Dear Gefilte: How Do I Deal with My Critical, Outspoken Mother-in-Law? – Kveller
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dear gefilte

Dear Gefilte: How Do I Deal with My Critical, Outspoken Mother-in-Law?

Dear Gefilte,

Yes. I’m going right there….

Much like most Jewish mother-in-laws, mine overfloweth with loud criticisms, fierce opinions, and contrary commentary, but all in the name of love! I’m a sensitive mother and gently simmering with silent anxiety and fury around her. Our relationship is grating on my marriage, and my husband, in self-preservation mode, will not get involved. What’s a shrinking violet to do?



Dear Roadkill,

I had to look up the etymology on “mother-in-law” because I didn’t want you getting read your Miranda Rights while I preached at the nearest precinct.

Here’s what I found: In British slang c. 1884, mother-in-law was “a mixture of ales old and bitter.”

Roadie, it sounds like you are dealing with a very bitter old ale. And she may taste OK if you down her fast, followed immediately by a side of curly fries, but I want you to have a healthier way to digest her words.

Here’s the thing: If you shrink, she’ll just get bigger.

READ: What Your Mother-in-Law Really Thinks

I met my dear Ales Old just months before my own mother unexpectedly died. Oy vey with a side of schmear. My mom’s death defined who I was, what I wore, and how many bottles of Pinot Grigio I could guzzle for the next few years. It also made my mother-in-law look like fresh bait. I resented how young and alive she was. How she could scratch an itch or iron her shirts or stick a bookmark in her paperback and come back to that chapter to finish reading later. (I was still toting around my mom’s copy of “Buddenbrooks” which she was reading when we took her to the hospital because she was determined to get to book club that Tuesday before she stopped breathing.)

I especially like the part where my mother-in-law offered to take me wedding dress shopping and I said OK. Then I got us lost in a mall parking lot with no exits and told her I wasn’t sure I believed in marriage or love or the word forever.


READ: How to Help a Recently Widowed Parent

Roadie, I tell you this because even though it was ugly, it was what I needed to do. And quite frankly, I wish I said stuff like that more often. Usually I’ll eat my own tail before I’ll confront someone, but you and I have an assignment together:

Make some waves.

Then jump in them and splash.

You and only you can express how it stings when your Ales Old criticizes. You and most definitely you know the heart palpitations of watching your children in her arms. So dump the violet act. If you simmer silently any longer, you’re going to burn and smell nasty. I know from experience. Sitting in the muckety muck, wondering why the tide didn’t change…it’s boring and passive and smelly.

You have to confront her. Include your husband too so he knows how this affects you. He also gets to see what a kickass, honest, sexy, taking-care-of-emotional-integrity Wonder Woman you are. This can be done in lots of different ways—a meal, a walk, a trip to a Sartre-themed mall parking lot—whatever feels right to you. Words I encourage you to include are:

– “When you say XYZ, I feel XYZ”

– “Next time could you check with me before telling the kids XYZ?”

– “Orange you glad I didn’t say penis?” (That’s actually the punch line to my favorite joke so you don’t have to use it but feel free if the mood gets too tense.)

You can reference the tangled story of Ruth and Naomi if you dare. That’s full of lots of guilt and coercion and barley.

READ: Mother-in-Law to the Rescue

And here’s something for you to chew on: Some day in the not-so-distant future, you will hopefully be someone’s mother-in-law. You will be the one scheduling visits and wondering why your kid doesn’t call you as much and pretending a new pair of socks will bring intimacy. It will hurt. Badly.

I already have my eye on a beautiful little girl in my son’s pre-K class who yesterday asked if I wanted to hold her marble but we all know that is a euphemism for, “I’m going to one day hold your son’s heart in my hand and you can never stop me. Moowahahahahaha!”

The anger and disgust I felt for that 4-year-old temptress was really bracing. And yet, I also appreciate her. I hope that one day, when some Ales Old tells her how to stir her soup or dress her kids, she says, “Back off, ^&(#@! You had your snuggle time. Now let me love him too.”

I’ll need to hear that.

With love and schmaltz,


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