The word in French for mother-in-law is belle-mère – or “beautiful mother”. Similarly, the French word for daughter-in-law translates to “beautiful daughter”.
With such a sweet start to the relationship, you have to wonder why a Google search of “French mother-in-law” immediately brings up “from hell” and “problems”.
In fact, it appears that something of an intrusive personality on the part of the French belle-mère is causing serious rifts in cross-Channel relationships.
At least that's according to the UK newspaper the Sunday Times
, which claimed there was “an epidemic” of divorces between British women and French men right now. Although the paper based this statement wholly on “anecdotal evidence”.
So is there really a problem with the French mother-in-law?
One European woman in France told The Local that she has had her fair share of hoops to jump through with her French mother-in-law – especially at the dinner table.
“She even told me once that I filled my glass up too much. A mistake I never made again. I was mortified.”
The woman added that she felt pressured to be present at all the “sacred” family gatherings, even if there were more than a couple each month.
“You have to have a really good excuse to not turn up, meaning you spend a lot of time at your parents-in-law,” she says, adding that the frequency of the visits left her own family back home jealous.
Photo: Dominique Chappard/Flickr
Another Anglo reader with solid experience of la belle-mère told The Local that his French wife's mother was “sweet and generous… but it always felt like there was an undertone”.
“I've found that French mothers can be more interfering and more protective. My friends say the same thing. Plus she always judges my cooking,” he added.
A reader in a similar situation said: “I wouldn't even risk cooking for my French mother-in-law. My nerves couldn't take it.
“She often has this look of disappointment and regret on her face which says: 'You're fine, I like you, but I wish you were French'.
An American in Paris was far more positive of his experience with his mother-in-law.
“Although she tends to view the US as “the evil empire”, or at least thinks US leaders are untrustworthy, she does not transfer that view towards me,” he told The Local.
“She is very supportive of my speaking to my children in English, and happily entertains US foods, sports and trends that inevitably creep into our household.
“If I offer her a beer for apéro she is happy to accept. She won’t reach for the bottle of Bourgogne instead.”
So while there may be issues, is there really an epidemic of failing relationships brought down by French mums?
Jill Bourdais, a psychotherapist specializing in couples who has lived in France for almost 40 years, says the extent of the issue is “exaggerated”, but that it does crop up “every now and then”.
“It's definitely is a phenomenon, but I don't know if you can target the French for it. If you were to walk down a street in the UK you'd find some people who dislike their mother-in-laws – and others who say theirs are great,” she tells The Local.
But she believes that there are some cultural differences between French families and others that can prove trying for bi-national families – especially when money is involved.
“In my time, in the US, our parents paid for our university education and then expected their adult children to fend for themselves. In France, higher education is largely funded by the state, meaning that parents have more disposable income later down the line because they haven't shot their wad on their children's education.”
“This makes French children a bit more indebted to their parent, and means French parents can be more involved in their adult children's lives. Because the parents are more involved financially, they therefore feel like they have the right to put in their two cents. Some parents are very involved, taking children regularly on holidays, and other things that may be seen as interfering.”
Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr
So what's her advice for someone struggling with her French mother-in-law?
“A woman has the choice – she can either defend herself and risk creating conflict, or let it go. The husband is often reluctant to intervene because of a loyalty bond to his mother, so asking him to do so when the problem is the wife's won't necessarily help.
“You have to be prepared for cultural clashes. A French mother-in-law won't have the same take on how to raise children, she might complain about they dress, how they talk, how much they read.”
“If you do have a problem, invite her out to lunch, say that you need to talk about what's going on between the two of you. Start by giving her all the positives, then say that there are a few things that really bother you and wait for her reaction. Then take it from there.”
The ultimate taboo?
Of course, the matter is somewhat clouded by the fact that many people don't dare to speak out about it. Even to therapists, perhaps.
Bourdais says that when raising the topic with a colleague, they admitted they'd never heard a complaint about mother-in-laws from a client. Bourdais also recalled that when the topic of French mother-in-laws was brought up in a monthly magazine for around 500 American wives of European men, most women were actually very admiring of their French belle-mère.
“Those who wrote in were almost all laudatory. But then, I figured that any women who actually disliked their mothers-in-laws probably wouldn't put it in print. 500 women can't all be happy.”
Other therapists The Local spoke with suggested that bi-cultural families usually suffer from a whole range of cultural differences and very few would pin it down on just one family member.
Cynthia Davis said that she even had a client who complained that their “expressive French husband's” face seemed far too “contemptuous”.
So it appears that drinking, cuisine, raising children, money and indeed language are all some of the cultural pressure points, that if pressed can easily cause friction between Gallic in-laws and expats.
But then again any kind of relationship can be affected by these differences and perhaps a little more effort on the part of foreigners would go a long way to smoothing over problems.
And while the French mother-in-law be difficult so too can a mother-in-law from anywhere.
As they say, you only need to mix around the letters of “mother-in-law” to get “Woman Hitler”.
Good luck with yours.