The Wife as Mother

Broadsheet features an interview with Deborah Merrill, a Cornell sociologist who has published a book on the relationships between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law.

Why do you think that the archetype of the interfering mother-in-law is so pervasive?

It’s the result of the fact that the mother-in-law has always been her child’s main caregiver. It is hard to turn that mothering role off just because a child gets married. The continued concern and drive to advise is seen as interference, though, once a child marries and has their own family. Relinquishing one’s role can cause resentment on the part of the mother-in-law, particularly if this has been an important source of her identity.

What makes these in-law relationships hard?


The marriage of a son is a life course transition for which many families are not prepared. This results in conflict early on in the relationship that in-laws are never quite able to overcome. When a son marries, a new and separate family is created. While the daughter-in-law is trying to create her own family, her mother-in-law is trying to maintain relationships in her family as they have always been.

What strikes me here is the underlying assumption — which I am sure is borne out by Merrill’s interviews — that wives act as replacement mothers for their husbands. Of course, part of establishing a longterm relationship is replacing one’s childhood support system with an adult family you create yourself. But the myth of the "Monster in Law" seems predicated on the idea that wives have a special responsibility to infantalize their husbands in the domestic sphere, and that mothers-in-law are filled with jealousy when they see another woman taking on their role.

Tensions between sons-in-law and fathers-in-law are equally tied up in traditional gender expectations, and while portrayed less frequently in popular culture, often revolve in books and movies around a father being angry about a son-in-law’s infidelity or job prospects.

In real life, of course, in-laws get along or don’t based on every conceivable personality trait or issue.

One thought on “The Wife as Mother

  1. Jeremy

    It’s sad to think that this study started as some sort of Adrienne Rich-like project–to document the relationships between women, with men as a simple object being passed around between them–but ended up so reminiscent of something Focus on the Family might put out.

    Does the research also talk about the effects of race and class on the interactions between female in-laws? I think that compare/contrast could be more interesting to look at.


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