Thursday 22 March 2018

Dear Mary: My mother-in-law from hell has invited herself to stay with us

Illustration Tom Halliday.
Illustration Tom Halliday.

Mary O'Connor

I just cannot stand my mother-in-law. It feels great just to write that down because I cannot say it to my husband. From the get-go I knew she didn't approve of me and, to be quite honest, I think she would have disapproved of anybody whom he brought home to her. He is her favourite of all her children, and he can do no wrong in her eyes.

She has always been very subtle in the way that she treats me and makes sure to put on a good show when he is around. So if I complain to him, he says that it is all in my imagination and that she loves me. But he doesn't see how she puts me down when he is not there. A typical remark would be, 'Why are you cooking that dish - John (obviously not his real name) never liked that.' Or if I cut my hair, she would say that John always liked long hair, and she would go on to talk about his past girlfriends who were quite different to me. She even asked me one time if I liked the dress I was wearing and another time if I always wore so much make-up. For the record, I only ever use foundation, a little mascara and lipstick. It's hard to put into words, but I am not imagining it and I'm sure she would prefer if he was still living at home with her.

I was delighted when we had to move to another city for John's work and I saw very little of her - he used to visit her when he was in her neighbourhood. The reason I'm writing to you is that she is coming to stay with us for a few weeks and I don't know how I will stand it. On a previous visit, she more or less took over the kitchen and told me that she was going to do things the way John liked them - she even re-arranged the way I had things organised in the kitchen. I put them all back the way they were after she left and she will be sure to comment on that.

I work from home so there will be no escaping her and John will be at work most days she is here. She is widowed so it will be just her. By the way, we didn't ask her to come - she invited herself so what could we do?

Any advice to deal with the mother-in-law from hell would be appreciated.

AI can understand why you are not looking forward to this visit. Perhaps your mother-in-law is a little jealous of you and this is why she tries to put you down. After all, you have what she wants and that is John all to yourself.

Try not to let it all get you down because it will be over eventually. There are a few practical things that you can do to help yourself. Firstly, keep smiling no matter what she says so that she will see her words are not affecting you. It may be that she is doing all of this without realising it, which is a nicer thought than that she actually plans it. In either case, she will get to see that her words are not having the required effect.

Secondly, write down all the days that she will be with you and then every evening cross out that day. In addition, keep a journal and write down anything particularly nasty that happens with her. In that way you can avoid involving your husband and that is a good thing, He and she go back all his life and have a shared history of which you are no part. It would be very difficult for him to take sides between two women that he loves, so best to battle this out in your own.

Two weeks is a long time so you should plan a few outings with friends in the evenings. You can then give vent to your feelings with them while allowing John and his mother to have time alone together.

And don't forget - keep smiling!

My ex-husband has not got long to live

I'd love some unbiased advice please. I've discussed this issue with a few of my close friends, and I got the feeling they were all telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, so I'm now writing to you.

My husband and I broke up many years ago. He turned out to be a functioning alcoholic and also a gambler. It was a very acrimonious time in my life and also in my children's, but I eventually got things back on track and we all survived. As you can imagine, there was very little money available and so myself and the children had to do without a lot of things that we had become used to. The children were in their very early teens at the time and so they remember it all very well. Over the years they have refused to have anything to do with their father, which must have been very difficult for him as during the early days they were his whole life.

I have kept in touch with his sister because we always got on well and she has kept me advised as to what was happening to him. He had another relationship after me but they subsequently broke up and he finally stopped drinking and gambling. However, he is now seriously ill and is only expected to survive six months at most. I was amazed at how strong my feelings were as a result of hearing this news. Now my sister-in-law has asked if I would visit him when I am next in their part of the country. She lives quite near to him and she said she would be with me if I wanted her there.

My immediate reaction was to refuse, but having mulled it over for a week or two, I am not so sure.

If I did visit him, I know that my children - now adults - would be appalled and would never forgive me.

What do you think I should do? I know that he was always incredibly scared of dying so he must be going through a lot right now.

Mary replies: The approach of the end of life can awaken deep feelings about our loved ones, or in your case a person that you once loved. You may not have given much thought to when and how he would die, but now you are being faced with the approaching death of somebody you loved dearly at one time and who will always be the father of your children.

As regards going to see him it very much depends on what your state of mind is regarding past hurts. If you feel that you have let go of the anger that you must have had, then it would be a good idea to visit him and say your goodbyes. I don't necessarily mean that you will actually say goodbye to him but it would most likely be your last time seeing him. So this would give you closure and that must be a good thing, particularly if you are going to have another serious relationship in the future. If, however, you still feel a lot of animosity because of all you went through, then these feelings would come up again were you to visit him and that would be awful. Neither of you deserves that.

This is all about you, not your children. Whatever is best for you is what you have to think about, despite having put them to the fore all through the years you were rearing them. If you do decide to visit him, then you can either share that with them or not, although I don't think it would be anything to be ashamed of. Surely if you do visit him it would be a fine example to them of forgiveness. Not forgetting all that you went through, just forgiving.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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