Dear Mochi: “I want to do well in my first year as a daughter-in-law.”
The burden of pleasing your husband’s mother should not fall on your shoulders alone.
We’re bringing back our advice column in time to answer some tricky questions ahead of Mother’s Day. Have a situation you want Mochi’s take on? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t wait to hear from you <3
I’m a newlywed, and am lucky to have a wonderful, loving relationship. So far, transitioning from being engaged to married has mostly been fun: calling each other new words like “husband” and “wife,” honeymooning, planning our future.
There is one thing I’m worried about, though: Mother’s Day. Specifically, when it comes to his mom.
My mom and I have always been close. She’s encouraging and supportive, and we laugh a lot when we’re together. We also fight, but it’s okay because we know we’ll make up. My husband and his mom are much more formal with each other, and with me, she can be downright cold. She is the kind of person who will point out the negative in everything. For example, we sent her a Mother’s Day card last year, and she said it was made from poor material.
She also seems jealous of my relationship with my mom, asking about and comparing how many times I call my mom versus her, what gifts I give her, etc. She has reminded me many times that now that I’m married to her son, my duties to his family should come first.
My mom’s birthday is right around Mother’s Day, so I usually visit her (a short flight) for the weekend. I don’t think my husband’s mom would like this though (she’s a slightly longer flight away), and I really don’t know what to do for this first Mother’s Day! Should I visit one mom, the other, both, neither? Help! I want to do well in my first year as a daughter-in-law.
First off, congrats newlywed! It sounds like you have a sweet and loving relationship. Second – girl, I feel your pain. I had a mother-in-law like that too. One year, she found out that her birthday had been recorded incorrectly, and she had actually been born in another month entirely. Instead of picking one date or the other, she wanted to celebrate the old birthday and the new birthday.
“No problem!” I thought. I wanted to be the ultimate daughter-in-law, and of course I wanted the mother of the person I loved most in the world to like me. For the first birthday, I made sure we sent a profusion of her favorite flowers – not the easiest thing to arrange overseas, but worth it, I thought. For the second birthday, we sent a care package full of fancy perfumes, delicious treats, and letters and photos from us. I remember painstakingly cutting out colorful confetti, imagining the delight on her face when she opened the box.
We Skyped on both birthdays, and during the second one, we eagerly asked how she liked her care package. She said flatly, “It’s fine. But I’m really disappointed you forgot my lunar calendar birthday.” The rest of the call devolved into accusations of our lack of love and respect for her. It was the first I’d heard of her lunar calendar birthday.
I think it’s important for people-pleasers like you and me to accept: there is just no pleasing some people. Even if you do exactly what your mother-in-law wants one day, she will find fault with something you do another day. You cannot live your days trying to please someone who is looking for reasons to be upset.
Focus instead on how to make choices that you and your husband can stand by and feel good about. Maybe your mom-in-law has a favorite fruit, and you send her a beautiful box of it for Mother’s Day. You can’t control how she reacts – she may decide it’s not enough. So let her be upset if that’s what she wants. She will recover, and you will know you put thought, effort and love into that gesture. You and your husband can take heart in that act and reinforce to each other that you did nothing wrong. Even if you were to visit and throw her a million dollar party, she still might find fault with it. And if she loved it – well then, you’re stuck with throwing a million dollar party every year!
This is going to be a year of firsts for you, and how you handle things like these first holidays can set the patterns and boundaries of your marriage moving forward. In terms of this first Mother’s Day, I’m not in a position to tell you exactly what to do. I do want to remind you that you have someone to figure it out with: your husband. Don’t forget – this is his mother. You may want to impress her as the new daughter-in-law, but he has a responsibility as your partner in this relationship to communicate and set boundaries with his side of the family. If you decide it’s important for you to be with your mom on Mother’s Day, your husband can be the one to explain that it’s your mom’s birthday, and that you’ll both try to visit his mom on her birthday. The burden of pleasing your husband’s mother should not fall on your shoulders alone.
Your mother-in-law saying that “duties to his family should come first” is very telling of her mindset. She is thinking of you in the framework of a very traditional marriage, where you belong to your husband’s family. That school of thought is outdated and unsustainable in today’s modern landscape. You may have noticed I wrote at the start of this letter, “I had a mother-in-law”. My marriage didn’t survive, because when I should have been working with my husband on how to push back and communicate with his mom, I was busy protecting his feelings and trying to please her. I was smiling and reassuring everyone else, all the while filling up with invisible resentment that would eventually undo us.
I beg to differ with your mother-in-law that duty to your husband’s family comes first. Duty to yourself always comes first. If you fail yourself, you won’t be strong enough to be there for anyone else. And that’s not what your mother-in-law or husband wants. I stand by what I said: it sounds like you have a sweet and loving relationship. Now that you’re married, it’s time to take it to the next level, and also make it strong. So far, you said, marriage has been fun. Never let go of that fun, but don’t be afraid to get into the hard stuff, the messy stuff. Don’t be afraid to displease.