Ruth Nemzoff talks about her latest book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, to be published Sept. 4 by Palgrave Macmillan. At the age of 66, Nemzoff published her first book, Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children. Like Erma Bombeck, Nemzoff addresses family issues with wit and wisdom.
Why did you write the book?
When I visited more than 300 venues in five countries on a tour for my last book, I found the most common question about parents and adult children centered around in-law children. Usually, the question was about a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship — i.e., a mother-in-law feeling pushed aside or a daughter-in-law feeling criticized. Questions about a son-in-law tended to be around whether he was earning enough or failing to do jobs around the house. What these questions said to me was that our society has not caught up on changing gender roles. The expectation still seems to be that the husband will be the earner. If he’s not, it is suspect to the older generation.
What are some of the tensions between two or more sets of in-laws?
The weapons of choice tend to be money, time and grandchildren. With the grandchildren, grandparents compete over who gets to spend more time with their adult children and the grandkids, and who loves them more. Money can come into play when one set of in-laws feels that the other group is able to spend more money, and, as such, is bribing the children/grandchildren to like them.
What do parents want?
Most parents want some relationship with their child. They want credit for what they’ve done for their child — an understanding that they tried the best they could — and perhaps forgiveness for the mistakes they’ve made knowingly or unknowingly. After 18 years of making decisions and sacrifices for their children, they want to move forward and be a part of their children’s future life adventures.
What do children want?
I think most young couples want a chance to bond with each other — to create a comfortable home for their families. They don’t want somebody checking on, and commenting on, every decision that they make. They want to make their own mistakes, and figure out how to make a life for themselves and their families.
However, having a relationship with your in-laws and enjoying marital independence are not mutually exclusive. Just as we have friendships with people whom we enjoy but don’t want intervening in our lives, we can have loving relationships with our in-laws without feeling steamrolled by them.
Can you provide a few hints on how to foster better relationships with your in-laws?
I give a comprehensive list of tips in Chapter 11 of Don’t Roll Your Eyes, but here are few of the highlights:
• Try to put yourself in your in-law’s shoes.
• Don’t make a big deal out of everything — we all make mistakes, and we need forgive each other for slights.
• Reframe things with a positive view. For example, if your kids don’t call you, don’t complain that they never want to talk but rather consider that it’s nice that they’re good parents who are spending time with their own children.
• Forget fantasy; deal with reality. As mother-in-law, you may be frustrated that your daughter-in-law isn’t very physically affectionate towards you, but you should be pleased at least that she’s very polite — enjoy what you’ve got!
• Don’t hold on to grudges.
• Be curious about your in-laws’ culture, beliefs, traditions, lives. Try to understand why people think the way they do — don’t discount and dismiss their ideas out of hand.
• Remember that we’re all new to this game and trying to figure out how to make it work.
— Ruth Nemzoff
Author and activist Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. The mother of four children, she lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. She served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare.