Redefining the Dreaded Mother-in-Law Stereotype
“I’d like prayer for my relationship with my mother-in-law.”
I shot a glance at the woman who’d asked and fought the churning in my stomach. Five… four… three…
I doubt I made it past three before the first outburst came. I can’t remember any specific comments, but I recall the turmoil I felt when I heard the snide, ugly tones of the others as they vilified their mothers-in-law. Not even the oldest woman there–who was a mother-in-law herself–opted out of the gossip fest.
Except for me.
Spiritual superiority isn’t what kept me silent. At twenty-one, I’d been married for five years and had three children. But I was still just twenty-one. I’d not yet learned how to stand up to my elders and say, “Hey, this is wrong.”
No, I kept silent because they’d have laughed me out of the room if I’d said, “Yeah, well, you should have been there when I told my mother-in-law that she’d put enough syrup on Morgann’s pancakes and she kept pouring! My husband had to take the bottle away from her. The kid got, like, three tablespoons of the stuff.”
I was immature, but I wasn’t stupid!
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When people think about the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, they often turn to the book of Ruth.
After all, what is more stirring than the story of Ruth’s impassioned promise to remain with Naomi? (Ruth and Naomi’s story certainly doesn’t lend itself to a gossip fest.) But I see a different story than the one I was taught in Sunday school.
One thing I note every time I read the book of Ruth is how Bethlehem “was stirred” at their arrival. I checked a few commentaries to see what it meant and found that the word translated “they” is feminine. The women of Bethlehem were excited to see Naomi arrive. I find it interesting that they asked, “Is this Naomi?” She’d altered in spirit or appearance (or both!), and it caused comment. In fact, Gill’s Exposition of the Bible on chapter 1, verse 19 is full of fascinating speculation about their arrival.
But all speculation aside, here are the lessons I have learned from Naomi, as well as my own mother and mother-in-law, about how to redefine the title of mother-in-law.
1. Inspire love and loyalty.
Hardship made Naomi bitter. Granted, it began with a terrible famine, a move from her home, the loss of her husband, and then the loss of each of her sons. She had no hope of another husband to provide for her. She was destitute. Is it any wonder she became bitter?
I cannot imagine a woman like Naomi, with the harsh bitterness she showed at the end of chapter one, not having been someone to inspire love and loyalty at some point. The Moabites had a different god, but Ruth chose to follow Naomi and her God. Even Orpah wanted to return with her at first. Both young women wept at the idea of leaving Naomi.
A bitter woman wouldn’t have inspired that kind of loyalty. And it’s possible, that considering personality differences, Orpah left out of love and obedience, while Ruth stayed out of love and loyalty. We don’t know why Orpah obeyed and Ruth stayed.
Ruth actually lives Naomi’s life in reverse and with a reversal in results, too. She leaves the home of her ancestors to return with Naomi to Israel as a foreigner, an outcast, and a woman without the protection and aid of a male relative. But while Naomi lost everything in going to Moab, Ruth gains much by returning with her. Her words, “Your people will be my people and your God my God,” are almost prophetic when you see the tradition of a kinsman redeemer play out on the page.
And Ruth made that promise in the midst of Naomi’s deep bitterness. Naomi must have been a godly, loving mother-in-law before grief sank into her soul.
2. Treat your daughters-in-law the way you want to be treated.
Naomi and Ruth taught me that when my mother-in-law is out of fellowship with the Lord, it isn’t license for me to become self-righteous or distant. It’s a reminder that though she is more mature and experienced and I have much to learn from her, she is human, too. She is going to make mistakes. And Matthew 7:12 has a little something to say about how I respond to things like that: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you…”
If anything, times of struggle or suffering are the time to cling closer to the ones we love—to support them during the times that they need us!
Long phone conversations with my mother-in-law always included a run-down of everything my sister-in-law and nieces were doing as well. Mom Havig raved about how involved my sister-in-law Robin was with her girls’ sports teams, how she taught this church class or worked on that school board problem. I knew just how proud she was of the accomplishments of her other daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
To be honest, sometimes it felt a bit like she was hinting that I’d dropped the ball of mothering during my daily struggles… er, juggles.
But one day, a conversation with my sister-in-law enlightened me. And in later years, after Robin’s death, listening to her daughters talk confirmed it. Our mother-in-law spoke the same way of me to Robin. Mom raved about our homeschooling. She’d tell of all the folk dancing our girls did. She shared about how proud she was of our kids’ music classes or that the struggling reader finally took off.
Mom Havig treated each of her daughters-in-law the way she would want to be treated. She spoke well of us to each other. She supported our choices even when she didn’t agree (and neither of us ever knew which one she disagreed with!).
3. Say it like it is and then drop it.
I once told my mother-in-law that, if we needed to, I was quite confident we could learn to live on only a portion of my husband’s salary. Her words astonished me. “You should do it then—save the rest.”
If my husband had wanted me to, I’d have done it. But the idea of choosing to live a very limited, frugal life just so we could save a chunk of his income every month didn’t appeal to either of us. Still, when I mentioned it to my mother, to get her opinion, she said something like, “Well, I wouldn’t live on beans and rice and recycled toilet paper indefinitely, but it’s proof that you could probably be a better steward of what you have. Might think about that…”
Both women did basically the same thing. And in so doing, they taught me, just as Naomi did, how to be a mother-in-law. They gave me their advice without apology or watering it down. They “said it like it was.”
But then they dropped it. I never heard another word about it. If I’d asked, I’m sure my mother-in-law would have offered tips for being more frugal. I know my mother would have helped me figure out what was going too far and what wasn’t. But because I never asked, they didn’t share further input on those topics. Neither one of them pushed me to do things their way.
Naomi did that, too, you know. She told both daughters-in-law what she thought they should do. She laid out a solid argument for why they should listen to her. One obeyed. The other overrode her. But the narrative says nothing about her rebuking Ruth all the way back to Bethlehem. When Ruth is forced to glean the barley, we don’t see her bitterness coming out in an, “I told you not to come with me.”
4. Back off but be available.
My husband stood in our kitchen, unsure what to do next in our remodeling project. It was 1989, before the internet and YouTube. My father wasn’t available, my uncles were far away, and Kevin’s dad had never done that kind of handiwork.
My mom went to the library and scouted out everything she could find. She bought us the Reader’s Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual. She sat there and cheered Kevin on, holding boards, offering suggestions, but letting him make his own mistakes if he insisted.
Not once did she ever even hint at an, “I told you so,” if his rare alternate ideas failed. She just helped him figure out how to fix it.
The Jews had laws and customs to protect women in situations like Ruth found herself in. When Naomi realized that there was a chance for a better life for them (perhaps through the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Jewish law!), she told her daughter-in-law exactly what to do. Had she not been someone to admire and yield to before this bitterness, would Ruth really have made herself vulnerable as she did?
Naomi and my own mom taught me how to back off and be available when my daughter has questions or concerns. I’m there to help if she needs or wants it.
5. Never make others feel “less than”.
My mother-in-law often used to just jump in and help me with whatever I was doing. But she never made me feel “less than” if I didn’t do it her way. It didn’t matter matter how often either one of us swept my floor, we still came up with a pile (which would never have happened at her house, of course).
I don’t have any daughters-in-law yet. But I’m here to be the biggest cheerleader for my sons-in-law (although one of them is a year older than I am!). I’m not here to insist he and my daughter do things my way. I’m not here to make my sons-in-law feel like “less than” because they do things differently from my husband.
There’s no indication in scripture that Naomi thought less of Ruth or of Orpah for their personal decisions and actions. She didn’t fault them for not having children (as if they could help it). She didn’t blame Orpah for staying behind with family nor doubt Ruth for following her to an uncertain future. Ruth never shows any signs of impatience or even fear at the “crazy” (at least to my Western mind!) things Naomi tells her to do. I don’t think it’s too great of a stretch to assume that ten years of interaction with Naomi built trust between them. Naomi’s daughters-in-law knew she would love them, no matter what.
I don’t ever want my daughters-in-law to feel like I expect them to be anything but whom Jesus wants them to be.
Thanks to the beautiful example of both of our mothers, I hope to be able to be that Titus 2 encourager for my sons’ wives, when they marry. It’s a beautiful thing—almost a sacred trust from the Lord.
With the Lord’s help, I pray I’ll never be the kind of mother-in-law those women disparaged all those years ago. I hope the worst thing my daughters-in-law have to tell about is how I didn’t hear their request not to put cheese on the kid’s taco and they had to pick off every tiny piece so their picky eater would eat it.
Because, let’s face it, I won’t be adding syrup to my grandkids’ pancakes! I learned that lesson anyway.
I write books that showcase authentic relationships and how they play out in people’s lives. Among some of my favorites are the beautiful Ruth and Naomi type of mentoring relationships like those that you’ll find in my Aggie’s Inheritance Series.
Don't miss the rest of our series on loving your in-laws!
Featured Post at Club31Women:
7 Beautiful Ways to a Better Relationship with Your Mother-in-Law
Photography: JenniMarie Photography
I was blessed with a good mother in law! When I divorced her son, I told her I was divorcing him, but NOT her! When my kids (4) got their driver’s licenses, they asked if the could drive to Grandma’s house for their 1st solo drive! 🙂 Thanks for an excellent article!
I have a dear friend whose mother-in-law still loves and supports her as a person despite her ex-husband having put the family through emotional and relational torture. It’s beautiful to see.
I love the insight into Naomi and Ruth’s relationship- I had never considered before what had inspired that loyalty and love in her daughters-in-law. My own MIL relationship is basically non-existent, so your positive viewpoint gives me hope. I hope to be this kind of a mother-in-law someday! Thank you for the wisdom and inspiration!
If I could only offer one bit of advice, it would be to focus on what kind of mother-in-law you WANT to be rather than the kind you DON’T want to be. What you focus on tends to become what fills your heart, and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” and actions often follow. 🙂
I’m so very sorry you don’t have the beautiful support and rich relationship of a godly mother-in-law. God can do amazing things, though. I’ll be praying.
Thank you for the positive comments about M I L s. I had such a good m i l also and hope that I can do as well for my daughter in law. Awesome memory: soon after we were married, my m i l introduced me to someone as her “daughter-in-law but we think of her as our daughter” and she treated me like that as well, in spite of actually having 6 daughters!
I always considered Mom Havig “Mom.” She just was. And I think it threw her at first, but she came to see me as just one of the family rather quickly. 😀
Thank you for this fascinating discussion of Naomi and her daughters-in-law–as well as the glimpse into your family!
I think you must be right about how Naomi inspired love and loyalty before she was hit by tragedy.
And I just love the story of your sister-in-law Robin and how your mother-in-law praised each of you to the other.
Thank you for sharing your story and your example!
I learned a lot from my moms… they’re both beautiful people, and I really believe Naomi’s lapse into bitterness (I mean, “Call me Mara/bitter” is pretty on the nose there!) was just that. A lapse. A weak spot after being beaten down. I’m sure Ruth was a comfort during that time.
Thanks, Gretchen for the encouragement.