What do you call your mother-in-law?

August 30, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Do you remember the early '60s hit "Mother-in Law"?

The song has lyrics that perpetuate the negative stereotype:

"... The worst person I know

Mother-in-law, mother-in-law

She worries me so

Mother-in-law, mother-in-law..."

Catchy, huh?

The mother-in-law has long been the brunt of jokes. Maybe because of that image - contrasted with the nearly iconic picture of "Mom" that's right up there with apple pie and the American flag - some people may be a little shy about knowing what to call the mother of their spouse.


"Yes, it's very definitely an issue," says Cindy Shoemaker, a licensed professional counselor in practice in Chambersburg, Pa.

The topic has come up in sessions with clients, she says.

Sometimes a mother-in-law will ask to be called "Mom." The new bride may feel close enough to do that, but worry that calling someone else "Mom" is a betrayal of her own mother, Shoemaker says.

She suggests people come up with another term of endearment that doesn't sabotage their feelings for their biological mother. Sometimes people will use "Mom" plus the last name of the mother-in-law. Sometimes grandchildren are the solution, coming up with a name everyone is comfortable with.

The question never has come up in client sessions for Mary Newcomer-Hedges, a licensed clinical social worker at Brook Lane Health Services in Hagerstown.

In her experience, calling in-laws "Mom" and "Pop" has kind of passed by.

"Our society has evolved so much in my lifetime," she says.

Her solution to the problem of what to call your mother-in law is simple: "Just ask, 'What do you want to be called,'" she suggests.

Newcomer-Hedges wants to be called by her own name - Mary. "I wouldn't want to be called anything but that," she says.

We recently posed the question to readers.

Only one of the 14 respondents - and she wished to remain anonymous - had any problem with the issue. Although she "totally admired, respected, loved and adored" her mother-in law and her husband's entire family, she says she never was accepted as a family member. She always referred to her mother-in-law as "Mrs. Doe." She and her husband divorced within five years.

Other readers shared their answers and feelings of love and respect for their spouses' moms. Here's some of what they had to say:

Call me Mom

Many years ago my mother-in-law was having a conversation with her sister. I was in another room when she called for me. She asked me what I called her. I replied, "Mom."

I was reluctant at first as I thought maybe she didn't like it. I had done it since we were married but had never asked her permission.

She just smiled ear to ear. I knew then she was very proud of that fact.

Years later when my son announced his engagement, my future daughter-in-law asked if she could call me "Mom."

Of course, I excitedly said yes.

She said now she would have two moms.

That is just the way I felt.

- Darlene Hoffman, Sharpsburg

A real Pal

For the first five years of my marriage, I never felt comfortable with a name for my mother-in-law. One day one of my children solved the problem when her grandmother was visiting us. They were all snuggled up together on the sofa reading, and my daughter looked up at me and said, "My Pal is reading to me."

From that minute on the name was perfect for my mother-in-law. The kids and I started calling her Pal. The name stayed with her for over 30 years until she passed away in January.

We all dearly miss our "Pal."

- Joanne Hood, Hagerstown

First name basis

When my son married, my daughter-in-law didn't know what to call me. We were in between Mom and Mom Brill.

It was resolved when she hired me to work for her company and all the other employees called me Helne.

What else could she do? It was first name only from that time on, despite her feeling it was not respectful.

We like to tell mother-in-law jokes at staff meetings. But one problem: How do you fire your mother-in-law if the necessity arises?

- Helne Brill, Martinsburg, W.Va.

Good witches

Gerard T. Kendle met his wife while they were in high school. Her family made him feel like a member of their family.

His wife's family enjoys celebrating Halloween - taking stuffed dummies to each other's houses or toilet papering - all in good fun and Kendle has caught the spirit.

His wife, born on Friday the 13th, and mother-in law have November birthdays. Kendle occasionally joked that they could be witches - enjoying Halloween and having birthdays so close.

In 1995, Kendle's twin daughters - Samantha and Selena were born - On Oct. 31, Halloween.

Kendle began calling my his mother-in-law the "Wicked Witch of the West."

She enjoys the fun and calls Kendle "What's his name."

"She truly is a great lady, and sometimes I do call her Mom just to let her know I do care for her as much as I do my own Mom, who is just as silly sometimes," he says.

- Gerard T. Kendle, via e-mail

Mother to son

I call my mother-in-law, Mildred Forsythe of Hagerstown, "Mother," because she is loving, caring, honest and forgiving.

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