Are you married to or did you raise an only child, a son? This may seem like a strange question, but I have had numerous women mention to me that they believe the reason they struggle so much with their mother-in-law is that their husband is an only child. When I ask them why they think this, they say something like, “Well, he is so close to his mother; it must be because he’s an only child,” or, “I don’t know, it just seems that she focuses so much attention on him even now, and he seems to be OK with it, that it just seemed logical.”
This fits perfectly with the stereotypes we’ve all heard about only children being spoiled. Only children are doted upon more than children with more than one child in the family. And in the case of MIL-DIL relationships, his mother has no one else to focus on other than her son – and so she does just that, right?
The only problem with this is that in all my years of work with men, women and families, I have not really found it to be true. Yes, parents of only children have no one else to focus on, other than their one child, but this does not automatically mean they do so. Many only children are just as well adjusted as children with multiple siblings when it comes to their interactions with others, including their interactions with their parents. In fact, where I’ve seen most parents’ over involvement, it has been more between the different generations than dependant on the number of children they have (or don’t). In other words, even parents with multiple children can and do get overly involved in their lives.
And it’s this over-involvement that will affect these children in the future. How so? Well, it really depends on how the parents show this over involvement. For example, if they try to befriend their child, giving them whatever they want, (which is usually due to guilt) it can create a sense of entitlement. If they become “helicopter parents,” constantly hovering over their children, it can create a sense of inadequacy in their child.
So how would I explain a mother-in-law who is tries to be overly involved with her son and his life as an adult? This speaks more to a woman who has not let go, who has not developed an identity apart from that of being “mom.” And this can happen if she has one child or ten; if she has boys or girls. This is more about the mother’s own struggle with letting go.