Thought his ma was difficult before? Try adding a baby to the mix, says writer Lucy Mangan
Ah, the old jokes are the best. Or they are at least the most illustrative of the preoccupations we’ve all endured down the ages. The relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law has always been complicated. She sees you as an interloper, you view her as a threat. And, when you have a baby, all your relationships become more complex. So, what happens when it comes to one that wasn’t simple to begin with?
The granny wars
My favourite mum-in-law story comes from my friend Maria, who had her first baby eight months ago. She’s English and her MIL is Irish. At their first meeting, ma-in-law let her sit down and take a single sip of tea before asking, ‘So, Maria – how do you feel about your country’s occupation of our six counties?’
Then, when the baby arrived, she rang Maria a dozen times a day with enquiries that made it clear she had not one iota of faith that her grandson wasn’t in imminent danger of death. When she came to visit, she didn’t sing nursery rhymes, just anti-English songs.
Maria’s is an extreme example of a common problem. Babies add stress to any relationship and show up its weakest points – just when you’re at your weakest point, too.
If there is one thing I learned as I was thrown mercilessly about on that tide of post-partum madness, it was to keep everything (except knickers and sanitary towels) as small as possible. Small thoughts – otherwise you spin off into disaster scenarios in which terrible things happen to the baby – and small reactions, so you don’t say anything you can’t later undo.
You still here?
But, sometimes, mothers-in-law create the opposite problem. ‘She was there all the time,’ says Rosie, whose son Aled* is now 18 months old. ‘She would turn up first thing every morning and just, well, stay. Aled was her first grandchild and she adored him. She also couldn’t do enough for me as The Divine One’s mother, but I longed for some time that was just me, my husband and our baby.’
Whatever problems your MIL brings, remember two things. One, she’s nervous, too. She may never have been a (grand)mother-in-law before and there are many lines to walk – between interested and suffocating, supportive and interfering, experienced and smug.
Secondly, you may be there yourself someday. My son isn’t yet two and I already catch myself envisaging his wife. How she’ll break my heart by taking him away. And how I’ll tear out hers if she ever causes him pain. And how I can’t wait to meet their children. As I'm quite normal, I think the joke may be on us in the end.
Lucy’s new book Charlie's Chocolate Factory: the Complete Story of Willy Wonka, the Golden Ticket and Roald Dahl's Greatest Creation is out on September 4th.