The Challenge of Dealing With a Difficult Mother-in-Law

Q: I’ve had difficulty dealing with my mother-in-law since I first got married nearly 15 years ago. She is a Holocaust survivor who is still embittered and wants all her married children to cater to her. She can come over to our house and criticize the children, then question us if we don’t discipline them in the way that she thinks is correct.

My husband doesn’t respond to her directly when she behaves this way, but my children become very uncomfortable when she is so blunt.

In private conversations with his mother, my husband has tried to explain to her that it is really an issue when she behaves this way, but he usually makes this speech about once a year. My mother-in-law may then agree with him in theory, but then go ahead and berate us a week later if she doesn’t agree with our parenting style. I’m not even sure if my husband’s relationship with her isn’t basically built on guilt: She makes constant demands of his time, and he feels that he needs to comply.

My husband and I are quite laid back, it’s true, but our children are usually well-behaved and generally show respect towards us. My mother-in-law thinks that we should respond to every fight, and not put up with an ounce of chutzpah. We try to tell her that the year 2019 is not 1965, but she gets angry and responds that we are spoiling our children. Unfortunately, my father-in-law passed away this past year and, as expected, she is quite broken as they had been married for over 50 years.

My children have mixed feelings towards their grandmother, as she can be very generous towards them. I always think of kibbud av va’eim when speaking about her to my children, as issues of visiting her or calling her more frequently during this difficult time period have often come up.

What should my response be when my children complain about having to visit her?

A: As reflected in your letter, kibbud av va’eim is mentioned as the first mitzvah we receive reward for — in this world and the next — in our daily Shacharis davening because it involves continuous effort, besides reflecting the concept of eternal hakaras hatov. It is a challenge that involves continual human interaction and relationship skills. As with shalom bayis, it is much easier to work with this relationship challenge if the other party possesses superlative middos, is adept at verbal communication and has a natural sense of diplomacy. Who wouldn’t find dealing with such a person a pleasant task? Your mother-in-law’s communication skills seem to be limited, reflected in the limitations between herself and family members.

It would be most helpful if your husband would speak to a baal eitzah to learn the parameters of kibbud eim that is expected with regard to the family’s interaction/visitation with his mother.

Your husband’s relationship with his mother isn’t your relationship — or your children’s. Relationships that are fueled by guilt usually bring inconsistent behaviors, and neither party is satisfied. Older parents who live alone are often unsatisfied with the amount of help or visits and phone calls they receive from family members. Expectations from Holocaust survivors have their own unique blend, reflecting specific psychological underpinnings, only further complicating this sensitive issue. To know what specific parameters are applicable in your husband’s particular circumstance can help to alleviate unnecessary guilt, clearly affecting your husband, who is grieving the death of his father simultaneously

Regarding the chinuch of your children and how to respond to them, a parent needs to manage a balancing act, so to speak. By listening attentively, we are validating a child’s feelings. However, feelings are not facts. After listening, a positive re-frame is always helpful:

“I hear your feelings” can be followed by words of empathy for your mother-in-law’s present circumstance. Compassion towards your mother-in-law helps to elevate your children’s negative (though understandable) perceptions, and allows people of character to go past their present emotional response and seek a higher good. The psychological suffering of the Holocaust and that of losing a husband are overriding factors, the understanding of which will help them get past their subjective feelings.

Hatzlachah in this most important endeavor.