My husband made a point of telling me very early on in our courtship that “it would be a WHILE before you meet my mother.” I thought it was very sweet that they were so close, and didn’t mind waiting. It turned out, things moved so fast that just a couple of weeks later I was sitting on a patio with her at a barbeque hosted by their family friend. I enjoyed her company and was glad I had gotten to meet her. However, as my relationship with her son progressed, I often got the feeling that if Matt and I ever got married, his and my marriage would be set apart from their family unit, instead of an addition to their family.
During our first Christmas together, we went over to his mom’s house for a visit – and it felt as if I had stepped into an alternate universe. The house was decorated with what seemed like miles of garland and lights, hundreds of statues and nutcrackers, and three different trees. A huge three course buffet meal was set out for all the guests, and the tree was piled with presents. My family growing up did not have nearly as extravagant Christmases. I had expected to exchange a gift or two, but we ended up spending hours next to the tree, opening gifts. I know it sounds crazy, but opening gift after gift from a woman whom I didn’t know that well yet, with the pressure and anticipation of having to smile and act as if each gift is better than the one that came before, made me so uncomfortable.
His mother probably felt as if she was giving a warm, welcoming reception to her son and his girlfriend – whereas I felt as if I could crawl out of my skin by the end of the night. I know now that besides the material differences between that Christmas and the Christmases I was used to, the sheer shock of being part of another family’s Christmas in and of itself was what was so deeply bothersome to me. I guess in our whirlwind love affair, we’d never asked each other what it meant to the other one to celebrate Christmas. I realized during that first Christmas that our two visions were different and hard choices would need to be made to reconcile them.
While that Christmas was difficult, I managed to keep my emotions on an even keel – mainly because we went to my family’s house the next day and I felt far more in my own element. But things really came to a head on the day when my husband (then boyfriend) inexplicably decided to have a serious conversation with his mom about our relationship – on speaker phone, with me in the room. Matt said to his mom, “I think you should know…I think Kelly is The One.” Instead of squealing in happiness and joy, like I expected her to, she paused a bit too long and then said, “Oh.”
My immaturity and naiveté again guiding my thought process, I felt as if a gauntlet had been set down that day between me and her. I can see now that at some point during our engagement, the strife between me and his mother became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of admiring her for being an independent woman, I grumbled about the fact that she was a single woman and my fiancé was her only child. I took any call or visit from her as an intrusion into our life. I kept agreeing to visits and then regretting that I did. Suffice it to say, our engagement period was miserable, and marked mostly by arguments, tears, and estrangements. At one point, she and I were so far apart that I vowed to my fiancé that she would have nothing to do with our children.
Today, four years into our marriage, my mother in law is a great source of comfort and support to our little family. My son absolutely adores her and I look forward to her semi frequent visits. We spent Christmas Eve AND Christmas together.
I wish I had a little magic formula to sell to all of you having in-law problems, and wondering how to make it better. Unfortunately, I do not. But upon reflection, I can point out a few things that explain the sea change in our family dynamic:
- Once the hype of the wedding was behind us, and I could see more clearly, I realized that my husband was caught in the middle of a terrible rift and he had no way to make it better. He had just been forced to sit there and watch the two women he loved most rip each other up. I knew I had to stop putting him in that situation, regardless of how I accomplished that.
- I got a little older, and more mature, and I realized that not everyone thinks about things and makes life decisions the same way. I didn’t have to take every “eccentric” thing my mother in law did or said as a personal affront. In fact, some of “her ways” I needed to embrace as a way of integrating into her family too. It’s the way she is, it’s the way my husband was brought up, and that matters..
- If I do say so myself, I’m a much better wife than I was a fiancée. My mother in law loves my husband and I believe most mothers will ultimately come to love their daughter in law if they make their son happy. My husband probably wasn’t very happy during our engagement, but he is now.
- She is a good grandmother to my son. I can forgive a lot from a person if they treat my child with love.
And here’s the most important reason we won’t be throwing food at each other across the table next Christmas:
- My mother in law has come around to appreciate that Matt and I are our own family unit now and we have come to incorporate our family into hers. But even if she hadn’t come around, the most important thing is that Matt understands and enforces our unified front as a couple. He may spend time alone with his mom once in a while, and they have plenty of inside jokes and shared history – but at the end of the day I don’t have to worry about being undermined as his wife. And that security for me means that I can be generous with my love and respect for his mom as my mother in law and the woman who raised the wonderful man I married.