A true story of how one woman and her mother-in-law turned their relationship around for the better.
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A true story of how one woman and her mother-in-law turned their relationship around for the better.

Story highlights

What happens when an agressive mother-in-law turns out to be generous, too?

Writer Jessica Gottlieb was surprised and encouraged by her MIL's parenting advice

The woman who started off critical turned out to be Gottlieb's partner in crime

(Parenting) —  

When we first met, I was relieved when my future mother-in-law told me that I was pretty and smart. “His last girlfriend had the face of a rat,” she said. Oh boy.

My husband adores his mother—he calls her Big Red for her auburn hair—so after our wedding I took up post as dutiful daughter-in-law. I called her weekly and eventually sent endless waves of photos of our two kids.

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I suppose it was easy having an MIL on the opposite coast. She showed up for short spurts: quick shopping trips, weddings, and babies’ birthdays. But my husband’s demanding work schedule meant that the burden to play tour guide always fell on me.

What first ensued was one bad TV moment after another: Minutes after my MIL met our first child, Jane, she exclaimed, “That is the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen. You know, sometimes the most beautiful babies turn into the ugliest adults.” Really. Then after my son was born and I’d lost most of the 70 pounds I’d gained, she sent me an outfit from Banana Republic—in a size 12. I cried. I used to be a 4.

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Still, small hints of her generous personality began to peek through. When my son had eye surgery, I did what any mother would: I passed out cold. There I was in the days afterward, holding an infant with stitches in his eyeballs and had a toddler to entertain, too. My MIL called religiously to check in, alternating among “You can do it,” “It’s OK to cry to me,” and “Treat yourself to something nice when this is over.” They were simple words, but she was like a magical fairy godmother at the time.

I found myself calling her more, hungry for parenting advice. I learned that she was a curious woman with infinite interests. My mother-in-law, it turned out, was thoughtful, forgiving, and quick to praise. (Yep, you read that right.)

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Nowadays, I call her my extra mother, but she’s proven to be a surprisingly satisfying partner-in-crime, too. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves palling around like we were teens on the loose. During one visit, she enthusiastically accompanied me into Heidi Fleiss’s bra boutique, the Little Shop of Sex. At first, we went in to gawk, but then we wisely realized that Ms. Fleiss knew a lot about boobs, and we scooped up her wares. Hey, it’s not every day you get naked with a madam and your MIL.

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I like to joke that the secret to having the perfect mother-in-law is to marry her youngest child. By the time you enter the picture, she’ll be used to crushed expectations. But the secret to having the perfect MIL could really be in loving her intensely. It’s part of loving my husband, loving the woman who shares him with me—for better or worse.