I don’t mind confessing that I’m an actual coward. Case in point: My mother-in-law is in town, and I’m hiding out at a bar writing this, under the pretense of meeting an excruciating deadline. In reality, my deadline is weeks away, but I will take any excuse to tuck tail and run from the judgmental gaze of Sharon Doyle*, matriarch of an extensive and pasty Catholic brood, guilt-tripper extraordinaire, and 5’1” bane of my existence. Every so often, I get a text from my husband: Uh. Are you meeting us for dinner? I jot back cheerfully: Only 800 words to go! I’m on my second lager and have Uber on speed dial. I have no intention of returning any time soon.
I have it on good authority that I’m not the only one who attempts Houdini-like acts of disappearance when the mother-in-law is afoot. One friend sends me screenshots of her mother-in-law’s messages, pestering her about everything from painting her child’s toenails down to where “they” will vacation that summer. I tell her about how Sharon refers to my husband as “her baby” and reminds me, like the Carole King album she plays on repeat, how lucky I am to have him as a husband. I am lucky — but never once does she mention that perhaps I have something to add to the relationship. In her eyes, I am the recipient of her family’s ill-deserved grace. And her son? The bearer of a great burden from the Lord himself.
Another friend bemoans her in-laws’ unannounced and extended visit to their tiny home when she was eight months pregnant. I tell her about how Sharon eyes everyone’s plate at dinner, then makes pointed comments to me about how very hard it is to maintain one’s weight as one gets older. One friend’s mother-in-law mispronounced her name for six months (Sharon took a few months herself to get my name straight). Another friend’s mother-in-law took my friend’s child to get his very first haircut, without consulting her. After each story, we gasp. “What the actual f***?”
On their own, these offenses may seem trivial, but the accumulation — well, you know what they say about deaths by a thousand cuts.
My kid isn’t anywhere near dating age, but one day, they may find someone wonderful and want to get married. And until that day, I’ll live in everlasting fear that I will turn into one of those mother-in-laws who makes it into the group chat. I can picture my nickname already: Broody Narcissist from the Swamplands. (It does have a ring, admittedly.)
So to curtail my lesser impulses, I’ve been taking notes from some real doozies of mothers-in-law from film and T.V. Some, like the devilishly creative Viola Fields from Monster in Law, commit extremely egregious acts (wearing white to your son’s wedding!). Others, like the Victorian-esque Trix Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, are slightly more subtle in their harassment, doling out cutting bon mots as they blink innocently from their Chesterfield sofas. Here are six toxic T.V. and movie mother-in-laws, and the things I’ve learned not to do from them:
Monster in Law : The All-Around Sh*tshow
I pity the fool who dares cross J.Lo, especially in her ’90s armor (metallic eyeshadow, boho babydoll dresses over jeans). But from the second Viola Fields takes out her gold-rimmed binoculars to spy on her son Kevin and his fiance Charlie (played by Jennifer Lopez), I knew we had a real contender in the mother-in-law-from-hell rankings. The clincher, though? When Viola kisses her grown son wetly, sloppily on the mouth. Her campaign to get rid of Charlie is fraught with cleverness, but the most shocking is her semi-accidental ploy to lace the gravy with almonds — to which Charlie is, of course, allergic. We learn later that the MIL madness is cyclical, and Viola herself was terrorized as a new bride. Her fears, at root, stem from the weight of her own aloneness; it’s a very human fear, to be sure, though not one that excuses 1.5 hours of petty torture.
Lesson learned: Co-dependency inflicts trauma on everyone involved. Your children are not your possessions, nor should you hinge your emotional wellbeing on them. Take care of yourself, without relying on grown children to protect you from your own loneliness.
Game of Thrones : The Power-Obsessed Queen
No other mother-in-law tops the list quite like Cersei Lannister. After all, she did burn down an entire sept (and her daughter-in-law Margaery) to punish her enemies. Throughout the show, her wild jealousy at Margaery’s acceptance into the bony bosoms of the people of King’s Landing results in a number of simmering, tight-lipped encounters that would have scared off a lesser woman than Margaery Tyrell. Cersei’s obsession with her children comes from a place of warped love, sure, but if that’s what love is, I’d rather be ignored.
Lesson learned: Sometimes, the man just ain’t worth it. Cut your losses and run from that murderous family stat.
The Family Stone : The Instigator of Chaos
Sybil Stone, played by the inimitable Diane Keaton, is the loose-lipped matriarch of an offbeat clan that does not take well to outsiders. When her son brings his (admittedly awkward) girlfriend Meredith to visit for the holidays, Sybil becomes her most exclusionary self, egging on her children in mocking Meredith and ultimately driving her out of the house. We learn that Sybil is acting out of her son’s best interests, and Meredith isn’t actually the right match for him. She’s also suffering from a terminal disease that makes the situation all the more urgent. In the end, Sybil welcomes Meredith, but only once she begins to loosen up and conform to the Stones’ ways of interacting.
Lesson learned: Our job as mothers-in-law is to welcome the newcomer into the fold. The expectation to adjust does not lie only with your child’s partner — you, too, have to make concessions in the face of differences.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding : The Culturally Clueless MIL
In a rant, main character Toula’s father Gus calls her future in-laws “a toast family,” referencing their dryness. Though both in-laws commit some basic rudeness, Toula’s future mother-in-law, Harriet, has some of the more pronounced expressions of disgust when encountering her family’s Greek traditions. There’s some good old fashioned microaggression, too, in her confusion about nationalities (Armenian? Guatemalan? It’s all Greek to me!) and constant shock over Toula’s family traditions. All in all, this is by far the most mild application of toxicity, but as someone who has had to bear a certain amount of cultural insensitivity, there were some triggering moments in this one.
Lesson learned: Never assume that your family’s customs are universal or sacrosanct. If your child-in-law comes from a different culture (or region, or what have you), try to embrace it. Use flash cards if you struggle to remember their nationality — or their name.
Gilmore Girls : The Snobby Autocrat
Though there is something divinely satisfying about the haughty Emily Gilmore reduced to a panicked mess in the wake of her mother-in-law Trix’s unannounced visits, it’s still appalling to witness Trix’s continual disrespect. From criticizing Emily’s decor choices all the way up to her parenting and suitability for Trix’s son Richard, Trix exudes supercilious resentment. After her death, Emily discovers a letter in which Trix urges Richard to reconsider marrying Emily — the ultimate last word.
Lesson learned: Just don’t be an a-hole to your child-in-law. And if you can’t resist, definitely don’t leave written evidence laying around for them to find after your death.
Sex and the City : The Boundary-Crossing Bunny
From walking in on her son Trey and his wife Charlotte in flagrante to sitting on the edge of a bathtub while a fully grown (and naked) Trey bathes, Bunny MacDougal is the Highlander queen of inappropriate interactions. Of course, she also believes Charlotte to be unworthy of her perfect son, and in their subsequent divorce, terrorizes her through the iron fist of the law. But her worst offense? When she tells Charlotte that she does not “enjoy Mandarin food” — nor “a Mandarin child,” in reference to Charlotte’s plan to adopt from China. Ah, some bunnies really do belong in a boiling pot.
Lesson learned: A child is not a substitute for a spouse. Knock before entering someone’s bedroom. Check your implicit (okay, explicit) racial bias.
What these movies (and real life) will teach you is that every mother-in-law was made into a villain by her own complicated past, or her inability to grapple with change. These women are not one-dimensional; their traumas result in inexcusable yet understandable behavior. And there may be redemption for even the most unbearable of villains. Okay, maybe not Cersei.
So I’m going to close up my laptop, pull up my big-kid pants, and go home to smile at Sharon, who after all traveled to be with my family. The uncomfortable days will pass, and decades from now, we may no longer have these moments. Fraught with annoyances, yes, and sometimes painful. But ultimately, full of the possibility for love and redemption. Because that’s what family is.
*All names have been changed because, as I said, I’m a coward.