I recently read about Freddie’s mom, Carolyn, who was about to become a first-time mother-in-law to Elaine. For years Carolyn had listened to friends who struggled in their relationships with their in-laws, and she wanted to avoid the pain they had experienced. Over coffee one day, she asked a group of them why they weren’t simply honest with their daughters-in-law. “Why wouldn’t you just tell them it bothers you when they sit around and don’t help with meals or rarely thank you for anything you do for them?” she inquired. “And why is it wrong for you to invite your son out to spend time together without feeling obligated to include her? My goodness, just tell her you want some time with your son to catch up!”
“Carolyn, you don’t understand. If I was honest with Scott’s wife I would offend her. Then she would complain to Scott and, of course, he’s going to keep peace with her. I have never wanted to be in the middle of my son’s relationship with his wife, so I keep quiet and hope things will improve,” a friend replied. Others agreed, saying they didn’t want to rock the boat in an already awkward relationship.
Carolyn decided that up-front honesty would be better than allowing Freddie’s wife to always have the upper hand. She decided to email her. Their engagement had already been challenging enough and she didn’t want the underlying but unspoken tension to continue. She decided to put her thoughts into an email.
The email included a bulleted list of what Carolyn expected from Elaine. She asked Elaine to stop comparing her recipes and meals to those her own mother makes; told her to start helping with meal clean up; requested hand written notes to thank her for gifts or hospitality; and insisted that she stop lying in bed “until late morning in households that rise early because you need to honor the preferences of those with whom you are visiting.”
Hmmmm…do you think this email helped or hindered Carolyn and Elaine’s relationship?
We see several common things in Carolyn’s perspective:
- She was anxious. She had heard things from friends about in-law relationships that tempted her to fear the worst in her relationship with Elaine. Some experiences with Elaine, including some immaturity on this young woman’s part, fed Carolyn’s worries. She didn’t want to join friends who silently watched a son’s wife (or daughter’s husband, in some cases) negatively affect their family.
- She responded to her anxieties wrongly. I don’t know if Carolyn is a Christian, but I’m certain that most would agree her response to common anxieties was met by uncommon insensitivity. If Carolyn thought her detailed email list demanding changes was going to help things, she was wrong.
- She wanted to remain in control. Like most mothers, Carolyn had spent years sacrificially caring for her son. When he was a boy she was in charge: schedule; family traditions; food choices; everything! Her email indicates she felt the way to minimize conflict was to control Elaine, too.
- While her solution was flawed, her intentions were partly good. I don’t know Carolyn, but I know dozens of mothers-in-law. I can honestly say that I’ve never met a woman, Christian or not, who goes to their child’s wedding hoping and planning for a messy, awkward and adversarial relationship with their new son or daughter-in-law. Carolyn’s email was her attempt to control, yes, but also to protect. She didn’t want to be sitting at lunch with friends commiserating; rather, she hoped to set the record straight from the start in hopes she and Elaine could be on the same page together and move forward with less tension and strain.
If you’re like me, reading this makes you think, “No wonder monster-in-law perceptions abound! Was Carolyn seriously thinking this would help?!?!”
I would suggest that a part of Carolyn resides in most women. We love and sacrificed for our kids. We cultivated family traditions that we hope will passed on to another generation. We went to weddings and had fleeting thoughts of being the mother of the bride or groom someday. We prayed for their future spouse and, once they became teens, may have even joked with a friend with another 16-year-old about how cool it would be if we were in-laws someday. Then when it seemed a serious relationship was brewing we quickly thought of how it would be to be family with his or her parents or whether he/she would “fit” into our family.
And even when we knew our child’s choice for a spouse was perfect for him or her (and especially if we didn’t!) soon things started happening that revealed anxious, nervous thoughts about what in-law life would look like. Suddenly our dreams of our child falling in love, marrying and giving us grandchildren were interrupted with the common realities of blending someone into our family. Even when that person is someone we love it can still be hard.
But most of us didn’t talk much about it. Why? Because we were embarrassed to admit that we were fearful. Worried about how holidays would work out. A little sad to see our child’s willingness to skip a special family event we had been looking forward to because a spouse/fiance had a last-minute request to do something different. Battling guilt because we just wanted some time with our child without a new love there, too.
I have received numerous facebook messages, comments and emails about this series. Here are couple of them:
- “Sitting here wiping away the tears….Thank you for bringing into light the struggles that for some are very real and very difficult, and for me personally it has helped me see that I am NOT the only one.”
- “I feel so comforted in knowing that my struggles are common. I love my DIL dearly and I’ve never talked to anyone about how I feel sometimes.”
- “Being a mother-in-law is definitely the hardest relationship I have. There’s plenty out there to prepare people for marriage, but nothing to prepare for the in-law relationship.”
- “Thank you for sharing that even strong, Christian families have normal challenges.”
There is something inside each of us that is comforted by knowing we are not alone. The Bible assures us that our temptations and struggles are common. They don’t have to look exactly the same, but the wrestlings in our hearts and the anxious thoughts that trouble our minds are indeed shared by others.
The Carolyn in me wants to say please don’t respond to the normal and common challenges of in-law relationships in ways that will only damage something truly valuable. I, too, have been anxious, fretful and sad about how welcomed engagements and marriages changed my relationships with my young adult children. I’ve responded wrongly to my anxieties and have at times sought relief through wishing I could control my adult children like I did when they were little. Yet God has been faithful. The relationships I have with my New Kids has been worth every sacrifice. The gospel provides hope for both young and not-so-young that because Jesus Christ bridged the impossible gap between a holy God and sinful man He has the power to help bring peace to troubled relationships.
Oh — and please don’t compare your in-law relationships with those of others. The comparison trap is one that will keep you from seeing God at work in you and yours. More on that and some other things I’ve learned over the years tomorrow.