The immutable law of the mother-in-law

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ONE OF these days someone conducting an important sociological survey will think of including me in their research. I have much to offer by way of worldly wisdom, but as yet my opinion has not been sought by teams of social psychologists monitoring the effects of global warming on one parent families or corporal punishment in single sex schools or infidelity among women married to merchant bankers as compared to women married to merchant seamen. The latest and much publicised survey is by Dr Terri Apter, a social psychologist at Cambridge University who has been looking into the changing relationship between liberated women and their mothers-in-law.

Hang on a sec, do liberated women have mothers-in-law? Germaine Greer hasn't. Most of my fiercely feminist friends are single parents who can barely remember the name of their impregnator, let alone his mother. Dr Apter's research consisted of talking to 34 mothers and fathers-in-law and 32 sons and daughters-in-law to find out whether the views they expressed differed substantially from the views she canvassed on the same subjects 10 years ago. They hadn't.

Far be it for me to criticise the working practices of Cambridge University researchers but do the often banal reflections of 20 mothers-in-law and 18 daughters-in-law really constitute a comprehensive survey from which to hang weighty Confucian truisms. Never mind, let's see if Dr Apter's research has come up with anything we didn't already know on this subject.

The point about the 10-year gap was to ascertain whether all those bra- burning feminists of the Sixties who have now become mothers-in-law themselves are adopting a more tolerant attitude to their independent career-minded daughters-in-law. Theoretically, you see, Mrs Beckham shouldn't mind if David's tea, piping hot, doesn't appear sharp on the table at six because she knows that poor Victoria has been hard at it all day filming the new Spice Girls video.

But Mrs Beckham does mind. David's a hard-working lad, she mutters, and deserves his tea on time when he gets home. And while we're on the subject of tea, adds Mrs Beckham, throwing a baleful look at the grilled goats cheese and onion marmalade on a bed of rocket that Victoria has laid out, how David used to love the meat pastie, mash and carrots she used to cook him. Any more of that rubbish and he'll fade away.

Mrs Hague feels the same about William's shirts. Call that collar ironed. Ffion's a nice enough girl, and she wouldn't have a thing said against her, but if she took the pride in William's appearance his mother always did, the Tories wouldn't be in the powerless state they are.

We mothers don't need Dr Apter to prove to us that sons are special. Besides, DH Lawrence has already done so and rather more romantically. I love my sons and my daughters equally but I feel more protective about my sons because I know, as all mothers know, that they aren't as capable of looking after themselves as girls. They need a good woman to do it for them. There's the rub. No woman is good enough for a son and, if she is, her mother-in-law will call her a control freak and hate her all the more.

Behind every successful man, they say, stands an astonished mother-in- law and behind every successful woman there stands a disapproving mother- in-law because if Cherie's working 18 hours a day who, for heaven's sake, is looking after Tony and the children. If Dr Apter was really in search of a weighty Confucian truism to back up her research into the relationship between mothers and their sons' wives I could have faxed her that old Christmas cracker motto that goes - "A daughter is yours for the rest of her life but a son is yours till he marries a wife." Basically we just don't want to let them go.