Previously, I have discussed caregiving adult children as a group. It’s time to look at each family position separately. Today, we begin with the most stressful family position, the daughter-in-law. In the family circus, the daughter-in-law’s position matches the juggler on a high wire. Not only is she separated from the ground of family history, she is also required to keep many other roles going at the same time.
Statistics show that the majority of caregivers are women. A woman will spend more years caring for an elder than rearing her children. The elder receiving care is often the in-law.
Any caregiving adult child manages at least five other roles; house, spouse, children, job and pets. The daughter-in-law’s relationship to her spouse involves other elements. She did not grow up with her husband. In other times, perhaps couples grew up together. That is rare today. A daughter-in-law only knows what she has seen through her marriage, or what her mother-in-law has said.
Who was this man as a child? How did he relate to his mother in the past? Was he as good a child as his mother reports? Or did he smile sweetly at his mother and pulled all the girls’ pigtails when she wasn’t looking? If he does not admit to this behavior and his mother does not report it, how is a daughter-in-law to know? If there are any other disconnects in bytes of family history, then the daughter-in-law operates on partial information. Imagine trying to drive a car with low air tire pressure. Her lack of complete data makes it harder for her to maneuver in this relationship.
What did her husband’s birth mean to her mother-in-law? Was her husband the mother-in-law’s longed-for son that everyone expected her to produce? In the Bible, we see many women praying, promising and suffering in other’s eyes because they did not have a son. How many future mothers-in-law will analyze their feelings and share them with their daughters-in-law? Such a background would provide perspective.
What impact did the birth of this son (now husband) have on his family? Did their finances change? Was the mother-in-law’s’ health affected? How did other siblings react to this new baby? How did this birth affect the (now) mother-in-law’s marriage? How many mothers-in-law would be willing to share these parts of their own marriage with their daughters-in-law? Not many.
A daughter-in-law can only guess at what her mother-in-law really viewed her son. One son showed me his wedding album. His mother’s photo was picture of despair! According to the daughter-in-law, his mother spared no opportunity to express how his bride did not measure up to mother’s standards! I met this couple. They seemed very compatible, and had a healthy new baby. The mother–in-law described her son as a gift to the world! I found him to be an amiable fellow, reasonably intelligent, and his looks would not frighten children. However; he did not look like movie star. He had not invented a cure for cancer. He did not write the latest great American novel.
After the meeting, I asked his mother about her son’s birth situation. She told me she had married late because she had to work to support her parents. She was not sure she would even be able to marry, much less have a child. When she married and became pregnant, she had complications. In those days there was no way to determine the gender or health of a child until birth. When her only child turned out to be a boy! A healthy one! The future mother-in-law believed her prayers had been answered. He was a gift; to her.
This man (husband) was also an only child. Thus, caring for his mother would be his responsibility. Since he worked outside the home and his wife did not, it actually fell to her; the daughter-in–law. Daughters-in-law often find they are the actual caregivers. Now that we have seen the issues they face let’s review what we can do to support daughters-in-law in their caregiving duties.
- Recognize the issues and missing information. Don’t assume the daughter-in-law knows how things were in early years. Share more background.
- Corroborate information. Are there other, older relatives, friends who can supply more background? Ask people for information.
- Have a chat about this situation before it becomes a crisis.
- What does the son (husband) really expect on the elder caregiving issue?
- Does he know, in a day-in-the-life manner, how caregiving impacts his wife? Share those details.
- What other duties could the husband take over to relieve some pressure from his wife? How can HE explain, to his mother, the need for care to come from his wife so his mother will accept it and treat her better?
- Have a social history chat. This one is tricky to do but rewarding. Each spouse could share what they observed about elder care when they young. Compare notes. Where do their experiences match? What does not match? These are the areas where the couple needs to work on a plan and make mutually acceptable
- Recognize that the son (husband) is in the middle. Both parties need to accept that idea and develop ways to avoid him being pressured from both sides. The solution is NOT that the daughter-in-law should acquiesce to all of his mother’s demands.
- If mother tells her son one thing and his wife says another; recognize that both stories may be true (in part). If the opportunity arises, the husband might observe their interaction at first, before stepping in. What are the irritants? How could these be addressed with both parties? Perhaps professional help may be necessary to save the family or marriage.
- Take a stand. One resolution the “amiable son” (described above) developed was to have a firm chat with his mother about his commitment to his wife and their future. He affirmed that he would see to her care in later years. He also affirmed that he would not accept her criticism of his bride. Perhaps she was not her choice, but she was his choice and he would stand by their covenant.
FOOT NOTE: That mother-in-law was very unhappy until the grandchild was born. Then parent, adult son, and daughter-in-law made their peace (détente) with each other. This arrangement enabled mother-in-law to develop a relationship with her grandchild.