Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Mother-In-Law Conundrum

Mother-in-laws. They are the butt of so many jokes and entire movies have been made around the mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship. Advice columns regularly post letters from both sides of the table; distraught daughter-in-laws who can't abide by their overbearing mother-in-laws and mother-in-laws who feel as though their daughter-in-laws are the devil's spawn, aren't good enough for their sons or are simply raising their grandchildren the wrong way. Many times these uneasy relationships start long before the wedding begging the question of whether any mother thinks a woman is good enough for her son. One really shouldn't stereotype the mother-in-law relationship since there are so many positive and healthy relationships between mothers and their son's spouses, but for some reason they do. Some mother-in-laws are wonderful, others benign while some are toxic at best and down right horrible at worst. It really runs the gamut.

I am a daughter-in-law. My relationship with my mother-in-law can at best be described as frosty. She has many qualities that make me uncomfortable or on some days down right angry but I will readily give her credit for raising an incredibly caring and sensitive son. At the same time I'm sure her list of my deficiencies as a daughter-in-law is equally extensive. But I was raised to respect my elders and for the first few years of knowing her I bit my tongue entirely when she confronted me with things that frankly I thought were none of her business. Had I been younger or even older at the time I would have likely confronted her comments directly and established boundaries that I was comfortable with from day one. But at the time, and because my relationship with her son was still in the fledgling stages, I said nothing. In hindsight this was a mistake because this only perpetuated my resentment of her since at heart, I am someone who speaks my mind. I finally started speaking my mind when I became a mother myself. To put it mildly, it didn't go well and my honestly continues to place a strain on our relationship. Some days I wonder if our relationship is one I can salvage but I have come to the sad conclusion that because we are both stubborn it is impossible for either one of us to budge or change our ways. Geographic distance makes it a bit easier to deal with this friction and because I love her son deeply I usually do my best to maintain peace when we are together. It isn't easy and sometimes it isn't possible and it pains me to put my husband in a situation where he would need to choose between the two of us. 

But I am also a mother of a son. Although he is barely out of diapers I often find myself thinking about his future and what it might hold. I envision his having a wife, children and a fulfilling life. I would like to think that I will embrace a future wife as she will me but I need to be honest. Will I ever think anyone is good enough for my little boy? How will I feel when I am not the number one female in his life? Will I be able to accept the fact that his focus --as it should--will turn to his new nuclear family rather than me? When I think of my own mother-in-law and our issues, I pause to wonder how I would feel if any future daughter-in-law feels the same way about me. First, it saddens me. Would I honestly be able to step back, even if it meant not being an active part of his life, in order for his relationship with his wife to be stronger? I try to be open minded and view our situation with detached indifference but it is really hard since the issue is so personal. I am just too close to it.

And this is a conversation I've had with several friends who are all mothers of boys. We all think we will be different from our own mother-in-laws. We say we will welcome our daughter-in-laws with open arms and respect their boundaries. We say that we will not critique their parenting skills nor will we comment on how they treat our sons or raise their families. At the moment we promise we won't lay on guilt trips over forgotten birthdays or holidays spent elsewhere since we will recognize that their focus is now on their immediate families. Now we say we will wait for invitations rather than force ourselves on our sons and their families. We promise to step back and go on with our lives if our sons choose to support and side with their spouses over us, the women who gave birth to them.

But will we? I hope so, but only time will tell.

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