Click here to print this page

Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 86   

                           July 2009

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.


Angry with my daughter-in-law

Dear Maggi

I am getting more and more angry and frustrated with my daughter-in-law, who I have been very close to.. 6 years ago over a family meal, my then 3-year-old grand-daughter said she loved daddy more than mommy (we had been talking about preferences). I felt very badly for her and later asked how it made her feel. I suggested if she felt upset perhaps she should see a therapist to see why the baby felt that way.

It has always been quite obvious that the children (2 girls now) favour my son. That suggestion has led to nothing but problems. She phoned later and for 45 minutes kept asking if I thought she was a good mother, getting ever more insistent. Finally I said she was a loving mother but then added that there was a difference between a loving mother and a good mother (something I was told in therapy, when referring to my former husband as a father).

For the last 6 years in spite of my apologising, at the request of my son, both by e-mail(in response to hers) and in person, the situation has become unbearable for me. I dread visiting, primarily because I see my son doing almost everything. She does not work outside the home and I get angry at my son for almost always making weekend breakfast for the kids, bathing the little one, making dinner or helping with it, after working a full and hectic day. I was also excluded from helping them find a new home. When he told me he this he was ill with the upset. The person who ultimately helped them later called me in tears saying that in the many years she had been in that business no one had ever spoken to her the way my daughter in law had.

My son and I saw a psychiatrist and psychologist a few times. I feel he isn’t strong enough to speak up for me with his wife. I care for the kids the majority of time when they go on vacation and baby-sit twice a month and have the kids to sleep over. They tell me of their mom’s temper, her abusive words to their dad and her need to sleep a lot. When I dropped the kids off a couple of weeks ago instead of my son picking them up, my daughter-in-law sat at the top of the stairs, not coming downstairs to thank me for bringing the girls home, just answering me from upstairs.

I just don't know what else to do. The therapists said I have to be the strong one and the mature one because she isn't, but that wears thin after a while as to me she is a spoiled brat and my son is too good natured or concerned about keeping the peace. She has a terrible temper, which I have witnessed, as has my 10-year-old grand-daughter, but I don’t disclose what she tells me as I don't want her to feel betrayed. When I’m with them my son is always very loving and affectionate to me and he says he loves his wife. He has assured me that his children will always be a part of my life. I’m as close to my grand-children as to my own two children. My son said he thought his wife was a little jealous of the relationship I have with their girls. What can you suggest to ease this terrible situation?

Maggi replies:

There are so many boundaries that can so easily be damaged in family life that it sometimes feels like a minefield. What used to be close and loving is now tense and distant and upsetting for you all.

First of all we must all remember that at three years old a child will see none of the consequences of their very honest ‘of the moment’ declarations. At that time she was declaring her love for her daddy and a clear preference. This is completely normal and acceptable. Children love and hate in equal measures. One day it is daddy, then grandma, then mummy and then next-door’s cat or the woman in the sweetie shop.

To turn it into something you considered big enough to seek professional help might have caused a problem. This will have implied to your daughter-in-law, who trusted you, that you were concerned about her mothering skills. This is the occasional fear of every wife, having mother-in-law suggest she is not doing a good job. Telling her, after she pressured you, that she was a loving mother then saying there is a difference between a loving mother and a good mother was another. True there can be a subtle difference, but that is different for everyone and needs to be qualified very carefully in the right setting, if mentioned at all; certainly not such a fragile domestic one.

I understand you were concerned that she might be upset by what her daughter said, but she is an adult and it was her child. She will know how changeable little ones are. As parent or parents-in-law we need to know when to keep quiet, making it clear at some point that we are ready and willing to help, perhaps offering carefully chosen ‘pearls of wisdom’, but not passing judgement in any way. I know it is really difficult to do at times – near impossible when we are close and concerned – but it is one of those unwritten laws of parenthood. We all cross that line once or twice, but it is worth trying our hardest to stick to. When we do cross it we need to be able to recognise that, learn from it and forgive ourselves. It is only in that process that we gain insight into the effects of our own way of communicating. Above all, in criticising our son/daughter-in-law we criticise our own child’s judgement in choosing a partner.

I wonder what motivated you to go to therapists with your son, your adult, married son? Not just to one but two? How might this have looked to your daughter-in-law? What do you think she will have imagined you were talking about? I can’t help feeling that a lot of damage might have been done by that move. Having said that, one of those therapists gave you some very good advice. You do have to be strong and mature, you have lived more years, had more varied experiences merely by living longer. It is not unusual for a woman to feel worried that she won’t measure-up to mother-in-law. But then, neither will the mother-in-law measure up to the woman. The two roles are very different and cannot be compared. You are both safe in your unique places in your son’s life and in his heart. There is no competition, so stop looking for it, both of you.

But there is something that concerns me in her apparent behaviour. You say she sleeps-in a lot at weekends, gets very angry and by the sound of it is rather unsure of herself. This is not for you to remedy, except to offer her reassurance that loving her children is a wonderful gift for her girls and that you admire that in her. But it could be something that her husband might think about in terms of helping her through. I am not saying she is depressed but it would be worth your son considering. Depression can be got through, but needs patience, support and understanding by all the family. (Note: When this is the case, children need only to be encouraged to be close and kind to mummy, not specifically confided in).

There are some good things in this situation though. Your son loves his wife and shares home tasks like many modern husbands and dads. That is a blessing. Your daughter-in-law loved you too and might still do so underneath her hurt. You are close to your children and grand-children. You are trusted with the care of the little ones still. So you are appreciated – even if it is from the top of the stairs. Take all that and be glad for it and proud of being a loved and key supportive member of the family.


You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.
back to the Relationship Counselling Index


Advertise on

LaterLife Travel Insurance in Association with Avanti