Myth & THE MOTHER-IN-LAW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLARIFICATION

In the story on mothers-in-law in last Sunday's section, the Web site address where readers can find Dr. Terri Apter's advice and research paper was omitted. The Internet address is www.motherinlawstories.com.

You've probably heard a million mother-in-law jokes like this one:

"Hello. Your mother-in-law fell into my pool filled with crocodiles."

"The crocodiles are yours, so you save them."

But did you ever ask yourself why you never hear father-in-law jokes? Or why a loving mom gets stereotyped as a bossy sadist once her child gets married?

Or why there are two words to describe the medical condition known as having an aversion to mothers-in-law (pentheraphobia and novercaphobia)?

The stereotype isn't even evil in an interesting sort of way, like the Wicked Stepmother. Mothers-in-law are just interfering shrews.

It's not always the two women who don't get along -- which you might expect. The most famous television examples involve sons-in-law. Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners" loathed his mother-in-law; Endora on "Bewitched" never got along with son-in-law Darrin. And surely it's the male stand-up comics who have come up with most of the brutal mother-in-law jokes.

Then there are the immortal words of Ernie K. Doe in his '50s hit song "Mother-in-Law":

"If she leave us alone

We would have a happy home

Sent from down below

Mother-in-law."

The mother-in-law / child-in-law relationship seems doomed from the start, given the lowered expectations. The father-in-law usually stays out of the fray, says University of Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter, because men are typically somewhat removed from the day-to-day business of home and family. Many of the conflicts revolve around these issues, which have enormous emotional impact.

"A mother-in-law, even if she has great sympathy for her daughter-in-law, can't help but judge her as a good wife for her son and a good mother," says Apter, who has done extensive research on in-law relationships. A young wife may feel criticized for her skills -- or lack of them. Even an offer of help can be seen as criticism, although the older woman doesn't mean to intrude.

Sometimes it's a matter of very different expectations. A woman who has four daughters of her own may not want a close relationship with a daughter-in-law who needs a mom, points out Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Mothers-in-

Law and Daughters-in-Law," which will be published this month by New Horizon Press.

While the relationship between a mother- and daughter-in-law has the potential to be more emotionally charged, the son-in-law may resent his wife's mother because on some level he's afraid she'll see through him -- and not idealize him as he wants his wife to. Or he may simply be jealous of the close ties between mother and daughter.

"As the mother of [the spouse] she has great power," says Apter. "To demonize her or ridicule her is to minimize that power."

Apter's relationship with her own mother-in-law isn't an easy one. They don't quarrel, but the older woman's assumption has always been that the psychologist's most important job is to contribute to the happiness of her husband.

"I felt very threatened when I was young," says Apter, "But now I just see it as part of the human comedy."

Mothers-in-law have been getting a bad rap for millennia. In Roman myth Venus was snippy about her son Cupid's marrying Psyche, a mere mortal.

More recently, Lord Byron (1788-1824) wrote: "I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law."

Maybe in the 21st century mother-in-law bashing will finally be a thing of the past. Baby boomers are the first generation of women who routinely have had careers of their own. They ought to understand if their daughters-in-law don't always put husband, children and housework first.

Women who are just becoming mothers-in-law and who are used to thinking of their children as contemporaries may also be more willing than previous generations to consider their daughters-in-law as friends.

"Mothers-in-law today are more self-aware," says Apter. "Friendship is possible if the daughter-in-

law can step back. There is much to be gained, a family network."

Finally, with today's greater life expectancies, 21st-century mothers-in-law are statistically going to be around longer than ever before, points out Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociology professor who specializes in family relationships. Their children had better learn to get along with them.

In fact, some professionals argue that the old stereotype has already gone out the window.

"It's a mistake to think [in-laws] don't get along," says Cherlin. "Most do. It's a myth that was more the case in the old days, when the mother-in-law was an authority figure. [For example,] when the oldest generation owned the farm."

Cathy Smith of Cockeysville, for instance, says she admires her mother-in-law, whom she describes as "well-read and a kind person." The older woman, who is in her 80s, earned a master's degree in chemistry at a time when that was unusual for young ladies.

Part of the reason she and her mother-in-law have a good relationship, says Smith, may be that her in-laws live in North Carolina. "It's always a special occasion when we see them. It's easier not to let day-to-day tensions interfere."

Still, Smith, who balances a career and raising three children, admits that even after 17 years of marriage she gets nervous and does some serious house cleaning when her mother-in-law comes to visit.

"Even though I don't think she would care, and I've never felt like I was getting the white-glove treatment. Still, I want to look like everything's under control."

One thing hasn't changed in the 21st century. Marriage still involves a re-balancing of loyalties. A good mother-in-law, says Dr. Richard Perlmutter, a Baltimore psychiatrist and family therapist, understands that in some ways she is losing her child; but she's willing to let go so the new family will work.

"It's an issue I deal with almost hourly," he says.

Perlmutter advises patients not to be drawn into the spouse's battle with his or her parents. "Stay away. You can't win." He also suggests trying to see the situation from the mother-in-law's point of view "before you attack."

But no matter how much good advice there is out there on dealing with these tangled relationships, some people can't manage even an uneasy truce.

On Patricia Bachkoff's wedding day, her soon-to-be mother-in-law came into the bridal suite and said, "Are you bloated? You really look swollen in your dress." Patty started to cry, ruining her make- up.

This was some time after the engagement party, when the future mother-in-law had put photos of her son's ex-girlfriends on the refrigerator. She brought Patty and the guests in, showed them and said, "I just want you to see what he'll be missing."

Patty, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., is 25. She hasn't spoken to her mother-in-law in four years, and her husband and his mother aren't speaking because the mother said she wouldn't speak to him again until he left his wife.

To deal with her feelings of guilt and anger, Patty has started her own Web site (themotherinlaw.com), a sort of self-help group where women share their war stories. "My stories pale in comparison to some of them," she says. Last year she collected the worst of them in a book, "Mother-in-Law Hell" (iUniverse.com, 2000).

She realizes her situation may change when she has children. "We're going to have to tolerate each other," she says.

Things may be getting better for mothers-in-law. Like the mothers who have their special day next Sunday, in the '80s Congress designated the fourth Sunday in October Mother-in-Law Day. (Not that many people observe it.)

That's more hopeful than in the '20s, when Sir Ernest Wild, a London magistrate, had to explain to a culprit brought before him: "However much you dislike your mother-in-law, you must not set fire to her."

Getting along

Like any other relationship, getting along with your mother-in-

law, and vice versa, takes work. Here are some suggestions from the professionals:

* Remember the old adage: In-laws aren't always outlaws.

* Tolerance of other people's domestic lifestyle is crucial.

* Stop and think: Is this a criticism or a suggestion? Is it criticism or an offer of help?

* Be accepting of the fact that the two of you may expect different things from the relationship.

* Be willing to compromise.

* Stay out of the spouse's battles with his or her parents.

* Be patient. Susan Shapiro Barash, author of "Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law," found that many daughters-in-law in their 20s despise their mothers- in-law, but the two then find a way to appreciate each other later in life.

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