Mother-in-law’s wrath is no joke when it comes to family’s future harmony

Sarah Freeman reports on how the mother-in-law from hell just made a comeback, as one mother’s email listing the faults of her son’s fiancée goes viral.

When an email begins, “It’s high time someone explained to you about good manners. Yours are obvious by their absence,” you know it’s probably not going to end well.

However, Heidi Withers could never have predicted just quite how bad things would get. When the step-by-step character assassination, penned by her future mother-in-law, Carolyn Bourne, a celebrated horticulturist and a woman with a tongue as sharp as a stinging nettle, dropped in her inbox, the 28-year-old personal assistant did what many of us would do. She read it, fumed and then sent it on to a select group of friends.

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The email, which included such gems as, “No-one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash celebrity style behaviour,” and, “When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something,” demanded a wider audience. And it got one.

Heidi’s friends sent it onto their friends, who forwarded it onto another dozen or so people and soon tens of thousands had read Mrs Bourne’s withering attack on her prospective daughter-in-law’s lack of table manners, apparent inability to write thank-you cards and general lack of grace and decorum when it came to a night out in the village pub.

Having advised her to seek out the nearest finishing school before marrying her stepson, Freddie, she also informed Heidi that her rudeness during a visit to the family home in Dorset had left the family dog Bomber traumatised, depressed and anxious.

“The mother-in-law from hell returns,” says Suzie Hayman, agony aunt, relationship councillor and a woman who each month receives a sackload of letter about problem relatives.

“However, while there will be an awful lot of people, thinking, ‘God, that’s my mother-in-law to a tee’, there will be an equal number thinking, ‘Good on you, my son’s fiancée irritates the hell out of me too’.

“The idiocy of course was putting it in an email, which always has the potential to go viral. Had she explained her grievances in a handwritten note, of which she is so clearly fond, then this whole thing would have probably been avoided.

“I felt exactly the same emotions about my first daughter-in-law, but if you send an email complaining about a lack of manners you really should try not to sound so snide and graceless yourself. Really the only option is to bite your lip.

“If things are really bad, then yes, have a quite word with your own child about whatever is driving you up the wall, but if you do be prepared. Criticism can cause people to close ranks and it may make the rift even greater.”

This is not the first time a supposedly private email has become public fodder and it won’t be the last. However, while Mrs Bourne – whose carefully-constructed attack included the killer line, “You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why?” – has now become the butt of every mother-in-law joke going, she’s not alone.

“Let’s face it, a lot of mothers are over-protective about their sons and this seems to be a classic example of not wanting to lose her little boy,” says Suzie.

“Mothers-in-law take most of the stick, but the truth is fathers-in-law can be just as bad with their girls.

“Parents often find it difficult to let go and can it result in them being oversensitive and touchy.

“However, when your child gets married it is the end of an era and if you feel as though you are being shunted in to the sidings, it is very painful.

“Really brides should recognise that and they should go out of their way to be accommodating.”

Over on Mumsnet, the online bible of parenting issues, the issue of mothers-in-law is one which is often discussed.

In the forum dedicated entirely to classic mother-in-law quotes, which range from, “Everyone always said I was the perfect mother,” to “You know me, I’m not one to interfere...” it’s almost possible to hear teeth being gritted.

However, read on through the dozen or so different threads and it seems that sometimes mothers-in-law just can’t win.

If they take a step back from their child’s own marriage they are deemed to be off-hand and aloof, but offer their support and they become the meddling witch, who just can’t let go.

Moreover, advice as how best to smooth troubled waters differs depending who you ask. Some recommend confronting the mother-in-law face to face, others suggest asking the husband to have a quiet word, while a small but significant number are great believers in simply counting to 10. Interestingly, none recommends firing off an email in the heat of the moment which could end up spread across the world’s press.

Alan Withers has begun the defence of his daughter, but neither the Bournes, nor Heidi and Freddie, who share a flat in Putney, London, have been willing to elaborate on what impact the publication of the email has had, or whether the wedding is still going to go ahead and if it is, whether the castle is still booked. “Obviously this has been discussed within the family,” said 29-year-old Freddie. “But we are not commenting other than that.”

Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that particular family meeting. However, while Mrs Bourne’s guide for an ill-mannered bride will go down in viral history, families have been driven apart by much lesser crimes.

“When someone new comes into the family it can be incredibly difficult for everyone involved,” says Suzie, who acted as the counsellor on the BBC series Stepfamilies. “When your child gets married there is a shift in their relationship with their own family. It is absolutely right that their new wife or husband becomes the central focus, but there’s often a delicate balance to keep.

“A few misunderstandings or wrong words in the early days can lead to a lifetime of anger and resentment. Keeping the connections between family members open is incredibly important. You might think that you’d happily never be in the same room as your daughter-in-law again, but if you don’t, the chances are you will regret it in years to come.

“Likewise, parents do have to be very tactful. I was incredibly careful when my grandchild was born. I wanted to let my son and his wife know that I was there if they needed my help, but there’s a thin line between that and jumping in with hobnail boots.”

It will no doubt take more than a few conciliatory home-made thank-you cards to heal the rift between the Bournes and the Withers, who also came under criticism for failing to abide by convention and put enough money aside for their daughter’s wedding. However, as Suzie points out not everyone views their in-laws as the enemy.

“People don’t tend to write to agony aunts to tell them just how great their mother-in-law is,” she says. “It’s the nature of the job that I only hear from the people who are tearing their hair out and wondering where it all went wrong. However, despite evidence to the contrary good relationships with in-laws do exist and at the very least most extended families find a way to rub along.

“I absolutely adore my second daughter-in-law and I hope she would have nice things to say about me. I know I have struck lucky, but I also know that some times personalities clash and you just have to deal with it.”

Carolyn Bourne clearly doesn’t go in for such a passive approach, signing off her abrasive critique with, “One could be accused of thinking that Heidi Withers must be patting herself on the back for having caught a most eligible young man. I pity Freddie.”

Hell it seems has no fury like a mother-in-law scorned