Read To Young Mrs. Duncan of A Woman of the World, free online book, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, on

Regarding Mothers-in-Law

And so the serpent has appeared in your Eden, attired in widow’s weeds, and talking the usual jargon of “devoted mother love.”  I do not like to say I told you so, but you must remember our rather spirited discussion of this very serpent, when you announced your engagement and said Mr. Duncan’s mother was to make her home with you after your return from abroad.

I had met Mrs. Duncan, and I knew her type all too well.  Alfred is her only child, and she adores him, naturally, but it is adoration so mingled with selfishness and tyranny that it is incapable of considering the welfare of its object.

Mrs. Duncan was always jealous of any happiness which came to her son through another source than herself.  That type of mother love is to be encountered every day, and that type of mother believes herself to be the most devoted creature on earth; while the fact is, she sits for ever in the boudoir of her mentality, gazing at her own reflection.  She loves her children because they also reflect herself, and is incapable of unselfish pleasure in their happiness apart from her.

You will remember I urged you to wait until you could have a home, however humble, alone with your husband, and even at the cost of that most undesirable condition, a long engagement.

But you assured me with much spirit that you had every confidence in your power to win Mrs. Duncan’s heart, and to crown her declining years with peace and happiness.

As well talk of decking a porcupine with wreaths of flowers, and making it a household pet, to coddle and caress.

When I congratulated Mrs. Duncan on her son’s engagement to such a sweet, bright girl as my cousin, she assumed a martyr expression and said, “She hoped he would be happy, even if her own heart must suffer the pain of losing an only son.”

“But,” I urged, “he really adds to your life by bringing you the companionship of a lovely daughter.  My cousin will, I am sure, prove such to you.”

“I have no doubt your cousin is a most estimable girl,” Madame Duncan answered, with dignity, “but I have never yet felt the need of any close companion save my son.  You, having no children, are excusable for not understanding my feelings, now when another claims his thoughts.”

“Yet the world is maintained by such occurrences,” I replied.  “You took some mother’s son, or you would not have had your own.”

With austere self-righteousness Mrs. Duncan corrected me.

“I married an orphan,” she said.

“How thoughtful of you,” I responded.  “But you see it is not lack of thought, only an accident of fate, which has prevented my cousin from marrying an orphan.  There are not enough desirable orphans to keep our young women supplied with husbands, you know.”

I think Mrs. Duncan suspected me of covert sarcasm, for she changed the topic of conversation.  But I heard her afterward talking to a bevy of women on the sorrow of giving up a child after having reared him to manhood’s estate, and her listeners all seemed duly sympathetic.

Of course, my dear Ruth, there is an element of sadness in the happiest of marriages for the parents of children.  I think it is particularly sad when a mother gives up a daughter, whose every thought she has shared, and whose every pleasure she has planned, and sees her embark upon the uncertain ocean of marriage, with a strange pilot at the helm.

The really good and loving mother endears herself to that pilot, and loves him and seeks his affection for her daughter’s sake.  She hides her own sorrow in her heart, and does not shadow her daughter’s voyage by her repining.

The man who is worthy of a good girl’s love will understand what it must mean to a mother to give her daughter to him, and he will in every way seek to recompense her for her loss, by bestowing upon her sympathy, courteous attentions, and a son’s devotion.

Just so will the girl, who is worthy of being a good man’s wife, seek to make his mother love her.

I know how you have tried to win Mrs. Duncan’s heart.  I know your amiable, sweet disposition, and your unselfishness and tact, and I know how you failed.

I can imagine your feelings when you overheard Mrs. Duncan say to a caller that she was going to leave your house and take rooms elsewhere, as she could not endure your “billing and cooing.”

Do you know, Ruth, that nearly all the trouble between mothers-and daughters-in-law is due to vanity and jealousy.

Fifty mothers are friends to their daughters’ husbands where one is a friend to her son’s wife.  That is because, wholly unconsciously to herself, the mother resents another woman sharing the attention of a man she loves.  The fact that he is her son, and that the love he gives his wife is a wholly different sentiment, does not prevent blind, unreasoning jealousy from dominating her nature.

Mrs. Duncan wants to stand always in the centre of the stage, with every other woman in the play in the background.

It is a most pathetic situation for a man,-this position between a wife and a jealous mother.  My heart always aches for the man in the case even more than for the woman who is misused.

All young men are reared to think mother-love the most unselfish and wonderful devotion on earth, even in the face of facts which so often prove it otherwise; and when a son sees his mother unhappy he is inclined to make every possible excuse for her, because he feels that to take issue against her will put him in a false light before the whole established order of society, and that he will beat his head against traditions wherever he turns.

So, he ofttimes tries to conciliate the wife he has promised to cherish, and to convince her that she may exaggerate matters, and that she may even be the aggressor, and then he finds himself standing between two raging fires, with no escape save through flames, and over hot fagots, which will leave him scarred for life.

Sometimes the wife is in the wrong.  Sometimes a man marries a woman who is so narrow and so selfish and so jealous that she begrudges the husband’s mother her son’s affection.  But I must affirm that, in my observation of humanity, I have seen but one such wife, where I have seen ten jealous and unreasonable mothers.

And with what pleasure and admiration I recall the few beautiful and noble mothers-in-law I have known!  I can count them on the fingers of one hand without including the thumb.  I mean mothers of sons.

There are just four whom I can recall.  They really loved their sons, and loved whatever and whoever gave those sons happiness.

One mother objected to her son’s choice before marriage, and tried vainly to convince him that he had made a mistake.  But after his marriage she took the girl into her heart, made her a companion and friend, and when the son began to discover her glaring faults, she told him to be patient and wait, and that all would be well.  Instead of saying, “I told you so,” she said, “Your wife is young, and has had no wise hand to guide her.  You married her for love, and if you exercise the love-spirit, and are patient and self-controlled in your treatment of her, she will overcome these faults which annoy you.”

And day by day she called his attention to the pleasing qualities the girl possessed, and by praise, tact, love, and sympathy bridged over the threatened chasm.

The couple live happily together to-day, thanks to the mother-in-law.  Oh, that there were more such mothers of sons!

Be as patient and sweet as you can, dear Ruth, toward Mrs. Duncan; think how difficult the situation is for your husband, and say or do nothing to make it harder for him.  But allow Mrs. Duncan to live by herself, and, if need be, bear many privations cheerfully that she may do so, and that you may have your own home in peace.  Every wife is entitled to that, and if she has made every possible effort which love and tact can make to cast the seven devils of jealousy out of her mother-in-law, and they still remain, it is for the general welfare that two separate households exist.

When a son has done all he can in reason to make his mother happy, save to turn against the wife he has promised to cherish, he is a cad and a weakling if he does the latter.  He must learn that it is a larger duty to be a just man than to be an obedient son.

I am sure Mr. Duncan will have the character and judgment to do what is right in this matter.