did some kind of warning to me. Paranoid? Probably but hear me out.
It begins: “Leo: To ignore his views borders on high treason”. I began to agree with everything he said but he grew suspicious and accused me of cheating on him.
“He listens readily to flattery no matter from whom.” Don't we all?
The last bit seemed to be aimed very specifically at me. “His partner should also be of social standing and under no circumstances should his partner ever steal his limelight.” Guys, this was a WARNING, surely.
Still undecided if I was imagining it or not, as a test, I displayed both epitaphs side-by-side on the kitchen wall where visitors to the house would instantly spot them.
“What is this?” my friend enquired.
“A gift I got,” I was careful not to reveal the origin of the gift lest it provoke an unconscious bias due to the mother-in-law cliché.
“Why would someone give this to you as a gift?” my pal was stunned. “It’s so cruel, albeit accurate,” she added. Vindication at last! I was jubilant.
Now when we go to visit the MiL (she moved far away just before the birth of my first child, apparently because she "wanted to" but I suspect she was intent on dodging the potential babysitting demands) I revel in the ‘your mother hates me’ narrative. We visited recently for a few days and in a cunning ploy to discredit me, she was unbelievably hospitable and generous.
“You see what she’s doing don’t you,” I whisper to The Man after yet another stunning meal, replete with sumptuous treats and delicious wine (she is an excellent cook). “She’s trying to make me out to be the mad one.”
“I think she’s just trying to give you a nice weekend,” he reasoned.
“Aha, so you agree she’s acting strange,” I was triumphant. “Who’s the crazy one now?”