My mother-in-law is very opinionated about my parenting

grannyQ. Would you have any advice in dealing with in-laws? I have a three-year-old and a 13-month-old. The problem is my mother-in-law constantly comes over unannounced and she spends lots of time here. It wouldn’t be so bad if she wasn’t always giving her tuppenceworth in how I rear my kids, particularly on how I manage my three-year-old’s tantrums and whinging. Frequently, she makes really critical comments, such as the other morning when she came over and said, “Are they not dressed yet?” to suggest somehow I was disorganised. While, of course, I know that she is trying to be helpful and I am glad that the kids know her well (she is kind to them), I frequently find myself getting annoyed at her and resentful that she is here so much. My husband doesn’t want to upset her, and when I raise the issue with him, he always takes her side and we end up in a row which doesn’t help at all. What can I do?

A. When you are married or in a long-term relationship, one of the greatest challenges is working out your relationships with your in-laws. Each extended family is different and brings different expectations about what is acceptable or normal in family life. Simple norms such as when and how you can visit another family member can vary from family to family and can be contentious.

For some families, dropping in unannounced is normal and encouraged as a spontaneous way of keeping connected; for other families this is unacceptable and the “rule” is that you should plan ahead and schedule visits in advance. When you have children, such differences can really come to the fore, when you are discovering your own way of parenting and re-negotiating what support you want from your extended family.

The issue is particularly acute between mothers and their mother-in-laws. Like any grandparent, a mother-in-law is keen to have a relationship with her son’s child, yet she may not have the pre-existing relationship with her daughter-in-law to achieve this smoothly, and her interest can come across as interference. Equally, a new mother has a right to her independence and to make her own decisions as to how to raise her children with her partner.

Resolving disputes with mothers-in-law can be difficult and are usually very delicate matters. Some people are in the lucky situation of being able to have a frank and direct conversation with their mother-in-law, meaning that you directly raise the issues and complaints that cause you concern.

However, I suspect these people are very much in the minority. For most people, this could lead to hurt and offence, and perhaps damage to the relationship in the long term.

As a result, a more subtle or indirect approach might be the best way forward. Before deciding the best course of action, it is first important to try to understand the situation from your mother-in-law’s perspective and, in particular, to try to acknowledge her positive intentions. Presumably, she is trying to find her role as grandmother and a way of being connected to her grandchildren and helpful in their lives.

Then you can think of ways that she can get what she wants, but in a manner that suits your needs as well as benefiting the children. For example, you could say to her something like, “The children do really like to see you, would it suit if I dropped them over to you for a few hours – that would be really helpful to me also.” This way she gets time with the children, you don’t have to entertain her in your home and you get a break.

Alternatively, when she visits you could use it as an opportunity to go out and do the shopping or whatever, so she gets her own time with the kids. The key is to try to see your mother-in-law as a resource rather than an interference, and to find a way she can contribute usefully in a way that helps her feel involved, as well as being of benefit.

As you have discovered, these problems can put stress on your marriage. Even when married, men tend to still feel a loyalty to their family of origin and particularly to their mother. This can lead them to being defensive when they perceive your upset as an attack on their mother or on their family’s original values.

While men generally hope that their wife and their mother will get on, they tend to back off and leave it up to them to work out their relationship. As a wife, this can often leave you feeling a little abandoned and feeling that you have to cope alone. In order to get your husband’s support, it is important to appreciate his sense of loyalty to his mother and to not put him in a position where he feels he has to make a choice.

Try not to frame your dispute with your mother-in-law as a criticism of her, but simply as a relationship you need support and help with to manage differently. It is often helpful to ask your husband to become more directly involved to sort things out.

She is his mother after all and he will have some ideas on what works best with her and how to keep her happy. For example, if there is a delicate conversation to be had, it might be best if he led this or he could make sure to be physically there when she visits (and thus let you go out), so he can take responsibility for entertaining her.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.