Why French women get on so well with their daughters-in-law.

Did you know the French word for daughter-in-law is belle-fille, meaning either beautiful girl or beautiful daughter?

The first time I heard the word I didn’t have any daughters-in-law, but I loved the name; now I have two, one of them French, and I call them both my belle fille. I’m not saying French mothers-in-law have a better rapport with their belles filles, but surely it must be better to start the relationship with a compliment in the name, rather than an obligation of law.

It seems to me this obligation might be one of the main sources of difficulty between mothers-and-daughters-in-law.

Author Patti Miller.

It’s not a chosen relationship, it’s imposed on both - we both love The Boy. And somewhere in that love lies the second source – the complex psychology of mother-son relationships. We love our sons, but in a sense we possess them, they came out of us, they are ours – and now another woman ‘possesses’ them. It’s an old-fashioned but still tasty recipe for woman-to-woman conflict.

I’ve seen mothers-in-law tip-toeing around on eggshells trying not to upset sensitive daughters-in-law, and daughters-in-law raging against the interference of dominating mothers-in law. Everyone’s life is fraught and all the boring old mother-in-law jokes in the world come home to roost.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. From my seven years experience as a mother-in-law of two belles- filles, I’m going to be so bold as to suggest a list of Dos and Don’ts.

• Don’t’ engage in a power struggle with your daughter-in-law. It’s never worth it. All relationships have a sliding scale of power, each person is more or less powerful, but a mother has an enormous, heady amount of it – even, for several years, the power of life and death. And then sons find someone else and the power reduces at an astonishing speed. We need to accept our loss of power gracefully, otherwise everyone is doomed to endless tiring battles.


• Do treat your daughter-in-law as a person in her own right, not just your son’s partner. Both my daughters-in-law are women I would like if I met them in another context, but even so, the fact of being recognised as a separate individual is liberating, especially in an imposed relationship. Daughters-in-law have careers, interests, opinions, beliefs, passions, personal histories – just as we do. If I only relate to her role, she will only relate to my role. Being open to the person she is will open her to the person I am.

• Don’t pick on her. She’s not going to change through criticism, especially not that sneaky viper, implied criticism. Instead, acknowledge (aloud) all that is good in your daughter-in-law. Again, I think both my belles-filles are perfect for each of my sons - and I’m not just being careful here - but generally, it can be too easy to see the flaws. No relationship blossoms under criticism and correction. We are more likely to have some influence - if that is what is wanted – if our daughter-in-law feels liked and admired.

• Finally, do mind your own business. There will be things we don’t like - the way she controls our amiable son, the way she disciplines our beloved grandchild – but unless there’s actual harm being done - it’s not our business. We are not running that household, shaping those lives; and after all, we have a life of our own to live. There’s more time to plunge into our own work, our own passions and pleasures. Leave her to hers.

I’ve since learned the French word for mother-in-law is belle-mère, beautiful mother. Now that’s something to live up to.

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