How to survive an Italian mother in law


I come from a long line of difficult mother-in-laws. My great-grandmother drove all her daughter-in-laws insane. My grandmother found infinite joy in calling my mother a mandarin.

And then there’s my mother-in-law. 

Despite my Italian heritage, I find dealing with my Tuscan mother-in-law difficult. It’s one of the hardest things about living in a small town. My mother-in-law is always around. I see her everyday and like every good Italian daughter-in-law, I am forced to eat lunch at her house twice a week.

But this post isn’t about airing grievances. I’m closely approaching a decade in my relationship and I’ve picked up a few tricks to help my fellow long suffering expat wives.

scenario 1: she is obsessed with her son

I have the misfortune of being married to an only child who lived with mama and papà until he was 32. It was said only child’s birthday a couple of days ago and mother-in-law used Facebook to wish the “most important person in her life” a happy b’day. A slap in the face to her husband and enough to set my eyes rolling.

How do you deal with the stories about your husband’s incredible childhood feats or the quiet admonishments when you serve him cucumber (which he simply does not eat!)? At first, I’d antagonise her. She didn’t speak to me for a week when I told Giulio I didn’t like his haircut in front of her.

The solution is to simply grin and bear it. Small town life breeds few hobbies. My husband is my mother-in-law’s hobby. She lives and breathes him, so you have to learn to share and take what she says with a grain of salt. That or you tell her she’s being ridiculous and hope she changes.

scenario 2: she is an overbearing meddle

Italian mothers intentionally or unintentionally poke their noses in every aspect of your life. My mother-in-law has an opinion about everything. Our current childless state is a personal affront to her and she once quizzed me intensely about my last gynecologist’s visit.

The solution is to create physical and emotional boundaries. There is no reason why you can’t make your husband do the dirty work. Tell him to tell your mother-in-law not to drop by every day. One of my conditions for coming to live in Italy was a house my mother-in-law couldn’t walk to. That sounds terrible, but she would stop by 5,6,7 times a day. It was crazy.

Make it clear that topics like your fertility are off limits. Discuss with your husband what you do and don’t want to disclose to your mother-in-law and make sure he respects that.

scenario 3: she buys him (and you) inappropriate gifts

Sometimes I wish my mother-in-law was one of those standoffish women who invited me out for rare shopping trips and sporadic brunches. Instead I have a mother-in-law who spends her days in my office singing to her cats or screaming at her husband. Did I mention that my office is next door to her house and her husband’s coffee shop? I’d need a lifetime to explain it to you.

Small town Italian men have very little independence. One of the hardest days of my mother-in-law’s life was when she realised she could no longer buy him underwear. It only happened about a year ago.

If your mother-in-law insists on buying everything for your husband or says things like ‘I’m the only one who makes spaghetti the way he likes it’ or ‘I know his style better than you’, the solution is to talk it over. You can gently explain to her that it’s time for her to take a step back or you can get hubby to do.

But at the same time, you have to assert your independence. Before I moved to Italy, my husband used his parents as his personal slaves. This caused problems for me because I can’t stop them from meddling and get them to pay my car insurance at the same time. You have to show them you don’t need their help. You have to show them that you can find the cheapest car insurance on your own, and pay for it on your own. They’ll back off.

The most important lesson is not to be hostile. Italian men love their mamas and nothing can be gained by poisoning their relationship. Set clear boundaries and make sure both your husband and your mother-in-law understand them and you’ll see that things will get better.

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