Mother-in-law makes me feel like third wheel

My mother-in-law and I got along great until I married my husband (an only child) and gave birth to our daughter seven months ago. Since our baby was born, she has been trying to take over my life! She is very possessive, and from the time I became pregnant has called the baby "hers." I think my mother-in-law is trying to live vicariously through my family, while making it clear I have no place in her fantasy. My husband agrees that his mom's behavior is very inappropriate, but it still has caused problems for us. I feel so trapped and I don't know what to do.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your husband must align his loyalties with you if your marriage is to succeed. The good news is that he knows his mother's behavior is inappropriate. Now it is time for him to do something about it.

Each day your husband does not set limits with your mother-in-law strains your marriage. This is the stage of development in the family life cycle in which it is essential that the two of you create a boundary around your nuclear family.

You are a new mother and it is important that your authority be recognized in the extended family. It is your husband's job to talk with his parents about this boundary in the beginning. He must show his mother that he supports you in your parental authority and require that you be accepted as his wife and the mother of his child. Not saying anything for fear of his mother's reaction only worsens the situation and reinforces her fantasy that this is "her" child and you are a "third wheel." Let your husband know that you do not expect him to love his mother any less, but that you are now the center of his life and need his support.

Do not despair! You are the wife and mother in this family. Instead of feeling trapped, find your voice as a mother. You and your husband set the guidelines in the family. Explain to your mother-in-law that you appreciate her as a grandmother and ask her how she would like herself referred to, in this role. Would she like your daughter to call her grandma, nana, or some other appropriate endearment? Let her know that you do not want there to be any confusion about who is Mom and who is grandmother for your child. Clarify your expectation for her to speak accordingly to your child. "My grandbaby" might be an appropriate substitution.

Visit only as often as you are comfortable, and allow your mother-in-law's participation in your baby's life at the level that feels right to you. With your husband's support, your mother-in-law will come to accept her natural place as a grandmother. And in time, you will feel increasingly secure in your position as a mother.

Remember, too, that your mother-in-law is adjusting to sharing her only child with his new family. No doubt her tenacity to "live vicariously" has much to do with her loneliness in her own marriage, however you cannot change this for her.

Though there may be some reaction from your mother-in-law as she adjusts to grandmotherhood, she will most certainly get over any feelings of rejection if you continue to include her in your life. Send her cards, invite her to visit you and the baby even though she falls silent. Expect this but do react to childish behavior. Consider her frailty, but do not take your "cues" from her. Act with the maturity of your new identity as mother and treat her with patience until she comes around. It is unlikely she will continue to "cut off her nose to spite her face," once some time has passed.

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