One Weird Old Trick for Living With Your Mother-in-Law

Don’t.

If that’s not an option, I recommend silence and a total break down in communication.

I can’t imagine I’m the only person in this situation: my mother-in-law moved in with us (she has since moved out to live with my sister-in-law; her living with us was never meant to be permanent). She has some health problems, but nothing  progressive or terminal like cancer or Alzheimer’s. She lost her job, she’s still too young (60) to qualify for most government programs, she couldn’t afford to live on her own, and so she came to live with us.

Yet most of the research and guides out there are aimed at either: 1. People caring for elderly parents who are suffering from long-term, debilitating illness or 2. Children moving in with parents.

In 2007, about 3.6 million parents lived with their children. Certainly some of those people live together because they want to or because it’s expected culturally. There’s no shame in adults who live with their parents or adults who live with their children. But my husband and I certainly never expected to have his mother live with us.

Prior to her arrival, I looked for any resources that might help, but they talked about medication schedules and ensuring good hygiene (and the like), neither of which were relevant. MIL  is stubborn, but of sound mind.

Shortly after she moved in, we all sat down and talked about our expectations. My husband and I figured that was what was most important: communication. But communication only works if everyone agrees to it and further, actually participates. Tempting as it is, I won’t lay all the blame on my MIL here; my husband and I stopped talking to each other, too. That was the worst part. Fights would have been preferable; instead, there was just silence.

But I get ahead of myself.

My MIL could no longer afford her apartment in Southern California. With no other options, she moved to Oregon to stay with us. She wasn’t thrilled, either; she’d lived in SoCal most of her life, so moving in with us wasn’t a matter of just moving down the street. One book I read pointed out that as the younger people, it’s easier for us to change. Moving was obviously a huge change for her, so we tried to bend where we could.

We have a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. The extra bedroom had been my home office, but we moved my desk into the living room, the bookshelves into our bedroom, and purchased a bed for her. We paid to have most of her things stored. The bedrooms were on opposite sides of the apartment, so luckily noise wasn’t a problem. However, there just wasn’t enough space for three adults trying to live together; I always felt cramped and that I never had any privacy.

MIL liked to keep to herself, though we repeatedly asked her to join us (for watching movies, TV, outings). She would leave her room to joins us for dinner and to yell at us.

One occurrence that stands out: the front door was next to her bedroom. We’d try to be quiet when leaving, but she let us know she could hear us. “You talk about things that make me uncomfortable,” she said. We wracked our brains: what could we be talking about when putting on our shoes? Not sex, not money. What? But she couldn’t elaborate. Just things. So we stopped talking at the door.

Another time, she confided in my husband that she was unhappy that I didn’t serve enough vegetables with dinner (which is true). He reminded her that if she told us what she wanted, we would buy her vegetables and she could eat them whenever she wanted. She bought her own from the dollar store.

We don’t wear shoes in the house; after a few months, she complained her feet were cold and hurt from lack of shoes. We told her we could get her slippers or house shoes or if that didn’t work, she could wear whatever shoes she wanted. She settled on thick socks and a pained expression.

MIL did vacuum and do the dishes, which was helpful. Her hobby was washing her clothes, however. She got mad when she realized we weren’t using the laundry detergent she bought. Primarily because we don’t wash our clothes four times a week. After she left, our water bill didn’t go down by a third but by half.

My husband was happy that she kept to herself most of the time, but I wish she had spent more time with us. My own parents are dead, so I thought it’d be nice to get to know my MIL better. After nine months of living with her, I don’t know anything more about her than I did. I could have done more, asked more questions, engaged her, but she had to leave her room first.

Because I’m the obsessive type, I’ve replayed the last year in my head many times. I don’t know what went wrong. We made sure MIL had her own space. We invited her to join us but didn’t push. She did leave the house and have her own hobbies.

Worst of all, my husband and I had reassured each other that we’d communicate with each other. And we. . . didn’t. It was easier not to say anything than to admit things were kind of terrible, and things were kind of terrible because of his mother, who herself wasn’t doing anything more terrible than just existing.

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

11 thoughts on “One Weird Old Trick for Living With Your Mother-in-Law”

  1. Thank you for sharing ! My situation is that my MIL lives in the UK and we live in Australia which means when she stays it is upwards of 5 weeks at a time. And generally over Xmas. And she often extends her stay once here by a few weeks and tags along to other stuff my partner and I might have planned e.g. Going to the Aust Open tennis. The year this happened I gave up my seat so they could sit together and bought a single for me. Did I mention we are a same sex couple ? LOL. I have analysed the situation endlessly and had long discussions and disagreements with my partner over how this should best work. The fact is that it IS going to happen. I just need better coping strategies to deal with one very competitive old lady. Having broached the subject with my partners brothers wives , they find it a similar issue in so far as she is one- eyed and only interested in her own children and has scant regard for partners. So I am not alone in feeling like I am chopped liver in her presence. However they don’t have to live with her for weeks on end! ‘ Pick your battles’ they say. I would prefer not to have any battles at all. :-(

  2. Natasha,
    I appreciate you sharing your experience. My husband and I recently moved BACK in with my MIL. She lives in a large, older home in the country. When we initially moved in we thought it would be nice to live in a multigenerational home. Our intentions were to help her keep the house and bring raise our future children with their grandmother close at hand. We figured it would benefit everyone to be closer… but as you experienced in your own situation things went wrong and I don’t know how or why exactly. We moved out and lived in a small, but nice rental home for a year. Two months ago we decided to try living with MIL again. She invited us back saying that the first time around she/we weren’t prepared but now we know what to expect and we can make it work this time. We were eager to have a place where we could save some money and thought perhaps we’d grown emotionally over the past year enough to make it work. Well…two months in I googled “how to live with your Mother-in-law” and found your article. It’s funny all the similarities. I guess women of the older generations have a really hard time adjusting to change, because even though I try to do what I can to make change as easy and reasonable as possible we still seem to fight a lot. The worst part is that she assumes my intentions are to “show her up” when I do things to improve the house. Even little things like cleaning and organizing the tupperware cabinet seem to make her annoyed with me, as if I am doing them to pass judgment on her somehow. I realize that trying to please her is an unrealistic goal, but how can I let go of caring what she thinks when I feel constantly judged by her? I also feel I owe her a great deal for agreeing to let us live here rent free. It’s all a big mess and she keeps saying she wants to communicate better and meet us half way, but then she acts in a completely different way. Advice? Help? Condolences? Anything is welcome…

  3. Yikes. I can imagine my boyfriend’s mother living with us – mainly because we lived with her for months and it was, by and large, lovely – but the thought of my mother moving in makes me itchy.

    I hope you and your husband have managed to get back to good place since.

    1. Thanks! I think about what if my mother had lived with us? I don’t think the results would have been much better. Yikes.

      My husband and I are doing better, but it’s still a long process to heal. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up about that.

  4. I lived with my in-laws for 3 months. It was really good in some ways, we got to spend a lot of time with Mr Cesy’s terminally ill brother. But oh, my MIL. I love her, but in small doses. We tried to help with the cooking and cleaning (I was under-employed and studying, Mr Cesy was completely unemployed), but since we did it all WRONG, we stopped. The grief wasn’t worth the effort Then we got told off for not helping. A compromise was reached where we did the dishes and thankfully only some feelings were hurt with that one. I can recall getting frisky with Mr Cesy and hearing a knock on the door, asking if we were busy. Yes we were. We then had to finish up, go upstairs and discuss a proposed dinner menu for when my family came to meet his.

    Not to mention the time she disclosed that she considered not immunising her children for scarlet fever because she had it and she was fine. Thankfully she was talked about it by her doctor, but only because she was told her sons could be infertile should they get it.

    Anyway, it was a 3 month lesson in tact, biting my tongue and trying to be grateful. Now we just get guilted for moving so far away from her….

    1. Thanks for sharing your story!

      Yikes about the immunization.

      And yeah, it’s difficult to “get busy” under those circumstances. You never know who’s outside the door…….

      I’m glad you were able to get some positives out of the experience.

  5. It sounds like it was just a series of horrible events. Losing a job and moving in with your child must be a huge blow to one’s ego, having another adult suddenly move in with you is hugely stressful, and it’s hard to bitch about one’s MIL to their child, or one’s mother to your spouse. Particularly when the problems are “little” things. Also, you can’t really have a good fight when someone else is in your house, particularly if that someone else is largely the cause of the fight. Even if they’re not at home, you don’t want them coming home and asking you what was wrong because the answer is them.

    OMG, I seriously hope that when my parents are unable to live on their own, they move in with one of my siblings. Even the thought of my mother moving in with us gives me a mini panic attack.

    1. Yeah, I tried my best (though I fear I often failed) at being empathetic. MIL wasn’t happy about it, it’s not like she was like “Yea, now I can mooch off of you!”

      It’s spurred us to give more thought to our own retirements, at least, especially since we’ll be remaining child-free.

      1. It’s much easier to be empathetic from a distance! So, SO much easier! And it may be that your MIL wasn’t putting in the effort to keep her unhappiness from affecting you and your husband. And the onus of THAT would be on her. Not to not be unhappy, but to at least try to not pass that unhappiness to others. (And I can say that because I’m currently the one in my marriage who is struggling with finding a job and putting a lot of effort into not passing that stress onto my husband.)

  6. Oh man. This whole article is terrifying, and I want to hug you.

    I worry about my dad a lot, he’d never had to take care of himself before my mom died, and I was afraid he’d be my roommate in no time. And then I felt guilty and shitty for dreading taking care of him, after all the years he put in to take care of me, and so on. Fortunately, he’s been a superstar and he gets all the merit badges for adulting like a champ, so I can put off that particular emotional dance for a little while yet.

    Plus, as someone past 40, I get all morbid and panicky about what my own golden years are going to look like.

    1. Thanks for the offer of a hug!

      It’s natural to worry about our parents that way, and to not want to deal with it. My dad died several years before my mom; in some ways, it was a small relief when she died because it was one less thing to worry about. (She, alas, fell apart after he died.)

      I’m glad to hear your father has been able to step up!

      I think that’s the secret moral of this story: be thinking about what you will do when you hit retirement age!

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