Reddit Thread Uncovers the Awkward Reality of Not Knowing What To Call Your Mother-in-Law

If you're not sure what to call your spouse's parents, you're definitely not alone—especially when cultural differences come into play.

Young man with his mother in law setting table for family dinner outdoors in garden.
Photo: Getty

Recently, a very lively discussion started on Reddit's wedding planning subreddit in regards to that age-old question: What the heck do you call your in-laws?

"It's so awkward because my now mother-in-law wants me to call her 'Ma'," says the original poster, "but I just don't like her 100% so I feel like just calling her by her first name. What are your thoughts?"

This question struck a chord with many, garnering over 200 comments; after all, it's not like kids' movies follow the main story with an epilogue about whether Cinderella called Prince Charming's mom "Mom" or "Your Highness."

"I wouldn't call my mother in law "ma" regardless of whether I liked her or not," said top-rated commenter, u/tcpg12. "It just would never come naturally to me. I call her by her first name."

"I love my fiancé's mom, but I call her by her first name. I think the rest of the daughter-in-laws do too. Mom would just be weird," agreed another u/celestria_star.

User u/BeyoNeela responded, "I called my MIL 'Mrs. _____' for years before she finally said 'please girl we are family, call me Mom!' My thought process was, I come from a non-American family. With my American friends, I would call their parents formally Mr / Ms _____. So I just wanted to be respectful until she explicitly told me it's okay to call her Mom or by her first name."

The commenter went on to offer some very helpful advice: "If you don't like her, haha, I would just ask her politely, 'I know you prefer I call you Ma, and I'm just not accustomed to using that, even for my own mother, so is it okay if I just call you by [first name]?'

Not to make you feel like you have to step on egg shells but hey, you might as well, especially if you already sense you're not at 100% with her and will need to keep this cordial for the rest of your lives."

Personally, I felt this. As a Black-Hispanic woman who grew up in the southern United States, I was taught to call everyone older than me "Mr." or "Mrs." It didn't matter if they requested that I use their first names; if I didn't want to get in trouble, you'd better believe you were to be referred to with respect. In fact, hearing "Mrs. X is my mother; call me Lauren" would cause me to break out in a cold, anxious sweat. So when my white mother-in-law would insist on being called "Mom," I'd pretend I didn't hear her and continue to refer to her with titles. Even in my 20's, I wasn't looking to get into any trouble with my mama.

Cultural differences are actually talked about in depth in this Reddit thread. One user mused, "...people with immigrant parents and even 2nd gen Americans are like this. I would never call my in-laws their first names because THAT seems more uncomfortable to me than mom. I agree with you that it is disrespectful in my culture to just call them their first name unless they explicitly express that it is okay to you. Right now I am still on Mr./Mrs. lol but one day we might get to mom and dad!

Another thing I have noticed is when they become a grandparent, you can transition to calling them whatever your child calls them, which is what my parents did with their in-laws."

"The etiquette on this is different in different cultures," pointed out user u/costanzascoffee. "E.g. in many Asian cultures, once married, people would use "mom" and "dad" instead of first names, and there is a ceremony on the wedding day specifically to change how they address the MIL and FIL on both sides. At the end of day it comes down to what you and your family is comfortable with. Maybe discuss with your partner first and go from there?"

The confusion here has a lot to do with the fact that in-laws are family, but they aren't the family you grew up with. They aren't your actual parents, and so "Mom" or "Dad" feel like monikers that hold way too much familiarity for most.

As one user put it: "I only have one mom. My soon to be MIL is wonderful, but I call her by her name."

On the other hand, calling your in-laws by their first names also feels neutral and—let's face it—the kid in us probably also feels a little rude doing it. It's a bit of a balancing act.

In the end, though, the comments in this thread vary, demonstrating that it depends on a mixture of all of the following: your closeness with your new family members; cultural dictations, and everyone's level of comfort. This means that the terms you choose are highly personal, and can't follow any one formula. In my case, I've since remarried and I like my current (white) in-laws enough to feel comfortable with calling them Mom and Dad or calling them by their first names, bless my southern heart.

So if you're struggling with this decision yourself, know that at least you aren't alone, and that maybe someday you, too, can put someone through the stress of trying to figure out what to call you.

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

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