From a young woman in the U.S.: Three years ago my partner’s work took him back to his hometown. He moved out of our shared flat (we had lived there for five years) and moved in with his mum. He had a separate flat in her house, but he joined her for meals and let her do his washing.
When I got pregnant with twins 1,5 year later, I joined him there. It was okay during the pregnancy, however after the birth of our children the relationship between me and his mum became strained. She wanted to see the babies all the time, and so came by every day uninvited.
When I insisted to arrange visiting times, she took offense. It got even worse, when my own mother (who lives abroad) visited and stayed for a few weeks to help me with childcare and household. There were some unpleasant moments when I felt oppressed by my mother-in-law (e.g. she let out some steam and didn’t let me out of my kitchen), so after some hear-to-heart I started avoiding her in general.
A few times she tricked her son into one-to-one conversations (e.g. at 11pm after he just got back from work) and used both flattery and blackmail to get an extra visit. My partner often felt torn between his mum and myself, and tried to please everyone. As a result the situation became very tense and one day our relationship nearly hit rough waters.
We decided to fight for our love and to move out. We now live in a different city, about 1,5h drive away from his mum. Initially, I felt relieved and hopeful, but his mum is still casting shadow over us. Shortly after we moved out, she complained how much she missed her grandchildren and so my partner insisted she visits. She came for a weekend shortly before Christmas and spent most of her time occupying our toddlers. When it wasn’t possible to spend every second of their time with her, she was upset. Although, we didn’t ask her to, she showed effort to help us in the household. When told it wasn’t necessary, again she felt offended.
My partner thinks she should visit more often (every 5 weeks), I disagree. I know he contacts her regularly (she even passes on greetings), but he hides this from me. Thus I have the feeling that we are becoming estranged from each other.
Your letter is a good example of how differences in a personal sense of boundaries can become a problem. There are other mothers of twins who would envy your situation. They wouldn’t understand for an instant why you can’t accept help – even every 5 weeks. But your letter is a wonderful example of the differences among people. For you, her visits and help don’t feel like help at all.
From my point of view, then, your MIL is not the problem. You are not the problem. The problem is that you don’t have a shared idea of what is close family and how close is close enough. What you do share in common is your love for your husband (her son), and your love for the twins (her grandchildren).
To make this a problem for your partner is a big mistake. He is loyal to you both, and should be. He shouldn’t have to hide his relationship with his mother from you. That approach hurts everyone involved. His mother feels rejected. You feel threatened. He feels like he’s caught in the middle.
Although your move may have given you some space, I don’t think you needed to “fight for your love”. I do think you needed to approach the problem differently, in a way that responded to everyone’s needs. The move addressed your need for a clearer boundary around your own family. But it didn’t address your MIL’s need to feel part of what she considers “family”. It didn’t get your husband out of the middle.
I ask you to consider planned monthly visits as a way to respond to everyone’s needs: You are not in competition with her for the love of your partner or your children. Embracing her in some way only expands the love in your family. Her help with the household isn’t a negative comment on your housekeeping. It’s most likely her attempt to show appreciation for being included in your family.
Your MIL is in love with her grandchildren. A visit every 5 weeks will let her witness their growth and development and will make it possible for her to have a genuine personal relationship with them. By making the visits regular and predictable, you’ll quiet her anxiety and yours. You’ll both know what to expect.
Think about letting her concentrate on the twins when she visits. While she plays Grandma, you get some time to yourself or to catch up on things that you simply can’t get done with toddlers under foot. If she wants to help with a chore, by all means let her and accept it as a gift. She will feel useful. You will be able to take something off your “to do” list.
Consider planning outings that the whole family (you, your partner and kids and Grandma) can share like a visit to the local children’s museum or playground. (Three adults on two toddlers sounds like the right adult:child ratio to me.) If she makes suggestions about child rearing, you don’t need to get defensive. Simply thank her for sharing and tell her you’ll think about it. (Thinking doesn’t oblige you do anything differently but she’ll feel heard.)
If you initiate contact in-between visits, you won’t feel “ambushed” by an unexpected call. Ideally, you and your husband will share in keeping her in touch with regular calls or messages. You don’t have to spend hours on the phone. Just say hi, share a cute story about the grandchildren, and let your husband take it from there.
By taking control of when visits and calls happen and how she is involved, you will define your family boundaries without escalating the tension between you.
One more thing: Do your best to get to know your MIL better. After all, she raised the man you love. She probably did some things right.
I wish you well.