Thursday, March 27, 2008

heavy stuff

I had decided not to write about my relationship with my mother-in-law here. It is a story that is too long, too convoluted, too reminiscent of a really bad soap opera.
But then I was talking with the play-group gals the other day and realized that bad blood between girls and their MILs is an epidemic- not my little personal problem.
I certainly didn't bring up the topic, having realized long ago that bad-mouthing my MIL was not OK, no matter how "justified" I felt. But one of the other girls brought up her mother-in-law's recent visit, and a I noticed a collective tightening of jaw muscles and small sighs (and a few eye rolls.)
I had to ask, "Does anyone here have a good relationship with your mother-in-law?"
There was silence. Finally one brave soul said, "Actually, yes. I hate to even admit it because I know that most people don't, but I'm very lucky. I just adore my MIL. She is so sweet, and such a help with the kids."
So, 1 out of 9 had something nice to say. And these AREN'T nasty women. They are a sweet, church-going group who are not catty in the least. Really lovely women.
I have to ask: Why?
Really, I want to know why this happens. I don't think any MILs start out on their sons' wedding days with a wicked chuckle, "Now, my pretty, you're in for it!"
And I don't think any of us daughters-in-law start out thinking, "He's mine now, lady. You're history."
But it happens. I know that my case has special circumstances- bipolar disorder (no, not me) is a serious and difficult mental illness- especially when the person who has it won't treat it.
But as we talked, the other moms and I made some interesting, and sad, revelations about our mothers-in-law. We didn't bitch. We didn't bash. We shared our stories, and our thoughts, and tried to puzzle out how this relationship, that should be so special, has turned so sour.
Ann talked about her husband's own strained relationship with his mom, and how she had spent years trying to mend it, even forging birthday and Mother's Day cards that he refused to sign. She told about the most recent incident when her MIL brought her sister-in-law a HUGE floral arrangement on Easter and quite pointedly gave her nothing. She said she's fed up.
Katherine said that her MIL is not so overt, but is full of thinly veiled criticisms poured on with syrup on top, "Oh, dear, that roast is SUCH an improvement over the one you made last time. You're starting to get the hang of the kitchen now!" or "Will is doing SO much better now that he goes to school. That teacher is really helping him thrive."
Lori told about the time her MIL came to "help" her after she gave birth to her twins. She said the help was not so helpful, and in the end she cooked every meal while her MIL said things like, "Dear, don't you worry about a thing- I'll watch these two (babies sleeping) so you can tidy up/ cook/ run some laundry." Lori was only 2 weeks post-delivery!!
Kendra shared that her MIL was always critical and stand-offish until finally after a disagreement about where a holiday would be spent she screamed, "You stole my son! You stole my son from me!"
And I? I told one of my earliest MIL memories. It was the first time my MIL visited our new house- we were so proud of it- and totally rearranged our furniture, and our kitchen cabinets, while we slept. No regard for the fact that this was OUR home, and OUR belongings, and OUR arrangement. She acted like she had done us the biggest favor in the world. "I just thought it looked so much better like this." Being passive-aggressive, I didn't say a word until 10 years later, though it crushed my little newly-wed feelings at the time.
We tried to identify the root of these issues. One seemed clear- often our MILs felt that we had somehow damaged their relationships with their sons. We examined that notion. A few of us felt that accusation had some truth, if you ponder the way we, as wives, do have a tendency to alter family traditions and holidays, exert our own influence over our husbands, etc. But on the whole, we all said that the mother-son relationships were damaged before our marriages. My husband told me on our first date that he had come to the South to get away from his family- especially his mom. Kendra said that from day one her husband never wanted to talk to his mom on the phone, and she always had to cover. Lori said her husband constantly rolled his eyes behind his mom's back, told her that his mom drove him nuts, dreaded visits, etc.
So part of the relational break-down seems to be occurring before the marriage even starts. I guess the wives are an easy and convenient place to lay blame.
I think a big part of this happens because we moms need to have a major shift in how we relate to our sons as our sons become men, and this is surely hard to do. Young men/men need to feel respected, not mother-henned. That's not to say that they don't still appreciate some "mothering" in the form of a home-cooked meal or a listening ear, but they don't seem to appreciate nagging, or bossing, or being fussed at. I don't look forward to making this transition with Brother, but I am determined to pull it off. I shudder to think that he would dread my phone call or visit the way my husband dreads his mother.
I have also already written a letter to him and his wife-to-be that I will present to them on the eve of their wedding. It basically says that as his mother, I emphatically believe that the most important woman in his life is his wife, and that her needs and wishes must come before mine. That applies to where to live, where to spend holidays, how to raise children, which recipe to use for spaghetti sauce, etc. It was hard to write now, and he's only 22 months old. I know it will be hard to read 20+ years from now, but I am determined to give them that freedom, rooted in Scripture, and get myself out of the way of their happiness. That is not to say that I will tell him I'm out of his life- on the contrary. My hope is that in establishing myself as #2, I will create a sense of easiness for him and my future daughter-in-law that will make them want to be in my company.

So, I'm curious. What do you think? Why does this important relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law (or mother and son) so often go sour?


Jessica said...

Well, I do have a good relationship with my MIL... now. When my husband and I were dating (we were VERY young, lived at home) she said and did some pretty mean things. I did decide to move past those and start fresh when we got married.

They have made an effort to stay out of our business unless we ask for help sometimes to the point that it drives me CRAZY. The phone works both ways :)

One thing that we have done (which I know is made easier by the fact that my husband does get along with her pretty well) is that every day on the way home from work, my husband calls his mommy. It was my suggestions and it has done wonders. I know that she loves feeling like her grown son wants to talk to her and that he cares about her day to day life even if it does drive him crazy sometimes.

It has been great for their relationship and it doesn't take a huge sacrifice from us.

I have a friend who has an unbelievable MIL- she offers to take her sons on awesome cruises with her if they won't bring their wives. She will say it just like that in front of the wives.

I think the key is that the husband has to be the one to establish a "new" relationship with their mother and a lot of times men simply fail to do this- they leave it to two women who rarely know each other well and are often feeling like they are in competition. It is a recipe for disaster.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right - this IS epidemic, which is sad and rather shocking to think about! I have lots of friends with lots of ridiculous stories. Amazing. I can't imagine how any grown person could think this might be HELPFUL if your goal is to keep your son close to you. Perhaps MATURITY is a large part of the problem?

My son is only 6, but I have always known that one day I will not be the "first woman" in his life anymore, and I also know that that is how it ought to be, if I want him to be a healthy man, a good husband, a devoted father. And if I want to see my granchildren, I'd better just learn to get along! :)

I have a brother, and I saw first hand the process of pulling away that begins in middle school or high school. It was bitterly hard on my mom. I'm trying to prepare for that so I won't take it too personally. It's going to be a battle, though, isn't it? These boys have our hearts in their hands.

My mother in law is very sweet, but if I have a complaint it would be that I wish she would be a bit MORE involved. She has always tried to err on the side of NOT being a busy-body, not being too curious, not butting in where she isn't asked. I do appreciate her concerns, but sometimes I'd like her to take the initiative and just come, or just ask. To KNOW that she is truly interested. At the same time, I would like for her to understand better how difficult it is for us to come when they want us to, how difficult it is to travel with children, etc...

But these things are good examples for us to remember! It's got to be tough, this balancing act you must do, and do well, as a mother-in-law. There is just an inherent tension there that is hard to overcome, and I think when our sons marry, the overwhelming burden will be upon US to do that overcoming. "Fairness" goes out the window. Makes me weary to think about it - it's a life of service right into the grave. :)

While I'm here, I'll answer your question about Claire's little houses. You wouldn't know they were "houses" to look at them - they are built in her mind, into the sides of nature. :) We have a line of shrubs on one side where she has carved a niche, just a tiny path into the center, where she has hung a wind chime, and she uses the branches to store her treasures she squirrels away - scraps of fabric, a discarded cup or planter, tiny things to use as cups and saucers, I don't know what all.
On the other side of the house there are more shrubs, and these are actually lining the house. So she squeezes in between the house and the shrubs, shielded from view, and there you will find ALL kinds of goodies, because no one else ever goes over there - it is the alleyway between our house and our neighbor's, so it is shady and hidden. She has discarded decorative flags, and large planters that she "cooks" in, and a ladder that came off the old playset, and egg cartons, old brooms, and all kinds of things.

Now that it is springtime again, she is back behind our fence, raking straw and making smooth places in the undergrowth, finding branches to make boundary lines for houses and paths, and pretty things to decorate with here and there. She carves out steps and cuts back vines, and tries to plant things. To a passerby, it isn't much, but to her it's a world of her own. We call it "England," because one day she told us, "I have all these WORLDS in my head... and most of them are in England." :)

Kate said...

Such a great post and everything you said rings true.
I have no answers. Except that I will be very conscious to step aside and let my son's wives be first in their lives. I will respect their ideas about how they choose to live their lives and how they choose to raise Their children. Boundries, they are incredibly important too.

Here's an idea, why don't we just go ahead and arrange some marriages between our children to ensure that they all have lovely inlaws!! On second thought I guess that might involve crossing some boundries huh? Oh well.

Beck said...

Heh - the same thing happened to me that happened to your friend Lori. I think the problem there was that our mil's had the secret agenda that they wanted to spend time with their new baby grandchildren and were using "helping" as a way of getting extra baby time.
I think that what generally happens is that a man grows up and grows away from his mother and then all of a sudden there is THIS OTHER WOMAN who has taken her place and all of the jealousy and yearning for her child comes boiling up. It's heartbreaking and REALLY ANNOYING.

Mary Beth said...

Hi Susan. Just wanted to reply to your sweet comments on my blog. Thank you! I agree, I'm surprised I've gotten though all the recent upheaval sans Diet Coke but am very pleased nonetheless. Take care.
Mary Beth

Mom24 said...

I have a horrible relationship with my MIL. She does not see us, our kids, my married son or his child. It hurts. A lot. It might be different if I could point to specific things and say "this is why/when it happened". But I can't. She (they, to be fair), just seem to have a complete lack of interest in any of us. My 5 year old doesn't even know she has another set of grandparents, although she's starting to ask questions about why we don't see her uncle, aunt, and cousins. I just tell her you can't change other people. You can't make them be like you want them to be. You have to accept what you have, and be thankful for the people you do have in your life. Not a great explanation.

I try to be a good MIL. I hope I have a good relationship with my DIL. I love her, and I like her, and I think that's terrific. We babysit whenever we can, and take their son for extended periods so they can go away together. I try not to be over-bearing, but to let them know they can count on us anytime. I think she's a good mother, and I think she and my son are happy together. But I have no idea how she feels about me. She's polite and nice to me, she's far too good of a person not to be--but that also means that I probably wouldn't know her true feelings about things--she wouldn't want to "cause problems" or complain. She does not call me on the phone, and we don't talk often. When they visit, she talks to me, but I know she doesn't feel especially "chummy" with me. That makes me sad. I wish it could be like that. However, she's very, very close to my (almost) 16 year old, and I'm very thankful for that relationship in my DD's life. I think she's not like that with me mainly because I am a "MIL", and we're just not there yet. Maybe someday we will be, maybe not, I don't know. I hope so. I would like that.

We made it a point when they got married to tell them both we couldn't be their sounding board. If they had problems, we weren't the right people for them to come to. That they could forgive each other, but that we would remember, and choose sides. Not intentionally, but still. Sometimes I regret that--it's hard not to know if things are truly all right with them, but it's not really our business.

I think in-laws and extended family can cause a lot of problems in a marriage and we did not want to do that. We tell them for all the holidays, vacations, etc., that OF COURSE, we want to see them, but that they need to make the decisions that are right for their family--they have to watch out for their family unit first.

I pray that they are happy together, we enjoy spending time with them, and I realy like and respect both of them. I would love to have that with my MIL.