The Mother-in-law I Want to Be
Like most women I know, I’ve juggled a variety of roles, job titles, and responsibilities.
I’ve worked as a newspaper columnist and a travel magazine editor. I've given birth to a son and watched him grow into a responsible young man. I’ve nursed an elderly mother who’s battling heart disease and dementia. I’m also a wife, an artist, a teacher, a best friend, a community activist, and a fairly decent cook.
Come September, when my son marries his fiancee, I’ll add “mother-in-law” to my resume. More than any role I’ve tackled so far, this one makes me nervous.
So how does one train to become a good mother-in-law? Is there a guide with tips on how to gracefully surrender a son to his new family?
Looking for some advice, I googled “mother-in-law.” The parable of Ruth and Naomi aside, my search produced several websites bursting with dozens of crude mother-in-law jokes and countless real-life horror stories describing in-laws from hell. As Joan Rivers quipped: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”
Not surprisingly, the stereotypical mother-in-law is maligned, feared, and unappreciated. She’s blamed for ruining marriages and spoiling grandchildren. No matter what she says or does, she’s the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.
Taking an informal poll on Facebook, I asked my female friends to share their feelings about their own mothers-in-law. While some reported family conflicts or tension, the majority of the comments I received didn't validate the negative stereotypes. Quite a few of the women, in fact, described mutually supportive relationships with the mothers of their husbands. Which leads me to wonder why there aren't more positive images of mothers-in-law.
In any event, the stakes are incredibly high for me, given that I have only one child and (if all goes well) just one shot at being a mother-in-law.
I also got to thinking about my own mother-in-law, a durable saint who raised four children but still didn’t mind babysitting her grandkids at a moment’s notice. My son adored his paternal grandma, and I’m eternally grateful for all the childcare she provided while I worked.
But I never felt at ease seeking my mother-in-law’s advice or sympathy. Reserved and very private, she has always played her cards close to her chest. And she rarely calls or visits unless she has important business to discuss or a holiday dinner to schedule -- which many couples would consider an extreme act of courtesy.
“I just hate to bother you,” is her standard response when my husband and I ask why we haven’t heard from her in weeks.
Given the choice, of course, I’d choose my shy mother-in-law over the meddlesome harpy depicted in Joan Rivers’ jokes any day. Still, there have been times throughout my marriage when I’ve wanted to get closer to her -- but I can’t quite bridge the emotional distance. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. Or maybe we’re both too proud. Either way, I wish I could have turned to her for comfort -- not just free house sitting and childcare.
Dementia is robbing my own mother of her short-term memory and her sanity, and I miss her demonstrations of maternal love and support. So I’ve learned to look elsewhere for the mothering I still need, and I usually find it in a circle of my closest female friends.
On the other hand, my lucky friend Courtney has the sort of mother-in-law many of us dream of having – and aspire to be.
“My mother-in-law doesn’t judge, never says anything negative, and always has kind words full of wisdom,” Courtney told me. “She never questions my parenting skills, but she will kindly speak up if she thinks I am being too harsh. We love the same books and we love talking and shopping together. Many of my friends tell me horror stories about their mothers-in-law, but mine is everything I hope to be when I become a mother-in-law.”
More than 30 years ago when I was a newlywed, my mother reminded me that a cozy relationship with one’s mother-in-law doesn’t evolve overnight. My paternal grandmother was an immigrant from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and her brogue was so thick that my baffled mom could barely understand her at first.
But the cultural barriers fell away in times of crisis. My mother’s own parents were terminal alcoholics, so she’d often turn to her Scottish mother-in-law for counsel. My grandmother would serve Mom heavy doses of old-country wisdom along with bottomless pots of tea, providing the maternal stability my mother always lacked.
My future daughter-in-law is a gifted and capable young woman with solid ethnic roots of her own – not likely the sort who’ll need Scottish island wisdom or scone recipes. Working in my favor is the fact that she’s been part of our family life since she started dating my son in high school. I watched her grow up right along with my boy – and missed her, too, went she headed off to college. In many respects, she already seems like the daughter I never had; she even invited me to tag along while she and her mother shopped for her wedding dress this spring. When she walks down the aisle to meet my son at the altar this fall, I know my heart will overflow with a sense of completeness -- and gratitude.
Which is all the more reason I don’t want to screw things up.
All said and done, there’s no perfect formula or set of rules for becoming a good in-law. I suppose it’s something we learn as we go along -- with a lot depending on each family's style, preference, and history. But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much effort we want to invest in our relationships.
Meanwhile, I want my future daughter-in-law to know that I’ll never compete with her for my son’s love or attention; that I’ll do my best to respect her boundaries. Yet I also want my name to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. I want her to know she can turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter or someone who'll listen with an open mind and heart.
And I’d like to believe I’m not being a bother if I pick up the phone to call her once in a while, just to check in.
----Cindy La Ferle is author of an award-winning essay collection, Writing Home. She blogs weekly at Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office and Blog
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