I had four sweet baby boys at my knees and around my kitchen table. I blinked and now half of them are husbands and fathers. I have become a mother-in-law. This once testosterone-dominated family of mine is now balanced with some much-needed estrogen, thanks to my beloved daughters-in-love.
But this infusion of estrogen disrupted the formerly sole female voice–mine. These young women were entrusted with the keys to my sons’ hearts. But I used to hold those keys and the transition was not easy.
Because sometimes, queens collide.
If you’re not yet a mother-in-law, you can start now to develop some important values and traits. If you have a son, you need a specific strategy to developing a healthy relationship with his someday bride. Don’t think your son is too young to worry about this. You will blink, like I did, and that little boy will be standing at the end of an altar wearing a tuxedo, pledging his love, and entering into a God-blessed covenant.
Maybe you will do well in your new role. But maybe you will be like me and face issues you have never dealt with before.
God designed it that our sons would take brides and form their own sanctified family units. We mothers of boys need to learn not just to adjust and survive, but to embrace our new roles.
Let me share with you some lessons I have learned. Help me rewrite the title “mother-in-law” and claim “mother-in-love.” It may not be easy on your heart or feel natural to you at first. Let’s train and prepare together.
(Not every son has brought home a godly wife. Or a loving wife. Or a good wife. There are daughters-in-law who have brought suffering, tragedy, pain, and misery with them when they came into the family. There are mothers-in-law whose reality is that their grandchildren are being abused and neglected, physically or emotionally. Those situations call for boundaries and godly counselors. But they still call for grace.)
1. You cannot wing it to win it as a mother-in-law.
This is not about your daughter-in-law. It’s about us, our hearts, our issues, our reactions. Every single one of us mothers-in-law stand in the exact same ground, fertile for trouble. Your daughter-in-law can be the clone of Cruella Deville or on the path to becoming the Proverbs 31 woman. She may be nothing at all like you had hoped she would be or everything you wished for. But this isn’t going to be about her.
Don’t let the word “strategy” mislead you. This won’t be a guide for masterful manipulation and mind control. There will be no agenda to figure out how to subtly make her how we think she should or could be. It is a strategy, but it is for you and for me, for our hearts. Because if we expect to wing this whole thing and treat one of the most delicate relationships like a lottery and a gamble, we will lose so many more times than we win.
We need a plan. We need to do things purposefully in this mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship.
How we deal with the little things is just as important as the big things.
Much like the little wrecks in NASCAR compared to the “big one.” I’m a fan of NASCAR (Go #24!), but it still surprises me when the “big ones” rarely affect the drivers. For the most part, prepared professional drivers can walk away from the wrecks where the cars flipped, caught on fire, and left car parts left laying all over the track. Then a common everyday driver, at speeds of 80 miles per hour, hits a bumpered wall and we need an ambulance.
I don’t doubt for a moment your ability to rise up in the middle of flames and broken pieces to do what you need to secure and protect your family after major and damaging collisions. We have crisis-control down.
But it’s the little, repetitive hits and collisions that worry me. These can cause substantial damage over long periods of time. It’s likely that more of the “little” hits are going to happen in this new relationship. Things aren’t always going to sit right. Feathers are going to get ruffled. Feelings are going to get hurt. A biblical strategy has helped me–no, has saved me–from myself.
Remember that the goal is to deal with our hearts, our issues, our reactions.
If you’ve been blessed with a daughter-in-law who truly loves your son, grows to care more about you and your family with every passing year, and is willing to work on a growing relationship, you have a jewel in the rough on your hands. In fact, that rough jewel of a relationship is something you both will have the opportunity to shape and buff through the years.
As it takes form, your mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can eventually become something that will crown you both with lasting beauty.
If your relationship is far from the ideal dream, your burden is understandably heavier and you will labor longer and harder for your reward.
So let’s just call our active plan to deal with our hearts a strategy. Perhaps we need the safety straps, helmets, and roll bars NASCAR provides. Or we might learn from the game of chess.
2. You are not the only queen in the game anymore.
They brought me food and they brought me the grandchildren. They filled my house with giggles, phrases like “nail polish,” and noise–good noise. They cooked the hardest and most expensive parts of the meal. And they took the dishrag from me and filled the sink with the bubbles and water. They stood there and washed all the dishes and put them away.
And I knew then that I was loved by the brides of my sons. The love filled that filled home was evident. I am not writing this because I know what I am doing. I am someone who is going to write this because God knows what He is doing.
I am not writing my how to. I am writing God’s.
I went before you and tested Him on His “how to.” Enough time, enough trouble, and enough grace has passed that I can tell you: His way works. It’s not always easy and the time between sowing and reaping feels slow compared to our timetable. But His way is right and His way brings health: to this I am a witness. Now can we talk about chess?
Maybe it only affects the moms with all boys. Perhaps my womb that only knew how to bring forth warriors still yearned for a princess. But marriage doesn’t bring princesses into families; it brings queens.
They were young queens, my sons’ brides. And their crowns didn’t quite fit as snugly as mine. But it was clear: I was not the only queen in the game anymore. In chess, the queen protects her king. She may even give her life for her king. But when the two queens come near, there is a single truth: they are equal in authority.
I could become a dictator within my own family. Princesses would satisfy that in me. I could outrank them because I’m older and wiser. I was here first!
Do you feel superior in position? If it’s inside, it’s going to come out sometime, somewhere. And she will feel small and you will feel big and the kings will be forced to choose sides.
But daughters-in-law come in with a lateral move, not a vertical one. You know that verse–the one about leaving and cleaving? Our sons have dibs on that verse, too. In that ceremony of vow-making and lives melding, another little home is established. It is not connected to mine except with bands of love; their home is a whole unit of their own.
How am I able to go from looking at these brides as princesses to seeing them as queens–my equals in authority and rank, as my peers? One word: RESPECT.
The instructions from 2 Timothy 2:24 are to be taken literally–no fighting, be gentle, teach when instruction is wanted, be patient. This is what respect looks like. It should be seen and felt by the queens of our sons.
When we decide to live on purpose every day the Words we’ve been reading, good things happen.
Relationships become fertile for love and respect to grow. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes grace. But it always yields good fruit.
One day, love becomes more than just words. It becomes a strong bond. Then my little home with my king welcomes my sons and their queens. Respect has pushed contention out the door. Respect has welcomed humility to our table where we honor each other. This grew from God and His Word. And it had no effect when it was just words read and highlighted. His words had to be taken from His Book and applied to a situation, to many situations, to bad situations, to seemingly small situations.
Respect. Queen to queen. Because you are not the only queen in the game anymore.
3. You are playing with professionals now.
You are playing with professionals now. Professional females. Women. I tell myself this because I forget. In a household filled with males, I often used my female gifts of persuasion and guidance. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I know their love languages and what turns them off to my voice. I know the pitch and tone that they are deaf to.
I’ve learned the culture here on Mars–their oddities, their quirks. I’ve embraced their wild ways and their souls that are created to be fierce, loyal, and protective. I was called to live here on the totally male populated planet of Mars and I did not try to make it Venus. After three decades here in this place, I have learned a few shortcuts and strategies. God has even given me special goggles and lenses to help me see what it was I needed to see. To help them. To bless them. Never to manipulate. Ever.
I wish I could say I’ve always had a pureness and innocence about me. But I’ve no need to pretend. Not all of my guidance has been without manipulation. Not all of my helping has been without wiles. And my daughters-in-law, being from Venus, know exactly what I am doing. They know my tones, when I’m defusing situations, when I am building my home, and when I am resigning something to God. We speak the same language, these girls and I. And I better not forget it.
So why do I think I can say something on social media with innuendo, agenda, and guile and get away with it or go undetected? I don’t know. I deceive myself. But I think this deception is an epidemic. There’s a whole lot of us thinking we can say things in tricky, hidden ways and somehow our intended meaning will sink into supple hearts and do some magical and spiritual work. But it doesn’t work that way. And it never will.
Speak the truth in love, season your words with grace, meet face-to-face, humble yourself, and give mercy if you ever, ever want to receive it.
We are given tremendous liberty and freedom–even responsibility–to handle issues if needed. So why oh why do we toss such liberty aside and go for veiled innuendos on Facebook? Or in private conversation? Or anywhere and everywhere?
I know the temptation to want to say things without really saying things. I know the need to share that there is pain or sorrow in subtle and hidden ways. But I am playing this dangerous game of guile and veils with professionals now.
And women know women.
We know snark. We know condescension. We know false humility. We can smell the guile for a mile. But we also sense true compassion, mercy, and love. We are intuitive creatures who require honesty and integrity with each other. We don’t respect playing dirty and smearing people or relationships, of any sort. We don’t trust people like that. And we shouldn’t. Because they don’t respect or honor the boundaries God gave concerning how to deal with a problem: truly forgive or meet with them face-to-face, both of which are bathed in love and mercy.
If you’re taking notes on strategies on how to be a better mother-in-law, or friend, or mother, or Christian, learn this one well. Don’t type it. Delete it. They know what you are doing and what you mean. You say a whole lot of something when you say nothing!
You aren’t fooling anyone.
So let go of the guile.
Grab the printables!
How to Become a More Gracious Mother-in-Law
Download a set of free printables to help you develop a strategy for cultivating a gracious heart as a mother-in-law.
4. If you want to be followed well, lead well.
Her name is Naomi. She bears the branding of a bitter mother-in-law. God had given this woman more grief than I can comprehend. Her very soul must have been vexed to the point of shattering. Many say she was foolish and filled with bitterness. That Naomi’s years of living in an ungodly land dragged her down, worked her over, and changed her view of God. I respectfully disagree.
I wish to redeem this story of a mother-in-law and give her back her credentials that were stripped from her by some who look casually into a story and think they know this woman’s heart. A wife’s heart. A mother’s heart. A mother-in-law’s heart.
It was a time when the judges ruled the land of Israel. Everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes, and the land of Israel was not faring much better than Moab. It’s just that Moab had food. Some claim it was sin and rebellion that the mister took his family down to Moab, but I believe God sent him there to get a young woman to bring back to Israel. To be granted a place in the lineage of the Christ Who would one day save Israel. The Christ Who saves us.
And in the middle of this great Redemption plan, Naomi loses her husband. Ten years pass before the next tragedy comes and this time it packs a double punch. Both sons die. And a woman grieves her loss and decides to go home. But even after the bonds of covenant and ceremony are broken, the relationship between Naomi and her daughters-in-law holds.
Before you believe the charge that Naomi was a bitter woman, read what this woman does. She releases the women bound to her through a thread of marriage that was now broken, she gives them blessing to go be united with someone else, to have children, to go and live.
You tell me if this sounds like a bitter woman:
“The Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.”
My tongue has known the language of bitter. My heart has had plots of bitter planted and tended to.
This is not what “bitter” sounds like.
She doesn’t push away the daughters-in-law because of her pain and she doesn’t hoard them for free slave labor in her fear. She stands in the path God has forged for her and she is willing to do it alone. Her grief and sorrow do not trump the mourning of the young widows. Naomi pulls others close with her grief, she doesn’t push them away.
A bitter woman can’t do that.
“Call me bitter. Because God has dealt with me very bitterly,” she says.
She doesn’t say she is bitter. And God doesn’t change her name to Mara. She remains Naomi in the Word of God for all of eternity.
May our faith be as credible to our daughters-in-law when we sit in ashes. May our words to them be blessings even when we speak from pain. May the threads of our relationship be woven with love, not obligation or marriage licenses. May our sorrow and pain never be weapons nor license to inflict pain on our sons’ wives. May we pull close and not push away. May our God and our faith be attractive to these young women who marry our sons.
Call me Mara, she says. See what God has done to me. I look anything but pleasant and good. I went out full and God brought me back empty. The Lord has afflicted me, she says.
Yet kindness still poured out of her. Her relationship with her daughter-in-law still bloomed and grew in this place of affliction. Because the bitterness didn’t take root and grow. It did not define her. And God did not change her name.
5. Act purposefully with mercy and peace.
Our daughters-in-law have tremendous power. It is important to recognize it and to not be threatened by it.
Something very special happened to our sons when they wed their brides. A supernatural and spiritual bond was formed between the two and that bond is strong. Very strong. I won’t waste moments on pouting or sulking because my own bond feel like it’s a filament, this thin silk from me to my son. She satisfies, provides, and is necessary for his life now. I won’t listen to the voice that says I am expendable, even if I feel like it. It’s not true. Things are different now.
Yes, this young queen holds enormous power. But she does not hold the power to my happiness nor to my blessings.
Happiness and blessings are always within our power. The God Who created families has put constraints on the transferal process: there is no transfer of power when it comes to your happiness and your blessing. You–and you alone–have control over you.
The Beatitudes of Matthew 5 hold promises of blessings. Most of them I am not crazy about. No one wants to be poor in spirit, mourn, or be persecuted. Those things don’t happen to us by choice. We simply find ourselves in those places and can then believe the truth of this passage, no matter how we feel or what we see. But there are three blessings that require decision from us and, based on our how we wield our own power, our blessing and happiness either comes or it will not.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
And here is her incredible power. The power of a woman to choose mercy. Because she knows she needs it herself. It’s the power of a mother-in-law to know where she came from and never forget her own mistakes, stunted growth, and delayed maturity. She doesn’t believe the subtle lies that she’s too wise or old to wreck her own home or hurt her loved ones. She understands grace and that there will never, ever, be a day she doesn’t stand in need of it herself. She doesn’t live with selective memory of her own parenting skills, cooking abilities, or youthful misapplied zeal.
She understands mercy. She’s received it a million times over and will need it again. So she picks up the scepter called mercy and when she picks it up, she is blessed.
And here is her incredible power. The power of a woman to choose a pure heart. To not say what she feels like saying just so she feels better. With her age came wisdom and the knowledge that words matter. They matter so much. But she won’t say it if it’s laced with hurt and barbs. She will take the log out of her own eye before she ever attempts to take the speck out of another’s eye. She will come humbly before God before she ever makes a move to require anyone else to be accountable to her.
She understands poison and manipulation. She refuses to pick up that tainted scepter. Instead she will pick up the scepter that burns her to the touch and purifies her own heart before she judges a matter. And when she picks up this purifying scepter, she is blessed.
And here is her incredible power. The power of a woman to be the peacemaker. To choose peace over being right. To seek humility over power. To pray for God to mend ways and try to take His place in the fixing of things. To learn not to panic, but to wait for peace. To understand that it is only Perfect Love that casts out fear and brings peace, so she reveals this Perfect Love through her love. This scepter is crude and rough. Nothing glamorous about it.
She understands peace. She came from a war-torn place and knows that nothing healthy can grow in discontent. So she chooses the splinter-filled scepter–the one that may hurt her to hold–rather than the diva-dazzled scepter. Because she knows that all that blings is not worth the peace of her family. And when she picks up the scepter of peace, she is blessed.
Yes, the young queens have a strong power. But it is limited and doesn’t control our happiness or our blessings. The choice is ours. This right and power has been left with us. Don’t give these scepters away. Keep them, use them. And believe the Word of God enough to obey it today.
The new queens on the block do not hold the power to our happiness or to our blessings.
6. Your daughter-in-law is now the way to your son’s heart.
I was still learning these strategies when one of my sons came home in love. I worked very hard to nonchalantly bring around this out-of-the-blue conversation about this girl. We talked about looks, interests, hobbies, family tree…now to the real question I need to know.
“Is she like me?”
“No! She’s nothing like you.” And he kept chewing and smiling and looking at his sandwich.
He meant it. So blissfully unaware of having just pinched my heart.
She’s nothing like me. And yet, he still loves her. He loves her so much he’s going to leave my tender, loving, life-giving home. I have food here. And I do his laundry.
He’s going to trade all that for her. Simply put, he’s bonded with her. And I’ve bonded with him. Now we have a potential disaster. Because his bond with me, in the way I’ve become accustomed, was tentative and with a deadline. My bond changes not and was made to withstand the fires of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor. It can’t be lessened or weakened. The love of a mother just gets stronger. But then I’m left standing there holding the cord.
And it’s the beginning of taking all things personal. Where her very essence is my antithesis. Where everything now has potential to be a threat or a challenge.
- She made brownies? From a box I bet.
- She talked to you on the phone? I’ve been trying to talk to you all week.
- She made you laugh? Here, watch this!
- She read a book? Oh, yeah? I wrote one.
Feelings of threat and a desire for competition come alive within me.
I was needed. I was adored. I was a hero. I was important. I was seen. I was called upon.I was busy. I was valid. I was…me.
But then the son who fulfilled your mothering years enters a marriage that perfectly mirrors the love of God. It’s the bride and groom that are the chosen analogy. Mother and child has its place in grace and love, but they are setting the stage for the real show. The marriage bond, the love of groom to bride, the picture of Christ and the Church.
It can feel threatening, this love. Like I’ve been trumped. Like I’m afraid. Of being replaced. Of not being needed. Afraid of my life getting emptier as my sons’ lives get fuller, leaving no time for me.
Fear manifests itself in so many ways, all of them are destructive.
As a mother-in-law, if I take the time to ask myself what is motivating me, I can defuse potential explosions.
If it is indeed fear motivating what I’m about to do, I need to deal with it before I take action. Because there will be no escaping the uncomfortable moment. There will be no fast forward after the hurt spews out. We, the whole family, will feel tense, hurt, manipulated, resentful, guilty.
How can you avoid the trap of becoming that mother-in-law?
If there is a fearful, bitter seed about to take root, address it. It takes about the same amount of time to sit with an honest heart before God as it takes to check Facebook.
1 John 4:18 says. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.”
Those years of motherhood were addicting. I let them cover, mask, and fulfill pieces of my heart that were in need of nurture and healing. I see now that my heart looks like a bad drywall job.
Unmet need has a danger of imposing and projecting on my sons and their brides.
There is a remedy. Simply put, live life. A whole life. Be more than a mother. Be a wife. Have a life. And let them have theirs.
From that first conversation where I realized just how dangerous I was when I felt threatened, I’ve had to learn to distinguish between love and need. Of course they love me but they won’t always need me like they have. And that’s a good thing. It can be a liberating time of life. But only if I do this right. I must recognize my own need for communion with my Savior. My own desire for the love of my husband. God and my husband still stand near. I am learning to go to them first.
And by the time I see the sons, I am not coming from a place of desperation and need, but of joy and a hearty hello. Joy diffuses threats. Threats I feel myself and the threat his bride could feel coming from me. It’s not a competition. I’ve learned that.
Unmet need. What a threat I become when I place my heart’s needs in all the wrong places.
Because if my son senses a threat to his home or his bride, he will do the honorable thing. He will distance himself from me. He will choose her. He will always choose her.
And he should.
7. Don’t throw stones at your daughter-in-law.
I bought the cheapest pot pie I could find. I lovingly baked it in our little oven in our tiny home. It was crisp and bubbly and I felt like a real cook. Then I popped that pie shaped blob of processed food into the blender, hit puree, and put it into the baby’s dish. I let it cool, because I was wise and thoughtful like that. And when the temperature would not hurt my little one, I fed it to him. The whole pot pie.
950 milligrams of sodium. 22 grams of fat. 610 calories. I smiled and laughed as I choo-chooed and airplaned bits of cartilage described as “real meat” and the glob called “gravy” into his mouth. He ate it all. And he loved it. I felt like a million bucks because I “made” my own baby food. None of that fake jarred stuff for my son.
I was often naive and ignorant as a young mom. I was unlearned and untrained.
As I look into the mirror of yesteryear, back through these decades of mothering, of loving a man, loving God, and loving our children, I do not flinch against the “could-have-beens.”
Those “should-have-beens” suck a woman’s soul dry. Guilt is a slippery slope.
I choose instead to look through a mirror of grace. It does not mask the bad decisions or foolish ways, but shows me in the soft, pure light of God’s grace, reflecting the way He sees me.
The clock has me standing on this side of motherhood now, with my young sons grown into such incredible men that my heart hurts when I look at them. For all the pot pies I served them, for the many days I detached because of my own brokenness, for all the times I think I messed it up, God covered them because He covered me. Though I came into this womanly arena quite unprepared, my heart wanted nothing more than to do it well. And I was given the grace to grow and learn.
Now I want to be the one holding the mirror of grace and the clock of wisdom in front of my daughters-in-law, as an inspiration and not a weapon.
So I’ll pray for them.
These girls are far ahead of where I was as a young wife and mother. When they ask my input on parenting, loving, and serving, I need to remember how much I’ve learned and grown. Rather than criticizing them and casting verbal stones, I need to encourage them by holding up that mirror of grace. I want to be honest with them about who I was so that they can see whom they can become.
As I pray for my daughters-in-law to grow in grace, I need to thank God for how He continues to change me. If I free my hands from holding stones of judgement, I can instead hold before them a mirror of grace. We both need to see ourselves reflected in the light of God’s grace on the long, dark days here in the shadowlands.
There will never be an end to the mother-in-law jokes.
But whether she earned the title of “bad” mother-in-law or was forced to wear it, a woman can overcome and earn a new title, maybe even that of mother-in-love. She can do this with a gracious strategy that honors God and her whole family.
Grab the printables!
How to Become a More Gracious Mother-in-Law
Download a set of free printables to help you develop a strategy for cultivating a gracious heart as a mother-in-law.
This week's post at Club31Women:
7 Beautiful Ways to a Better Relationship with Your Mother-in-Law
(originally published in 2014 and 2015; edited from Shannon’s blog series)
Photography: JenniMarie Photography