The Horrible Mother-in-Law and Parenting Over E-mail

Family Matters on 07.06.11
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Photo: Brett Jordan/Creative Commons


By now you may have heard of the Horrible Mother-in-Law, Britain's Carolyn Bourne, whose vicious e-mails to her future daughter-in-law, Heidi Withers, have gone viral.

Back story: Heidi is engaged to Carolyn's stepson, Freddie. After a recent overnight visit to Carolyn's home, Heidi received an e-mail (sent multiple times, just to ensure it went through) from Carolyn, outlining her missteps in manners and recommending that she enroll in a finishing school posthaste. Specific grievances included, but were not limited to: Heidi's eating habits (Heidi is diabetic, though Carolyn believes "when you are a guest in another's house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat," and that Heidi speaking of her diabetes is "vulgar"), her choice of wedding venue (a hall in a castle, which Mrs. Bourne deemed "brash, celebrity style behaviour"), and her parents' inability to contribute an amount toward the wedding that Mrs. Bourne deemed appropriate (Heidi's parents both lost their jobs in January). Just to make sure she got her feelings across, she closed with the delightful zinger, "I pity Freddie." Heidi, naturally, was mortified by the e-mail and forwarded it in disbelief to some close friends. Something anybody would do. And then it was forwarded beyond her core group. And it hit the internet.

(The irony, of course, is that in her diatribe against Heidi's manners, Carolyn addressed her in a voice and forum that are the very epitome of bad manners. Even in the rare moment when she had a point, that point was missed in the complete bombast of Carolyn's attitude and language.)

Here is what I thought of when I read this story:

1. Oy, that poor girl.
2. Thank god my mother-in-law is a good, loving person.
3. That's gonna be an awkward wedding. I want to go.
4. What kind of mother is she?!?

I do not know if Carolyn Bourne has children of her own, but this whole affair made me wonder if she would speak this way to someone she felt love for. It certainly isn't Carolyn Bourne's place to "raise" Heidi — it's not even her place to raise Freddie, not because she's his stepmother but because he's an adult — but if she's choosing to take a on a maternal role and attempt to provide guidance, there could have been a hundred kadrillion fafillion ways to convey those intentions.

Carolyn Bourne's problem isn't Heidi Withers or even bad manners. Carolyn Bourne's problem is Carolyn Bourne. That's where the ill-advised foray into e-mail comes in. This type of biting, long-winded anger is almost never about the person being attacked; it's more commonly about the insecurities of the person doing the attacking. It strikes me that Carolyn Bourne wants to be considered on a certain level of status and "presentation" and was bent out of shape that she had no control over Freddie, his choices, his wedding and his partner, all of which are likely perfectly lovely but not what Carolyn would choose for herself. And instead of embracing any kind of self-awareness, she lashed out on her stepson's fiancée in a way she felt safe to do so: behind a computer screen. By doing so, she put Heidi and Freddie's marriage and relationship in jeopardy and led to the family's private and public humiliation. Words she can never delete. Words that the internet will never give back.

My mother does not use e-mail. Sometimes I wish she did because we've had plenty of uncomfortable, difficult conversations, like any mother and daughter do. I sometimes yearn for the detachment of e-mail. But that's the exact reason why these arguments should not be hashed out electronically. Yes, in a letter, you can take the time to write what you need to in what you feel is a meaningful way. But on the flipside, there is the opposite: parents and adult children almost always shaken by the hurtful, careless things that are written with an abandon that may not have been felt verbally. When a person with hot blood in their veins speed-types an e-mail like Carolyn Bourne's and presses Send, there is no face to look at, no shoulder to touch. It's an anonymous message board with one person who is not anonymous. (Quite the opposite, when that person is your son or daughter.) There is no voice to hear, no softness, no intention. And anything can happen to that e-mail: It can be printed out, passed around — or forwarded to millions. On a smaller scale, but a much more important one, an angry e-mail festers in the family. Should Heidi and Freddie have children (if they even make it to the castle), their offspring will someday know what their grandmother wrote to and about their parents.

By dehumanizing these interactions and making them electronic, one takes the humanity out of the fight. (And let's be honest: Everybody gets crazy when it comes to family. Who really wants proof of their own crazy floating around?)

Carolyn Bourne was not looking for a response; she wanted a platform. And by railing at Heidi over the shelter of e-mail, she was a coward. How differently would this conversation have gone if it were done face-to-face? Or even passive-aggressively to Freddie?

People say terrible things no matter where they are, no matter the proximity to the person they're saying these things to. But as Carolyn Bourne is no doubt learning the hard way (if her own narcissism will allow her to), sometimes the safest way to check yourself — and to keep things in the family — is to shut the computer off, square your shoulders, and use your good manners as you face confrontation with dignity.


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