mother-in-law, a place that is always uncomfortable

In 2019 in France, according to census data, 800,000 in-laws live with their spouse’s children. Among them, 27% are mothers-in-law. What these data do not say is that there are actually many other configurations of so-called blended families where the number of in-laws in particular can be changed upwards. Public statistics struggle to count mixed families, because the circulation of children between certain households is really difficult for the demographic apparatus to understand.

The latter has thus far arbitrated for a definition of the blended family according to which children born of previous unions “reside” within the blended home. However, the verb is in official statistics synonymous with “joining” permanently or alternately (in the legal sense of alternating residence that recognizes the equality of time spent with each of the separated parents).



Read more: Shared residence, a child’s right?


However, legal statistics show that residence is mainly settled with only one of the two parents after separation, usually the mother (almost ¾ of the decisions recorded by the family justice system), the other parents therefore often live with their children for a limited time (every weekend and half of the holidays). We must add here that the paths of reunification differ between fathers and mothers, men reuniting more often and faster than their former spouses.

A type of reconstituted family appears, left in the shadow in the INSEE count, although in reality it is undoubtedly a large part of these arrangements: families made up of a stepmother , herself childless, living with his wife’s children for a small part of the time.

Invisible in public statistics, ignored by the legislator despite several failed attempts to legislate specifically on the status of the step-parent, these step-mothers suffer from constant negative stereotypes about them. Their place appears increasingly uncertain as it resists the stability and centrality attributed to the role of the mother. In short, being a mother-in-law in a blended family seems more difficult than being a mother-in-law.

From widowhood to co-parenting

These family situations do not constitute, in their morphology, a particularly modern form of the Western family. They have existed for a long time, but are the result of widowhood where most contemporary “recomposed families” are created following divorce or separation.

This change raises new questions, especially about the place taken by the step-parent. Yesterday, the death of one of the original parents allowed the widow’s new partner to “replace” the parent she was replacing. Today, the place is no longer vacant, and the principle of co-parenting structures is the regulation of situations after separation: it is considered that it is in the interest of the child to be “raised by both parents, if the couple parents are united or disunited”, he points to as a possible suspect the step-parent figure who is suspected of usurping the place of the absent parent. The exclusivity underlying our kinship models (one who a single father and a single mother) is doubled in the case of the mother because of the centrality of her duty to the children.

It is not easy to be a mother-in-law before becoming a mother (La Maison des Maternelles, France 5, 2022).

In addition, public authorities were alarmed by the loosened relationship between the children and their father after the couple’s separation. These concerns partly place a form of responsibility on the mother’s shoulders: a conflicted relationship with her stepchildren risks weakening the relationship with the father, especially since fatherhood is still primarily mediated by a woman. figure ( the mother of the children in the united couple; at the end of a separation of their new wife or their own mother, etc.).

Position yourself in the recomposed constellation

Beyond the mediating role that mothers-in-law can be led to play between their husbands and their children, it is their own place that must be reintegrated into the system of interpersonal relations within the reconstituted constellation. Because the role of “parent” that they choose, in a variable way, to invest, is also framed by all the main characters inside the regenerated home, but also outside it.

The wife, relying on her legitimacy as a parent, plays the main role in defining this role, whether she has an integrating function by encouraging her partner to take on a quasi-parental role, or vice versa . that he keep him away from any educational function. The domains and spheres that the step-parent can occupy are at the scale of the new couple. The time shared – by cohabitation or age of recomposition – and the children’s reactions are not related to the arbitrations carried out by each of the protagonists of the recomposed household to define the contours of the mother-in-law area. .

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However, the children’s attitudes are often interpreted as reflecting a conflict of loyalty they feel towards their mother, when the latter is not only accused of interfering in the life of the new couple. In fact, the other parent of origin remains an intermediary when it comes to the place of the step-parent, and mothers are reluctant to see another woman invest in what they feel is within their prerogatives.

These methods of interpersonal negotiation and adjustment cannot be understood outside of the power relations that operate in the family, depending on the resources (economic, social, cultural) available to each of the main characters to assert their position, which highlights the diversity of situations. in position in the social hierarchy.

Lack of landmarks?

Moreover, if there is such a pluralism of “mother-in-law” attitudes, it is also because the criteria for defining this role remain vague, even contradictory. Thus, their role is negatively defined in both senses of the term. On the one hand, representations of the mother-in-law remain full of negative stereotypes, such as the figure of the evil “stepmother” in fairy tales. This is also based on an observation made by filmmaker Rebecca Zlotowski Other people’s children and offers another representation of the mother-in-law through the character played by Virginie Efira.

Someone Else’s Child movie trailer.

On the other hand, social science research has long designated these families as “incomplete institutions” that lack reference points. In fact, if uncertainty remains, it is probably because the rules set about the role of mother-in-law are formulated in a negative way, stating what should not be done more than what they can do. They are accompanied by forms of self-restraint and a demand for reflexivity about one’s own role, which requires these mothers-in-law to have a certain number of resources (temporal, cultural, etc.) that are unevenly distributed among social space.

This uncertainty is reinforced by contradictory mandates: as women, they are expected to “naturally” care for children and prove motherhood… while they are forbidden to “take themselves for” the mother.

Implicitly, the gendered asymmetry of parental roles

To understand the common place of in-laws in family recomposition, step-parenthood needs to be placed within the broader sexuation of family roles. The persistence of assigning women to roles of care and love leads to a double strain for mothers-in-law. The naturalization of maternity-related functions implies that they are more difficult to assume by a third party; moreover, the lack of emotional and symbolic reward for the role of mothers-in-law with children who are not theirs causes the tasks expected of them as women to lose clarity.

Furthermore, they resist the recreational content that tends to characterize the post-separation paternal relationship: fathers, due to their frequent caregiving restrictions, are concerned about the positive content and quality of the time shared to their children. . Mothers-in-law see in it a “relief” of their husband that they regret and burdens the daily and domestic organization that they may desire.

Finally, from a more symbolic and identity perspective, the instability in the meaning of the mother-in-law’s role comes out against the stability and supposed evidence of the mother’s role, where there is more room for interpretation. on the father’s side of duties.

Despite a trivialization of family recomposition and the role of the mother-in-law, there is therefore nothing “normal” about her practical and subjective everyday experience. Questioning and documenting the lived reality of these women is an issue for family policies and more broadly for feminist reflection.

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