Enter the word mother-in-law into an Internet search engine, and the first site that appears is about mother-in-law jokes. Simply mention the word mother-in-law and expect to hear groans, laughter or bad mother-in-law stories.

Unfortunately, many mothers-in-law have earned the reputation.

Consider the story of a bride who wanted to please her new husband.He often mentioned how much he loved his mother’s chocolate chip cookies, so his wife asked her mother-in-law to share the recipe.Instead of recognizing the request as a sincere compliment, the mother-in-law coldly responded, "That’s my recipe, and I bake those cookies for my son. Why would I give the recipe to you? Of course you can’t have it."

The scenario set the tone for an each-in-their-own-corner relationship for the future. How sad that this mother-in-law perceived the relationship with her daughter-in-law as a competition instead of a partnership. It would have been so much better if she’d realized they shared a special bond—they both loved the same man.

The irony is that the son no longer enjoys his mother’s chocolate chip cookies. Now when she brings him a platter to enjoy, all he can think of is the bitterness of the words that hurt his bride.

Another young wife opened the door one morning to discover her mother-in-law standing there armed with a mop and a bucket filled with cleaning supplies. "I’m glad you’re home. I’ve come to show you the proper way to clean a bathroom."

This mother-in-law probably meant well. I honestly don’t think she intended to humiliate her daughter-in-law, but that’s exactly what she did. Instead of giving the young bride time to develop her housekeeping skills, the mother-in-law charged in and caused a rift in their relationship.

A fitful sleep

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can be a dangerous minefield as two women stake out their territory. A wise daughter-in-law will be sensitive to the fact that her mother-in-law is dealing with loss of purpose, possibly an empty nest and changes in the family. A wise mother-in-law will realize that her daughter-in-law might be insecure in her new role as wife.

Pastor and family counselor Ralph Sexton says, "One of the big issues of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is that both can bring emotional baggage into the relationship. Sometimes the mother-in-law worries that her daughter-in-law will reject her. Often,the daughter-in-law has a preconceived idea of what a mother-in-law will be like due to the bad mother-in-law stories she’s heard. As a result, she comes into the relationship expecting the worst case scenario."

Sexton says another important component is respect. "Sometimes it is difficult for a mother-in-law to view her child as a grown-up, but it is vital that she treats the young couple as adults and doesn’t interfere in their relationship."

Wake-up call

Before becoming a mother-in-law, I asked for advice from friends who had good, loving relationships with their daughters-in-law. Here’s what I learned from them:

  • Make an effort to help your daughter-in-law feel welcome in your family. She is not an outsider; don’t treat her like one. Include her in conversations, activities and family photographs.

  • Don’t force your son to choose between the two of you and don’t put him in the role of playing peacemaker. Realize that you and your daughter-in-law are not competitors; you are allies. Your son has enough love for both of you.

  • Notice your daughter-in-law’s good qualities and then sincerely compliment her. Is she thoughtful and kind? Is she an exceptional housekeeper or a good money manager? Is she an accomplished cook or a talented decorator? She will appreciate knowing you recognize her virtues and talents.

  • Think before you act or speak. Remember what it was like to be a young bride.

  • Pray for your daughter-in-law every day. Tell her you are praying for her, and ask if she has any special requests. Better yet, pray together if the opportunity arises. Perhaps your daughter-in-law is not who you would have picked for your son; pray that God will help you to love her.

  • Remember her birthday and celebrate her achievements.

  • Don’t speak negatively about your daughter-in-law to others. Be her biggest cheerleader.

  • Does your daughter-in-law make your son happy? Then send her a card or letter expressing how much you appreciate her love for your son.

  • Don’t give advice unless it is requested. You’ll be surprised how well the young couple will manage without your help. They know where you are if they do want advice.

  • Don’t interfere in their lives, and don’t take sides.

  • Be available, but don’t be constantly underfoot. Give them space to live their own lives and build their own traditions.

  • Take your daughter-in-law to lunch or go shopping together. Spend an evening experimenting with new recipes. Find a mutual hobby or volunteer together. Make an effort to bond with the "daughter-in-love"God has placed in your life.

Greet the day

I’ve been blessed with two daughters-in-law. When my sons were still babies, I began praying for their future brides. I prayed for their parents and asked God to give them wisdom as they raised the young women who would someday become part of our family.

God answered those prayers in abundance. My sons brought home the girls of their dreams, and I was thrilled to discover they were the girls of my dreams for them. My heart has often been touched as I’ve observed their love and care for my sons.

I hope my daughters-in-law never consider me a nightmare. I genuinely want to be a good mother-in-law to these new daughters God has placed in my life. The way I look at it, the "in-law" part just means they’re legally mine.

Michelle Cox is the author of Simple Little Words and has been a guest on Focus on the Family’s Weekend Magazine radio program.

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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