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How to Play the Mother-in-Law Name Game With Millennials

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Weddings, as we observed last week, can ignite bad feelings among family members. Once past the nuptials, the young couple may expect “happily ever after,” yet other issues can bedevil both parents and adult children. One sticking point is what to call an in-law, particularly a mother-in-law. For some reason, male in-laws don’t seem to have this problem.

We chatted recently with a friend who mentioned that when her son got engaged more than a decade ago, she asked the bride to call her by her first name. (Let’s say Sally to protect the innocent.) The bride instead called her Mrs. Last Name for years until the grandkids came along. Now Sally is called “Grandma” by her daughter-in-law. Sally, trying to understand, said, “I didn't ask to be called Her Majesty, just Sally. That is my name.”

What’s in a name? While Shakespeare may argue that the intent is more important than the name itself , that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to mothers-in -law. We sought some perspective from Deanna Brann, a psychologist who wrote Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law.

In a chat from her home in Tennessee, Brann explained why these female relationships are sometimes problematic as opposed to other in-law connections. “The mother-in -law and wife are competing with each other, not for love, but for influence over the son,” she said.

That often unspoken contest for influence is just one of several factors that cause friction. Brann notes that the first problem is the artificial nature of the relationship. A DIL (as she abbreviates) is not a friend, but not family either, at least at first. Second, we’re at different stages of our lives: Boomers have been wives, mothers, grandmas, worker bees, CEO of the family. The DILs are just starting out and have not experienced the ups and downs of those roles. Also, personal history and “carry-on baggage” can influence the present, just like with any relationship. Lastly, certain actions can flip switches that we didn’t even know existed. Perception can become reality. We assume we’re being helpful by cooking Sunday dinner or planning a family gathering. The DIL interprets that as being controlling.

So what to do? Here are Brann's suggestions:

  • Get to know your DIL as a person, not a wife. Find out who she is and what she likes to do for fun and relaxation, and plan some activities with her. “Have something separate that doesn’t include your son. As the relationship becomes more personal, you start to respect each other more.”
  • Tap her expertise. Your DIL most likely is a pro in several personal and professional areas — anything from beauty tips and cooking to taxes and technology. Ask her advice. “When she’s teaching you something, it puts you on a more-equal plane. She’s an adult woman, so you need to treat her as such and respect her.”
  • It’s never too late to change. “No matter how long your son is married to her, if you start to change your behavior toward her, that puts her in the position of changing her behavior toward you."


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That still leaves the question of what to call a MIL. “Mom” is not a good choice, Brann says. “She's not a daughter to you and doesn’t want to be. She has her own mother. For many women, calling someone else ‘Mom is not only weird, but they find it disrespectful to their own mother.” Brann prefers using a first name and says that the best way to convey that preference is to nicely ask a DIL to call you by your first name.

What then about Sally who tried that approach? Brann’s advice: “Ask the daughter-in law to sit down and discuss why she doesn’t want to use the first name, in a way that’s not judging or critical. Also put some energy into getting to know the daughter-in-law better.”

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: mattz90/iStock

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