The Pope Is Right About Mother-In-Laws (Well, Almost)

Internalised this sexist trope? It might come back to bite you on the bum.
via Associated Press

Mother-in-laws are often the victims of “clichés”, according to the Pope. And I’m inclined to agree.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, the head of the Catholic church urged listeners to be kinder to the matriarchs of their families.

“I’m not saying we see her as the devil, but she is always presented in a pejorative way,” he said. “But the mother-in-law is the mother of your husband and the mother of your wife.”

Perhaps I’m biased, because my own mother-in-law in a gem, but I’ve always found the bitter, interfering mother-in-law trope absurd. It’s drenched in misogyny – much like the cliché of the evil step mother – and perpetuates the idea that women can only co-exist in a state of conflict or competition.

‘Controlling’, ‘judgmental’, ‘critical’ and ‘overbearing’ are all words that have been used to describe mother-in-laws. The phrase “monster-in-law” is often thrown around on parenting forums. And one article goes as far as to call them “a soul-sucking parasite that feeds on your misery.” God forbid an older woman should ever express her opinion...

Sure, some mother-in-law relationships are tricker than others, but it doesn’t help women one bit if we expect women after a certain age to become silent wallflowers. Let her share her thoughts – it doesn’t mean you always have to agree with them.

Of course, the culture of kindness needs to go both ways. And the Pope also had advice for mothers-in-laws. “I tell you, be careful how you express yourselves,” he said.

But one part of his speech may make you eye-roll, just a little.

“We say to ourselves ‘the further away your mother-in-law is, the better’. But no – she’s a mother, she’s an elderly person,” he said. “One of the most beautiful things for a woman is to have grandchildren. When her children have children, it brings her to life again.”

I’d argue the most beautiful thing for a woman is to make her own choice about whether she wants children or not – and no mother-in-law should base her happiness on the possibility of grandchildren, something that is (and should always be) outside her control.

But baby steps and all. He’s almost got it right. This stereotype is centuries old, after all. And if we don’t start to course correct the internalised trope now, it’ll only come back to haunt us if we ever become mother-in-laws ourselves.