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.
Most parents-in-law believe it’s a good thing that their precious has grown up and is having sex. Not the ailing mother-in-law in this letter, who lives with her son and his wife. This older woman is rude and hostile over breakfast if she’s heard the young couple making love the night before. This letter is a perfect illustration of why the multi-family household started disappearing as soon as people got the means to get out.
Often the younger in-laws complain they are shut out of family lore. But in one case, the future mother-in-law has burdened her son's fiancée with an explosive secret. The young man has been haunted by the fact that his mother insists she doesn’t know who fathered him. But after the son got engaged, the mother told the fiancée that of course she knows who the father is—and now the fiancée needs to keep the secret from her intended. I say, too bad, Mom, now your secret is out.
Another archetype is the mother-in-law wanting grandchildren. As this quartet of letters illustrates, some want them way too much, and some are confused about whose baby it is. Impatient for nature to take its course, one mother-in-law found the young couple’s condoms during a visit, and poked holes in them. The good news is that everyone is delighted with the baby. Then there’s the visiting grandma who went in to comfort her crying grandchild in the middle of the night, and was discovered by her daughter-in-law dry suckling the infant. One couple’s children were conceived through assisted technology, but the mother-in-law has become fixated on the suspicion that the clinic didn't actually use her son-in-law's sperm. She wants the kids to get a DNA test, and the son-in-law who wrote to me added the appalling fact that his wife was willing to go along just to keep mom quiet. And in a continuing vein, one mother-in-law was so obsessed with knowing the sex of the impending grandchild, against the couple’s wishes, she got the ultrasound technician at her daughter-in-law’s doctor’s office to tell her. When the daughter-in-law confronted her about this violation, mom did no favors to her cohort by insulting the young woman for being an orphan.
Some mothers-in-law, however, choose to express their hostility in unconventional ways. This letter writer knows that her fiancé’s mother, an aesthetician, can’t stand her. But she wondered if she has to go along with the future mother-in-law’s insistence on lasering off the letter writer’s body hair. (The son insists she should!) This sounded to me like that scene in Goldfinger where James Bond is strapped to a table as a laser slowing makes its way to his crotch. In another, equally ridiculous case, a future mother-in-law insists on a chocolate cake at the wedding—even though the bride is severely allergic to chocolate. I'm a chocoholic too, but it's just not kosher for a mother-in-law to threaten to make a scene unless she gets her favorite flavor despite it being threatening to the bride.
I feel terribly sorry for the mother-in-law who has Huntington's disease, the degenerative and ultimately fatal hereditary condition. But there’s no excuse for her keeping this a secret until her grandson was born, thus depriving the young couple of the ability to get genetic counseling to see if the husband was a carrier. I have nothing but contempt, however, for the future mother-in-law who was trying to keep the father of the bride from attending the wedding because he was scarred after being burned in an accident. The bride-to-be wrote that her fiancé was weaseling around in response to his mother’s request. I replied that unless the groom firmly shuts down his mother from ever mentioning this again, it’s the bride who should refuse to attend the wedding.
Then there is the mother-in-law who feels the strain of getting along with the interloper her son has married is just too much, and concludes the most decisive thing to do is to try to kill her. This letter writer said her rocky relationship with her mother-in-law culminated with the older woman hitting her in the face with a chair, sending her to the emergency room. And, finally, the mother-in-law letter that has never been topped is this two-parter from a young woman who through some clever subterfuge was able to prove that, indeed, her mother-in-law was poisoning her.
Correction, May 9, 2014: This article originally misquoted psychologist Terri Apter as describing in-laws as a lightning “road.”