Dr. Zoe Shaw, A Year of Self-Care

The Joy Series: 6 Traits of a Mother-in-Law Who Wants to Build Peaceful Relationships

mother-in-law and daughter sitting next to eachother on the couch drinking coffee and smiling and trying to build peaceful relationships

Yes, the joy!

I’m not trying to sweeten up the truth. Being a mother-in-law is not for sissies. And if you feel drawn to whine about how it’s going for you, Google can point you to more than two billion sites telling you how to improve your approach. Or, if you want that pity party (and some days we need one), look up mother-in-law jokes. My search came up with 61,800,000 sites touting mother-in-law jokes, with only about half that amount about fathers-in-law!

1. Lawyer to his client: “Your mother-in-law passed away in her sleep. Shall we order a burial, embalming, or cremation?” The son-in-law replied, “Let’s not take chances. Order all three.”

2. How many Mothers-in-law does it take to change a light bulb? One. She just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around her.

3. Mother-in-Law to her son-in-Law: “You didn’t get me a Christmas gift this year?”

Son-in-law: “You didn’t use what I got you last year.”

Mother-in-law: “But, it was a casket!”

 Shameful… but also a bit comical.

6 Traits of a Mother-in-Law Who Wants to Build Peaceful Relationships

 It would be entertaining to recount a few mother-in-law horror stories, too. However, since I’m a mother-in-law to my children’s five spouses, I’d like to avoid over-emphasizing embarrassing quirks and focus on the more elusive ways a mother-in-law can experience joy.

A Joyful Mother-in-Law Isn’t Discouraged by a Rough Start 

As a mother-in-law I’ve received my share of bumps and bruises over the years and have inadvertently caused some myself. I’m thinking of when I sent new dish towels to one of our children’s homes after they’d admired mine, only to have the gift perceived as a hint to replace theirs. It was a simple miscommunication, but that’s how easily trouble begins.

Bumbling our way through the melding of families, stepping on toes and feelings as we add new faces to our family picture, is to be expected. Miscommunication will happen to all of us sometimes, and when we think we’ve got things dialed in, we unexpectedly get into trouble.

Being sensitive to my role as a mother-in-law (sometimes overly), I learned it’s better not to assume everything is clear between all parties, so, with love and a desire for unity, I turned my rose-tinted glasses in for a more realistic pair.

A Joyful Mother-in-Law has Patience

Without knowing it, I was being prepared for my role as a mother-in-law when my husband and I blended our family of his two tween girls and my three elementary boys thirty years ago. There were nights we cried ourselves to sleep (us grown-ups, not the kids!). But we worked together to establish new relational ground rules, create new traditions, and brainstorm activities that drew us together. Over the years and inevitable challenges, our family bonds strengthened. Looking back, I see it was the hard times that brought us together and this can be true in relationships with in-laws.

I began praying for my children’s spouses, my “in-loves,” as I call them, as soon as my kids were born, and it’s been a blessing to finally meet the people I prayed for. But even with years to plan, I never imagined how long it would take to get to know them.

Because most of our children met their spouses after they’d moved away from home, my husband and I had only a few occasions to meet them before their weddings. I’ll never forget when our youngest son called and said, “Mom, you better get to Seattle to meet her quick; I’m going to propose in 10 days!” Forging relationships with new additions to our family has taken much longer than when we all lived in the same hometown.

I naively imagined our new family members would jump right in and join the crowd. Silly me forgot that each couple is unique. I remember my former mother-in-law expecting we’d be at her house by 8 a.m. Christmas morning, but that didn’t work for my new husband and I. We wanted and needed a little time to create our new traditions.

As a novice mother-in-law, I also fumbled expectations even as my husband warned me to slow down. I finally got the message that less is more and, thankfully, the tears (I mean years) of practicing patience have grown me, and I’ve come to a place of joy and freedom. Our family connections look different than I imagined, but it works for us.

A Joyful Mother-in-law is Open to Learning New Things

I’m blessed with five professional daughters I love learning new things from. With a bit of interest in who they are and the things they love and following them on social media, I’m kept current on things like healthy foods, current decorating and fashion, home products, and the latest baby trends. I’ve learned to use an Instant Pot, buy and sell clothes online, and receive trusted investment advice.

But the best part is I get a peek into what inspires them and celebrate who they are, which opens the door to fun-filled conversations, something I wish I’d had with my mother-in-law. I’ve learned that conversations kept short and sweet with no big expectations are best, but I follow their lead too.

The best part is I get a peek into what inspires my daughters-in-law and celebrate who they are, which opens the door to fun-filled conversations.

I add their important dates to my calendar and send a quick text that requires no response—“Praying for your big day!” I also follow some of the blogs and podcasts they follow if they interest me. And, I keep no room for judgment or comparison of how we raised our children or ran our homes; instead, they’ll learn about me as I ask questions and celebrate them.

A Joyful Mother-in-Law has a Healthy Mindset 

As I learned new ways of relating to my family, I realized I needed to grow in my ability to love well. It became clear that my expectations were tied to things in my past that I hadn’t fully dealt with. Rejection, low self-esteem, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and a few other diamonds in the rough of my fiber began to eke out. For me, it boiled down to gaining a healthy focus on reality, which required digging around inside with the help of a counselor.

As I began to understand basic but essential concepts of processing negative emotions and coping with feelings like disappointment, jealousy, and fear, I became more settled and less anxious. I like how Lysa Terkeurst describes this in her book Good Boundaries and Goodbyes (which I recommend!):

“Distortions of reality feed dysfunctions. Our personal issues don’t magically go away in relationships. Often, our lack of self-awareness collides with the other person’s lack of self-awareness, and we have a choice to make. We can use this conflict to make us more aware of our issues or totally ignore what the other person is saying and stay wrongly convinced that this will get better on its own. But it won’t” (pg. 30).

Counseling has been complex hard work. As the pain finally blubbered to the surface (yes, blubbered), I’ve been humbled by what I didn’t know about myself, which is the key to a healthy mind: knowing the truth about ourselves and learning to receive love in light of that reality. The joy of being free from negative emotions was like cleaning out a closet full of bad memories. Instead of replaying lies and hurts, I learned to process them openly and let them go. I’m impressing myself with my new, healthier responses to life. I like myself better, making it easier to love others well.

Everyone needs guidance at any age, whether a counselor, a coach, the wisdom of Scripture, or all three. If you have baggage, stop dragging it around, pretending it’s not there. Or worse, stop dropping your baggage on your daughter-in-law’s front porch. Find a place to air it out and drop it off. Invest in yourself. You’re worth every penny, and so are your relationships. 

A Joyful Mother-in-Law Sets the Example

I’m aware of setting an example for our children, even when they’re grown. How we navigate life at this stage and deal with change, influences—and, I hope, inspires—how they will approach their future.

My husband and I recently retired, sold our unneeded stuff, and moved from our five-bedroom home on acreage to a small townhome in another state. These changes came with sadness and loss juxtaposed with excitement and opportunity to create the new life we’d planned in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Cleaning out closets, selling family heirlooms, and saying goodbye to a 50-year-old cheerleading uniform was easy. Saying goodbye to the places and faces we’d raised our family with was hard, but we celebrated well with friends and promised to stay connected.

Yet, more impactful than these was caring for our parents as they came to the end of their lives and how we chose to say goodbye. We intentionally celebrated and cared for them in a way that honored God, even praying with my mom to receive Christ and baptizing her just before she passed. Our children and grandchildren witnessed the love and care we gave our parents over weeks and months amid deep pain, some hard feelings, and harsh realities. We wanted them to see that the end of life is just as important and relevant as the beginning of life, and to know that the relationships we foster as we learn to live together have an eternal impact.

Living a life devoted to God has been one we’ve done by example. We’ve trusted God with our family as openly as we could. We talk about our walk with Him when appropriate but leave it at their door. And we pray, just as we have since they were each born.

A Joyful Mother-in-law Wants to Have Fun

Mothers-in-law, our lives boil down to this: Wanting to have a place in your children’s lives is natural. It’s also natural to feel angry, excluded, unimportant, and resentful when the relationship you hoped for doesn’t look as you thought it would. It’s okay to have a “cry day” and to feel unwanted feelings. But at some point, we must decide what we want our new life to look like, and how we do that impacts our children.

Our children love us, and it’s good they’re grown and don’t need us. Even if their lives are caving in, they are responsible for picking up the pieces, not us.

Now is the time to focus on who you want to be and what you’re grateful for. Where do you find joy?

Now is the time to rise against popular opinion by turning 2,440,000,000 sites telling us how to live and who to be by showing how we’re living our best life and working to build peaceful relationships, starting today.

You can do it!!


Some of the complications that arise in our tougher relationships stem from feeling as though we don’t measure up. If that’s you, check out this podcast episode for a helpful reminder of why you are enough: Do You Ever Feel Like You’re Not Enough? with Jodi Shultz – 172

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