Mothers-in-law can go either way. She could be a sweet-natured, laid-back matriarch who considers herself more of a compassionate friend than an authority figure. Or she could be a sharp-tongued harpy who seems to enjoy nothing more than undermining your decisions, invading your personal space and watching you squirm. It could go either way.
Given the often tense state of mother-in-law relationships, we’ve singled out a few specific things that both sons-in-law and, most importantly, daughters-in-law should avoid saying to their spouse’s mother to keep things friendly, functional and melodrama-free. Or, you could insult your mother-in-law’s prize-winning chicken cacciatore before going on to tell her how highly her son scores in the sack. Oh, and don’t forget to tell her that her parenting advice stinks. Just be prepared to feel her wrath.
1. 'Delicious! This rib eye tastes just like the kind they serve at Applebee's.'
Unless you’ve personally been served by a sainted chef like Julia Child, avoid comparing your mother-in-law’s cooking to anyone's, no matter how sincere — or faux-sincere — you’re being. It doesn’t matter if it’s tuna sashimi or Salisbury steak; the way your mother-in-law prepares a dish is hands-down the best, end of story. The standard protocol here is to praise the dish (but don’t overdo it … see below), thank your mother-in-law and offer to help clean up. Bonus points for telling her that you enjoyed the dish so much that you’d be honored if she shared the recipe with you.
Let’s say that your mother-in-law’s (in)famous pink-colored holiday salad smothered in Cool Whip doesn’t sit well with you. Be mindful to keep gagging noises to a minimum and move things around on the plate/spit up into a napkin ever so discreetly. Politely excuse yourself from the table if need be. And reversely, if you truly do enjoy one of her dishes, don’t moan and groan, roll your eyes in ecstasy Rachael-Ray-style between every bite and lay it on too thick. My taste buds are screaming in delight, you culinary wizard, you! Emily didn’t tell me you trained at Le Cordon Bleu! Mothers-in-law have a sixth sense for BS and this is a surefire way for her to think you’re a phony.
2. 'You can keep your two cents.'
A whole lot of familial melodrama can arise over unsolicited parenting advice doled out by micromanaging mothers-in-law because, after all, she did the best job in the whole wide world of raising her own children. When your mother-in-law starts in with unwanted/unnecessary parenting advice and criticisms, it’s best to just smile and listen. Don’t act outraged — through feisty, combative words or body language — if she offends you but also stand your ground. Keep in mind that it’s just advice, not written law, and you don’t have to agree with or follow it. In her backward, insulting way, she’s just trying to help, so don’t stop listening entirely or you may miss a gem in the rough. If the undermining gets really bad, change subjects (anniversary sale at Loehmann’s!) or politely excuse yourself. A great line to borrow from “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion”: “Would you excuse me? I cut my foot before and my shoe is filling up with blood.”
It also helps to remember that you’re not alone. According to a 2010 iVillage survey, 76 percent of female respondents said they would never seek parenting advice from their hubby’s mother. Additionally, 36 percent of those polled also said they’d rather visit the gynecologist than listen to and spend time with their MILs, while 28 percent found taxes or getting a root canal less painful. Ouch.
3. 'Get a room.'
Unless you’re living in a 200-square-foot apartment with two dogs, a cat and a sick ferret, by default you should expect your mother-in-law to stay with you when she visits. Don’t suggest otherwise unless you plan on putting her up at the Ritz. If you have a spare room in your home, mother-in-law-proof it in anticipation of future visits. A convertible sofa bed, some nice drapery, a stack of fresh towels and plenty of family photos should do (be careful not to make it too homey or she’ll never leave).
If your mother-in-law is in the habit of dropping by for extended visits and space and finances allow, consider investing in an eco-friendly, prefabricated guesthouse and installing it in the backyard (this one certainly fits the bill). When Mother Dearest isn’t in residence, you can use the accessory dwelling as an art studio, home office or meditation space. If you have kids and a home invasion of the in-law variety has you down, just remember that you’re tapping a free, unlimited source of child care. Take advantage of it. If you really want to send her packing while avoiding confrontation, some buzz words to consider: “bedbugs,” “broken washing machine,” “whooping cough” and “Loehmann’s anniversary sale.”
4. 'But you like them better!'
When mothers-in-law pull double-duty it may become apparent that she favors another daughter or son-in-law to you. When kids are involved, it may even seem that she prefers another set of grandchildren. Don’t take this personally and certainly don’t confront her, no matter how infuriating this may be unless you want some awkward drama on your hands. Talk it over with your spouse … there may be a good reason she’s lavishing so much time and attention on other family members that has nothing to do with you. And you never know — your sister or brother-in-law(s) may be completely envious of the fact that Momma isn’t breathing down your neck.
5. 'Does this tartan Snuggie come with a gift receipt?'
Mothers-in-law can be notoriously inept gift givers. Even if it seems your MIL has done a majority of her holiday shopping from the SkyMall catalog for the last five years straight, accept whatever she gives you graciously even if through gritted teeth. It’s good karma. And don’t read too deeply into gifts … that is unless she bestows you with a digital bathroom scale and a subscription to Shape magazine. In that case, she’s trying to say something loud and clear.
If your mother-in-law is really bad at gift giving, the rejected present pile may be quickly growing out of control. If so, consider donating the questionable contents of it to someone less fortunate instead of keeping it around as “evidence.” Although you may find that pair of Jeans Lounge Pants completely hideous, somebody else could use them. Or band together with some friends and throw a “horrible mother-in-law gift” yard sale and donate the proceeds to a favorite local charity. The only trick here is if your mother-in-law is particularly sadistic and demands to see her gifts “in use” after she gives them. For this reason, you may want to keep an unwanted mother-in-law gift around for a minimum of a year — don’t forget to wear that Mariah Carey perfume the next time you see her — before doing away with it.
6. 'Your son is very skilled at lovemaking, I must say.'
Unless your mother-in-law’s name is Dr. Joyce Brothers, spare her the details of your sex life. Even if she asks (which hopefully she won’t). According to a 2010 iVillage poll, 96 percent of respondents said they would never, ever talk nookie with their mothers-in-law.
Other potentially taboo topics: your previous marriage, personal finances, politics, religion and those six months in 1988 you spent following Mötley Crüe on the Girls, Girls, Girls World Tour.