Mother in Law Episode 2
by Estelle Phillips
We are told about son-in-law/father-in-law relationships in the Torah. Parsha Yisro speaks of the ultimate respect Moses gives to his father-in-law. After hearing Yisro's critique of the way he had set up the court system for the Jewish people Moses didn’t get upset or angry at him for “interfering”. Instead the Torah tells us that “Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law, and did everything that he had said” (Exodus 18:24)
Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch describes the honour given to King Saul by David.
Writing in the 16th century Rabbi Elazar Azikri explains in Chapter 12 of the Sefer Chareidim that one is obligated to honour one’s in-laws. The Kabbalah teaches that a husband and wife are considered like one body and one soul, so that the father and mother of this one is also the father and mother of that one. We are therefore obligated to honour and respect our spouse’s parents as we respect our own parents.
We are also instructed to be aware of the debt we owe our parents-in-law by Rabbi Eliezer Papo. Writing in Constantinople in 1824 he explains that there is a tremendous obligation to honour one’s in-laws because they are the ones who spent precious years of their lives – not to mention untold amounts of money and resources – caring for and raising the person who now gives us so much and fulfils us in life – the man or woman we married. The gratitude we owe to our in-laws obligates us to give them great honour and respect and to act to them as if we were an actual son or daughter.
Differences between the chatan and kallah are described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Genesis 19:12
He explains that a son-in-law is only joined to his parents-in-law by their daughter. This important and much loved connection is the mutual thread which affects the son-in-law and parents-in-law equally. (atan means fine threads woven together). A daughter-in-law is a much more intimate member of the household. She becomes the “crown” that “completes” their house (kallah means both “crown” and “completion”).
The relationship between M-I-l and D-I-l is rarely discussed. The main exception is in the book of Ruth where Ruth makes one of the great, classical declarations of love - to her mother-in-law, Naomi. This is a very positive and powerful demonstration of the strength of the bond between them. But Ruth's eloquence presents a lost ideal. More commonly cited is the doggerel verse: "A son is a son 'till he takes him a wife but a daughter's a daughter the whole of her life."
Today I want to focus on mothers of sons and their new daughters in law in our society.
A mother in law is the archetypal wicked step mother of fairy stories and the butt of non PC music hall jokes.
Two significant steps in the life cycle of women are 1) becoming a wife and 2) when her first born marries. In terms of Life transitions, a wedding can signal the beginning of old age for the 'about to become mother-in-law' as she moves up a generation. No longer is she the automatic legal next-of-kin of her child.
While I know that many of you here enjoy excellent in-law relationships, many of today's younger, more glamorous, go-getting mothers-in-law do not get on well with their daughters-in-law. You would think the similarities between them would bring them closer together, but in fact the opposite is true. Role boundaries were much clearer two generations ago - now they are more blurred. There may be a subconscious rivalry as the distances between the generations have grown much less, For example, if the mother-in-law is competent, confident and successful rather than 'a grandparent on the back burner', the younger woman is likely to feel more uncertain of herself.
Some specific issues
The new family member comes into the established group as the beloved son's permanent partner. His mother has to cope with the fact that this little known person now even has her name - Mrs. Cohen. She may start off as the family outsider but at the same time, mothers feel less close to their own adult child.
Problems arise unexpectedly. Titles can become a bone of contention. Naomi refers to Ruth as 'my daughter' and it wasn't so long ago that upon marriage the new family member called her husband's parents ' mum and dad'. But that is rarely the case now. It is more usual for the new mother-in-law to be called by her first name. It is surprising how many women consider this disrespectful and take quite a time to get used to it.
There is a remarkable lack of acceptable role models from whom the older woman can learn (many new mothers-in-law didn't like their own). Then there is the question of Who and when to phone. With the advent of mobile phones it is no longer possible to just 'pop in'. Whatever happened to spontaneous behaviour? Many well intentioned m-i-l find that Giving food to the young couple and Helping with chores is seen as being critical by the new wife. M--l is perceived as 'interfering' when genuinely trying to help.
The recession has added financial constraints to the list of contentions between in-laws and children. 'Parents-in-law help out, but the couple can find it very difficult taking the money - they are left with feelings of guilt and obligation. This and other information is based on published research.
For example, Relate reports that in-law issues are high in the top 10 problems most frequently encountered in marriage counselling. Parentline estimates that around 20 per cent of calls involve problems with in-laws and The Institute of Family Therapy encourages couples to bring their in-laws along to counselling sessions. These organisations report that the most common complaints from daughters-in-law refer to parental criticism (of anything and everything) plus lending money then trying to help them decide how to spend it.
Some Suggestions for Improving the Situation
The sooner the parties are aware of the problems the earlier they can take action to try and avoid them. The bride could invite his mother to see her in the wedding dress before the wedding, thus helping her future m-i-l to avoid the feeling of merely being a guest at her own child's wedding. The bride might also Discuss with her fiancé's mother how she would like to be called once the marriage has taken place.
Similarly, the mother should try to understand the difficulty felt by the younger woman at 'breaking into' a close knit family group with its own norms, jokes and traditions. She was, after all, once in that position herself and could try to remember the feelings.
Our own society might learn from Anthropologists who have discovered that in many cultures there are distinct ways of behaving towards mothers-in-law. For example, in one tribe a special dish at the wedding feast is kept for the mother-in-law and ceremonially presented to her. Perhaps we could do with a variant of that here. At our weddings, the focus is completely on the couple and the transition for the mother-in-law is simply not considered.
We learn that Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David. From that we can understand that Even if we do not seem to be rewarded in our own lifetime HaShem makes the names of those he considers worthy, known and remembered throughout the generations.
Now I am not saying that all mothers-in-law are perfect and some may act in ways that make us think they don’t deserve respect . But no matter how badly our in-laws might treat us, (or we think they treat us) we must never forget that they gave us one of the greatest gifts we will ever receive – our spouse. And for that alone we must be grateful We can all aim for the ideal set by Ruth and Naomi although it might be rather difficult to attain.