In an advice query to The New York Times’ “The Sweet Spot” column, a wife in her early 30s complains extensively about her indulgent in-laws. They celebrate all holidays together and her in-laws housesit and work—unpaid—in her and her husband’s business. She writes:
“My in-laws are too nice…They shower us with gifts at every opportunity...My mother-in-law cooks and brings us five meals a week …”
The “overly loved daughter-in-law,” as she signed her complaint, pins her in-law’s behavior on her husband’s sibling status, although she tries to lessen the blow by putting this information in parentheses: “(he’s an only child, by the way.)”
The Sweet Spot’s columnists, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, also seem to jump to conclude that the son’s acceptance of his parents’ hyper-involvement stems from being on only child. Almond writes, “Your husband is a beloved only child accustomed to this level of involvement.”
For me, not only does it imply his only-child status as the root cause of the in-laws’ indulgences add fuel to only-child prejudices and stereotypes, it also completely sidesteps questions about the parents’ neediness. To imply that their generosity and extensive presence is because he’s an only child seems specious. This particular parenting approach can develop because of myriad circumstances and personalities—not just because there are no brothers or sisters.
The most realistic factor underpinning their overindulgent behavior is likely the parents’ need to be involved in general, which might have manifested no matter how many children they had. Imagine these parents had other children who lived across the country or even out of the country. Their need to be involved would surface in any way it could, most likely focusing on the sibling who lived closest to them.
Alternately, these particular parents could relish being in control. If the parents are retired, their urge to be involved in their son’s business might fulfill a void. They might have the need to continue to spearhead their adult son’s and daughter-in-law’s (or one of their theoretical children’s) lives. By being so present, they appear not to have a life of their own.
Almond and Strayed suggest the daughter-in-law set up some boundaries, and I agree. My advice to her would also be to think ahead as she tries to separate from her in-laws. What if the couple decides to have children? How many hours a day do you think his parents will be at the house?
According to the daughter-in-law, her husband is onboard with his parents’ involvement: “He says they want to do these things because they love us.” But, one thing seems pretty clear—you can’t blame the parents’ behavior and indulgences solely on the fact that he is an only child. It’s worth remembering that many factors influence parent-child and in-law relationships well into adulthood.
Let’s be realistic, most of us would be overjoyed to have someone—even our mother-in-law—deliver dinner five nights a week. And, many, many wives would be delighted just to have a mother-in-law who likes them and doesn’t interfere in negative ways.
Maybe this “overly indulged daughter-in-law” should warm to her in-law’s love and enjoy every bite of dinner. Your thoughts?
Copyright @ 2018 by Susan Newman
Newman, Susan. (2003) Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. New York: Walker Books.
Strayed, Cheryl and Almond, Steve. (2018) “My In-Laws Are Suffocating Me. Help!" The New York Times: January, 30.