I had a kid about two years ago, and as a result have developed a much closer relationship to my mother-in-law. (I’ve been married to her son for eleven years now.) In many ways, this is great! She is a smart, serious, get-shit-done kind of person who was the first woman to do some cool civic stuff in her home city, and I have a lot of respect for her along multiple vectors. But. She is so goddamn judgmental. This has lately been directed at “Relena,” my soon-to-be-sister-in-law, who has some health issues and isn’t super skinny, as my MIL and I both are.
While staying in my home for the past week, MIL has suggested that maybe Relena’s constellation of health issues are because of her weight, that she can’t adequately manage her own diet (by which I mean what food she feeds herself, not a weight-loss plan), that exercise would fix her pain, and, most egregiously, that maybe she has made up her issues for attention because she resents the time her parents spend caring for her younger sister, who has Down syndrome. (I was so sincerely shocked by that one that it took me a moment to pull my thoughts together, and by the time I did my husband was already shooting it down with extreme prejudice.)(Captain Awkward note: WHAT. THE. HELL.)
My husband and I dispute these things point by point, as they happen, and often, in the moment, she’ll listen. When we say sentences like, “well, she’s had surgery for complications due to her rheumatoid arthritis, I think walking for long periods definitely hurts her” or “I think she naps so much because severe fatigue is one of her symptoms, not because she’s lazy” she seems to really hear what we’re saying–it’s like a lightbulb goes off, and you can kind of see her going “oh, of course.” But then Relena will do one thing my MIL doesn’t like (say, eat chicken nuggets instead of salad for lunch, or decline to go on an outing with us that involves lots of physical activity) and she’s got it backwards again: maybe Relena’s in pain because she doesn’t exercise? Maybe her health issues are caused by [trendy current thing that’s almost certainly already been explored by her and her doctor]? Some-long-sentence-that’s-basically-the-equivalent-of-but-is-Relena-trying-though? As if she could “try” her way out of an autoimmune condition she’s been battling since her mid-20s. MIL never says these things to Relena’s face, though I’m sure Relena’s aware of her disapproval. I think all of this is exacerbated by the fact that she doesn’t like it when her son “neglects” to exercise, or eats a diet that’s more frozen pizza than greens and salmon, or would rather play video games than take a nature walk, and she still kind of hoped that he would someday marry a woman who would inspire him to suddenly be the person she always wanted him to. But weirdly, instead he’s choosing to marry someone who likes him how he is and shares his interests???
Is there a better way we can shut this shit down? My MIL already knows that my husband and I don’t agree with her, and she’s taken to preceding her remarks with “not to be negative, but” or, after we’ve offered (a relatively gentle!!!) correction, “I wish people wouldn’t think I was that way, I don’t mean to be.” [With “that way” usually meaning judgmental or mean-spirited, WHICH WHAT SHE’S SAYING IS.] I’m very intimidated by my MIL, and our closer and more positive relationship is a relatively new and fragile thing, but the idea of building it on the blocks of criticizing Relena grosses me the fuck out. My husband usually handles her pretty well when he’s present, but when it’s just me I tend to disagree once and then ignore her until she stops. When it’s just she and I especially, there’s some weird forced teaming with the subtext of us as thin/active/socially acceptable, and Relena as not. I feel like I’m being too passive in Relena’s defense. I’d love it if anybody could rec some books on invisible and/or chronic illnesses written specifically at people like my MIL. I’d also like a script for “please stop talking to me about Relena’s body and health, the way you fixate on her choices and her physical appearance is unkind and what you say is usually untrue*, and BTW you make me trust you less with my son every time this happens, because someday he will also make choices and possibly own a body that you ain’t gonna like.”
(he/him, but my MIL definitely thinks I’m her increasingly butch daughter-in-law and that’s unlikely to change lol)
*once she suggested to Relena that she start a food diary and somehow that had never come up with her doctor and it turned out to be helpful and now anytime MIL has a concern trolly suggestion it’s back to, “well you never know, after all it’s a good thing I gave her the idea of a food diary.”
PS: My husband and I are already trying to change the culture of group hang-outs away from “long walk and a picnic in the arboretum” and more to “let’s see a movie” so it’s not just always Relena having to opt out.