Even when it’s rewarding, taking care of parents can be challenging. When it’s your in-laws, it can be even trickier. Not a shock to most, the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law dynamic can be the most highly charged. For her book What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along with In-laws, academic psychologist Terri Apter found that more than 60 percent of married women felt stress due to their mothers-in-laws versus just 15 percent of men.
That stress can have consequences. Having a job in addition to caregiving, providing financial assistance to that relative and caring for them in the house proved to be the biggest factors. Some reasons: they were spending more time apart, not to mention impacting their romantic relationship. But there are strategies that make caring for in-laws easier.
Professionals note that a spouse who doesn’t support a partner’s caregiving efforts, takes that person for granted, or doesn’t pitch in themselves is headed toward strife. Even if your partner is Wonder Spouse, when you have trouble getting along with your in-law, caregiving is, needless to say, more, um, complicated.
Parents vs. In-Laws
Is it harder to care for in-laws or your own parents? It can work either way. Clearly, that depends on your relationship with them and, naturally, the situation. Julie Mayer, a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist and co-author of AARP Meditations for Caregivers, has clients for whom taking care of an in-law is a non-issue. They have a close relationship “and are truly family,” she says.
That was with the case with Joanie Medert. The Cincinnati financial advisor says, “I didn’t get married looking to live with my mother-in-law.” Yet, a “temporary” stay when she and her husband moved back to Ohio for work lasted 26 years. Along with their two sons, they lived with Medert’s mother-in-law until her death last year at the age of 91.
When Medert tells others about the arrangement, “they look at me aghast and ask, ‘How did you do it?’” she says. “But you don’t meet many people like her. There was no drama.”
When it’s the adult child who tangles with their own parent, having a buffer from an in-law can make it less tense. “My husband and his mother have never been close. It was easier for me because I didn’t have the emotional baggage he had,” says Mayer of her mother and stepfather-in-law. There were other issues, though. Mayer’s in-laws had lived in Florida, but moved to be near Mayer’s husband Barry Jacobs and his family. “I had had very little connection to my in-laws, and all of a sudden, I’m cooking for them, taking them to the supermarket and doctor and caring for them,” says Mayer.
When it’s our own parents we know well, we often cut them more slack. Deanna Brann, a Knoxville, Tennessee, clinical psychotherapist and author of Reluctantly Related, believes that we are usually more patient and accepting with our own parents because we have a longer, shared history.
Strategies for Staying Sane
1. Work as a team with your partner. Share the load as much as possible rather than adopt a their-parent-not-mine mindset. Carrying the caregiving load solo can cause anger, resentment and depression. Talk about what you need from your spouse: Is it not having him take you for granted, calling or visiting his mother regularly (you can decide together what “regular” means), going with Dad to his doctor appointments?
2. Express appreciation! Let your partner know how grateful you are. If your spouse took your dad to a doctor’s appointment, went to visit him or picked up your mother’s groceries, for example, let him know how helpful he is. (That strategy works whether you have an in-law or not.) Be emotionally available to listen when your partner needs to vent—after all, it’s their parent!
3. Don’t let others off the hook! “Your life matters, too!” says Toxic In-Laws author and psychotherapist Susan Forward. Even if you are doing most of the work, your spouse’s siblings can fill other roles:
- Pay their parent’s bills online.
- Coordinate care; everything from who will take them to appointments, to who will hire help, to who will handle the medication, to who will keep family members in the loop regarding your in-law’s physical and mental health changes and needs. Also, decide how: telephone calls, email, a family website?
- Order groceries and supplies from a delivery service.
- Provide or research respite care.
- Check out community resources (adult day care, transportation options).
- Compile their important documents.
- Chip in or bankroll professional care.
- Call or visit regularly.
- Investigate next steps (long term housing or additional help).
- Research technology options (sensors, gadgets to manage medication and alert you or others if they need help, computers or tablets to share photos, emails or video chat).
4. Figure out your comfort level and limits. What can you do, and what are you unwilling to do? What are your responsibilities? What are your in-law’s needs? What are others’ expectations and availability? Discuss with your spouse (and his family) before you’re “on duty!” Circumstances may change or tasks may be different than you expected. If you need to, have ongoing conversations about how the arrangement is going and tweak it if you can.
Certain jobs can get awkward. Your mother-in-law probably doesn’t want her son to help her bathe or dress, for example, just as your own father may prefer your husband, rather than you, for intimate care. Discuss these tasks. If you feel uncomfortable performing hygiene tasks with your in-law, for example, can you hire help so you don’t have to do it?
Decide who is going to do the off-limits-to-you tasks and discuss who will be available when you’re not (i.e. if you’re going away, have other commitments, or just need a break). Think about your support system from Day 1.
5. Consider your in-laws’ perspective. It’s probably not bliss for them either, needing help. Might they feel scared, angry, frustrated, depressed, helpless, in pain or out of control? Of course, unreasonable, rude, or even worse – abusive behavior, is unacceptable.
6. Don’t expect it to be easy. And, if you don’t enjoy caring for in-laws, stop feeling guilty. Medert, who had the no-drama mama-in-law, still said, “It was an everyday effort for both us and my mother-in-law to make the arrangement work. Things could have blown up a million times, but they never did!”
Caregiving for family members requires understanding, insight—and time. When it’s your in-laws, your role can be even more demanding. That’s why it’s important to understand how everyone feels and what you can do to make circumstances easier for all, including you. When the going gets tough, remember that your children learn from you. That’s yet another reason why handling your in-laws with compassion and patience pays off.
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