In Praise of Mother’s-in-law

I have to confess that when I was first married, I had a closet full of expectations for my new family. I hoped beyond hope that they would be for me the family that I had never experienced during my tumultuous growing up years. I had hoped that I would find the acceptance that I had strived for so long, and had failed to realize, with my own father. I wanted to be loved by my mother-in-law in the same way that she loved her own son. All impossibilities of course, in retrospect. But I was only 19 years old, barely out of childhood myself…and a totally dysfunctional one at that. My role models existed in books. My myths were iron-clad and unshakeable, and further more, I was convinced at the start that I would likely wind up rejected, having spent most of my life feeling ugly and unlovable. Having come from a background of living in foster care did not endear me to my father-in-law, who was a bench warming social worker, convinced that all foster children were doomed to be losers and emotionally unstable to boot. To come into a marriage with such a container-load of emotional baggage has made the fact that I am still married 32 years later all the more miraculous. Of course, thanks go to so many who made such an achievement possible- my husband and God being at the top of the list. Greg’s infinite patience with me bordered on sainthood. He protected me from all that would have wounded my raw and vulnerable spirit in those early days. And there were many opportunities for misunderstanding to turn into devastation, given that his mother was not always in a stable psychological state. She had gone through some intense depressive episodes, bordering on pyschosis, and – as everyone knows- most newly wed women think that their mothers-in-law are psychotic without there being any organic disease to begin with. With my dear mother-in-law, the issues were real, and at first, I felt very awkward and incapable of knowing how to engage with her at such times. As a nurse, I wanted to be able to say “this is such-and-such a behaviour, and this is how to deal with it”. A script is what I wanted, rather than having to fly by the seat of my pants in conversation. I resented not having a ‘normal loving relationship’- but in reality, I truly resented not having been wanted, taken care of, and nurtured in the same way that Greg had always been. This manifested itself in my intolerance for her perseverations over details of Greg’s childhood…”not again….she is treating you like a 5 year old!!”. Greg was never too keen either on having her faun over him, but he had had years to learn how to ignore it effectively. I recall a Christmas, where as a gift, she gave me half a package of Fuller brush toilet bowl deodorizer. I was mortified. I immediately took it as a slight on my skills as a homemaker. She didn’t even think twice about it. Another year, she gave me a pair of size 20 underwear (I am a size 4, and then laughingly thought that perhaps she ought to have them instead. She would have circular conversations that nobody else could follow- but were very important to her. Gradually, I learned that if I gave her my undivided attention, and then gradually moved to doing something practical with her, she responded quite appropriately, and could actually be quite pleasant to be around. I could still only take her in small doses though, and the words “mother is coming over” would instill panic in my heart. How could I ever learn to truly feel genuine love and compassion for this person that I wanted to run as far away from as possible??
Herein lies the answer. Having children. Finding the fellowship and acceptance of other families that were travelling the road together with us. Building traditions that were uniquely our own, and planting our family members squarely into the centre of them. Since my father-in-law’s death several years ago, I have watched my mother-in-law blossom like a lily long since sleeping under the soil, only to spring forth in full radiance and surprisingly fragrant beauty since. The transformation in my heart does not cease to amaze me…for some things have not changed. Her funny way of communicating with shades of conspiratorial conviction (some would call it paranoia). And yet, for some reasons known only to God, the things that once drove me to the verge of matricide, are now the very things that I find endearing about her. And I want more than anything to make it possiible for her to see her great-grandson- to pass on to him those tidbits of his family history that he will never get from my side of the family, because those stories were never a part of our oral tradition.
I want my grandson, Joshua, to know his Bubbe, pappa, and Greatgran- to bask in the mature love of the ones who will cherish and accept him, without demand.
And yes, I praise my mother-in-law. I laud her for her love and patience with a daughter-in-law who has not always understood, or had compassion for her trials and lonelinesses. I want to know her story, to value her. I wish that the rest of my family will make a concerted effort to do the same.

Thanks mom. You are a rock.

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