At times, I find myself alone and in the dark, perched somewhere high out on a limb, so to speak, of the proverbial family tree. I feel like some old night bird curiously fixated upon those scurrying and hurrying about within my range of vision. In an attempt to make some kind of sense from all of life’s conjunctions intersecting my path, I ponder the complexity of family ties.
Instincts cannot be trusted, and logic gets twisted inside the web of newly formed kinships, especially when the relationships involve a mother, her children and their spouses. I know that I am a natural-born mother, no doubt about that. On the other hand, to say with the same certainty that I am a natural born mother-in-law, would be disingenuous, and oxymoronic. Granted mothers-in-law are products of the marriage process, but they are never born.
Traditionally, there are two brands of mothers-in-law: the son-in-law variety, and the more intricate daughter-in-law kind. I happen to be each. Comparatively, the mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship is not one of personal concern, for it is not, in my opinion, as complicated a relationship as the other. Certainly, there are volumes of jokes and witticisms to the contrary bashing the wife’s mother, the old battle-axe. However, for the most part these are harmless jibes poked in fun, to entertain the son-in-law’s buddies, the same caliber of humor as those ridiculous blonde quips, the “little woman” jokes, and “you know you are a red neck if” anecdotes.
In reality, that same jesting son-in-law more often than not accepts his wife’s mother for exactly the person she is—the mother of his wife, no more or no less. His relationship with her normally follows the wife’s lead. This seems to me the most logical and rational of all male behavior.
Of course, there is nothing absolute. When new bloodlines bring new beliefs, new attitudes, different manners, and modes into the family, the routine interactions of the original unit become more intricate. More likely than not, this is most evident in the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law kinship as it develops, co-exists, and mingles with the other interactions at work in the family. This unusual association intrigues me.
An unseen ceremony takes place in the marriage room, paralleling the union of husband and wife, a separate joining unnoticed by the guests. The mother of the groom must undergo her personality split in silence, graciously assuming the new obligatory identity thrusts upon her. From that day forward, she becomes a mother-in-law, for better or worse.
From being a devoted, hands-on parent, her role must change instantly and curiously, into a hands-off one. In that life-changing moment, when the pronouncement of man and wife is made, the mother-son bond adjusts accordingly. Another dimension of mysterious regulations and codes has been added to the mother-son relationship, mandated the moment that final I do is uttered. The new husband remains his mother’s son, of course, but in a less maternal way. It is a strange occurrence and takes getting used to by all parties involved.
As a teenager, I had helped care for my baby brother so I learned basic childcare skills before actually giving birth. In general, I knew how to keep my babies happy and healthy pretty much through the first several years. Beyond that, about all I had to rely upon was logic. This commonsensical parenting method became the guidepost upon which my maternal successes and failures would depend, just as it had for my own mother. I had peripheral vision when my children were young. Ever vigilant, I guarded their lives. My heart tenses even now when danger threatens them, and knots into pain when they are in difficulty or hurting.
As a parent equipped only with 1950’s judgment and a mother’s timeless intuition, I managed to pull my family and myself, both mentally and physically, through the confusing, trying times of simultaneous child rearing and marriage building. Somehow, although a bit scarred, shaken, and frayed around the edges, we made it though the Seventies—our family intact. Topping our mountain, we stood there as a single unit looking out over the vast unknown, the next decade.
Like a collaged landscape, the Eighties lay before us, an awesome panorama shrouded in mystery and invitation. I clutched my reliable logic and inbred instincts, like a magician’s trusty bag of tricks, in one hand and my husband and children in the other, as we entered a new era. We moved into individual and separate pathways, into new roles and responsibilities, and onto extended family matters where our adult children became spouses themselves. I had no choice but to let go.
As a new mother-in-law, I decided to pull myself back, out of the minefield of uncertain expectations and emotional upheaval, to evaluate the situation as a writer as objectively as possible. During extensive research of the mother and daughter-in-law phenomenon in general, I was surprised to find that in most cases, the daughter-in-law tries harder to bond with the mother-in-law rather than the opposite as I had assumed. The new bride, I discovered, feels the greater desire to earn the love and respect of her husband’s mother. Nevertheless, more often than not, according to my findings, the daughter-in-law feels that she fails miserably, and must accept the stereotypically interfering, judging, demanding, or rejecting mother of her husband.
How could I avoid having my daughter-in-law view me as meddlesome and overbearing, or worse? I had been living under the assumption that because my son had always loved me unconditionally, his wife would too. But, what if my daughter-in-law had absolutely no interest in forming any kind of meaningful bond with me? What if everything I did or said was misunderstood and taken the wrong way? I realized that the dream of my family continuing in unified harmony, as it extended, was not a given.
After interviewing a wide range of mothers and daughters-in-law, I came to the following conclusion: When the mother and daughter-in-law enter the playing field, and both women will know when the game has begun, the advantage must always go to the daughter-in-law. Otherwise, the mother-in-law will appear manipulative, demanding, and jealous. The daughter-in-law serves the game ball. That is the rule. It is a wise woman who, upon encountering her son’s wife, realizes when the ball has been served into her court. The way she handles that first serve can very well determine the outcome of the entire game.
I noted reoccurring indicators, red flags, throughout my research that guarantee a failed mother and daughter-in-law relationship. Common mother-in-law missteps include the slightest show of superiority, the mere hint of verbal criticism, the scantiest look of disapproval, and the sheerest suggestion of judgmental body language. Any, heaven forbid all, of these can kill the relationship before it ever takes its first breath. Harmony, much less genuine affection, has a difficult time developing between the two women after the mother-in-law bungles that all-important first serve.
As a result, the relationship becomes one of tolerance. Usually the daughter-in-law endures the mother-in-law, hopefully discreetly. In this case, with some luck as the years pass, and the two mature, a common respect will develop.
Decades have passed since I first became a mother-in-law. Through the years, I have learned enough about adjusting, accepting, respecting, and loving every new addition to the family to consider myself a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship expert. It is with qualified experience that I declare this link the most delicate and easily tarnished of all kinships existing inside one family. It can also be the strongest, most enjoyable, and most unique form of friendship any two women can share.
Grateful for the mercy that my daughters-in-law (I have two now) have shown me, I trust they continue not to judge me too harshly. They know my primary mistakes were never mean-spirited, only thoughtless and uneducated. Perhaps my absolution is found in the knowledge they have learned from me before they become mothers-in-law themselves. I freely offer my shortcomings to them, all my bumbling, blurting statements, even a few outright crass remarks. All my foolish blunders I hold out to them as post-it notes for things not to do.
To my only daughter, to my enduring daughters-in-law, and to future mothers-in-law everywhere, I bid you bon voyage, smooth passage. Go softly and vigilantly into that unfamiliar place when your time comes, understanding that your actions will affect generations to come. I leave you now with this warning: Watch out for that first serve. It comes out of nowhere and packs a wallop.