If, as the tabloids are reporting, Jennifer Aniston is really inviting Jane Pitt—her ex-mother-in-law—to her upcoming wedding to Justin Theroux, I will be cheering her on. (Of course, who isn’t cheering Jen on at this point? I’d cheer if she were marrying a loofah.)
What’s wonderful about the invite, aside from making Angelina feel weird, is that our culture usually considers mothers-in-law about as welcome as scorpions in a sleeping bag. They may be the last group of women you can still make jokes about and no one seems to notice the sexism: “Out of the blue my mother-in-law told me she’d like to be cremated. I said, ‘All right. Get your coat.’”
That’s just one of the zillion jokes on a zillion websites devoted to mother-in-law snaps. Father-in-law jokes are out there, too, but not nearly as many, and they’ve got a totally different tone: Doting dad worrying about the doofus his daughter is marrying. He just wants her to be happy. Meantime, the mother-in-law is such a nagging hag, a lot of the punch lines are basically, “And then she died! Ha ha ha!” Don’t believe me? Check this out: “Two friends are talking. One says, ‘My mother-in-law’s an angel.’ The other says, ‘You’re lucky. Mine’s still alive.’”
The sentiments are by no means a recent development. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that no couple can be truly happy while the mother-in-law is still alive—and that was in the first century A.D. More recently (but not that recently, because she’s dead), anthropologist Margaret Mead declared, “Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law.”
In 2010, the London Borough of Barnet drew up sensitivity guidelines for its city council staff, including the rule: no more mother-in-law jokes. Predictably, the council then became the butt of jokes. (But these did not involve the punch line, “And then they died! Ha ha ha!”)
Jennifer reportedly missed Mrs. Pitt when she got divorced, and she’s not the only one who ever had a great relationship with her mother-in-law (didn’t Margaret Mead figure 50 percent?). Let’s not forget one of the most celebrated mothers-in-law of all time: the biblical matriarch Naomi, whose widowed daughter-in-law Ruth could have gone her own way after her husband’s death, but instead uttered those immortal words, “Whither thou goest, I will go.” There’s also the modern-day matriarch Marian Robinson, whose son-in-law chose to share his house with her. The white one, on Pennsylvania Avenue. By all accounts, this arrangement is working out great for the Obamas.
Here’s hoping Jen has just as lovely a relationship with her new mother-in-law as she had with the last—and that she lets the world know about it. With any luck, a lot of us are or will be mothers-in-law ourselves. We could use some good press.
Photo courtesy of s_bukley/Shutterstock.com
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