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Sadly these are her words, not mine. Why is this posted in this QA site? Because I can't see how it is good for the children that she (when my wife is not around) shouts at me in front of them; cuts across me when I'm talking to them; and takes them away from me when I'm playing with them, and they don't say no since she generally has some sort of sweet or present nearby.

She claims to be an expert on childcare so anything I say is immediately shot down. I don't know what to do. I can't see that it's healthy for the kids.

If I discipline them and they are sat out, she cuddles them. Is this simply my total lack of understanding of what grandparents are for (as mine were distant to say the least) or what? This has been going on now for four years and includes lies to my wife (which the MIL has admitted to me). I don't want to whine to my wife as she shouldn't be in the middle of this.

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Related: parenting.stackexchange.com/q/146/420 –  Beofett Jun 16 at 16:45
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You absolutely MUST keep an open line of communication with your wife about your concerns. This directly involves your children, how your MIL is undermining your authority, keeping things from your wife, and is a VERY valid concern. –  Noah Jun 16 at 16:47
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I know the majority opinion on parenting SE is against phsyical discipline, but somebody needs a beating here, and its not the children. –  n00b Jun 16 at 21:03
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Just an anecdote, but I withrew my children from my mother in law's house (with my wifes agreement) for 6 months after an incident similar to what you are describing. They eventually came to their senses and the relationship has healed and many years have passed since with a happy family. I sincerely hope that you can get it resolved, but there are worse things in the world that cutting off what sounds like a narcissist. –  Mark Henderson Jun 16 at 21:59
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Have you asked your MIL why she "doesn't like you" as a husband for her daughter? I'd use hate but I don't think she does, for example does she not like that you took her daughter away? Or, do you smoke, drink, drug etc. Ask her what it is she doesn't like, but make sure your wife is there too. If you clear that up, it will go a long way, otherwise I agree w/ @MarkHenderson about removing them... –  eyoung100 Jun 16 at 22:17

16 Answers 16

A lot of good advice earlier David, and you seem to be a caring stand-up guy. Children need good fathers desperately so be confident, and assertive in YOUR position. On top of the advice earlier, I'm afraid I see this as well beyond a personality issue. When someone presents two faces to ANY party, that is not a person you turn your back on. Not unless you are prepared to be knifed. I only qualify this by saying a MIL is a part of your EXTENDED family. The boundary is clear but you are neglecting to clarify it. The fear may be justifiable as your MIL may already in her mind be prepared to escalate the friction to WW3 (read that as your wife moving in with her and taking the kids). But short of abuse, as mentioned earlier, no-one other than your wife can TELL you. Only your wife is on equal standing with you as long as you stay the man she and your kids can lean on. In simple terms, your EXTENDED family needs to 'butt out', and team 'parents' is the one who decides how far the MIL is willing to push it. Not the MIL. Not the children. At anytime! So be confident and do not wait until she has pushed your level of frustration and anger to where you say or do something in front of your kids you cannot take back. Because I will bet, from what you describe that this may be exactly her agenda.

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First of all, I would act in this conflict and not let it be. The reason is this truth: If your Mother In Law came to any other house, she would behave like a guest and not as if she owned the place. So, she chooses to behave differently with you, and it is her judgement that she has a right to behave like this.

I'd act because I disagree with that judgement.

Your wife and your mother in law have a complex relationship - more complex than you. But she must know that this bothers you and know what you are planning to do about it. Then you can devise a strategy together. It does not mean that your wife must fight this fight. Perhaps you can devise a strategy to keep her out. But if you act on this, your wife becomes a party in this conflict. Your MIL will make her a party. If you skip this step, your mother-in-law will play you both and set you against one another.

As for concrete advice, you are the best judge. You have to decide what course of action suits you. Here is what I would do, in your shoes:

Your wife must be prepared. Her mother will call her and force her to take a stand. Your wife needs to prepare her response and you need to know what your wife will do. I suggest using a mantra.

I a mantra is some truth, like "You can't shout at John in front of the children", or "I am the authority in this house and anyone why disrespects that is not welcome". Kind words, repeated endlessly. The purpose of the mantra is to avoid - at the cost of conversational politeness - being dragged into a conversation at the MIL's terms.

As for me: in this case, when authority is not given, it is taken. I would mentally draw a couple of lines and have an escalated response ready when they are crossed.

  • I'd choose the place and type of a conflict.
  • I would try to avoid my own living room as a place of conflict because I would have to be prepared to remove her physically if she really refused to go.
  • One option is to wait for her to misbehave in her house, so you have the option to leave abruptly with your whole family. (your family must be prepared: When you say 'we leave', there is no surprise).
  • Alternatively you can bluntly tell her she's not welcome. The place of conflict will then be the phone or the front door, depending on whether she calls you up first. Use a mantra again.

So yes, I would take the conflict on.

Two things I would not do:

  • show weakness to avoid conflict. She needs to be corrected so she will behave like she would with other people.
  • act without my family. She will try to drive you apart and then you are fighting your family instead of your MIL.
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+1 for a variety of reasons but specifically for the insistance that the husband and wife act as a single unit. 'Till death do us part! I am the one with the toxic mom in my family, and of course I know this. I bet the OP's wife does too. I would never expect my husband to take her, or any challenge on, alone. Its a super important lesson for the kids too: mom and dad are united, a team, a force to be reckoned with. Good answer! –  Jax Jun 20 at 3:16

Believe me, talking with your MIL wont help. You need to take drastic measures and your wife has to know why and stand behind them.

Tell MIL dont interfere or she isnt allowed to visit her gran kids.

Dale Carnegie strategies (playing nice) would work if it wasnt happening for awhile, but you said four years. Its too late to play nice.

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Based on your description, I see no way to keep your wife out of this (except to roll over). Actually I think your wife's disposition will singularly determine the outcome. Talk to your wife without the MIL around. Leave the house to have this conversation if necessary. MIL cannot overhear it. Explain everything. Make the case that the two of you are the ultimate authority figures for your kids, and no one can be allowed to contradict you; and that the two of you must be unified and in 100% agreement.

If your wife does not agree with that, or does not agree to back you up when you confront the MIL with this, then you have already lost. You can't win in that situation because the MIL will appeal to your wife and turn you against each other. If this is your situation, and you can't change your wife's mind, your house is divided; I see no good options for you.

But if your wife is in agreement, you can't lose. Take the initiative. With your wife present, do something ordinary ("no dessert tonight") that you are sure your MIL will try to contradict you on. When she does, lay down the law. Tell her you are the authority figure and you will not be contradicted. You tell her these things, not your wife. Get your wife to stand beside you - literally - and to voice her agreement when MIL asks her. Stand up straight and look MIL in the eye. Don't look away, don't slouch, don't shift your stance or your gaze, don't bargain, and don't have a lengthy debate. If MIL fails to comply quickly, just give her the ultimatum that she has to respect your authority over the children or leave your home immediately. (If MIL is really that way, she may call your bluff; so don't bluff, be willing to follow through!)

Since this has been going on a long time, I wonder if it may be a good idea if the kids see this, especially if they are often disrespectful or defiant towards you.

Whatever you do, just don't lose your temper or give her any excuse to report you.

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You mustn't play games in this situation. Passively or indirectly dealing with her will only enforce her attitude toward you that you're inferior to her... not just in parenting, but in the dominant/submissive roles the two of you seem to possess.

1) You need your wife on board. You and she are supposed to be a team. Explain to her how your mother makes you feel when she undermines your authority. Give her your side of the story. Your MIL quite possibly has a complete lack of trust in your parenting skills, or she mightn't just like you as a person. Either way, make it crystal clear how her actions impact you.

2) Once she's on your side about this situation, agree to have a sit-down with your MIL to discuss how she attempts to control the situation. Don't let your wife lead the conversation, but rather lead it yourself. A good way to deal with this is to write down what you want to say, and have MIL read it. DO NOT focus on what she is doing wrong, but rather on how what she does makes you feel. Her method may be "right" in her mind; you cannot argue this. No one, however, is more qualified to define your feelings than you.

3) Try to befriend MIL. Take her out to lunch, and talk to her. Ask her lots of questions. Ask her for advice on parenting. Be the SIL that she thinks she wants. But get her one-on-one, and attempt to win her over that way. Let her get to know you as a person. If she comes to care about you, she will most certainly be less quick to judge your parenting methods, or undermine you. "Kill her with kindness."

4) Until you have a handle on things, you're lord of the manor. Don't let her step on you. It's time to polish off the brass set that every man has, and let her know that her negativity is unwelcome in your house.

Dealing with FILs and MILs isn't easy, and I'm sorry you have to deal with this. But also be thankful that you're still with your wife. Dealing with an ex-MIL is 1000x worse.

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There's been a lot of great answers so far but I'll add my 2 cents because I'm curious to see how this is handled. Here are the things I can think of to caveat off of the other great answers:

  • It's a very dynamic situation especially since immediately family ties are involved. Be careful not to put yourself in the cross hairs. When you present your case to your wife, have clear evidence that this is going on. While you could go with a nanny cam, a simple recording of these conversations would suffice. A tone of condescension is often undeniable.

  • If your wife sees this from your point of view, use the exact evidence you presented to her if/when you discuss the situation with your mother in law.

  • This is common sense but it must be said. Don't backdoor the situation through your children. If a situation like you described with the toys or sweets happens again, after MIL leaves, don't pull them aside and explain why that was wrong of her. Allow them to be neutral parties as this is grown-up business.

  • If you do sit down with MIL, even if she concedes that what she has been doing is wrong and makes amends, have a timeout period. There is some trust and respect that needs to be restored and it will not be mended in such close proximity after a conversation like this.

  • Most of all, shower your children with love and affection. They are none the wiser. Maintain a level head, carry out the daily/weekly plans that you and your wife have established and generally continue caring about your children.

  • Lastly, kudos to you. This situation may be leaving you wondering if you are a bad parent. While consciously you may reject this idea, words like that settle in deeper than we can fathom. Do not allow it to change you. Everyone here already knows you are respectable father because a respectable father takes time to sit back and really ponder situations like this. If you were not worthy of respect, you would not care about this situation. So again...kudos.

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You have to let your mother-in-law come visit.

You do your best to control your temper. You be polite. You be considerate. You don't argue. Remember: This is a temporary situation. She will leave. Maybe not soon enough for you, but she will leave.

Parent in-laws are hard people to get along with. Once your kids grow up and get married, you'll see their spouses and won't approve. After all, your children are the best. They're princesses. They're bright and talented. Whoever they marry won't be good enough for you either. This is your Mother-in-law's world. Her princess married you. What a disappointment when she could have married that really nice boy, Prince William III of Luxembourg.

What about the children? They will learn from your encounter. They will learn that you treat your parents (even in-laws) with respect. That you control your emotions. That you sometimes have to put up with very difficult people. (And, yes. They will see your mother-in-law as a very difficult person.)

And your mother-in-law will sooner or later learn that you're not such a bad guy because no matter what she says, you treat her with kindness. Sure, you're no Prince William III of Luxembourg, but you're not as bad as she first thought.

I have a very difficult father-in-law who was not happy with me. By every one of his criteria, I was wrong for his daughter. I learned to control my temper around him. I learned not to argue with him. I kept my mouth shut. I smiled.

It took over a decade, but he learned to respect me. He learned that his daughter truly loves me and I love his daughter. He learned that I might not have raised my kids the way he would have, but he sees they turned out okay in the end, and that my kids love me and I love my kids.

Talking about difficult, my mom is a very difficult person, and my wife had the same issue with her as I had with my father-in-law. I gave her the same advice. Be kind. Be nice, and the relationship will improve. Remember, if my mom is combative and argumentative. It's her fault and not yours. You've been polite and kind. She's the one with the problem.

And things did improve. We visit my mom, and my mom comes and visits us. My house isn't up to my mom's cleanliness standards. My wife's cooking isn't up to my mom's standard. My mom will occasionally role her eyes, but she gets along with my wife.

By the way, your wife can help too. When my mom and my wife were not getting along, I kept reminding my mom that I love my wife, and I'm not going to divorce her, and for my sake, please try to get along with her. When my mom said nasty things about my wife, I reminded her that this is my wife, I love her, and please don't say those type of things to me because it hurts me.

When I was having problems with my father-in-law, my wife told him the same thing. I'm her husband.

I wish there would be an easier way. You can't demand to your wife that her mother can't visit. Your wife loves her mother. Be aware that your kids know the situation and exactly what's going on. They may like the sweets and the presents, but when your mother-in-law disrespects you, they know who's not playing nice. Kids are a lot smarter than we think.

There's a reason why there are so many mother-in-law jokes and cartoons. You're not alone. I hate to tell you that it may take years, and even after that, it will be a shaky détente. However, for your wife's sake, do your best to get along. Remember that the problem is your mother-in-law and not you. If you keep that in mind, your wife and your children will also see that too.

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I would have to disagree with your first sentence here. You absolutely do not need to let her visit. If my MIL acted like this she would no longer be welcome in our home. –  Rory Alsop Jun 19 at 12:49
    
Would their spouse agree? Remember this is THEIR mother. You may end up putting the spouse into the middle of the dispute and forcing them to take sides. Every time the spouse talks to their mother, they'll have to hear the argument over and over again. The spouse has a roll. Gently remind their mother that they love their spouse, so please don't talk ill about them. When I say "Gently", I mean privately. The idea is to get the MIL to understand they're hurting their child when they talk bad about the spouse. –  David W. Jun 19 at 14:06
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The fact that it took over a decade for your father-in-law to learn to respect you suggests to me that turning the other cheek was not a quick or particularly effective strategy for dealing with his bad attitude. Assertiveness, drawing up clear boundaries for what behaviour is acceptable, presenting a united front with one's spouse or partner, being willing to cut off or limit a unreasonable in-law's access to the family, and sticking to your agreed approach in the face of attempts to play the partners off against each other are the right tools for handling this kind of situation. –  Erik Kowal Jun 20 at 3:53
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You choose your spouse, and not your in-laws. There is no real reason that you have to have a relationship with these people -- except they're your spouse's family, and for that, you must put up with them. It took my wife and I over a decade because we both were originally confrontational with our in-laws, and it hurt our relationship with each other. We took a different approach -- if there were problems with the relationship, it wouldn't be because of us. Realizing that made it easier. We stood up to our parents about dissing our spouse, but were nice to our in-laws. –  David W. Jun 20 at 13:47

You're having a personality clash with your mother in law. This is not necessarily a problem which you must fix. Instead, you can simply avoid it. Let her take care of the children, while you take a break, or do other things that need doing.

In life, you do not have to resolve differences with and achieve the respect and admiration of person X, for all X. (Let alone for values of X equal to "mother in law".)

As far as "respect as a father figure goes", it's important for the children to respect their father as a father figure. It doesn't matter if other people don't regard you as a father figure for those children, especially if their judgment is based on some personal grudge rather than objective evidence.

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Very wrong. Allowing MIL to take over is NOT the way to handle this. Whose family is this? It doesn't matter if other people don't regard you as a father : WRONG. Your kids are influenced by the way others interact with you. –  Vector Jun 21 at 23:59

I went through the same thing. None of these mumbojumbo is going to work just for the simple fact that your wife respects her parents more than you.That is the truth.What you have to do, is that when you know that she's coming over just go away. If they want you guys to visit them just stay home a few times.She'll get the idea.That's that. Simple.Now every time I go there they shake my hand and keep their mouths shut. She is a control freak.Learn how to deal with control freaks.

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It sounds more like his wife just isn't aware of the extent of the MIL's interference, what with the MIL actively lying to her and his basically keeping it a secret from her. In which case, passive-aggressive BS won't send any useful message. It comes across as little other than "i don't like your mom" -- and guess who ends up being the bad guy for it. The MIL even gets to play the victim, and be all "i have no idea what i've done to make him hate me" and such, since the wife's only ever heard the MIL's side of the story. –  cHao Jun 17 at 22:13
    
"your wife respects her parents more than you" This seems to be the exact problem. –  wardha-Web Jun 18 at 17:03
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Your approach amounts to letting your MIL dictate what happens in YOUR household. I can't think of any benefit that would come from allowing your in-laws to pussywhip you like that. The most obvious result is that every time you allow your in-laws to roll over you, you are demonstrating to your wife that she is right not to respect you as much as she does her parents. What kind of relationship is that to have with your spouse? –  Erik Kowal Jun 20 at 4:03
    
when you know that she's coming over just go away - worst advice imaginable. You're telling him to surrender his own domain to a meddlesome b--tch. Not smart. –  Vector Jun 21 at 23:53
    
She is a control freak.Learn how to deal with control freaks - the way to deal with control freaks that have no right to control you is to take charge and remove/neutralize their ability to control. –  Vector Jun 22 at 0:04

However, years ago I used to tell my wife some of what was going on generally after a confrontation with my MIL; but my MIL would keep on at my wife about the situation, creating an awful atmosphere that my wife would feel like she had to sort out (not to mention the fact that the MIL would deny any wrongdoing, therefore putting my wife exactly in the middle of this).

and

This has been going on now for four years and includes lies to my wife (which the MIL has admitted to me).

Actually I don't think this is as much a parenting problem as a relationship problem. Your MIL is undermining your relationship with your wife by bullying you, and then bullying your wife into thinking that your MIL is behaving just fine and that you're the one who's lying. Even if you didn't have any kids at this moment, your relationship with your wife would be endangered by your MIL's behaviour. I think you need to see a counselor together, and with a mother so controlling and manipulative I think its possible that your wife also needs to see a counselor separately.

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shouts at me in front of them...

Ask her to leave. Don't even wait for your wife to get home. It's healthy for your children to see how you're able to handle such situations with cool and determination. And of course, you can let her stay if she apologizes and if you feel she is genuinely remorseful.

That being said, I have feeling you're not telling us the entire story. Why would she even be shouting at you in the first place??

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Great question. When she shouts at me the predominant issue has been that she thinks I'm interfering with her parenting of the children. I try my hardest to not have arguments with her in front of the kids as that's rubbish for the kids and I know I'm far from perfect as a father. For example, the last time she did this my eldest was teasing my middle one and I was in an adjacent room. It wasn't stopping so I came in and told him to stop teasing and then started explaining a way they could play together, and she started shouting at me saying I was interfering with how she was handling it. –  David Boshton Jun 17 at 9:29
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Certainly I have got things wrong. In the past, I used to be much harsher on my eldest (who is now in primary school) but my wife and I have changed our parenting style (I've changed more -- there was much more improvement on my side required!) and so there may be issues from those times. There's the constant comments of "You wouldn't have done that with <eldest> at that age" when engaging with the other two. I try not to interfere and if the kids aren't listening to her whether my wife's around or not I back my MIL up as I think it's important to have a unified adult response... –  David Boshton Jun 17 at 9:38
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I so agree with this answer. I wouldn't endure someone in my house for 5 minutes who was either shouting at me or feeding my kids stuff I didn't want them fed. They'd be slung out, regardless of whether they were related to my wife or not. Throw her out and deal with your wife later. –  Will Dean Jun 17 at 20:28
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It does sound like you're dealing with an extra child in the house. And just like a child, it's important to enforce your boundaries immediately as soon as a violation of your boundaries does occur. "Please do not shout at me." or "Please get out. If you're going to behave this way in my house, you're going to have to leave." –  Stephan Branczyk Jun 17 at 20:39
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@DavidBoshton it is not her job to parent them. It is her job to spoil them and give them back to you. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 22 at 19:02

It sounds like your MIL is trying to make up for something with her effort to be a better parent than you are. Whether this is personal, linked to you or to your wife I cannot say, but there is one thing for sure: this will have severe impact on the mental health of your children.

Your role must be the father to your children. Whether this is an authority role or something else is up to your style of parenting, but what your MIL is doing is to "teach" your children that you are not worthy of them. This will be reflected by your children and can result in a trauma of not having a real dad, or them considering not to be worthy as a child for you, or other severe issues. This can (depending on how it is handled) cause deeply rooted depressions your children might have to suffer from for a life-time.

A reasonable course of action would be to at first make it absolutely clear to your MIL that you are the father and she can be a grandmother but nothing more. And that raising your children is your task and that of your wife. You should preferably keep your children away from all those discussions as it sounds that it is likely to run into a strong argument between you two, and it will definitely help if your wife is backing up your side in such an argument.

It might help if you make clear to your MIL that this will have consequences for the children and that this is the main reason why you restrict her doing, so that she understands that what she is doing is wrong and that this is not you or someone else hating her (which she probably bring to the table as an argument). Depending on how she takes it, it might be a good idea to seek professional help on this.

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This is really interesting. Do you have a reference study for the second paragraph? Regardless I can see that whilst I've been trying to do the best for the kids I've been doing almost the opposite as the status quo is damaging. –  David Boshton Jun 17 at 12:53

A lot of parents and grandparents think they are experts in raising children. If she were an expert in childcare she wouldn't do thing like use sweets or blatantly undermine you in front of the children, she would give you advice or set an example. Talk to your wife about her mother and set boundaries, these are your children and your home and her level of involvement in their lives is up to you and your wife. Sometimes parents become children when they get older and need boundaries as much as any child. My MIL lives with us and it is extremely difficult to get them to follow your rules for raising your children.

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@David Boshton And one more: If she were an expert in childcare, or cared about her children and grandchildren as much as she believes, she wouldn't make her daughter a pawn in her conflict with you. –  rumtscho Jun 22 at 23:41

Whether she realises it consciously or not, she is directly undermining and interfering with your ability to parent your children. She is not their parent, nor their legal guardian, and has no right to do that.

How you handle this depends on whether it's just you and the kids, or you and your wife with the kids, when she is present.

When you're with your wife, how you address this needs to be a team effort or you're doomed to fail. Talk with your wife about this problem. Point her to this question, even! Her mother is crossing over the line between how she manages her relationship with her grandchildren, to managing your relationship with your children. That's not her prerogative, but you need your wife's cooperation if you're going to start saying "no" to Grandma, otherwise Grandma is just going to go around you and appeal to your wife to get her way.

When you're on your own with the kids, you are absolutely within your rights to refuse your MIL's requests to visit, or to flatly tell her to go away if she stages a surprise visit. Of course, this will result in her pulling your wife into this, since someone who behaves how you've described is very unlikely to take "no" gracefully. So, again, you need to be a team with your wife.

Your wife's relationship with her mother may be such that saying "no" to her will be hard for your wife. (I think this is likely, since controlling behaviour like described is not the kind of thing that just suddenly appears when grandchildren are born, so likely "my way or the highway" was Grandma's relationship with her daughter as well.) Because she may have a hard time saying "no" to her own mother, you might have a long and difficult road ahead in changing this dynamic. You will have to get a clear sense of your own boundaries, and enforce them for yourself. You will also have to respect that setting and enforcing boundaries for herself is your wife's responsibility and can't be done "for" her (how ironic would that be otherwise!), so you'll have to exercise patience. You will also need to set boundaries between yourself and your wife should your teamwork be less than 100%, since Grandma will be putting pressure on her to convince you to stop saying "no" to Grandma, and if your teamwork isn't 100% that means your wife will be siding with Grandma at times.

Set firm boundaries, enforce them calmly but without compromise, but expect that the results will not be ideal. Someone who is controlling and used to getting their way has developed lots of strategies for compliance, which will mostly involve painting you as the bad guy, guilt trips, and trying to make you miserable.

Calmly and firmly enforcing boundaries is usually as simple as developing your one-sentence response and repeating it until they stop arguing or go away. "Thanks for the offer, but we're not available for visiting today." Yes, repeating this (or something like it) will feel silly after a while since you're not responding to their argument points, but that is the point: you're not engaging with their attempts to turn your "no" into a "yes". You might feel silly, but they will feel even sillier the longer they try to force the non-conversation to continue. It's even easier on the phone, as you can say, "Thanks again, goodbye," and hang up.

(It may also feel silly if you don't have a "good reason" for not being available, but that doesn't matter: you're saying "no", that's all the justification you need, and repeating the silly-seeming phrase serves to make it abundantly obvious exactly how much she is refusing to accept your right to say "no." Soothing the other person's feelings during a rejection is something you reserve for people who respect the difference between "no" and "yes"; people who ignore your right to say "no" have not earned the benefit of their feelings being soothed, especially when they're trying to use your urge to soothe their feelings against you to get you to capitulate.)

If possible, move far away from Grandma. Drastic, but the benefit of distance is incomparable when dealing with a controlling grandparent. Don't move just to get away from Grandma, but if the opportunity presents itself, weight this on the "pro" side.

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Absolutely brilliant response! Chat me up in two days' time to collect your bounty from me. It's what I can offer in excess of my single upvote. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jun 16 at 19:24
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Great answer. Perhaps I feel that way because almost every point matched with how I handled a very similar situation, but it's a great answer regardless. My fundamental base was in our traditional marriage vows that included "forsaking all others". I never took that to mean only "forsaking only those with whom I might be sexually unfaithful", but rather that spouses become #1 in each others' lives. Parents become secondary,... until children arrive; then they're another level removed. Either spouses believe in their vows, or they don't. –  user2338816 Jun 17 at 3:51
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Good analysis. Trust me. Grandma knows she's undermining his authority and she doesn't care one bit. –  user132193 Jun 17 at 14:25
    
@user132193 Probably, but our most deeply-held beliefs can blind us to the reality of the actions we take and rationalisations we construct to pursue those beliefs. She might as easily be in denial that she's fundamentally undermining his authority, if she's telling herself some story about how her way is better for the children. I don't know her, so she gets some benefit of the doubt in the intro, even if I think it's unlikely she deserves it. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 18 at 0:12

I can't see that it's healthy for the kids.

I absolutely agree. This is a major problem, as your kids need to look up to you as an authority figure, and that will be very difficult if she's constantly undercutting your authority.

Is this simply my total lack of understanding of what grandparents are for (as mine were distant to say the least) or what?

It is not at all uncommon (in my limited experience) for grandparents (or even total strangers!) to try to step into roles that really belong to you and your wife, exclusively. There is always a risk that anyone who considers themselves an "experienced" parent might decide that it is appropriate to step in when they feel you're doing it "wrong" (note that "wrong" in this case is almost always just "not exactly the same way I'd do it", which is by no means actually wrong).

No matter what the relationship, this is never appropriate (with the sole exception of if they honestly believe that harmful negligence or abuse is occurring).

I don't want to whine to my wife as she shouldn't be in the middle of this.

Here's where I disagree with you.

Your wife needs to be involved in this. Not only is she your children's mother, it is also her mother that is causing the problem. At the very least, she needs to be on board with, and supportive of, any action you take regarding interactions with your mother-in-law.

Talk to your wife.

Try to have the talk when there is some time before your mother-in-law's next visit (hopefully she isn't coming by every week!). This will give your wife time to process it, and to have further discussions with you.

Start by focusing on how you feel, rather than complaining about what your mother is doing (e.g. "I feel like I'm not allowed to be the father, if every time I say something I get overruled" instead of "she keeps undermining my authority, and she coddles the kids whenever I try to set rules").

If (when) your wife comments on how she wasn't aware that some of this was going on, you can explain that you've talked about it directly with your MIL, and that your MIL acknowledged to you that she doesn't always tell your wife the truth. Then point out that this has been going on for a long time, but that you've been reluctant to bring it up with her out of concern that it would put your wife in the middle, and create a "he said, she said" situation.

Come up with a clear plan with your wife. I'd suggest that, rather than banning your MIL from coming over, you propose that the three of you sit down and talk together. You and your wife should come up with clear rules that you'd like to propose (such as that if you tell your kids that they can't do something, or hand out a punishment, your mother in law is not allowed to overrule you; or "no shouting allowed").

Once you've established your ground rules, the three of you should sit down, and discuss them. Don't bring up any past behavior. Just start the discussion by saying that you want to ensure that the children have the best upbringing possible, and that you'd appreciate your MIL's help by cooperating with some basic ground rules. Point out up front that you and your wife came up with these rules together, and have put serious thought into them.

If the discussion goes poorly, then at least your wife will have been a direct witness to the problem (so remember to stay calm; every bit of bad behavior from your MIL during this meeting only makes your position stronger!), and the two of you can follow up privately to discuss how you want to proceed (which may involve stricter restrictions, such as ensuring that your MIL can only be over when your wife is present).

Good luck!

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+1 for focusing on how you feel when talking with your wife. –  Ollie Jones Jun 18 at 20:22
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Agree. It is crucial that the wife 1) understands the situation and 2) is 100% on her husbands side. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 22 at 18:59

Though I understand your concerns with telling your wife, there is a major issue with this. You're going to tell her mother to not visit your wife's husband or you and your wife's children, which is your MIL's grandchildren. That will affect your wife, and if you don't let her in on why, you'll look like a bad guy no matter what. If you don't let her in on it, it will affect YOUR relationship with your wife.

However, these are your kids. They aren't your MIL's children, so by not doing anything, you will be allowing your MIL to negatively influence the kids as much as you want. They'll grow up thinking you're wrong if she's around them a lot.

I would suggest filming your MIL with a nanny cam so you can show your wife that she's lying. You and your wife are a team, and you need to act like it. Otherwise your wife won't trust you or your MIL and she won't feel comfortable having the kids around either of you.

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I second the use of a nanny cam or similar if possible, since this has been going on for some time, it may be hard to convince your wife what's going on, especially since your MiL only does it when she's not around. You may even have some success showing it to your MiL too, if she doesn't realise her own behaviour. –  SQB Jun 17 at 6:39
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If the relationship between OP, wife, and MiL depends on needing "proof" via a nannycam, then there are far bigger trust issues than how MiL treats OP. –  Ed Griebel Jun 17 at 15:34
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@EdGriebel, though I agree with you, OP said "The problem is the impact of actually bringing anything out into the open as regards my wife is huge on her due to how my MIL responds." So maybe those problems exist already. –  littlekellilee Jun 17 at 15:37
    
@littlekellilee Of course they exist already. That's what Ed Griebel said. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 18 at 0:17

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