Monday, August 23, 2010

In-laws, criticism, and how to deal with it

Today, I received an email from a mother of three young children who is struggling with a flow of criticism coming from family and acquaintances, specifically her mother-in-law (with whom she and her husband currently live), regarding the choice she and her husband have made of her being a full-time mother. She also mentioned they are planning to move to an area with cheaper housing costs, an endeavor that meets strong opposition from her mother-in-law who doesn't wish to be separated from her grandchildren. She asked for my take on the matter, which I've posted below. The experience of readers who have dealt with similar situations will be much appreciated.

I feel for you; even though I haven't been exactly in your situation, I know what it's like to have your choices criticized and looked down upon - especially when criticism comes from relatives, and even more so when it touches what's nearest and dearest to your heart - caring for your precious family.

The most important thing to remember is that currently, the earthly authority in your life is your husband - not your parents and not your in-laws. While we are required to respect and honor our parents and parents-in-law, we aren't supposed to let them take authority over our lives once we are married. You were created to be your husband's help mate, to work towards a common vision the two of you share - even if it means you are misunderstood and under-appreciated by the rest of your or your husband's family. 

However, from your email, I didn't exactly pick up your husband's take on this, except that he approves of you focusing on your homemaking/mothering duties (which is obviously the most important factor in this equation.) Have you ever talked to him about your frustrations regarding criticism from his mother, and how offended this makes you feel? Have you discussed, together, what course of action should be taken? Without your husband's backup, things would be of course infinitely more difficult. 

Of course, personally, it's easy for me to understand how discouraging such comments can be, especially as they are completely unjust. If people think raising three young children is a leisurely pursuit, they should check again. And certainly the generation of our mothers missed out on a lot, including your mother-in-law. Some realize this, some don't. She didn't "do it all" as successfully as she thinks - otherwise, your husband wouldn't be still feeling resentful for taking second place after her career. I'm not sure whether she is aware of it. 

The solution of moving to a place where costs of living are cheaper sounds like a good one to me, speaking from our experience. I know if we didn't live in a less expensive (and admittedly, more remote) area, we would never be able to buy a house debt-free. Housing costs are a huge money-guzzler and if you can make the adjustment it's great. Another reason why it would be good to move away is that you could be on your turf, just your family, without interfering in-laws in between. It doesn't sound as though living with your mother-in-law is healthy for your marriage or family life, and I can imagine you are anxious to move. However this, again, is something that obviously cannot happen without your husband's support. You said your mother-in-law "threw a tantrum" when you attempted to move away. Does your husband agree that this is a form of manipulation, and what is he willing to do about it, if at all? 

In making the counter-cultural choice of being homemakers, we subject ourselves to criticism and sometimes there's no choice but to smile graciously and move on. At times it's possible to have an intelligent conversation about why you choose to live the way you do, but sometimes people are so negative it's better to just let it go and resign yourself to the fact that you can't please everyone. Let your statement be a quiet one, of a simple, modest, humble, content life for your family. Again, the most important, vital thing is that you and your husband are on the same page regarding this. As long as you are strong in your convictions and have your husband's support, other people can wrinkle their noses at it all they want. 


Gothelittle Rose said...

I would like to say that I believe it is of great importance for a newly-married couple to not live with the parents of either person if at all possible. My mother believes the same. In fact, a recently-married friend of mine said that she and her husband were going to move out of the house that her mother was renting to them, and my mother didn't see the sense in abandoning such a low-cost option until she found out that the mother in question was moving into it.

My younger brother is engaged to be married next year, and my mother has already told him that he and his newlywed wife cannot stay at his parents' home. She doesn't have any problem with them staying with me (I live just down the road from my parents), but she is adamant that a newly-married couple should avoid living with any parents unless there really is no other choice.

PhDCow said...

Dear Anna,

First, I'd like to ask you to reconsider your choice of words of whether a mother stays at home or works. "Full-time mother" doesn't make sense as we're all mothers. All day, every day, from the moment our children came into our lives. I certainly wouldn't call my husband a "part-time father" because he works.

Second, I have a few family members who do not agree with some parenting choices we've made. While I tried to ignore the advice or simply thank the person and move on, I eventually had to remind them that these are our children, not theirs and that telling us how to raise our children is out of line. Yes, they got offended. No, I didn't really care.

Good luck with your impending delivery!


A Joyful Chaos said...

I think there is a reason God said a man is to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.

When we first got married we lived with my husbands parents for several months. We were going to take over the farming and his parents were retiring and planning to move out of state.

Though it lasted for only several months it was too long and I would not advise anyone to live with their in-laws no matter how great they are. It puts too much stress and pressure on both families.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Gothelittle Rose,

I agree with you about how inadvisable it is to be living with parents after marriage. I come from a culture where it's extremely common to live with your parents and/or in-laws, especially as a young couple and many times throughout a lifetime - and there are countless jokes, sayings, anecdotes, stories, books, movies, telling about both marriages and inter-family relationships that were ruined because of this custom.

I wouldn't want to live either with my in-laws or my mother, no matter how convenient it would be or how much money we could save, unless there was absolutely no choice. We live about an hour away from either side of the family, and I think it helps us keep a healthy distance (even though I believe they would never be as critical and interfering). It's close enough to visit at reasonable intervals, and far enough for us to maintain our privacy.


I wouldn't call my husband a "part-time father" either, even though he works A LOT. However, I'm sure most of my readers will understand what I mean by full-time Mom.

Sarah said...

I really don't know where you're getting this "earthly authority" idea. Can you give any explicit source for that in the Talmud, codes of Jewish law, responsa, or rabbinic commentaries?

The Talmud says we are supposed to be avadim to HaShem--not to people. Husbands and wives should of course both cooperate with and support each other. But I have yet to see any Jewish source for what you're promoting.

Mrs. Anna T said...


I hardly think I'm inventing anything new here. Eve was created to be Adam's help mate, and our sages have said, "a good woman does her husband's will." What does this mean, exactly? Obviously the wife is not a mindless tool in her husband's hands - on the contrary, she is to be strong and wise, her feminine perspective enhances the way he thinks and perceives things, but he is the final voice and authority in the household. She knows her husband's heart and is to work with *his* vision, not to push towards *her* own vision that is separate and opposite from his. That is something that has been unquestionable in traditional Jewish communities until the recent generations have been poisoned by feminism.

It is said in the book of Genesis, "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." Obviously it doesn't mean rule by brutal force, but something that is inherent in the husband-wife relationship. A husband cannot be a wise leader of his household without the wife's support; if she doesn't submit to his authority, he cannot lead. I have seen how pride has ruined many homes this way. I'd say a lot more but time and format don't permit it right now.

Gothelittle Rose said...


Gen 2:22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
Gen 2:23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man."
Gen 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

(Note: Leaving the parents is part of the process.)

Anna already covered my other two verses. :)

Sarah said...

Thanks for your response.

The "Judaism has always been like this" argument is not convincing to me. Until a number of decades ago, most Jewish communities did not teach girls and women to read Hebrew. They could not read Tanach for themselves or even pray from a Siddur. Are you saying we should continue with that practice because it was always done? Since you're obviously very literate, I'm guessing you don't think so. Practices need better support than, "We've done that in the past."

"Hu yimshal bach" is part of a curse. Again, this isn't a good defense of your position--unless you would also grow only thorns and thistles in your garden to "fulfill" this passage of Chumash. From the beautiful pictures you've posted of fruits and vegetables you grow, I don't think you really want to read this passage as the ideal way we should live.

Regarding "ezer knegdo" and "Isha ksheira osah et rtzon baalah," those are indeed Jewish ideas, but they're not so strong as the "earthly authority" concept you're promoting. A wife could act in accordance with them simply by helping and supporting her husband. They don't require her to be under his authority. Nor do they say that a husband should not help and support his wife in the same way.

Some will answer that it's impossible for both husband and wife to support each other equally, because there can't be two rulers. If they claim to follow Jewish traditions, I would remind anyone who makes that argument that the Midrash states the moon was punished for saying the exact same thing.

I realize you're about to have a baby, so I know you don't have time to discuss this in as much depth as you'd like. But I'd appreciate it if you'd return to the subject sometime when you're able to.

Bethany Hudson said...

While I support a lot of the advice you gave, I simply cannot support the idea of intentionally distancing oneself (physically/geographically) from one's parents or in-laws. Just as our culture has an unhealthy view of children, I think sometimes we adopt the world's horrible view of parents and the elderly.

It is NOT easy to live close to parents, especially overbearing ones, but sometimes that is PRECISELY how God intends us to grow. Now, it is incredibly important that boundaries be set up and that the spouses are clear and firm with relatives about these boundaries and that the marriage and immediate family is the top priority. However, no matter how disappointing parents or in-laws may be, it is our duty not only to respect them but to love them and to reach out to them in (perhaps undeserved) charity at every turn. (I know from experience that this can be HARD--but ultimately, it is a blessing.)

My husband and I are both only children of somewhat older parents, and we fully expect to have at least one of our parents living in our home at some time. My mother-in-law, in particular, has already made this request as her mother lived with them when my husband was growing up.

I think that it is important that, in our zeal for defending our marriage and children, we do not inadvertently neglect the very real physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our parents and parents-in-law, no matter how disagreeable they may be. After all, what sort of message does that send to our children? That as long as they respect us they can be cold and distancing? I pray that my children and I will always share a close, warm, loving relationship and that they never feel the desire to live any distance from me. This will take discipline on my part; it will require charity on theirs. If I want that charity for myself and my husband, I believe I must model it with my own parents and in-laws.

God bless,

Sylvia said...

I am christian and live in America now, but I was raised in a country and culture where many generations live under one roof. My paternal grandparents lived with my parents until they died at the ripe old age of 90+. My maternal granparents lived with one of my uncles. Often many sons and their families live under one roof. Cousins grow up together. Growing this way was wonderful. Both my grandmothers and my mom worked outside the home (my grandmothers were retired of course when we were kids). I never felt deprived. There were more people to love me and take care of me. We had to obey grandparents too which was annoying as a child, but looking back, I am so grateful for growing up the way we did. My grandparents did not die alone in a nursing home. They never knew the ache that comes from wondering will anyone visit them.
Even though I came to America for higher studies I went back for an arranged marriage. Which my whole family had an input.
When it was my turn to have children I could not have done it without my inlaws and parents who took turns to come to America to help raise my children.
In my culture family is everything. And family means not only husband and children. In laws are not often easy. But in my experience if we look at the things a mother-in-law does the same way a mother does and so too if the mother-in-law treats a daughter-in-law like daughter it is much easier.
Anna, sorry but this woman sounds a bit ungrateful. If she lives in her mother-in-law's place I find it hard to believe the mother-in-law does not contribute in taking care of the children. Not everyone can take care of three young children. And do that well. Maybe she is struggling. And the mother-in-law sees it everyday and the husband does not. He does not seem very sympathetic to the wife to me. Or the wife is not communicating her problems to him. Why is she writing to you instead of talking to him ? It seems like he makes the decisions, but is not aware of what the wife goes through and his mother is. Also finances. One of the reasons people lived in ancesteral homes in my culture was because it was hard to build a house. And many did only later in life. They saved money because they lived with their parents. My parents both worked but they built a house only late in their lives. Both husband and wife in this family need to communicate more. And a little bit of gratitude on the part of both husband and wife to the mother-in-law would be good IMO. Someday they will be in the same position.

Mrs. Anna T said...

To Bethany and Sylvia,

I believe it's very important to make a distinction between a situation when parents are still in their prime and independent, and a situation when they are elderly and need the children's support. In aforementioned case the MIL works outside the home, and even though I didn't include this in my reply, I surmise that she can take care of herself.

I grew up with my grandmother at home, for which I was infinitely grateful. I was never a latchkey kid. Grandma is now 94 and still lives with my mother (who is in her early 60's and about to retire). Many elderly people her age are simply shipped off to institutions where depression quickly gets hold of them and their condition deteriorates, which is just horrible.

I do expect that at some point in the future we'll live nearer to my mother. My in-laws also have a son who lives within walking distance. They are around 70. Sometimes the need arises for a parent to move in with children when they get older. However this is completely different from a situation when a young couple is living with parents from the beginning of their marriage, thus not allowing their family dynamics to develop independently. It *can* turn out fine, but all sides must have infinite tact and patience which simply doesn't always happen. When a parent moves in with you, on the other hand, they are on your turf. They depend on you, not you on them. When you are in the position of the one giving help, you are less likely to be the subject of nosy interference.

Gothelittle Rose said...

"Hu yimshal bach" is part of a curse. Again, this isn't a good defense of your position--unless you would also grow only thorns and thistles in your garden to "fulfill" this passage of Chumash.

Do the Jews refuse to work in their gardens at all, because man being told that he only gains his bread by the sweat of his brow is part of that curse? We really can't take the fact that it's part of a curse to mean that it must not happen.

Especially if this is God's punishment. In that case, the best thing to do is to accept it and use it to correct our behavior and grow closer to Him. It is good to avoid earning God's punishment, but once it's imposed, you should not try to flee it. Remember that God punishes us to our benefit because we are His children.

There's nothing evil about earning your bread by the sweat of your brow. It's not evil to make yourself willing to suffer pain in order to bear a child. It's not evil to deal with the thorns that the land itself will bring forth. (Note that the curse states that the land will grow thorns, not that Adam will plant them.) And it's not evil to desire your husband or to let him rule over you.

sarah said...

I think that the word "boundaries" is the most important part of this discussion. A mother in law can be a tremendous blessing to her son's family....if....she understands and respects the boundaries of her son and his new family.

Harper said...

Something I have frequently been forced to remind my father of regarding my choice (and my husband's preference for me) to stay home is that jobs that would pay enough to cover the costs of childcare AND have something leftover simply are not available for me at my level of education and experience (and yes, I do have a college education)--I've looked, and even applied for some jobs. There is absolutely no point in my working outside the home if the result is a net financial loss. Of course, that's on top of all the personal and religious reasons that don't hold any water for my father.

Mrs. Anna T said...

And finally, Sylvia: perhaps this lady *is* facing challenges in parenting (I honestly have no idea as she only wrote to me once). However, please show me one mother who hasn't ever had to face any challenges and struggles. I daresay we all have them - and when it is so, it's even more stressful to be under a constant flow of criticism.

Just an example, when Shira was an infant, there was this one relative who would always say "this baby needs a pacifier" every time she squirmed or cried. That was despite the *very* numerous times we explained our decision NOT to give a pacifier. She maintained her position even when she saw the many benefits of our decision.

Perhaps she was more experienced than us in raising children. But that was our baby, and babies don't come with instruction manuals. There is a lot of stuff young parents need to figure out on their own, and older relatives must know not to step over the thin line that separates advice from nosiness.

Now, since we only saw that relative once in a while, it was OK. But I hope you can understand why I was so happy we didn't have to *live* with her.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Harper, the daycare argument only works until you get to the point when your relatives tell you, "well, in that case you shouldn't have any more children", and it's even more painful and offensive. I think it's better to be honest about our motives, even if they aren't fully understood.

Gothelittle Rose, thanks for bringing up this point. I intend to write a post about my perception of masculine leadership in Judaism and contemporary religious feminism, but I'm not sure when it will happen.

Sarah said...

To Gothelittle Rose--
Of course, when we aspects of the curse fulfilled in our lives, we should strive to deal with them. There's nothing wrong with accepting reality.

But--we also don't need to try to attain the conditions mentioned in the curse. If the earth doesn't grow thorns, that's okay. We don't need to try to make it happen just because it's mentioned in this passage. Similarly, we don't need to, on purpose, set up a situation where the husband rules over the wife, as though that were some kind of ideal we should pursue. It's not.

Ella said...

I agree that in most cases, it may be the best way to go, living in your own new home. I will admit though, my fiance and I will be sharing a house with his parents for awhile after we are married, and my mother will likely move somewhat nearby. All parents are in the 60-75 age range, and it is the best way, in our opinion, to avoid the fear of leaving our parents completely on their own.

However, we're lucky enough, at my fiance's house, to have lots of land and an extra building. It's possible to remodel a bit and have our own private space and our own schedules as we save money to buy our own house. All three parents are easy going, and we all try to respect each person's privacy and preferences.

My future husband IS the first person I turn to, or ask opinion from. We strive to be the best we can for each other. Presently, this is the best choice for our situation.

P.S. May you be blessed with a safe and joyful birth!

Sarah said...

"It's not evil to make yourself willing to suffer pain in order to bear a child."

I agree, but again, we don't try to make it happen. Some women are blessed with relatively easy labor. We don't try to make it painful for them in order to "obey" this passage. We even act against the curse and try to relieve their pain (through different breathing techniques, positions, etc.)

There's nothing wrong with avoiding the pain mentioned in this curse, or with trying to alleviate it. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with having a relationship in which the husband does not rule over the wife.

Taking a relationship in which both husband and wife cooperate with each other, with neither ruling over the other, and telling them that the husband should rule over the wife based on this passage, is as crazy and telling a woman that she needs experience more pain during labor because God decreed it.

Sylvia said...

As someone who made the choice to move geographically thousands of miles away, my husband and I try very hard to go every single year to our native country. It is one of the reasons I work because plane fare is expensive. We are not in a position to uproot lives and go back to our native country because we must balance it with our children's future. But both in my husband and my case, luckily we have siblings who are there to take care of our parents.
Anna, we as women get criticised for parenting choices, having a large family, limiting a family, staying at home, working outside the home etc. There will always be that. I believe each husband and wife must do what their family needs. But we must also be sensitive to the needs of grandparents. For there is so much we can learn from them about rearing a child which all the books in the world or parenting classes cannot teach. There is after all no replacement for experience. Take it from me. I was so arrogant in my knowledge of all the parenting classes I attended and books I read, I spurned the offer of guidance from my mother-in-law and mom to my eternal shame with my first child thinking I will raise my child 'the modern way'. I used them to frankly babysit when I needed a break. I was so stupid. I learned my lesson with my other children but I still feel guilty for the way I behaved with my mother and mother-in-law who put their lives on hold to help me out and I hurt them. I would not want my daughter or daughter-in-law to behave like I did. I see many people do that, spurning all advice or thinking they know everything. Our parents after all raised us. They must have done something right.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ladies. Thank you for all your comments and input. It has given me a great deal to think about. I am the girl who wrote the letter. I wanted to share some more things with all of you who took the time to comment on my situation. First please let me say that i Love my mother in Law dearly. She like every single one of us has said things that are hurtful or miss understood. It is true that we could have left but both my husband and I feel that she, our children, and ourselves benefit much more from our relationship from each other than from separating to make things "easier" for ourselves. It has always been our intention to work hard and buy land that we could not only provide for ourselves and our children but for both of our parents as well. I have spoken to my husband about comments that have been made to me. Most have come from extended family that we have little contact with any way. We both decided that the best way to approach these situations is to smile be thankful for their concern but do what is best for us. My intentions with writing was to find fellowship with women who have been there or are there or know how it can be to help guide me to keep a kind and soft heart towards those who might say things ( with or without realizing it) that are hurtful or discouraging. I feel that God brought my MIL and myself together for a reason as we both benefit from our current situation. I just needed some guidance and advice so that not only can I be a better wife and mother but a good daughter too without compromising my own families values. Thank you all so much for your time and input. Please toss my any more advice you can give. I did not have a mother who set an example to me and I feel the the most responsible thing I can do now is to seek out advice from others so my own daughter and even my sons will not have to struggle as much as I have.

Lady M said...

I was thinking about the comments regarding if perhaps this young woman was struggling with parenting of her children.

What crossed my mind later today was the fact that this young woman is sharing a home with her MIL. I wonder, is the parenting issue she having related to the sharing of a home and thus conflicts, with the way she would like to parent her children vs the way the MIL thinks she should be parenting the children? Is MIL overstepping her bounds? That is a possibility to consider. Do I blame the couple for wanting to relocate so they can afford their own house? Absolutely not. We cannot afford a house in a safe neighborhood where we live. Trust me we think about relocating closer to my Dad - where housing is cheaper for this very reason. That would mean my MIL would not see the grandchildren as often, but my dad would get to see them lots more than once or twice a year.

IMHO, in the early part of a marriage, living under separate roofs is an excellent way for the marriage to lay down boundaries. I realize that people used to live with extended family once they got married, but not every culture is the same and thus, expectations are not the same either. I feel for the MIL who would not be able to see the children daily, but, at the same time, I don't blame the wife for wanting her own household to run.

Gothelittle Rose said...

I'm sorry, Sarah, I still can't quite agree.

If the earth does not yield thorns, we don't need to plant them, but we should still be ready to deal with them. If we have no pain with childbirth, that's our blessing, but we should be willing to have those children nevertheless.

We allow the men to rule over us, and count our blessings if the men do not use their authority to dictate to us.

Note, of course, that this is speaking of your husband only. Note also that you get to choose your husband. Once you've chosen him, though, you prepare for his authority as head of your family.

I gave my husband the authority even though he was the passive sort who, when we first married, would have been happy enough to see me in the driver's seat. I thank God daily that he is the head of the family. We would not be in such a good place if he hadn't stood firm when he needed to. That's what I think of when I try to liken the situation to the ground not producing thorns.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Sarah, no matter what we do, labor *will* be hard work, and husbands *will* be in the God-ordained position to lead their families. Someone will lead, as a vacuum or complete egalitarianism does not exist in marriages. And if it's not the husband it will be the wife. I have yet to see good things come from such an arrangement.

Now if we could please get back to the subject, for now.

Harper said...

Mrs. Anna-

I agree that honesty is generally the best policy, and that the daycare argument only goes so far. You're right, after you have a certain number of children, you start hearing "well, you simply shouldn't have any more," and that is painful and offensive.

In my particular case, my father subscribes to a belief system about reproduction called ZPG (Zero Percent Growth). He believes that people need to be active in reducing the birth rate and the overall population. From his perspective, I should have no children--at least that's the way he raised me and the way he has behaved towards my son. Since we are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum about these things (I don't use contraception), there really is no purpose in going into a debate that will result in movement on neither end.

Elisabeth said...

When my parents got married, they lived with my my dad's parents, so my mom was in the same situation as this lady. They lived there for five years, and had three children while there. My mom would not recommend this arrangement to anyone. While they did help out my grandparents (who were elderly), and the children were the light of the home, there were still misunderstandings, interference with child training, and so on. My mom hardly even got to cook as her MIL wanted to do it. The arrangement didn't allow her to be the queen of her own home. I'm not married yet, but when I do, I look forward to learning and growing with my husband into a new family unit.
That said, this lady must be very strong, brave and unselfish to be willing to make the best of the situation. Hopefully she and her husband will find something that works for them.