Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Shevat 5762 - January 30, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family
Can You Call Her Mama?
The Shvigger Syndrome

by A. Ross

The term `mother-in-law' or shvigger has slightly negative connotations. Mothers-in-law have been the butt for humorists since time immemorial and jokes, sometimes unkind, often hilariously funny, abound in many Western cultures. What has caused this antipathy towards someone who is, after all, one's partner's mother? Presumably, in most cases, a son loves his mother. He gets married and his wife does NOT love her. Why is this and what can we do to foster good relationships with parents-in-law?

Actually, nowadays, there are numerous in-laws who are much beloved by both partners. As people become more aware of the pitfalls, they are more mindful of various do's and don't's. Moreover, as mothers-in-law get younger, there is less of a generation gap.

Most girls of eighteen or nineteen who go for their first job interview are naturally nervous. "Will they like me? What shall I wear? What shall I say?" Meeting a prospective mother- in-law for the first time is just as daunting. The difference between the two interviews is that the employer is not in the least bit nervous of the impression s/he is going to make on the prospective employee. Most future mothers-in-law, especially if it is a first son or daughter getting married, are nervous too. But as the mother is the older and more mature of the two, it is up to her to make the greater effort to put the girl at ease.


It is axiomatic for both sets of parents to leave the young couple alone. When a child is learning to ride a bike, or even to walk, he will have quite a few falls. A girl learning to bake or cook will make mistakes. Mothers cannot possibly protect them all the time.

The young couple is bound to make mistakes. If they have enough confidence in their parents, they will ask for advice. Give it, by all means, but don't check up to see if they took it! If they do not ask for advice, don't offer it. Very often, a girl's mother has different ideas from the boy's mother. Thus, if the mother-in-law suggests that she feed the baby on demand, the girl might say, "Well, my mother says every four hours and no more." Naturally, she will want to follow her own mother's advice.

Before I got married, my mother said to me, "If you have a quarrel with your husband, don't tell me about it. You two will make up, but I won't forget, and according to the laws of nature, I will take your side." Another thing she said was, "Start right away by calling his parents Daddy and Mummy. It gets easier after the first week or two." Excellent advice which I pass on to my daughters when they get married.

Although you are tempted to listen to your daughter's woes, if there are any, try not to. The youngsters should settle things by themselves. Many people disagree with me and feel that they have to help their child. Unfortunately, there are numerous divorces which stem from parental `help' and `sympathy.'

If the couple lives near the parents, the young man might drop in on his parents on his way home from kollel or work. His wife is waiting for him so don't give him a meal before he goes home, nor even a snack to dampen his appetite! When a son comes in and sniffs appreciatively, check up with his wife first to see if she would like an offering of cake or cookies. If she has just spent an hour trying out a new recipe, harden your heart and tell your son he can have a taste when he visits with his wife. I am personally very grateful to all my daughters-in-law for looking after their husbands and putting up with their foibles. Each one of them has asked for the exact recipe of various dishes so that they could cook to please their fastidious husbands.

All the foregoing is for the first year or two. After that you will (hopefully) be much more relaxed with each other. That doesn't mean that you should forget all the rules of common civility which one should practice even with one's own children. Some mothers say things to their daughters which they wouldn't dream of saying to their daughters-in- law. If it is criticism, maybe they would be wise not to say it to their daughters, either! They are adults now and if we didn't achieve our aims when they were children, we won't manage it now.

In some families they try to treat all the children exactly alike. It doesn't work. Families are not a Communist establishment (and even in Communism it doesn't work). Hashem created us with different abilities and different needs. True, Chazal tell us not to single out one child for preferential treatment. If the oldest girl gets a new dress, the second one gets a dress which is new for her, passed down from the older one. Does it matter? It depends on what you make of it. The second child will get something special another time. If your family ran as a `democracy' when the children were growing up, then when they are married you can also treat them according to their needs, without arousing jealousy. Perhaps one family is particularly short of money and the children have little to wear. Your taste may not [it likely won't] coincide with your daughter's or daughter-in- law's. If you feel that is the case, either take them with you shopping or give them the money. Alternately, give them the receipt so that they can exchange the garment. Jealousy is a terrible trait but much depends on the education the children had, whether adult siblings feel envious of each other.

And now from the vantage point of the younger generation. Try not to be too prickly. If the mother-in-law says, "I used to do it this way," don't take it as criticism. She is just stating a fact or perhaps, just making conversation. Relax. She is not your mother, but she IS your husband's mother and your children's grandmother.

Some time ago, a woman went abroad to visit her married children. The daughter-in-law was a highly sensitive person. The shvigger came in during the morning when the new baby was being bathed and she said quite innocently, "Oh, I used to bathe my babies at night." The foolish young woman took offense and told her husband that she didn't want the mother-in-law visiting again. "She even criticized the way I bathe the baby."

Don't try to compete with sisters and sisters-in-law. For instance, if you want to send m'shloach monos, don't make yourself ill about it just because you know that a particular sister-in-law is really creative and talented. We have asked our children NOT to send us anything on Purim. In many families it sometimes creates tension and ill feeling.

The old adage of "open your purse and close your mouth" is a good rule of thumb for the older generation. For the younger ones, it might be an idea to treat the in-laws as you treat your parents. There are few hard and fast rules for parent- children interactions. Family relationships tend to boomerang. Your own children will very likely treat you in the same way you treated your parents! Every family has to work out their own path to friendship and love.


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