I have known since I was a wee child that someday, there would be a woman in my life that I would hate more than any person on the planet. She will be the epitome of all things evil; a seething skin-bag of meddlesome, ignorant lady-pus, hardly worthy to walk among us and yet, walk among us she will. Unabashed, her goal in life will be to make me miserable. She will shame me and mock me and re-fold my towels in the most offensive possible way, all in the name of “helping.” She will make passive aggressive comments about my weight and my pot roast. She will kiss my husband on the mouth in front of me.
She will be my mother-in-law.
If there’s a more maligned subject in the world of shitty stand-up comedy and aging newspaper cartoons than mothers-in-law, I can’t think what it is.
As it turns out, my mothers-in-law — Patrick has a mom and a step-mom — are two of the sweetest, most genuine ladies I’ve ever met. His mom is wry and brilliant; his step-mom defines sweetness. They’re just plain lovely-ass people. This is supposed to be a surprise. A lucky break. A blessing.
But even if they were both the most horrible humans to walk the earth, jointly set on making my life a living hell, I wouldn’t figure they got that way because I married their son. I would figure they got that way because they were shitty people, not owners of vaginas with parenting experience.
I ask you: whither the father-in-law jokes? Oh sure, one might make snide comments about “the in-laws” or mention that one’s father-in-law said some dick thing or had a bit too much to drink at the reception. But no one ties bad father-in-law behavior in to their father-in-law’s innate maleness. Crappy fathers-in-law are just bad people; crappy mothers-in-law are bad women.
The only thing at play here is confirmation bias. When your mother-in-law is terrible, it’s a statement about all mothers-in-law, and in turn, all women, because bitches be bitchy, amirite?
All mothers-in-law have one thing common: their femaleness, which society sees as being intrinsically tied to their motherness. A “bad” mother-in-law is “bad” at both of these. She is pushy (not docile, like a proper woman should be) and simultaneously unable to let go of the child she raised (because perfect mothers never make mistakes like having complicated feelings) and unable to welcome the new adult partner as a son or daughter (because perfect mothers see motherhood as their first and highest calling and why shouldn’t they want more kids of any age?).
I often tell people how much I enjoy hanging out with Patrick’s dad, a fine gentleman and champion teller of some of the world’s best dad-jokes. No one falls over in shock when I tell them this; they accept that I’m telling the truth. But when I mention that I love talking about BBC television with Patrick’s mom, or that she gave me these lovely amethyst earrings? It’s like people are practically waiting for Ed McMahon to burst through the front door and hand me a sweepstakes check for getting so lucky. Like it’s a normal thing to meet way more nice men than nice women.
I searched “mother-in-law” on Google, and the top three fill-ins were ’s tongue, plan, and joke. I searched “father-in-law” and got day, in Spanish and gift ideas. The actual search results? For father-in-law, it brings up the Wikipedia definition of “parent-in-law” and a whole bunch of other definitions. For mother in law? This dumb shit: “Mother-in-Law Stories.” On Amazon? Someone is actually asking the question, in book form: “Can two women love the same man and still get along?”
Oh, I don’t know, can we stop putting all women everywhere in competition with all other women everywhere for two fucking seconds? Here’s how to make sure women never get ahead: create stupid games that they have to play but can never win. For example, we make it a problem that two women both have love in their hearts for another human being.
Here is my guess: it’s not harder to get along with mothers-in-law than it is with fathers-in-law, but it is harder to respect women generally in a world rife with sexism and misogyny. It’s no surprise that we malign our mothers-in-law since we malign women generally, especially when they don’t conform to cultural and social expectations of good (and female!) behavior. Badly behaving men are badly behaving people. Badly behaving women are bitches.
I suspect that because we put the onus on women to maintain happy households — whatever else they might have going on in their lives be damned — any conflicts between mothers-in-law and children-in-law, especially daughters-in-law, are seen as being more significant, important or innately tied to their gender.
Interestingly, when hetero couples are initially dating, the stand-out culturally defined conflict is between the male dater and the father of the woman or girl, but when they marry, the conflict shifts to being between the new wife and the mother. Somehow it’s cute or funny that a dad waits at the front door with a rifle for his daughter to come back from her dates, but it’s mean and pathetic when a mother-in-law buys her daughter-in-law an especially ugly piece of jewelry? And by “somehow” I mean “of course this is true in patriarchy, where men get to do whatever the hell they want and women have to behave according to an ever-shifting set of rules defined nowhere and yet known everywhere.”
I have a feeling that mothers-in-law have forever been shat upon everywhere, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of worldwide social structures threatened by the sheer existence of women. But I also know that the comedy of the last hundred or so years — from vaudeville to stand-up — hasn’t done anything for the reputations of mothers-in-law in America. And I also know that the primary voice of American comedy has been male: men telling jokes in a society wherein gender roles have been shifting and changing significantly, generally in favor of giving women more power and freedom.
Is it any surprise that this would result in particular vitriol directed at mothers-in-law, who challenge the patriarchal privilege of husbands? An ignorant, lazy male comic might hate his father-in-law, but if he’s a man inclined toward a sexist worldview (which usually goes along with ignorant and lazy, I find), he probably sees himself as carrying on the father-in-law’s work: caring for a particular woman. A bad father-in-law is a problematic predecessor; a bad mother-in-law is an intolerable interloper and ripe source of material that, of course, goes over particularly well in a society already warmed up to sexism.
Mothers-in-law aren’t the problem; misogyny is. That doesn’t mean you have to like your mother-in-law. She’s a human being, so she’s got just as good a chance of being the worst as anyone else in the world. Just don’t connect her terribleness with her vagina, any more than you connect a father-in-law’s terribleness to his penis.
Actually, don’t connect anything with your in-laws’ genitalia. Gross. Sorry about the mental picture, y’all.