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Mother-in-law ettiquette

Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall, has been lavishing praise on Kate Middleton, the blushing bride-to-be. There have been rumours of rows about tiaras and carriages, but it's clear she's given the royal seal of approval.

It can be tough being the mother-in-law of the bride. You're playing second fiddle to the bride's mother, and you can feel shut out before the rings are even exchanged. But it's when children appear that the relationship too often takes a nosedive.

Camilla is no novice. Both Tom and Emma, children from her marriage with Andrew Parker Bowles, have acquired spouses and children. And maybe it will help that, being step-mum, rather than mum, to William, she doesn't have those intense emotional ties to contend with.

The very term mother-in-law, though, holds a ring of terror. No wonder they are fodder for comedians. Google 'Mother-in-law jokes' and there are more than four million hits in 1.10 seconds. And however funny the jokes are, they lose their lustre when you become a mother-in-law yourself.

Author Joanna Trollope has tackled the issue in her latest novel. Centred on the mum of three sons, 'Daughters-in-Law' shows only too clearly the power struggles that ensue when a tough-minded girl marries a favoured son.

I remember the moment it happened to me. We were outside the church on my eldest's wedding day, euphoric with happiness. The bridegroom hugged me, warmly, and I realised, with a jolt, that my role had doubled. I'd found it weird being a relatively young mum of the bride, but mum-in-law of the bridegroom too? My joy temporarily dimmed.

But I'm lucky. My son-in-law is a delight. And as his mother lives across the world in Ecuador, there's no rivalry over grandchildren. As for my son-in-law in waiting -- wedding in June -- he seems determined to make our relationship work. He asked my man's permission to marry the youngest -- weeks before he popped the question to her -- and then he asked my advice about the ring. How could I not love him?

But then it's easier with sons-in-law. Provided, of course, that they keep your daughter happy. When daughter number two rang from Canada, hysterical, having been dumped after a three-year relationship, I was almost as distressed as she was. All my tiger instincts rose to the surface, and I could have killed the boyfriend who'd hurt her.

The mum/son-in-law relationship isn't nearly as fraught with problems as the mum/daughter-in-law one. I adore my son's wife, but have to walk on eggshells at times. Because I know from dealing, badly, with my own mum-in-law how the best-meant comments can easily misfire.

This doesn't altogether surprise Dublin-based psychotherapist and counsellor Gerry Hickey. "Irish mammies revere their perfect sons," he says. "And yes, they can break up marriages. I've seen at least three marriages dissolve because of that particular thorny issue."

It's an acute problem in Ireland, it seems, especially when the son gets married straight from his family home. "It happens because the husband can't detach from the mother. The wife sees her mother-in-law being put first, and maybe the children second, so of course she feels neglected.

"Sometimes the mother sees her son as an extension of herself, and then this stranger comes along and highjacks all that. The problems start pre-wedding when the mother-in-law might feel excluded.

"If the son is still a son first and a husband second, he will fly to his parents, especially if they are getting older and have more problems. And if the couple start to exert independence, and maybe have Christmas at home, the mother-in-law feels the status quo has gone out of the window," Hickey adds.

Wedding planner Rosemarie Meleady, of www.weddingplanner.ie, has dealt with some difficult mums of the bride in her time. But at a wedding she was organising last year, it was the groom's mother causing all the problems.

"I was organising a wedding for a couple, and the mother of the bride and her family were delightfully casual. The couple wanted a fun and relaxed wedding." But the mother-in-law-to-be had different ideas.

"The mother of the groom had secretly brought favours, a guest book and lots of 'extras'. The day before the wedding we all met for the first time, and the mother-in-law pulled me to the side and asked me to organise a cake, a car, corsages, a videographer and heaps of other stuff as a 'surprise'.

"I knew this wasn't what the couple wanted, so I spoke with the bridesmaid and the best man, and we decided which surprises the couple would actually appreciate -- things such as a cake, which I then organised in break-neck speed. Thank goodness it all went fine, and everyone was happy in the end."

Past experience has made writer Amanda Brunker wary. And when she met her husband, Phillip McLaughlin, eight years ago, she wouldn't commit to him until she had met his mother.

"I knew at once that Phillip was special, but if his mother had been really difficult I might have called time on the relationship. I was in my late 20s and I wanted someone I could make a family with. All the boxes had to be ticked. It was: Does he want commitment? Does he want kids? Is he a man with ambition, and can I get on with his mother?

"I was nervous when he asked me to meet her. I feel there's this stereotype about a mother-in-law for a reason. And Phillip is an only son. He has one sister and his dad passed away at an early age. He's the man of the house and he works with his mother. They have a small family business. She could have been protective.

"But Moira was great. She's supportive and easy going. When we told her we were moving in together, she took in her stride. I decided I'd better hang on to Phillip! The package was perfect," Brunker says.

Moira loves the children too. "She would idolise them. I'm the one who has to put manners on them, but that's the way I like it. I'm sure there have been times she has been disappointed in me. I'm sure she's wanted to speak up. But she's been great," she adds.

So many women struggle to get on with their mum-in-law, but at its best the relationship can be empowering. Louise Winkelmann got on so well with hers during her first marriage that they remained friendly even after the marriage dissolved.

It was this experience, perhaps, that helped her to become such an adored mother-in-law to Anne L'Hénoret from France, who married her son, Mark. Anne is full of praise for her.

"Louise is very positive," she says. "She has an ability to see a glass half-full even when it's empty. She has friends everywhere and she nurtures them. She's so open and loving.

"Louise helped me when I had a career change. I trained in massage therapy and yoga and she was my guinea-pig. We enjoy each other's company too. We go for walks together and have brunch."

Were there never awkward moments? "There was one when we were organising the wedding," says Anne. "Louise was bouncing all these ideas that I didn't like. I said, 'I don't want this wedding taken over', and she backed off. Since then, we've always been honest with one another. We've had disagreements, but never big rows."

Louise shares the sentiment. "We've learned to hold back a little," she says. "That's the secret."

Weekend Magazine