If you hear someone is the “world’s worst mother,” you expect a Greek tragedy. The “world’s worst stepmother” conjures a Grimm fairy tale. But the “world’s worst mother-in-law” sounds like a punch line. Mothers-in-law immediately evoke stereotypes, none of them flattering. We think of the woman coddling her eternal mama’s boy. Or the woman so psychologically enmeshed with her daughter that the husband is treated like an intruder. Popular culture turns the mother-in-law into a Monster-in-Law. The 1961 hit song “Mother-in-Law” sums it up with brutal directness: “The worst person I know.”
Of course, there are countervailing images. The Bible portrays the dedication of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi with her stirringly beautiful affirmation: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.” There are certainly other equally beloved mothers-in-law, though unfortunately none spring to mind, or to Google.
In her book about in-law relationships, What Do You Want From Me?, psychologist Terri Apter writes, “The topic of in-laws is a lightning rod, charged with confusion and fear. That is one reason why jokes about in-laws are so common. Sometimes we laugh when we are anxious and bewildered.”* She says the anxiety and bewilderment on the part of the parents is about the dismantling of the old family structures, losing the exclusive closeness with an offspring to that child’s new love (and the family that comes with it), and wondering about one’s place in the grown child’s life. The younger generation must struggle with the realization that in-laws “come glued to the people we choose as partners” and that the new couple is not a world unto itself.
Apter’s research shows that the most difficult of these in-law relationships are between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law (surprise!). In the most fraught scenarios, the two women enact a struggle for primacy in the life of the man who is son to one and husband to the other. Her very chapter headings are a kind of précis of the problems that arise: “Why Is It So Hard on the Women?” “Whose Side Are You On?” “Who’s the Mother Now?” Apter observes that this conflict is more common between the women than the men because the "domestic moral compass, the family norms, the tributes of loyalty and acts of obligation are usually regulated and maintained by the woman in the family."
Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, is carving out an academic specialty in how in-laws communicate. She, too, has focused on the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, in part because it’s the women who are most willing to fill out questionnaires about how they get along. She has found a lot of satisfying relationships among her survey subjects (and with her own mother-in-law). But, ironically, she also discovered it can be the awareness of in-law clichés that distorts people’s behavior. For example, she says, “The mother-in-law can be very aware of the stereotype of being meddlesome and intrusive. So she goes to the other extreme and then the daughter-in-law says she doesn’t care.”
For as long as I’ve been Slate’s Dear Prudence, bad mothers-in-law have been a staple of my inbox. Every time I think I’ve heard every variation, a new innovation in awfulness arrives. As I was looking for the most outrageous mother-in-law letters, it became clear that while some of these women might be a punch line, others were a punch to the face. Here’s a baker’s dozen of the worse.
The future mother-in-law in this letter stands for all the overbearing momma bears and their permanent cubs. A young bride-to-be writes that her future mother-in-law likes to come over uninvited to make sure her baby boy has enough food and do his laundry. She also makes all his appointments, then accompanies him to the dentist. It’s all fine with him! This is hardly the most egregious situation, but I told her to get out because her fiancé is already in a relationship—with his mom.