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Francis Brennan Advises: My mother-in-law is driving me crazy!

My mother-in-law is getting more and more involved in my marriage and, while she might mean well, it's becoming a problem.

She was never too keen on my relationship with -- and, later, marriage to -- her son. I always got the feeling that she thought I wasn't good enough for her boy, who, in her eyes, is the greatest specimen of manhood ever put on God's green earth. How could any woman ever fit the bill?

In the past year, she's split up with her own husband. We all knew for some time that my in-laws had been going through the motions. She turned to my husband for support quite a bit.

It started with her coming to dinner two to three times a week, which added to my stress considerably as I feel I always need to impress her and avoid being judged as a cook and housekeeper (I also have a busy career). Then, she started staying with us every second weekend. Her personality hasn't changed: she's still sharp towards me, and I find myself walking on eggshells around her.

She keeps offering to cook, clean, and run errands. My husband and I don't seem to have any privacy or time to ourselves anymore. We're in our mid-30s and have only been married two years.

I've spoken to my husband, but he says he can't just turn her away when she needs him. He says she'll adjust to her new situation eventually, but I don't know how much more I can take. We want to start a family, and she's even offering to be our childminder. It's a nice offer, but there'd be no escape from her then! I know that she's vulnerable at the moment, so I've tried being sympathetic towards her. What can I do to create more space between her and us? Collette

Francis advises:

Funny how a single guy who has never had a mother-in-law should be asked to comment on this problem, but I suppose a real case of objectivity would be just the ticket. One of my best friends has two children, aged 14 and 16, and lives in New York. I have spent all my life, when visiting, listening to her bemoaning the fact that all of her family lives in Dublin and she never had the luxury of a mother or mother-in-law to assist with the rearing of the children.

Your own case poses many queries, the most pressing being how to deal with the problem and keep your husband on side. Tact is the most important trait needed to keep all happy. I believe you need to approach the issue by having a heart-to-heart talk with your mother-in-law.

Walking on eggshells all your life is not an option, so a good face-to-face chat is required. Honesty is always the best policy, and you need to emphasise that you are aware of your mother-in-law's vulnerability at this time, enthuse about the help she offers and say that you know that she will be the best granny in the world. Praise usually softens the heart!

However, you could add that you feel a little crowded at present and feel that it is affecting the relationship between you and your husband. Your thought process is to nurture rather than alienate, because when your family does come along and the boss asks you to finish a report and thereby run late for playschool, Granny can, and will, fill the gap.

This meeting between you both has the propensity to offend, so it is imperative that you praise as much as possible to create a feel-good factor. You need to hold your ground if an element of confrontation occurs, and you have to hold your cool.

If you boil over, this puts your husband in an untenable position, torn between the two women in his life. Best to mention to your husband that you and his mum have a date and you are going to openly discuss the issues as you see them, and that you are confident that his mum will listen to and understand the position.

The real problem in this question is you. You have taken the initiative to write and this shows how seriously you take the problem. Starting out in marriage requires all the strength your mind can muster and it is essential that you lay down your marker now before it becomes impossible.

Talk to your husband and explain that you do not want to alienate but rather lay down the lines which you feel are acceptable for a newly married couple at the start of their lives together.

Compromise is an art form. Go for it and don't forget to bite the tongue! Remember my friend in New York -- babies need minding now and then. All the best.

Weekend Magazine