What Should “Brow-beaten Jane” Do With Her Unbearable French Mother-in-law?

What Should “Brow-beaten Jane” Do With Her Unbearable French Mother-in-law?

A relationship advice column by marriage and family therapist Kristin Louise Duncombe, author of "Trailing: A Memoir" and "Five Flights Up: Sex, Love and Family, from Paris to Lyon."

French mother-in-law
© Anna Bizon/123FR

This month’s column highlights a problematic relationship between an expat woman and her French mother-in-law.

 An INSPIRELLE reader writes:

Dear Kristin,

I need big time help with my mother in law. Things have always been a bit tenuous between us, especially because we live in the same building and see each other all the time! This close living situation was a problem from the get-go, but I acquiesced because my MIL was recently widowed AND my husband’s family owns the building, so we are able to save a lot of money – and live in a beautiful apartment rent-free.

She has always been bossy and opinionated, but I’ve managed to hold her at arm’s length. I just grit my teeth through each of the long lunches every weekend and when she shows up at our door at any moment of the day or night.  Three months ago, I had my first baby (and her first grandbaby) and now the entire situation has become unbearable. She thinks she knows everything! And is constantly butting in and bossing me around and criticizing my way of doing things – on a personal level, but also on a cultural level, as I’m half Irish, half American, and honestly in her mind I don’t know which is worse. 

Source: Pixabay

If I pick up the baby when he cries, she immediately accuses me of being “sans discipline, comme toutes les Anglaises,” (without discipline, like all the English), whereas when I breastfeed my baby on demand, because that is what I believe is right, it’s because I am an overweight American who will create an overweight child!

Before I had my baby, I just kept silent, but something about being a mother now myself has made me unable to put up with this bullying, bulldozing treatment. A few days ago when my MIL came over and started commenting on everything I was doing wrong, I lost my patience and started to argue back. In fact, I was even proud of how able I was to fight every lecturing point she hurled at me with my own evidence that proved her wrong!

© Pius Lee/123RF

At first, I thought we had turned a corner because she seemed to even take an interest in some of my counter-arguments, but when she left that evening, she complained to my husband, right in front of me, that I was insolent and disrespectful! I blew up and actually screamed at her for being so controlling and horrible. She became furious but also tearful, which made me feel like an absolute heel. The whole altercation mortified my husband, who has never been able to stand up to his mother himself – and I guess he was not expecting me to, either.  I never wanted to become the insolent daughter-in-law but I feel absolutely abused and pushed to my limits. What do I do?


A brow-beaten Jane

French mother-in-law
© Oui/123RF

View from the Therapy Chair

Dear Brow-beaten Jane,

Although your situation does sound exhausting, I am struck by the fact that you only mention two possibilities for how you think you can manage your MIL: by gritting your teeth and keeping silent, or, as just happened, fighting back. While your MIL does sound high-maintenance and difficult, by not exercising your right to speak your truth, you are not owning your part in the relationship. I realize that with a MIL like this, it feels impossible.

You are probably thinking, “If I spoke my ‘truth’ it would only make everything worse,” or, “I have tried to tell her how I feel but she just won’t listen.”  It’s normal to feel this way, because when there’s such elevated relational intensity between people, we automatically perceive the person we are at odds with as being responsible for keeping us – and our shared relationship – stuck. “I can’t say what I think/mean/want because MIL is impossible!” But think about it: so what if she is impossible?

© Ian Allenden/123FR

Her impossibility only really matters if your intention is to CHANGE your MIL, which you will never do, because we human beings cannot change other human beings: we can only change ourselves. And by getting so triggered by and reactive to your MIL (by either gritting your teeth or exploding), your attention is diverted from the one area in which you still have full control – even in the presence of your charming MIL – and that is the fact that you are the one in full charge of your son, and no one, not even grandmère, can interfere with that. Oh, she may try, and sure, you may still have to listen to her commentaries, but what is stopping you from calmly and cordially setting firm limits?

What prevents you from responding to her bossy butting in with statements like, “Oh MIL, I know you have a lot of experience and wisdom that you would like to share with me. But at this stage in baby’s life, I am really enjoying figuring it out for myself, and I feel good about the job I am doing. So please do feel free to make your suggestions, as long as you understand that I will continue to follow my own instincts as far as my child’s care is concerned.”

Then you smile sweetly and do exactly as you planned to do with your son, and when the next barrage of comments comes, you simply reiterate, “Yes, I know you have strong feelings about this, but so do I, and as the mother, I will stick to my decisions, as I have already explained. But thanks for checking in!” Sweet smile, bisous bisous!

Source: Pixabay

I realize that anyone reading this letter that struggles with an overbearing MIL might have a preliminary reaction of “yeah right! I’d love to see her try that on my MIL!” The reality is that the world is full of difficult people that will attempt to butt in and take over, and without skill and practice at setting and keeping firm boundaries, it is very easy to get disarmed by such brash insensitivity. This is normal.

When we get overwhelmed, however, we lose sight of the fact that we don’t need to avoid or fight to defend ourselves. True and effective verbal self-defense comes by remaining clear and firm about where we stand on an issue, as well as asserting – in a cordial and even warm way – that we feel entitled to have our own opinion/way of being, because we are separate people, different from each other, and not employees, indentured servants, or puppets. More than going silent or exploding, it takes real courage to set a firm limit with someone who feels entitled to bulldoze over you.

An excellent, deep, and yet easy read on this topic is Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Connection: How to talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate.”  It may be a long subtitle, but one that certainly encapsulates the range of feelings your MIL brings up in you.

Here’s to setting limits, and courage!, as the French would say, in the raising of your beautiful baby boy!


Need some relationship advice?

Email your questions directly to Kristin in the form below (all correspondence is completely confidential).

Kristin Duncombe is an American writer, psychotherapist, and consultant who has lived in Europe since 2001. She has based her career on working with international and expatriate families following her own experience of growing up overseas as the child of a US diplomat, and having lived internationally most of her adult life. She is the author of Trailing: A Memoir and Five Flights Up, both memoirs that address, among other things, the specific challenges and idiosyncracies of the expat existence. She and her husband live with their two children today in Geneva, Switzerland.



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