Q. I'm happily married (and have been for two years) and I'm expecting a baby in November. The problem is that I'm finding it increasingly difficult to cope with my husband's mother. Things have been a bit strained between us from the start. She and my father-in-law helped us buy and furnish our first flat and she seems to think that gives her a licence to comment on our choice of décor – and our standards of hygiene.
Whenever she comes round, she starts cleaning up (we are reasonably tidy!) and I can't help but take it as a criticism. But I do work full-time (as does she). When I spent a couple of days in hospital recently, she cleaned the whole house while I was gone. I can't talk to my husband about it as it just upsets him. I know she's keen to help when the baby comes, so it can only get worse. How can I get her to back off?
A. Perhaps you could send her round to my house – I'm sure I could find plenty for her to be getting on with. Seriously, though, on what planet is it an insult for a woman to clean another woman's house while she is in hospital? You could interpret this as pouncing as soon as you're out of the way in order to impose her high standards, or you could see it as an implication that your husband cannot fend for himself (which is annoying, yes). But it might equally be a genuine gesture of kindness to welcome you home.
But stop, stop! The burning question is how two intelligent working women find themselves engaged in a primitive tussle on the domestic front, as though feminism had never happened – and as if your husband had nothing to do with the running of the house at all.
Over to Terri Apter, the wise psychologist who wrote an excellent book called What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws. Do read it. Apter is brilliant on the complexities of what she once called "the relationship feminism forgot", the tug of war in which, in the mother-in-law's heart, the son's interests always come first, even if it means betraying her sex and her feminist beliefs. What sticks in my mind, though, is Apter's discovery that mothers-in-law are generally baffled by the hostility of their daughters-in-law to what they see as their helpful overtures.
As for the offer of help with the baby, you may not understand yet how valuable this is. Reserve judgement until you're knee-deep in nappies and gagging for a break. This is one area, though, where you should lay down the law on how you like things done.
I'm slightly playing devil's advocate here – maybe this woman is a nightmare. But you probably haven't known her very long and your relationship will move beyond this if you let it. Try to see her away from your home when you can. Offer kind gestures of your own. See a film with her or meet her for a drink. If you're friendly and you show respect, you'll find it much easier to set some ground rules when you need to, without things turning nasty.
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