Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mother-in-Law o' Mine, Part Seven

Two weeks and a day ago, I started a post, at the prompting of Mary Bailey, about my relationship with my mother-in-law.  I had no idea I would think of so many things to say!  But since being succinct is clearly not my strong point, the series stretched to six episodes to tell the history of my interaction with Jeff's mom:  from strangers to *real* loved ones.  And now that the story concluded in this post, have I nothing more to say about this topic?  Not a chance!  They don't call me Wordy Woman for nothin'!  (OK, they don't really call me that at all; but if they did, it would be true.)  :)

A question comes to my mind:  WHY are in-law relationships notoriously difficult?

Jeff and I have never subscribed to the idea that in-law relationships have to be terrible; in fact, we've set out to prove that it doesn't have to be that way at all!  It grieves me to think of the widespread assumption in pop culture that mothers-in-law (and to a lesser extent, fathers-in-law) will be nosy, rude, arrogant, disrespectful, horrible creatures.  There are far too many mother-in-law jokes told--and far too many people who nod their head and laugh at them because they don't realize there can be another path for in-law relationships.

But the fact remains that sometimes, even for loving families, tension can exist between the wife of a man and his mother.  (And I'm sure for the husband of a woman and her father, and all the other combinations of in-laws; but I'll stick with the one with which I'm most familiar!)

In my opinion, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law battle boils down to this:  two women sharing the same man's affections.  Or, perhaps more accurately, two women fighting over the same man's affections.   As Jeff's bride, I want to be EVERYTHING to him:  the best friend, lover, confidant, partner, cook, housecleaner, laundress, etc that he's ever had.  But for many years, he was raised by and lived in the household of his mother; and without a doubt, she did things differently than I was raised to do them.  Which way is better?  More specifically, WHO does it better?

I think it boils down to this:  whose enchiladas does he prefer?  Hers?  Or mine?

Of course, that's a silly example; but no more silly than a wife who can't seem to say to the mother of her husband, "Sure, we do things differently; and yes, your enchiladas are better than mine.  I know he'll sometimes wonder why I don't roll his socks like you did.  But, on the other hand, he chose me to be his spouse for life; and I will rest secure in that, knowing that both you and I have areas of strength but that we don't have to compete with each other.  We're on the same team now."

Why is that so hard to do?

I've never seen the show Sister Wives and don't plan to do so (the whole no-TV thing sure puts a damper on my TV consumption), but I think the horror that so many of us women feel as we think about polygamy has to do with this basic fact:  I want to be THE ONE to my husband.  I want to be his beautiful princess that he carries away into the sunset, I want to be the queen of his castle, I want to be the love of his life; and anyone who threatens my status in his heart--be it his co-worker, friend, or even his mom--will come under attack by me.  In my drive for security, even his healthy allegiance to his mother could seem to lessen me; and so, unfortunately, she becomes a target.

Let me insert a very important note here.  For ease of communication, I'm writing this all in the first person, NOT because I've ever had such intense battles with Jeff's mom (thank God, we haven't), but because I'm trying to understand and communicate the dynamic that can so easily exist.  I think even women who go into in-law relationships with a desire to "do them right" can slip into damaging patterns of relating; and perhaps with more understanding, that can be avoided.

I've thought of one other factor that can make visits from in-laws seem burdensome, and that is the division of labor.  Two women sharing a house isn't always easy, even if the guest has good intentions and simply wants to help out.  As mentioned above, they invariably have different ways of doing things; and although it seems trite and just plain stupid(!) to react in this way, "little" things--like how one loads the dishwasher or whether one hangs the towels up in half or in thirds--can cause tension.

So that's the bad news.  What's the good news?  (There IS good news, right?  Well, of course!)

Here are some specific things that have helped me in my relationship with Jeff's mom:

1. Jeff has always taken my side and made me feel respected.  I cannot overstate the importance of this.  All I can do is fall to my knees, grab him by the legs, and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!"  ;-)  Kidding aside, Jeff has been unfailingly quick to reassure me that I am his princess, that I still have the keys to his heart, that I can vent to him about my frustrations when necessary (it happened a few times, even during this latest visit)...and that my enchiladas are better.  Whoops, I wasn't supposed to kid anymore!  In actuality, Jeff's mom's Mexican cooking is way better than mine, so of course her enchiladas are better than mine.  And so are her ribs...  Um um um, I wish I had a big plate of them right now.  But oh dear, I'm getting off track.  I'll try to stay focused.  Food is so distracting.  ;-)

2. One over-arching question guides me in my relationship with her, and that is this:  How would I like to be treated by my future daughters-in-law?  Lord willing, I will someday have a number of daughters-in-law to welcome into our home and family, so even though that is years down the road, I still want to learn from current life experiences to prepare for that.  Again, would I be pleased if my future daughters-in-law treat me the way I treat my mother-in-law?  Stop and camp on that question for a while.  This is so convicting that I almost don't need to say anything else.

But I will...  ;-)

3. Along those lines, earlier this year, I figured out that, if I want to communicate with her in between our visits, it needs to be with letters.  Good old-fashioned letters:  hand-written, sealed, stamped, sent in the mail. I am most decidedly not a phone person, and Jeff's mom doesn't do anything with computers (yet--I'd like to help her learn how to do the basics, like emailing and reading my blog :) someday--during this last visit, she expressed interest in this, so maybe one of these days when we're in California, we'll be able to help her learn how to go online).  So that leaves my only option for communication with her as letters.  I don't mind writing letters, but I certainly don't make the time to do it like I should; and earlier this year, it dawned on me that if I were in her shoes, I would feel so loved if my daughter-in-law would take the time to write me a letter.  I'm sure by the time I have daughters-in-law, they probably won't even know what "real" letters are; by that time, we'll probably all have computer chips in our heads that read our minds and transmit messages to others.  ;-)  But the point is, again, the Golden Rule:  how would I like to be treated?   That reminds me...I need to pick up a pen and write her a letter soon.  I'll add that to my to-do list--and bump it close to the top! :)

4. I think in Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs, it talks about the very important principle of believing the best instead of assuming the worst.  I would look it up to make sure, but we lent that book to someone many moons ago and it hasn't come wandering home yet.  (That's OK.  I'm GLAD that the book is in someone else's hands; and even if we never get it back, I'm hopeful that it has been helpful to whoever has it now.  That is so much more important than having it sit on our bookshelf!)  Let me explain how I've seen this principle at work.  True story:  when Jeff's mom was here during this last visit, she said something like, "I don't know why you recycle.  It takes too much time, and it's all for nothing!"  When I hear a comment like that, in my own nature, I (mis)translate it to mean, "You're dumb, and you're wrong."  In other words, I assume the worst.  But was Jeff's mom really saying that?  Not at all.  When I listen through my Love and Respect ears, I hear the correct translation:  "I love you, and I care about you.  I know you are so busy, and I just wish I could lighten your load."  That is believing the best.  Sounds simple.  Isn't always so easy to put into practice.  But by changing my basic assumption to "she is expressing love," it's astounding how that transformed our communication and my emotional response to the words that slipped out of her lips.

5. Similarly, I learned to interpret her numerous acts of service as bushels of love she was pouring out over us.  She's so helpful and always has been.  But at times in the past, I've felt myself flare up internally, "What?  You don't think I can do my own laundry?"  I know that what she does, she just does because she loves us, not because she thinks I'm incapable or because she wants to put me down or because she wants to show me up ("I can keep up with your laundry, and you can't.")  She just wants to show love!

6. In this post, I mentioned the wonderful words of affirmation that were lavished on me during my last family night.  What I didn't specify, however, was that the ones that meant the most to me that night came from her.  It was interesting timing that I "just so happened" to have my family night while she was here, and I was curious about how she would respond as various family members shared about me.  She is not quick to give words of affirmation directly to a person, and I did not want to force her into a position of feeling awkward or feeling like she HAD to say something nice.  :)  But she spoke up boldly and expressed so much affirmation for how welcome she feels here in our home (it's definitely unique for a mother-in-law to stay four weeks, and for everyone involved to be happy about it!) and how pleased she is about how we're raising our sons and how much she loves me ("equally with Jeff," she said).  Those few minutes of speech were of inestimable value to me.  I've often thought that acts of service without words of affirmation can feel like condemnation; but by giving me those precious words, she poured sweet, soothing oil all over my soul.  I mentioned in this post about receiving The Blessing from Jeff's dad; and although I've certainly felt welcomed and affirmed and blessed previously by Jeff's mom, that particular family night conversation stands out to me as a significant moment of Blessing from her.  I treasure it; and boy, it sure made it easier to relate to her after that.  I would go through my days, doing whatever mundane task needed doing, and then into my thoughts would pop the reminder, "She likes me!"  It changed everything.  :)

7. I wrote quite a bit in Part Six about humility, so I won't repeat all of those thoughts here.  But I'll just say this:  when I'm humble towards my mother-in-law, our relationship is GREAT.  When my pride creeps in (and not just big, puffy, arrogant pride, but also quiet, sly, insecure pride), our relationship suffers.  Even if I cover up my feelings and pretend all is well, I feel the struggle within me.  For the last several months (maybe longer), I've sensed a deep need and desire within me for more women in my life to hold me accountable, to mentor me, to speak into my life, to be real with me about the areas in me that need growth.  I long for that, but honestly, it's so rare to find that.  During one of my conversations with Jeff during his mom's visit, when I was sharing some of my frustration, he said kindly, "Well, you said you wanted someone to disciple you."  That stopped me short.  Yes.  Yes, I did.  But on second thought, it's hard to be discipled!  It's hard to be sharpened like iron!  It's hard to have someone living in my house and seeing my every move!  It's hard to be so open and real!  But humility--oh, sweet humility!--you make all the difference.

8. I should mention one thing that Jeff's mom has gotten really good at:  she respects our boundaries, particularly when it comes to how we raise our children.  For example, while she was here, she wanted to buy Josiah and David each a DS--a very nice gift!  But before she did, she asked Jeff and I (at separate times) what we thought.  My response was, "Um, talk to Jeff, and see what he says."  Jeff's response was, "Thank you, but no thanks.  We'd rather not let the boys have those yet because we want them to use their time in more productive ways."  And that was it.  If she was frustrated by our decision, she didn't show it.  If she wanted to argue, she bit her tongue.  :)  In short, she respected our boundaries and didn't try to sabotage our game plan for life and parenting.  This is huge!  I hope, when I am a mother-in-law, I remember her example and do well in this area.

9. Speaking of boundaries, one thing that I did during her recent visit that helped with the potential hardship I described above when two women share a household was, in essence, to stay out of her way when she was doing something.  That sounds kind of mean, but I don't intend for it to be construed that way.  Here's what our division of labor looked like (not that we sat down and formally drew up an agreement to do things this way; it's just how it worked itself out to be):
~ she's an early bird so she got up early, helped the boys with breakfast, played games with them, did any kitchen chores that hadn't been done the night before, started a load of laundry, etc. while I relished the opportunity to sleep in (at least, until Shav woke up)  :) -- I, on the other hand, am a complete night owl, so when she was drifting off to sleep at 8:30 PM, I was just getting revved up and could use that time to work in the kitchen or straighten the living room or do whatever household chores needed to be done (and then, of course, have me-time and blog!)  :)
~ she was eager to help me get caught up on my laundry, so she was in charge of sorting, washing, drying, folding, and all I had to do was put away...while she was here, I barely touched the washing machine!  :)  I didn't feel like I had to go down to the laundry room to make sure she was doing it "right"; she could do her part the way she wanted to, and I could do my part the way I wanted to
~ one afternoon, she was busy cooking in the kitchen, preparing food for supper (oh, that's another thing--we clearly communicated about who was cooking on which nights, and that was helpful), baking cookies, etc. -- on that particular afternoon, the kitchen seemed a little too small for both of us, so I went down to the cellar and had a blast completely organizing it...both of us, in our separate spheres of activity, were happy and productive
~ one project we did collaborate on was making applesauce, and obviously there was a lot of cooperation the rest of the time, too; but the idea of having a division of labor and respecting the boundaries even in household tasks was truly helpful

Well, I think I've sed all I've thunked!  ;-)

But for you, Morning, did I answer the question you left in the comments?  And for anyone else, do you have further questions?  I want to be considerate and tie up any loose ends that I left dangling throughout the course of this series of posts.

For now, however, I've said enough.  This Wordy Woman is going to bed!


Amanda said...

I find myself jealous of your relationship! :) I had a pastor who preached on relationships with people and how when we're born we are full of sharp edges. Over time, we go through life bumping around with all of these other people who are full of sharp edges and eventually those sharp edges are smoothed out and we become smooth and round over time. He said there are those people who don't have many relationships with others and therefore are still full of those sharper edges and more difficult to get along with. I found that to be a wonderful analogy and have thought of that often. I too hope that someday my daughters-in-law and I will have a good, healthy relationship. I am thankful for your thoughtful posting here about this and can only say that I wish it were that way with me! It's a work in progress...but one thing that has helped me get through is the realization that I don't have to be 'friends' with my MIL. And that isn't my goal any longer (as it was when Ben and I first got married). I respect her, and hopefully she respects me as well...and for now that is good! :)

Miriam said...

Ouch. I think my toenails are going to turn black and blue and fall off. My relationship with my MIL has not always been as good as it is now, and I still have room for improvement. And there are even times, now, that I let myself fall prey and get frustrated and irritated. I have a tendency to blame it on the "we've always lived so close to them" - but obviously it is a heart matter and not a geographical matter. Mama once told me that her spiritual gift is helping someone else to clean. I let that get under my skin because I didn't WANT her to help me clean. I wanted to prove that I can do Daniel's laundry, and keep the floor picked up all the time, and keep the dishes washed and the surfaces dusted (of course I can't keep up with everything ALL the time - it does get messy around here). *I* am Daniel's wife and the housekeeper of this house, not *her*. I am rambling... all to say that you have given me a LOT to chew on with this Part 7 post. I might need some TUMS. LOL. Yes, she and I are drastically different in many, many ways. But so are you and your mother-in-law, and you have proved that it can be a wonderful relationship! Thank you, Davene!

Miriam said...

PS - It was when I clicked over to your blog this morning and saw your new layout and header picture that it hit me. IT'S DECEMBER!!! Yaaay!! Acck!! Where has the year gone?
I love your Christmas design :)

Pam said...

Love you thoughtful words Davene. I think you have wisdom, in all of your endeavours to make and keep good relations between you. So glad that you are both careful with each other's position. I have always wanted to be a good mother in law. I have always tried to find that mixture of helpfulness and enjoyment of my daughter and son in laws, while trying to respect their lives and their space. I have tried to stay out of their business so to speak, while staying in the midst of their lives and keeping that intimate relationship. It is definitely something that needs to be thought about as a mother in law, and I
always hope I am keeping the right balance and respect.
Many Blessings to you Davene,
Much Love,

Morning said...

Whew! So much to say and think about -- you are indeed a Wordy Woman, but still each word is there for a reason (even if just to entertain us!). It is interesting, but I am among the few who have no difficulties in my relationship with my MIL, so much of this post is an eye-opener to me. While we certainly aren't 'friends', I like and respect her, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Of course, we'll soon be sharing some time together when my Geoff goes on a long holiday to Africa and she stays with me, so the relationship is likely to be tested then! In answer to whether you have completely answered my question, I think I have to say "no"! One last thing I'd like to know, if you don't feel it's too personal, is whether you would follow the same course of action as your parents-in-law did (especially in relation to not attending the wedding), if one of your boys were to marry a girl who you did consider unsuitable (for instance, a non-Christian), having yourself experienced how it feel to be a DIL who is not completely welcomed. See, just when you thought the topic was over, there's another query in the mix!

Davene said...


Oh, yes! I did forget to talk about that! Thanks for reminding me.

The short answer to your question is...I don't know.

At this point in time, it's hard to even imagine one of my boys choosing to marry someone so radically different from us that we would decide not to attend the wedding. Having felt the sting of that, I'm in no hurry to inflict that on anyone else. Drawing boundaries over denominational lines (as was the case with my in-laws) - well, I just can't see myself doing that at all. I want to be a woman who warmly welcomes future daughters-in-law; I want to get to know them and make them feel a part of the family. I want to share thoughts and listen to theirs over cups of hot tea. I want to lavish words of affirmation on them so they will feel accepted and respected. I can't picture myself doing anything other than that!

But it's impossible to know the future, and I suppose in theory it could happen that a son of mine would so completely go against the path we've chosen in life that we would feel it best to make that boundary and not be at the wedding. Whew, I don't even like to think about that!! :)

As far as your relationship with your MIL, I'm not surprised that it's good! From what I can tell through your blog, you are a woman of strength and maturity; and I'm sure your gracious spirit endears you to your MIL.

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments!

Homeschool on the Croft said...

Wow! I stored up all posts to read them together, and I've just done that! And loved every one of them. Really, it was such a good read... you may be 'wordy', but you have a way with words!
I often - and have done for some years - pray (and worry - one of my major sins) over the relationship I will have with my grown-up kids and their future spouses. There is so much I learn (I hope) from mistakes my own mum makes, and has made (I don't want to be disrespectful, but sometimes things happen). I really never want to make these mistakes. At the same time, I'm so aware there will be other mistakes - things my mum or m-i-l have never done and I've never thought of. It all needs prayer, humility and grace.
Loved the posts. Loved your writing. And feel now like I love both you and your mil!
Love, Anne x