If you ever need a punch line, here’s one you always can depend on: “…my mother-in-law!” Guaranteed laugh.
Or, from me, a punch in the nose.
Fact is I love my mother-in-law and am depressed that she is ailing. But mothers-in-law are just about the only group of people you still can pick on (besides maybe Nazis) without having anyone make a peep. There’s nothing politically incorrect about ragging on the mom of your spouse — or all moms of all spouses. Where’s the mother-in-law lobby when you need ‘em?
This group seems to have been missing for several millenniums. After all, in one of the earlier bits of writing left for us, “Satire VI,” from about 2,000 years ago, the Roman author Juvenal posits that no one can be happy while his mother-inlaw is still alive.
This attitude has seeped so thoroughly into our culture that one of the ways people do get happy, it seems, is by hearing jokes in which the mother-in-law is not alive. For example:
“Out of the blue, my motherin law told me she’d like to be cremated. I said, ‘Great. Go get your coat.’”
“’My mother-in-law’s an angel,’ said Fred. ‘You’re lucky,’ replied his friend Frank. ‘Mine’s still alive.’”
And — thanks to the comic rule of threes — here’s Henny Youngman’s joke, too: “I wanted to do something nice, so I bought my mother-in-law a chair. Now they won’t let me plug it in.”
Why are we so murderous toward these moms? The anger seems to come from the conviction that they are grasping harpies, unwilling to believe anyone is good enough for their darling daughter or (more to the point) son. Then there’s also the idea that they constantly criticize their sons- or (more to the point) daughters-in-law for failing to — of all things — clean well enough.
Maybe this will change now that so many women are working and a clean house has become less of the standard by which they’re judged. Or maybe this will change when I tell you the story of my friend’s mother, who was always insulted when her mother-in-law came over and immediately set to scrubbing the floor and doing the dishes. “Why?” the angry daughter in-law finally demanded one day. “Why are you doing all this?”
Her mother-in-law looked up with an expression of apology — and surprise. “It’s because I have nothing else to give you.”
The fact is that many mothersin law are giving all they can to the spouses of their children. They baby-sit. They carpool. They make a meal or float a loan, and if they’re appreciated, it’s because they are supposedly “different” from other mothers-in-law. It’s the way people used to feel about a beloved neighbor or co-worker of a different race. “You’re not like all those other (fill in the blank). You’re wonderful!”
Anthropologist Margaret Mead studied the matter and famously announced that 50 percent of people in the world would like to have “at least one jungle” between them and their mother-in-law. But for the other 50 percent of us, that would mean one jungle between us and the lady who showers us with love — and sometimes cleans the shower, too. Including the gunk in the drain.
It’s time to reject anti-motherin law-ism the way we reject racism and outrageous sexism. In fact, it probably is outrageous sexism. So take my mother-inlaw joke.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”