We took an informal poll among our mom friends and coworkers, and a clear trend emerged: The majority of women reported being closer with their own mothers than they are with their partner’s parents. As a result, their moms enjoy stronger, sweeter relationships with their grandchildren than their partner’s parents do. And this paternal-grandparent distancing doesn’t always follow logic: It seems to exist even when the maternal grandmother lives thousands of miles away and the paternal one lives (gulp) around the corner.
Why is this a near-universal truth? It would be tempting to cue the montage of monster-in-law clichés, horror stories, movies and memes, but the reality is more complicated. It turns out there are both cultural and scientific reasons for these relationship dynamics.
The disparity is the result of something called “matrilineal advantage,” reports New York Times science columnist Paula Span. She interviewed various sociologists and psychologists who have studied the maternal grandparent edge. They point to two main contributing factors:
1. Mothers and daughters tend to be uniquely close, with many pairs sharing a lifelong intimacy. When two women are motivated to maintain a strong relationship with each other, their bond becomes practically unbreakable. Is it any wonder it’s so heavily relied upon during times of great stress (e.g., the daughter’s transition to motherhood)?
2. As daughters become mothers themselves, they tend to take on more of the responsibility of “kin-keeping,” such as maintaining family bonds, hosting gatherings, planning travel, scheduling visits, and (there’s that buzzword again) gatekeeping. A mother-in-law’s relationship with her daughter-in-law—the O.G. (as in Original Gatekeeper)—“can cement or thwart grandparental closeness,” writes Span.
All of this raises thought-provoking questions: As husbands and fathers begin to take on more domestic responsibilities, including (in an ideal world) a fairer share of “kin-keeping” duties, might they help pave the way toward paternal grandparent closeness? And does becoming aware of this imbalance give us something many struggle to find: more empathy for our in-laws? Is the consciousness of this gap enough to motivate gatekeepers to close it?
We can all work toward warmer relationships. And moms of little boys can swear here and now to sincerely embrace whomever their sons choose as partners. We should also remember that more closeness doesn’t necessarily mean fewer boundaries. But we may also have to accept that not all connections are created equal. Recently, Keri Setaro and Ashley Hearon-Smith, co-hosts of the Scary Mommy Speaks podcast, discussed in-law drama. “What is your perfect mother-in-law?” asked Hearon-Smith.
“I mean, I’m going to say my mom,” answered Setaro.
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” said Hearon-Smith. “My mother is the perfect mother-in-law.”