The German princess Drahomíra would not, surprisingly, go down in history for giving birth to good King Wenceslas, revered patron saint of the Czech lands. Her claim to fame? Ordering a hit on her mother-in-law, Duchess Ludmila. Strangled to death by her own veil, martyred Ludmila became Saint Ludmila, patron saint of Bohemia, widows, converts, and…in-law problems.
If I had a car (and if I was Catholic) I might just stick a Ludmila statue on my dashboard. My mother-in-law is a handful. When I first moved in with my husband, then boyfriend, she volunteered to camp out on the sofa for a day or two a week to help me clean. She would steal into our apartment when we were out, collect our dirty clothes and return them impeccably pressed and packaged. Just like a Chinese Laundromat. After noticing bottles of nam pla sauce and rice bran oil in our pantry, she only half-jokingly accused me of trying to poison her son and offered up her full-time catering services.
Nowadays, we laugh about those early instances of overbearing mother love. She has since acknowledged our right to privacy while stoically swallowing the bitter pill of my slovenly housekeeping and risqué cuisine. Still, there are times when the cultural and linguistic barriers between us feel insurmountable. My situation is hardly unique. If you’re married or in a long-term relationship with a Czech man, chances are you’ve tussled with Mamča over everything from your refusal to worship at the altar of the ironing board to the “unhealthy” (read: not Czech) food you give your kids.
Gail Whitmore, director at Counseling in Prague, tells me that a number of her expat clients seek help addressing mother-in-law issues. She says that while a strong bond between mothers and sons isn’t necessarily unique to the traditional Czech family, it can come as a surprise to foreigners. “I remember bumping into a young male friend on the tram after I first moved here. When I asked him where he was headed he told me he was on his way to grandmother’s. I asked, out of concern, if she was sick. He looked at me like I was clueless and said, ‘Uh, no, she’s my grandma. I love her.’ I think that kind of maternal love is really rare.”
But for non-Czech women who look on disapprovingly as their partner’s mother obsessively buys him tightie whities, calls daily just to check in, and spends entire weekends baking on his behalf, maternal love can start encroaching on the marital kind. Who’s the wife here, anyway? Whitmore thinks misunderstanding is at the heart of such tensions. “She’s not trying to control you, or him for that matter. She could be simply afraid of losing her identity. For so many years mom has been the caregiver and homemaker and here you come and she’s about to lose a big part of herself. She probably doesn’t even realize she’s stepping on your toes.”
For Lisa R.*, an Australian mother of one, her Czech mother-in-law’s constant criticism of her housekeeping isn’t even the worst aspect of their relationship: it’s her refusal to accept help from Lisa. “She is such a giver. When I was on bed rest after the baby she did the ironing and wash, cooked for us, even mowed the lawn. But she will never take anything from me in return.” When it comes to my own mother-in-law I, too, frequently feel slighted that even after six years of sharing Sunday lunches, I’m not allowed to wipe a single dish in her home. My offerings of food aren’t especially welcome. I remain an honored guest, not a part of the family. I find this incredibly frustrating—when language nor baked goods nor good old-fashioned Midwestern politeness can be relied upon to express my affection and gratitude, I’m at a complete loss. And so what, says Whitmore.
“You really have to ask yourself just how much you want to actually do these things. Doesn’t it kind of rock that you don’t have to help with the dishes? It might be better to just enjoy the chance to sit back and relax and not get hung-up about it.” She adds that while Czechs may not be big on giving compliments, they do like receiving them. “If you can’t show her how you feel, come right out and tell her, no matter how awful your Czech is, just how much you admire her for the person she has created.”
Taking a laid-back approach is an easy enough solution when it comes to the small stuff. But what about larger, more important issues like your mother-in-law’s interference with your parenting style? Lisa admits that her husband’s mother has definite opinions about how she should schedule her child’s days. “On top of all the cleaning and cooking my mother-in-law thinks I should spend the majority of the day outside with the baby, especially in the summer. She’s really adamant about it. I don’t know when I’m supposed to find the time.” Here, Whitmore suggests carefully weighing your options.
“You have got to choose your battles. If your mother-in-law wants to bundle the kid up like it’s Siberia, even though it’s autumn, well that’s not such a big deal. But when you’ve made certain lifestyle or dietary choices that are important to you and she doesn’t respect them, you’ve got to draw a line. And don’t just say no, explain why.” At this point, Whitmore says, it may be time to get your partner involved. Though for some women, he’s often part of the problem.
Says Andrea B., a Canadian woman married to a Czech man, complaining about her mother-in-law is taboo in their family. “He is very protective of his loved ones, to a fault. ‘You can’t diss my mummy’ is a common theme, even if he is the one who began complaining about her first.” Andrea adds that all the translating back-and-forth exacerbates the situation. “In the beginning, my husband was always translating between my mother-in-law and I and [emotions] soured in the translation. He’s learned to just let us figure it out on our own.” Whitmore says it’s important to get your partner involved without disrespecting his mother. If he refuses to bend or help then it becomes a relationship, not a mother-in-law, problem and it may be time to re-evaluate—or accept.
Like Andrea, who says that her best advice for winning over your beloved’s second-most beloved is to recognize the fact that you’ll likely have to do a little kowtowing. “My mother-in-law is a great lady, but at 60 she has become a bit more set in her ways and more unmovable,” she says. “Your husband is probably already a momma’s boy, you can’t change that. Do the best with what you have.”
When all else fails, Lisa suggests bonding activities that don’t require a lot of talking “When I was pregnant I started going to pilates and swimming classes with his mother. We got on really well.” Whitmore agrees that lightening up, rearranging your thinking and establishing a relationship with your mother-in-law on your own terms is the best approach, not to mention keeping things in perspective.
“If you’ve got a supportive spouse,” she says, “you can learn to laugh about it.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.