It’s trite but it’s true. When you wed your partner, you might get a mother-in-law — and not any MIL, but a real mother of a mother-in-law. Although you want to get along with your partner’s family, sometimes it can be hard to connect with (or even care about) your MIL. But for your family’s sake (and your own damn sanity), Sally Shields suggests that you try to find some common ground with your MIL. That’s why she wrote the manual (The Daughter-in-Law Rules: 101 Surefire Ways to Make Friends with Your Mother-in-Law) on the subject. Shields talked about writing the book (she hadn’t written anything beyond a paper since high school), her own adventures with her MIL, and how to turn criticism into something constructive.
It’s interesting that originally, your background is in music — and not mothers-in-law.
I had always played the piano and around age 14, my father noticed that I had started to slack off. He said, “How would you like to take some jazz?” We got a music teacher, and he said the first thing to do was get Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. When I heard Bill Evans on that record, I knew that was how I wanted to play. I went to music school and then I moved to New York to pursue a career in jazz.
So how did that lead to your book, The Daughter-in-Law Rules: 101 Surefire Ways to Make Friends with Your Mother-in-Law?
Like many women, I got married and got a mother-in-law. I couldn’t be traveling as much with the kids at home, and a lot of the things that my mother-in-law was saying to me I was reacting badly to. It was things about the house or things about the kids. Do you remember that book, The Rules?
I emailed the ladies and said, “You’ve helped all these women meet the man of their dreams. Where is the manual for the mother-in-law?!” They thought it was the funniest thing ever, and they were going to check with their agent. Their agent was busy and they told me that I should write the book. The last thing I wrote was a paper in high school, but I knew that I still needed advice.
So I started to jot down in the style of The Rules, a rule title and a solution to it. It had everything from beauty advice to handling the unsolicited opinion of a mother-in-law, too. Even though some of them started off as tongue-in-cheek coping mechanisms, some of them started working, and I thought, “Aha! Maybe I could save other wives years of needless contention.” [laughs]
How many tips are in the book?
There are 101 surefire ways to make friends with your mother-in-law.
And that means that there are 101 ways in which your mother-in-law can give you a zing.
There’s a special section in the book called INCS for DILs. These are the things that we as daughters-in-law can react badly to. So INCS stands for Identify the problem, Note what was done or said, Create a rule title, and Set up a solution for those daughter-in-law zings. So anyone who reads the book can come up with their very own customized set of rules for their mother-in-law.
What was the impetus for this book? What did your mother-in-law do to inspire this book?!
I was just on a track of reacting badly. I would say “red” and she would say, “blue.” We were just completely miscommunicating. It wasn’t just one thing; it was the entire dynamic that was being set up. I knew that she liked pictures of the kids, so I emailed some to her, and she said, “I’m the only person in Ohio who doesn’t get professional shots to hand out to her friends at Bingo.” My husband and I spent the 8-hour ride home arguing about it. [laughs]
But what I realized is that when I was writing The Daughter-in-Law Rules, I had to interpret what she was really saying. It was that she didn’t appreciate what I was doing; it was that she wanted those soft glam shots from Sears. I was born in Massachusetts, nobody ever took me to the mall to get my picture taken, so I didn’t know from that. I realized it wasn’t a big deal, so I took my kids, and I got my daughter holding a giant carrot in a bunny costume with ears. And it came out so cute! I sent her a bunch of wallet size photos and she was so happy.
The way someone says something and the way you interpret it can be moons apart. I began to welcome the quips and digs because it helped me to understand her better. It wasn’t that I was going out of my way to please her, but because I understood her, I wanted to make her feel special and appreciated.
It’s better that way than to let it all stew inside and then it spills out into the marriage.
That’s the whole point. You don’t want to fight with your husband.
I think I’m one of the rare ones. I really love my mother-in-law. So while I know that many women deal with this, when I read the book, I thought, “Wow, I got off easy!” [laughs]
It seems that there’s about 50% who have great relationships with their mothers-in-law and the other 50% who don’t. And I think that if I can turn around my relationship with my mother-in-law, anybody can do it. It’s based on the seven spiritual laws of success. To get what you want, you have to help others get what they want. If you’re a loving, kindhearted, gentle person, the world will reflect that back to you, even in the form of your mother-in-law. That’s when the magic starts to happen. When you start changing your reaction to things, it makes a huge improvement.
For example, she would come to my house and say, “Your house is a disaster area!” This happened a lot, so I was planning to hire a cleaning service — whatever it would take. But one time, I pre-empted it, I said to her, “Mom, my house is a real disaster area. I’m really sorry about that,” and she said, “Oh, Sally, you’ve got those two kids to worry about. Your house looks fine.” I’m no psychiatrist, but I think there’s a little reverse psychology going on here.
It would seem that meeting them where they are can help a lot.
Basically, you do both care about the same things. You care about your kids and the wellbeing of your family. I think everyone is also trying to figure out their new roles.
When our own moms give us advice and we go, “Oh, Mom!” that feels very comfortable. Coming from a mother-in-law is more prickly. MILs are moms and they like giving advice; they’re used to giving advice. Ask her for advice but on things that are non-consequential like, “What color should I change my shower curtain in the bathroom to?” and then do it. So when she comes over, she’ll be proud that you took her advice.
What was your mother-in-law’s reaction to the book?
There are three parts to that question. First, she found out that I was writing the book. She said, “Oh, Sally, I know I can be a witch with a B, and I can be stubborn, but we’re a lot alike, so go write your bestseller or I’ll kick your butt!” Okay, that was part one.
The second part was that she actually read the book. I came home one day, and my husband was at the table and he said, “She read the book.” I asked him what she thought, and he said, “She hates your guts and never wants to speak to you again.” And it’s true; I was not welcome at Christmas that year. We had a very difficult five months full of the silent treatment and processing information.
After that, we got on the phone and started working it out. It was such a turning point. She said, “You’re such a witch,” and I said, “You’re a witch with a B,” and she said, “You’re a witch with a B and everything out of your mouth is an insult!” and I said, “You criticize everything I do!” and then we started laughing. She said, “We are so much alike. I think this happened for a reason,” and I said, “Mom, I think it happened for a reason, too.” For us, it was the beginning of a real relationship.
As a writer (and a daughter-in-law), I think that you need to have a passion for your topic and a sincere desire to help people. Because I have both, I’m having so much fun with what I do.