Mother-in-laws get a bad rap – they’re scheming, demanding, and never wrong. So well-known are the tropes about mother-in-laws that a big chunk of old-school comedy is devoted to them, while in the digital age, the ominous acronym MIL is usually the start of a story of familial hell.
Nor do women like particularly to be compared to their own mothers, usually – especially if the comparison is being made by a romantic partner, as it’s usually not intended to flatter the recipient.
So a piece published in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, in which the writer Jenny Tucker recalls that almost 30 years ago, her then-boyfriend told her that she reminded him of his mother, starts with foreboding.
“What did that even mean? That I’d be washing his underwear in between cooking him roasts and affectionately stroking his hair?” Tucker writes.
But Tucker goes on to recount how she became friends with her mother-in-law, who grew to be her “lifeline” as the boyfriend Pedro – who became her husband – worked overseas and she raised two sons alone. In a moving tribute to Adela, a Spanish immigrant to Britain who divorced in her 50s, the writer explains how much she learned from being loved by her mother-in-law.
“She told me once that she loved me like a daughter but, even more crucial to me, I valued her as a true friend,” Tucker writes. “She never judged me, supported my decisions and, if I ever complained to her about her son’s shortcomings, would laugh and say, ‘What shall we do with him? How can we sort him out?’ No blame, no accusations – we were in it together.”
Tucker goes on to explain how Adela had explained to her that being the mother of a boy and then a man meant she had to work a little harder to remain part of his life, and his family’s.
“As my sons grew older she’d say, ‘You’ll have daughters-in-law one day. You’ll need to learn to love whoever they choose so they all love you back’,” Tucker writes. “Was that her secret? Being the mother of boys, you can’t help but wonder if eventually you’ll lose each one to their wife and her extended family.
“But I can hear Adela laughing and saying, ‘Of course not. You work hard to be part of their life’. Was Adela’s love calculated? Maybe a little, but she loved too much for it not to be genuine,” Tucker says. “Now my 18-year-old son has a girlfriend whom he obviously adores, I keep my smile wide and our door always open.”
The story ends with Adela’s death at the age of 89.
“It was difficult for her to talk and I had no words to explain how much I would miss her,” Tucker says. “She looked at me, eyes searching for mine, and whispered, ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything’. No, thank you, Adela, from deep inside my heart, for showing me the way.”
The piece struck a chord with readers, who recalled their own lovely mothers-in-law.
One commenter recalls, “My mother passed away in the window between me meeting my now wife and us getting married, and sadly she missed the joy of meeting her grandchildren. But their are echoes of her here and my wife speaks very warmly of how my mum greeted her and made her at home.”
“This rather outdated image of dragons trying to hold on to their sons is damaging and rather silly,” another concludes.