My mother-in-law verbally abused me for years, and I ignored it.
One day, she went too far, and that’s when I cut her out of my life.
There’s this stereotype about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law not getting along, interactions filled with tension, discord, and conflict. I get it, really I do. But what I experienced by my mother-in-law for years was far beyond a stereotype or what any person should tolerate, whether from a family member or in-law relationship.
I endured decades of abusive comments, interactions, and hostile behavior. Here are the top ten that at times, pop into my mind. These are the ones that cut the most, continuing to echo as if no time has passed.
When my husband and I struggled to conceive, she told me I was so fortunate to have a husband who didn’t divorce me because I couldn’t get pregnant.
When I was a new mom, nursing twins, and we were up for a visit, upon arriving at her home for dinner (9-hour car trip) starving, as any nursing mom can relate, I served myself a bowl of pasta and sauce. My mother-in-law rushed up toward me, took the bowl out of my hand, and proclaimed that her son eats first, then went to the next room and handed him the bowl.
When I moved from the state where I lived for thirty years to another state because of my husband’s new job, she told me she was glad my parents would know the heartache and suffering she’d experienced not having lived near her son.
When I had a second-trimester miscarriage, she told me I was selfish for not reaching out to her and consoling her because she lost a grandchild too. (Please note I had a D&C after the miscarriage and then a week later was hemorrhaging and went to the emergency room for another D&C because remnants of the placenta remained in my uterine tissue. I was super sick for many weeks).
When I threw my husband a surprise 40th birthday party and asked for her help, she refused to help, then agreed to help and never did any of the tasks she said she would. She arrived at the party and pointed out to the guests the mistake I made with a photo of my husband as a baby. (It wasn’t him but his brother. I made a mistake with one photo; he and his brother looked a lot alike).
When my third daughter had her first communion and friends and all four grandparents gathered, she proceeded to talk about immigration issues and loaded political topics. Worse, she shared some horrible beliefs that all immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in the US, even legally. This in front of my father, who immigrated to the US as an adult. My dad, ever so classy, confronted her in a kind yet direct way.
When I gave birth to my fourth child, my mother-in-law came to meet the newest family member. In the hospital room, my husband left with our children to get a snack leaving us alone in the room. As she held my newborn, the moment the door closed and he left, my mother-in-law said to me, “What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
And, more recently, when I was in a conversation with her about successes in my career (which she initiated and asked about), she followed up with telling me, “You’re nothing special.”
I can handle some things, but when you insult my children or my mothering, we are done. Because I know better, I know my children, and I will protect them against anyone and anything, always.
Two critical moments: Making an anti-LGBTQ remark (one of my children is gay) and telling me something is wrong with my youngest child when she had a meltdown at a family gathering. She said to me in front of my child that something was wrong with my child for crying. That behavior should have been over with at age 5 when childhood ends, not age 7.
And that moment of verbal abuse, about my daughter, riddled with shame and anger and judgment, well, that was it for me.
At that moment, she revealed who she is and what she is capable of. And absent from the list: a loving, compassionate and empathic person.
Say what you want to me, but my children? All bets are off, and mama bear comes out.
Do you know what my biggest regret is?
That I didn’t cut my in-laws out sooner.
I had this belief it would get better.
I kept making excuses that she didn’t really mean that.
I was so busy with work and having babies and raising children that I didn’t realize how toxic it was until the criticism was directed to my children.
And the most amazing part?
The more time that goes on between us and the distance, the more I decompress and detox from how bad it was.
I was verbally abused and bullied by my mother-in-law.
That’s the tricky thing about verbal abuse: unless it’s written or recorded or witnessed by another, it can be hard to imagine as real.
You say to yourself, did she really say that?
Did she really mean it?
Is there a chance I misunderstood?
And if no one is there to witness it, then when you do say something, as I did to my husband, that is what breaks a marriage down, because the manipulation of the verbal abuse is this unspoken tension, saying pick a side, who do you believe? Your wife or your mother?
My mother-in-law was so crafty, so manipulative. She’d often say the kindest things about me or express her concern about how hard I work and take care of the kids to him (never directly to me), which was her tactic to keep the confusion, manipulation, and abuse going.
Here is what I know: the pain, the words, the soundbites of manipulation and abuse echo long past the interaction.
It took being out of that environment and relationship to understand this.
The worst part? As I process and begin to heal, I have come into this awareness: The whole family treated me poorly, and at gatherings or events, when my mother-in-law crossed the line, no one, including my husband or father-in-law, did a thing.
I’ve come to understand they were powerless to put her in her place. They too had all been emotionally abused and manipulated their entire lives by her. So to them, this behavior was normal, expected and accepted. It’s hard to be the outsider and try to change a family system when they don’t even think there’s a problem.
And my husband? Now that I am out of the picture (he has a relationship with her on his own, sans me), he has to see and experience firsthand (because I was the buffer, the shield) the anger and abuse. I sure hope he finds his voice and path away from them.
Until then, all I can do is heal and reaffirm that my self-worth is not about who I please or what I put up with or how another person treats me, even if that person is family. My self-worth need not be proved; it already is. And that is one unexpected lesson I’ve learned.
Sometimes you have to let go of relationships to know your worth.