Becoming a mother-in-law

WeddingFrom the moment she posed for those first high school prom photos on our front porch 10 years ago, I knew Andrea was perfect for my only son, Nate.

Yet I felt a subtle shift in our relationship when the two exchanged wedding vows last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, after all, the family dynamic changes when adult children marry. Whether we’re debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

In other words, my new supporting role as “mother-in-law” is making me a little nervous.

Googling the term “mother-in-law” last week, I found dozens of websites listing crude mother-in-law jokes and personal blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”

Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, she’s the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs.

Comfort and counsel

Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husband’s mother, whose shy personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own wise mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with one’s in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dad’s mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mother’s alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator. Over time, however, Mom learned Ruby’s language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isn’t the sort who’ll need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes.

Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, I’m proud of the capable young woman she’s become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldn’t strive to be the world’s best mother-in-law?

New family values

Nate reminds me that I’m “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my former career as a family columnist. Even so, if he’s lucky enough to be a father someday, he’ll find that letting go of one’s children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldn’t meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that I’ll never compete for my son’s attention; I’ll do my best to respect her boundaries.  Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our family’s future unfolds, I hope she’ll turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

This column was first published last year in Michigan Prime.

One thought on “Becoming a mother-in-law

  1. Just catching up and how exciting! And what a beautiful photo….it’s a generosity to make room in a family for a new member and many families are quite closed but I can tell you have the knack!

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