Those Who Stayed With Me

You can barely see Jaime in this pic…how could she not love a cute little girl like this? 🙂

Today’s post is from Janelle, our fifth, who is married to Eric and is an orthopedic nurse.

So far, you have heard from my younger brother, Jake, on the importance of forgiveness and repentance in sibling relationships.  Even though he dissed me and said my laugh is loud and annoying (ok… maybe it is) I wholeheartedly agree with him.  You also heard from my older sister, Jaime. I felt good when I read her post because I don’t ever remember us biting or pulling each other’s hair like her girls do – so there is definitely hope for Annie and Danae.

This post has less about what you can do to foster close sibling relationships in your own kids and more about how God uses bad circumstances to do good things between siblings. The pictures on this page are a testimony to God’s faithfulness…more on that later.

Let’s face it, when we are going through a great season where everything is going our way, everyone is being nice to us, the Lord is blessing, and our kids are being kind to each other (or in my case, my husband is being kind to me) it’s easy to cruise along and be happy.

But when I think back to the seasons of my life I felt closest to my siblings I remember the aftermath of difficulties and trials.  As a kid I was less aware of this than I am now.  However, after reaching adulthood, some of my sweetest memories with my siblings were during times of intense heartache.  Two of these memories stand out more than any others.

Oldest brother Josh. The tears started with him.

I was eleven when my eighteen-year-old sister Jaime got married. I didn’t think much about it. All I knew was that PJ was nice to me and that I liked him, and that Jaime and I weren’t close because she didn’t like me.  (Of course, it had nothing to do with me be an annoying little sister!) As time when on, however, I began to better understand what happened. You see, Jaime and PJ were keeping their relationship secret from our family because they knew Dad and Mom wouldn’t approve. This was the hardest thing our family had walked through. The months that followed were difficult as my parents, sister and new brother-in-law carefully walked through the repercussions of this decision. I remember Mom crying a lot and Dad being unusually quiet. I was fearful and anxious about the future. Our normally happy, loud house was sad and quiet.

Soon after the marriage Jaime wanted to take me to the mall.  I was surprised since she had never done this before. We laughed and hung out. I had the time of my life with a sister I secretly adored but had never been close to.  As we were walking she suddenly stopped, looked at me intently and said, “Missy, you have to promise me something.”  I had no idea what to expect.  “You have to promise that when you like a boy, even just a little bit, you will tell Mom and Dad and trust them.”  She was so serious and passionate I had no choice but to agree.

Tall brother Jesse. He always makes me smile.

I never forgot that promise to my sister.  I can point back to that moment as the moment we became friends.   In fact, she helped Mom plan my wedding and in May 2010 she was my matron of honor. Few were as supportive and happy as Jaime to see me marry the love of my life. Because she made me promise to trust my parents, Eric was the first serious relationship I had….and Mom and Dad were the first to hear that I had my eye on him.

The other memory finds me at my grandmother’s gravesite.  Nanny’s funeral had been both somber and joyous as we celebrated the fact that she was now in heaven with her Savior, her husband and her son — free from the cancer that had been diagnosed only weeks before. The previous months had been draining on our whole family.  Just two weeks earlier, and within days of Nanny’s diagnosis, we had moved to Orlando from the only home we had known; a home we shared with Nanny. Now one of my favorite people in the world was suddenly gone. After watching her coffin laid to rest, I wanted to escape all of it.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I moved away from everyone and broke down crying.  I had been crying all day but these were different tears; tears of despair and anger.  I didn’t notice him walking up but then felt Joey’s arm go around me.  He wasn’t one to show affection easily, especially to me, but he saw me crying and wanted to comfort me.  He didn’t say a word.

Sweet brother Joey. (With Jaime looking on.) I’ll remain forever grateful for his hugs.

What Joey didn’t know was that memory would stick with me through the extremely difficult time of going back to Orlando to no friends and the grief of losing Nanny. Mom and Dad were still trying to process and deal with her death, as well as the circumstances that led to our move in the first place. God used my providential loneliness to force me to the Scriptures for solace and comfort.  I don’t know what would have happened if Joey hadn’t silently comforted me.  Maybe I would have trusted God with my grief, but perhaps I would have turned into a bitter teenager who thought that God was cruel and unloving.  What I do know, however, is that moment brought me closer to a brother who put aside his personality to comfort his little sister.

These memories are only two out of probably hundreds.  Now that we’re all adults, my siblings and I continue to walk through trials and hardships.  I know without a doubt that we all have each other’s backs.  I know they sincerely want what is best for me.  And I know that the prayers of my parents are being answered through the good times, but mostly through trials.

My nearest brother Jake. We fought. We bickered. We became friends. And here we cried.

So please take heart.  God can forge a bond between your own children. He will use your prayers that will tested and tried through the flames of hardship, loss and grief. One my wedding day I experienced the love of my siblings in a profound way. My sisters were my attendants and my brothers surprised me with a reception dance where they each cut in to dance with me one by one. I will never forget their expression of love for me that day.

In Luke 22 we find Jesus reclining at the Last Supper with his disciples.  After breaking bread and drinking wine Jesus tells them one of them will betray him.  What did they do? Say things like, “Oh Jesus, thank you for being willing to die for us!” or “How hard this must be for you, to suffer and die!”  Yeah, no.

“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”

My newest brother PJ. He always liked me.

It reminds me of when all of my family is together at a birthday party and Mom initiates our normal tradition of honoring me – the birthday kid. But somehow the conversations turns to my brothers arguing about whose basketball career was the most impressive.  They all claim personal rights;  Joey because of his last second three pointer in the playoffs; Josh because he scored 1,000 points by his junior year; Jake because he….just because he’s the best at everything; and Jesse because he dominated the paint.  Okay, not a perfect analogy.

In His moment of greatest need Jesus could have said, “Guys!  I am about do DIE!  I am the greatest, you nimrods! How can you be thinking of yourselves at a time like this?!?”  Rather, He gently reminds them that the greatest would also be the one who serves.  But the most surprising thing to me that he says is right after.

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials.”

That echoes in my heart.

Mom and Dad, you are those who have exemplified what it means to pray for your children through trials.

Josh, Jaime, Jesse, Joey, Jake, Julia…you are those who have stayed with me in my trials.

P.S. The rest of the story: Jaime and PJ will celebrate their 15th anniversary in March, and Dad and Mom love him. Well…mostly because he helped give them Kayla, Wyatt, Annie and Danae.

Hats off to the New Kids

This series on in-laws has stirred my heart. The messages I’ve received from people have been varied:

  • One woman said she reached out to her daughter-in-law and had “the best conversation we’ve had…maybe ever!” that included honest dialogue, asking of forgiveness and a commitment to starting fresh with their relationship.
  • Another reader honestly disclosed her heartache and feeling that I have a “perfect life” that she and many can’t relate to. My heart broke as I read her weighty words. She has had a hard life with many trials. But I was also reminded of painful situations through which I have walked that I would never write about on a blog…my life has been and is blessed but far from perfect. But I have a Day to look forward to when it will be!
  • God has used my own words to tenderize my heart about my mother-in-law moving in with us in the near future. I have fresh faith to love and serve her, and to live out the truths about which I’ve been writing. I still have concerns and bouts with selfishness — but my faith is rising. Smile.
  • Another reader skillfully encouraged any DIL to honor a MIL’s request to call her Mom. (You can find her words in the comment section.) She admitted that when this request came twenty years ago she was hesitant, but she now enjoys a closeness with her MIL that only years can bring.
  • A young friend who recently moved out of the country has gotten surprised reactions from total strangers when she mentions they live very close to her mother-in-law. So cultural negativity about in-law relationships isn’t just an American issue.

The main way my heart has been stirred has been with fresh appreciation for PJ, Rachel, Rebekah, Lauren and Eric. I never thought I could love someone else’s children like I do them. And things have certainly been imperfect. My strong affection for family times has tempted them to feel obligated to participate at times to avoid disappointing me. Their lack of expressed gratitude sometimes for things I do has been disappointing. There have been hurts both ways that just wouldn’t appropriate to share here through which God has helped them or me to work.

Yes, our family is imperfect. The trials we have endured have been many. We have offended, lied to, yelled at, been disloyal to, held bitterness toward and critically judged one another. We’ve had family meetings to discuss offenses and share concerns. Things have happened that have required forgiveness we had to receive grace from God to extend. We have wept together over painful situations and been the recipient of critical accusations of being too close.

So when you see our family vacation pictures or read about our close relationships, please know there’s a back story. A story of flawed sinners and God’s faithfulness. A story of insensitive comments, tears, angry words, unspoken disappointments, resentments, questioned motives, wrong conclusions, selfish choices and “what were they thinking???”

Yep, just like in your family.

To have kids who endure this is one thing. But for my New Kids to persevere through it all is another.  Yes, they’ve brought their share of all of the above to the table but they’ve also been patient and forgiving. I’m sure they’ve gotten more than they bargained for on many fronts by marrying a Phillips.

Every time I look at the picture of all of us on the banner above, I’m amazed. An infertile woman had six children. A dad who believed God would have us adopt trans-racially had his prayers answered and the family’s baby girl just turned 18. Five of my children are married and have given me eleven grandchildren.

They are My People. Eighteen of them are blood relatives and five of them are not. Those five are the New Kids and I am forever and always their mother-in-law. They joined a family who loves the Redskins and Auburn when they love Duke, UF, Miami and…at one time…Dallas, but thankfully that’s pretty much over. They have a mother-in-law that thinks the fam should get together for every holiday that is written on mass produced calendars and who likes taking three hours to open all the gifts one by one on Christmas morning. Their father-in-law started a new church at nearly age 60 that resulted in them having to pray through whether God was leading them to come…and they did, which meant leaving the church they loved where they hoped to raise their children.

I love them. As I’m typing tears are coming because God has knit our hearts together through years of their patience and understanding. And I was able to write a blog series on in-law relationships without anxiety about how they would interpret something I said. (Well, I did run a couple of things by them to make sure…smile.)

There are two New Kids to come. When they are added I will be a mother-in-law to seven. Wow. They can call me whatever they want and I’ll share Jake and Julia with their family on holidays. There will be more stuff to work through and I’ll make more mistakes. And gift opening on Christmas morning will take even longer because of a couple of extra gifts under the tree.

I want to be a part of a counter-cultural, gospel-centered and Christ-honoring group of in-laws that admit the struggles but refuse to isolate our relationships as being untouched by biblical truth.

Help us, Lord.

Is It Okay to Skip Biblical Truth with Your In-Laws?

Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to communicate openly with your in-laws? Maybe you heard from your husband that your mother-in-law is ticked because you didn’t call her on her birthday. Or perhaps the kids were permitted to watch something you deem inappropriate while spending time with the grandparents and you’re hesitant to bring it up.

Throughout this in-law series I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the best help we Christians can find on how to treat our in-laws is in a place where this topic is rarely even mentioned: the Bible. Yet “doing Christianity” is often hard when it involves your spouse’s family. People who are committed to doing things like serving, believing the best, being patient and overlooking offenses (or at least trying to!) in other relationships stumble when it comes to their in-laws.

Why? Let me be honest with you. I truly believe that the primary reason is that Christians have bought into worldly thinking that in-law relationships are just not meant to be good. Sarcasm and jokes abound that we don’t even realize have seeped into our thoughts and hearts.

Take Beth, for example. One morning Beth’s mother-in-law spontaneously invited her to lunch the next day. This wasn’t something they regularly did together, so Beth was curious about why Jean extended the invitation — especially last minute. She and Jean had gotten along well over the seven years since the wedding so she wasn’t apprehensive about spending the time with Jean. Just curious…

Shortly after their food arrived Beth assumed it would become clear why Jean had invited her to lunch. Yet the small talk continued. Beth found herself becoming impatient because she was going to need to leave soon for an appointment. Why wasn’t Jean just coming out with whatever she wanted to share? She decided to drop a hint by glancing at her watch.

“Look at the time! I’ll keep my eye out for our waitress so we can get the check. Ethan’s class will be over soon.”  Jean was aware that Ethan attended a weekly co-op for home schoolers at their church and Beth hoped this would invite her to reveal the reason for their lunch.

“How is Ethan doing, by the way?” Jean asked. “I know he was having some challenges with reading. Are things better now?” Oh, so that’s what this is about, Beth concluded. Chuck had mentioned to her that his mom was worried about Ethan — and Beth knew her in-laws weren’t supportive of their decision to home educate the kids. She was glad she needed to leave soon because Chuck was the one who needed to hear his mother’s concerns anyway. Beth shared that Ethan’s reading skills were steadily improving and thanked her for taking an interest in how he was doing. Their lunch ended soon thereafter.

If you’re a child-in-law I would encourage you be careful not to assume you know what is motivating your in-laws. Weeks later, Beth was having coffee with a close friend. During their conversation it seemed natural to mention that she wished Chuck’s parents were more supportive of their decisions and choices about the kids. When her friend asked what she meant, Beth shared her lunch experience with Jean and how she left worried that her in-laws would always be looking for reasons to shoot holes in their decision to home school.

“Have you asked Jean about that, Beth?” her friend inquired. Beth hadn’t because she knew what Jean was doing. She waited until the end of their lunch conversation to ask about Ethan’s reading because “that’s what she does.” Her friend gently challenged her to not assume that was Jean’s motive. She then appealed to Beth’s strong commitment to biblical truth and suggested she to go back to ask if Jean’s reading questions were related to any lingering concerns about them home schooling.

Beth hesitated, saying this just wasn’t how she and Jean related. Her friend lovingly persisted. “If I said something that you thought indicated I was bothered by something you were doing, would you ask me?” she asked. “Of course!” Beth responded. “But this is different. She’s my mother-in-law! And she’s not a Christian, so….”

Beth’s friend helped her to see two things: First, she was presuming that Jean asked her to lunch primarily to subtly communicate her ongoing concerns about home schooling. Second, Beth was unwilling to take some simple biblical steps to either confirm or correct this assumption…steps she would have taken with most other people.

Gratefully, Beth saw the need to reach out to Jean. She called and thanked her for lunch. Then she said, “Jean, I’ve been thinking about your question about Ethan’s reading. I really do appreciate you taking an interest in how he’s doing, but I’m wondering if you’re concerned that he’s not going to make good progress in his education at home. I know you love him and want the best for him. Would you mind clarifying for me if there was any other reason why you asked about that?”

What Beth learned was that Jean had been looking online for Christmas gifts for the grandchildren and had found a set of children’s books she hoped to purchase for Ethan. The last time she gave him books, he was embarrassed that he couldn’t read them well.  She was trying to avoid that happening again.

“Beth, you know that Bruce and I aren’t real sure about home education, but I just wanted to know if I should go ahead and order the books,” she responded.

Beth’s quickness to presume she knew what was motivating her mother-in-law is common. (Mothers-in-law have the same temptation with our children-in-law!)  And based on past interactions, she had reason to wonder if Jean was finding a way to reiterate her concerns. What was uncommon, however, was her willingness to reach out to allow Jean to offer another explanation.

It was risky. Because we live in a world that projects parents-in-law (and especially mothers-in-law) as opinionated meddlers that approve of little their children-in-law do unless it’s the result of soliciting parental counsel or approval, what Beth did required courage and humility. It also required facing the possibility that she would hear more concerns about a decision that was her and Chuck’s to make.

Perhaps your mother-in-law meddles and is opinionated. And I am not a good example of someone who regularly follows up on interactions with people the way Beth did. Yet the truth is this: we can’t allow worldly thinking to give us permission to dismiss biblical teaching on how to treat others.

Beth did a good job of approaching her mother-in-law with a question rather than an accusation. She affirmed her love for Ethan. Then she asked for specific clarification and invited her concerns.

Does this sound impossibly simple to you? Yeah, me too, because simple truths are hard to live out in real life. Realizing I might be wrong about someone’s motives is easy to admit sitting here in my living room with a computer in my lap, yet not nearly as hard as humbly giving the person the chance to prove me wrong.

Resisting worldly thinking about in-law relationships is sometimes the first step to realizing the importance of following through on something simple like graciously asking your mother-in-law what she meant by a question or comment that didn’t set right with you.

Sometimes we Christians pray for faith and courage to do heroic things for God that require sacrifice beyond our natural abilities. What if the opportunity He provides is to simply treat our mother-in-law with Christian love that refuses to be influenced more by culture than by scripture?

Josh’s Surprise Pumpkins

The phone rang and she instinctively checked the caller ID. Margaret again. She had a way of regularly calling at the wrong time. Diane wondered what people did before you could know who’s calling before you pick up the phone.

When Diane and Vic married she had some concerns about Margaret. Vic’s dad died about a year before the wedding and Margaret became a little clingy with her only son. Diane understood that Vic’s wedding following so closely to Margaret losing her husband was going to make it hard. At first, she was calling almost daily just to say hello and check in. The calls aren’t nearly as frequent now but Diane can’t help it that Margaret seems to call just as she is leaving to run errands or Vic is just walking in from work.

Besides, Margaret will probably call back later in the week. As she walks away from the phone, Diane’s eyebrows press into a slightly quizzical look. For some reason she just realized that she never remembered Dad getting regular calls from her Nana. Hmm…guess they weren’t that close. Maybe that’s why she only saw Nana once a year or so.

The posts on this in-law series have recently focused on the parents-in-law. For the next few days I’d like to share some thoughts that may be helpful to children-in-law. Diane didn’t realize that her in-law views had been shaped by her upbringing. Because her father didn’t get regular calls from his mother, Diane unconsciously wondered why her own mother-in-law called so much. Sometimes she didn’t even mention to Vic that his mom called…

I’m reminded of Josh coming to me when he was about eight to tell me he planted a couple of pumpkin seeds on the hill in our back yard. “Nannie said if I planted the seeds where they could get lots of sun and grow downhill we’ll have pumpkins pretty soon! She said even you probably can’t kill pumpkins, Mom!”

The sparkle in his eyes prevented me from squelching his enthusiasm. Clearly my reputation for killing most everything I planted was well established. But even I knew that digging a little hole, throwing some pumpkins seeds in it and dousing it with a glass half full of water was not going to result in fresh pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving.

Well, until the vine grew all the way down the hill and cute little pumpkins started growing.

The first thing I want to share specifically with children-in-law is this: remember that you are sowing seeds will may reap in the future. I find myself regularly repeating a phrase Benny picked up somewhere years ago, “More is caught than taught.” Because Diane grew up in a home where there was little one-on-one contact between her Dad and his mother she found the amount of contact between her husband and his mother to be excessive at worst and mildly irritating at best.

In-law relationships are rule-less. There is no reputable handbook or list of laws that must be heeded about relating to your parents-in-law! And what is preferred by and works for other families may not be right for yours. That’s where the comparison trap can wreak havoc. Perhaps you have friends who rarely see or talk to their in-laws and it works fine for them, while others you know go to their in-laws every Sunday for food and football. Look long enough and you’ll find someone who has the kind of in-law relationship you prefer — whether it’s less contact or more. 

The Bible talks about the principle of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7). What is put into the ground is what comes out of the ground. I can’t plant tomatoes and then be disappointed that I didn’t get cucumbers! While this verse is certainly not referring to in-law relationships, the principle is applicable. What was “planted” in Diane’s young heart was that husbands and their moms don’t have much contact and see each other only occasionally. This made Margaret’s regular calls to her married son seem a little strange to Diane. She wondered what in the world would happen when they had kids for her to dote on?

If you are the parent of small children I would suggest that you consider the seeds you are planting. After Benny and I got married it became more noticeable to me how infrequently he and his parents (who lived nearby) interacted. After we had children, and especially after his parents divorced, I found myself suggesting to Benny that he call his mom to say hello, invite her to the kids basketball games or see if she would like to join us for church events.

Some years later I realized what I was doing. I wanted our children to grow up seeing their dad reach out to his mom. There was something in my heart that hoped our sons would “catch” their Dad’s care for and initiative toward his mother. As her daughter-in-law, I not only wanted Jewel to be the recipient of her son’s love (especially because of Benny’s warm relationship with my mother) but I also hoped those seeds would be reaped in my life when my four little boys became men.

I’m not suggesting that how you treat your in-laws will automatically affect how your adult children will treat you. Perhaps Diane’s grandmother was perfectly content with the amount of interaction she had with her adult son and didn’t notice that he didn’t reach out except to make arrangements for holiday visits. But maybe she would have loved to hear from him more — if she wasn’t concerned about being perceived as a meddling mother-in-law or a nuisance.

Take a minute soon to look at your little ones. Those chubby arms and legs will grown lean and long. Before you know it your little boy’s voice will deepen and you’ll start seeing facial hair pop up on a face that is starting to look like it belongs to a man. The little girl who is turning in “pretty circles” to Disney music will be asking when she can start wearing makeup. Your children will become adults who will leave home and get married.

What will your relationship with them be like then? Who will be there to show them how to warmly love their parents ? Will they think to call sometimes just to say a quick hello? Will their eyes roll unseen on the other end of the phone or computer when asked to come over to Mom’s for dinner or drive into town for a holiday? Will they get so busy with their new marriage and life that they forget how excited you are when you hear their voice on the phone or as they walk into the front door?

Let me tell you a secret. You are teaching them — now. Let them hear you call your parents and parents-in-law or overhear you gently remind your spouse to do so. Show them how to treat you later by how you treat your parents and in-laws now.

And if you’re discouraged because there is so much turbulent water under the in-law bridge that you’re afraid it’s too late, remember the gospel. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross says it’s never too late to hope for change. Maybe your in-laws are mean and want little to do with you. Perhaps they are perfectly happy with living their lives apart from you for any number of justified or unjustified reasons. And maybe, if you’re honest, you prefer the way things are and don’t want more relationship or contact with them.

Again, just fast-foward a couple of years and ask yourself if the way you think about and treat your in-laws is the way you hope things will be with your adult kids and their spouses. Making any changes you think are needed now with your in-laws won’t guarantee good things later.

But you never know. After all, we had fresh pumpkin pies that Thanksgiving because a little boy was willing to throw seeds into some dirt and hoped they would grow.

Vacationing With the In-laws? Ummm…..

A couple of times during this series on in-law relationships I’ve mentioned the dangers of comparisons. Consider these real-life situations (with changed names):

  • Jennifer and John admitted to friends recently that the majority of their conflicts are over in-law relationships. Specifically, Jen hears regular comments from her mother about much more time the grandchildren spent with John’s parents than with her.
  • Martin’s parents live closeby while Anna’s are out-of-state. Anna’s parents feel that because of their close proximity to the kids, Martin’s parents should be willing to sacrifice Thanksgiving and Christmas in exchange for living nearby and sharing so much time together throughout the year.
  • Melanie learned from Greg that his parents planned their first extended family reunion in several years during the week of her younger sister’s high school graduation.  When Greg called to explain this to his Dad and Mom they responded by saying that while they were sorry about the conflict, they expected that their annual participation in Melanie’s family vacation would certainly warrant her making Greg’s family reunion a priority this year.

Please try to remember that comparisons are frequently rooted in jealousy or rivalry and can produce ongoing tension. As an in-law I have dealt with disappointments over decisions my married children have made. But I’ve found that often the tables turn and next time the decision may go in my favor. Allowing resentment or jealousy to fester is not only sinful but also damaging to my family. Humble and honest dialogue with our married children and their spouses, and perhaps with our in-laws, can be helpful and redemptive. However, time and again over several decades of being intimately involved in the lives of numerous families, Benny and I have watched in-law relationships go from bad to worse when married children are put in the middle of parental rivalries. On the other hand, we have also watched in-laws partner to protect their married children and their grandchildren from jealous tension by making requests rather than demands — then resisting the temptation to react sinfully when disappointed.

Two more thoughts for you to consider:

Anticipate challenges and expect grace. One friend commented to me that this series has tempted her to want all of her children to be single so she won’t have to share them! Letting our kids go is fraught with challenges. Additionally, having married children requires blending an adult raised in a different family culture into your own. Add unspoken expectations, selfish demands or suspicious attitudes to the mix and…look out!…where there is smoke there will be fire.

In-law relationships are often challenging but God’s grace is available to all. Some years back I whined to the Lord that it would have been helpful if there was at least one little chapter in the Bible devoted to this relationship. When should I express my concerns to my married children and when should I be silent? And surely God knew that most adults would love to have Him lay out fair rules for the holidays! The thought that quickly came made me feel pretty foolish….

Much of the Bible speaks of relationships; I just needed to cry out to Him for help to apply the clear teachings throughout scripture that apply to every relationship in my life. Flawed people seeking to apply biblical truths will not inoculate families from conflict. It certainly hasn’t ours! And loving our children’s spouse and his/her parents doesn’t necessitate becoming close friends or sharing holidays and vacations. But it does require governing our hearts with a healthy sense of self-suspicion about what is motivating us when desires become demands and competition sets in.

Last, don’t resent sharing. From the time our kids are little we teach them to share everything. Then when they become young adults we are the ones who have to share…them.

A note to parents of sons: sometimes sharing isn’t equitable. This is commonly true with sons. The old adage, “A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all of her life” can play out in heart-testing ways in many families. Generally, married daughters are more committed to staying connected to their parents than married sons. When a daughter wants to hang out with family she typically drops by her mom’s house, not his. Because she talks to her mom more often, her mother-in-law doesn’t know to offer to babysit for that upcoming event so, of course, she’s happy to take Mom up on the offer. If we parents-in-law don’t carefully guard our hearts against temptations to feeling overlooked or slighted, we can become bitter toward the person with whom our child fell in love and/or her parents.

Some time ago one of my New Girls communicated some guilty feelings over  her and the kids spending more time with her mom than with me. She acknowledged that she rarely calls or drops by and wondered if I was resentful over the inequity. I told her that while I love any opportunity to see her and the kids, I understood why she was more comfortable hanging with the women in her family than with me. Wasn’t it the same with me? While I have loved Benny’s mom for decades and she has been a model mother-in-law in many ways, the simple fact was that if given the choice I would usually choose putting my feet on the furniture at Mom’s.  How could I expect my daughter-in-law to feel any differently?

The truth is I love her dearly and I know she loves me. She proves this every day by caring for my son and grandchildren; being patient with things about my son that could have used more parenting help prior to their marriage; sharing holidays with our loud and large family without complaint; and even thinking to ask me how I felt about her heading to Mom’s first.

Maybe the in-law situations you are facing are far more weighty than having to figure out how to handle Thanksgiving. Perhaps hostility and manipulation characterize your relationships and you have no hope for change. Or maybe some of my thoughts seem simplistic and insensitive. Please know that’s not my intent. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my comments aren’t meant to speak to every situation.

But here’s the good news: the gospel does speak to every situation. There was absolutely no way a totally holy God and utterly sinful people were ever going to get along. Yet God made a way. Perhaps He hasn’t called you to “be close” to your in-laws. That’s not the standard that everyone must reach. In-laws can be warm or politely superficial and still honor God. Some in-laws talk about personal things happening in their lives while others don’t. I know in-laws who go on trips together and others who would rather stay home than do so, and not because they don’t like each other. And even those who have several married children have differing relationships with each.

Whatever the case, the gospel is applicable. Jesus Christ made a way for sinners and God to have a relationship, so He has the power to help people with lesser differences obey biblical commands to love, forgive when needed and be kind to one another — even if they never share a vacation.

In-Law Name Calling

Corrie and Todd were getting married in three months. Corrie was an only child while Todd had three siblings, two of whom were married. One night Todd asked Corrie when she planned to start calling his parents Mom and Dad. (He didn’t share that this had come up in a conversation with his Mom earlier that week.)

Corrie was stunned.  “Todd, I can’t call your parents the same thing I call my parents!” It was then that Corrie remembered that in Todd’s family the kids-in-law all call his parents Dad and Mom. This was the first time she had seriously thought about this — but, no — she just couldn’t do it! She had a good relationship with them, but they would always be Mr. and Mrs. Campbell to her. It would be so awkward to call them anything else — and besides, how weird would that be for her parents? Well, maybe she could start calling them Bob and June but that’s as far as she could go.

What to call the parents is a common and sometimes tense issue for young couples. In families like Todd’s there’s an expectation that kids-in-law will demonstrate their affection for becoming a part of the family by calling their new in-laws Dad and Mom. Anything else would be offensive and communicate that Corrie really didn’t want to be a part of the family or preferred a standoffish relationship with the new in-laws. Todd’s Mom already had some concerns about Corrie’s aloofness at family gatherings. Todd was sure that starting to call her Mom would convince her and the family that Corrie loved them.

“Todd, you know I don’t mind spending time with your family. Wait a minute,” she thought. “Did your mom bring this up? Ugh. I hate it when she talks to you about stuff about me. Couldn’t you have just told her that this was between you and me? This is what happened on your birthday, too. She couldn’t just let you and I spend the day together; you had to do the family thing. Well, I just can’t do it. And you need to be the one to explain to her that Mom is reserved for my mother. I’m sorry….Wait. But now that we’re on the subject, what are you gonna call my parents?”

This tension may sound familiar to some of you. Corrie’s discomfort with calling the Campbells Dad and Mom bumped up against Todd’s willingness to make the change with her parents. Corrie was torn. She admitted she liked the idea of hearing Todd call her parents familial names but she didn’t want that to draw attention to the fact that she just couldn’t reciprocate. How, though, could Todd explain to his parents that they would remain Mr. and Mrs. Campbell — or maybe switch to her calling them by their first names — when their other two children-in-law called them Dad and Mom? Wouldn’t that tempt them to believe Corrie didn’t really like them?

What to call the in-laws isn’t an issue when everyone is on the same page. But when they aren’t, it can cause conflicts and misunderstandings that are often connected to other common in-law issues. Corrie had already struggled with differences between her family and the Campbells, especially when it came to holidays. She liked her family traditions and wanted to retain them for her children. Besides, she was an only child and Todd’s parents had three other kids around for special days. Certainly all the Campbells would understand that she couldn’t leave her parents alone on holidays for hours on end. She could still see the sadness in Mom’s eyes when they left Thanksgiving lunch last year to head over to eat another big meal with all the Campbells.

Competition between in-law families is real and common. Yet it’s something that is rarely acknowledged or discussed. “What to call them” is the frequent door through which couples and their parents can walk to discuss other both heart-related and practical issues.

One blogger put it this way: “I just couldn’t muster the courage to call her mom or mother. I had feelings of disloyalty to my own mother and even betrayal sharing that title with her.  I honored her but I never gave her a name! I would just appear in her presence or on a phone call and start with pleasantries.”

Here are some considerations we have talked through and passed on to young couples during pre-marriage counseling. (Once again, they’re just our thoughts, not the next on a list of in-law “rules”.)

  • What to call the in-laws is a personal decision to be made by the younger couple. Parents who make this an issue or become hurt by what their children–in-law call them may be inching shut the door that we’ll be called anything! Some of our New Kids call us Dad and Mom while others call us Benny and Sheree. What they call us isn’t nearly as important as it being clear that this, along with numerous other decisions, are theirs not ours. Parents who make this an issue or allow seeds of resentment to be planted in their hearts are starting off on the wrong foot.
  • Sensitive parents-in-law understand that feelings of betrayal or disloyalty can make it hard for children-in-law to call them anything other than what they called them prior to marriage. Making it any issue (either outwardly or quietly in a seething heart) can damage your relationship with the child-in-law and create potential conflict in your child’s marriage. (Which you may secretly enjoy on some level, but which tempts your child to take sides between you and their spouse which rarely results in longterm benefits to anyone.)
  • In-law relationships vary and shouldn’t be held to an unspoken and extra-biblical standard. What you call someone doesn’t have to reveal heart issues, good or bad. And what your friend’s in-law children call them isn’t the issue. My husband always called my mother by her first name but there was deepening affection between them over several decades. He cared for, served, joked with and cherished her. In fact, he was closer to her than to his mother. A friend of ours who called his mother-in-law Mom (because that was what she and his wife expected) rarely interacted with her. His willingness to avoid hurt feelings by calling her Mom didn’t create a warm relationship between them because relationship comes from the heart and may not be at all connected to what you call a person.
  • Name calling can change. One of my New Guys routinely calls me Sheree but sometimes calls me Mom. The point is he is around to call me something! One friend has a son-in-law that called her by her first name for years, but then switched to Mom. When asked about the switch he said, “Oh yeah. I switched. Not sure why.”

As a parent-in-law it is my responsibility to guard my heart from resentment or unhelpful expectations of our New Kids. Shortly before the weddings I make sure there’s time for a conversation with each New Kid. One of the things I do in that conversation is release them to call me whatever they choose. I want them to know that what is important to me is that they feel warmly welcomed into our family, not what they call me. I don’t have to change their name when they marry my child and I don’t want them to feel like they have to change mine.

What is more important to the in-law relationship, what we call one another or how we relate to one another? The memories I have of Benny mowing Mom’s lawn; gobbling up the homemake biscuits she made just because he was coming over; investing funds into adding a small apartment onto our Virginia home for her; tenderly kissing her forehead and telling her he loved her the night we left to move to Orlando; and sharing a beautiful tribute to her at her funeral mean far more to me than what he called her.

I also call his mom by her first name. After Mom died I hoped to transfer that name to her just so I could call someone Mom. But I didn’t. And I probably won’t. Soon she will be moving in with us. I will make her food, share my days with her, drive her to appointments and possibly do lots more for her as she is unable to care for herself. I have never been very close to her but I do love her; mostly I love her son. I’m about to be given the opportunity to demonstrate my affection for both of them in tangible ways, having never called her Mom.

What to call the in-laws is an issue that invites people on both sides of the relationship to take a look at their hearts.

More on that tomorrow.

P.S.  As a reminder, the posts so far have been nuanced in the direction of the parents-in-law. A couple of readers have asked when thoughts for children-in-law are coming. Smile. They will.

What To Do When Greet By Hugging Marries Wave From Across the Room?

Today and tomorrow I’m going to share some personal lessons I’ve learned in my fifteen years as a mother-in-law and early next week I’ll communicate some thoughts for children-in-law, but before I do, some opening comments….

I’ve learned from your comments and messages that some of you are in painful relationships with your in-laws. Please know my intent in blogging about this issue is not to address the unique concerns of every reader. Few things stab at a mother or father’s heart than awkward or adversarial challenges involving our children.  My heart goes out to those of you whose in-law relationships are plagued by suspicion, accusation or tension. Others of you have healthy and warm in-law relationships. I pray these posts have made you freshly grateful! Still others have little relationship with your in-laws. You have rare or no contact with them. Perhaps you would like to — or maybe you’re glad they are a non-factor in your life.

The things I share are simply ideas and lessons from my own life and experience to be considered or tossed as irrelevant or unhelpful. While I certainly pray they are helpful, I also know that your best source of counsel is the scriptures and those who know you best. But for what it’s worth, I want to share six lessons I am learning that have helped my relationships with my New Kids. Some of these lessons have been learned the hard way through mistakes on my part while others have been gleaned from others, including my mother and mother-in-law.

One more thing: please understand that I am speaking to a generally Christian audience of people who are encountering normal and common issues. If you are experiencing serious issues of any kind and are not already receiving counseling from a qualified source, I urge you to do so. I am not a professional counselor; I’m simply a wife, mother, friend and homemaker just like many of you.

The first lesson I’d like to share is please remind yourself that your child’s relationship with their spouse must be valued as the most important one in his/her life. Marriage was the first human relationship God created. This was for good reason. He chose this union to demonstrate the covenant love and devotion between Christ and His bride, the church. Even before the first couple had children, God taught mankind that once God brings a man and woman together in marriage they must “leave” their father and mother and “cleave to” (“hold fast” or “be glued to”) one another (Gen 2:24).

After our children are married, we cannot and should not do or say anything to separate or jeopardize this prized relationship. While all of us are instructed by God to “honor [our] father and mother” we must allow the Bible to interpret itself in what this should look like. We may feel that honoring us means our married children should continue to seek our counsel about decisions; tightly protect our family’s holiday traditions and continue to faithfully attend family gatherings; realize how much we miss them and call us regularly to see how we’re doing; and elevate our preferences as the “elders” of the family.

Do I wish the Bible defined honor as requiring my adult children to live nearby and spend Christmas morning with Benny and me every single year until we die? Absolutely! But it doesn’t and couldn’t, unless our child’s in-laws also live nearby and we shared Christmas morning together so our child-in-law can “honor” his/her parents, too! As parents, we can certainly make honest, reasonable requests. But when our children marry they are beginning a new family that is separate from our own. This doesn’t mean they are given a pass to be selfish, insensitive and uncaring. However, just as our own relationship with our parents changed when we married and left home, so does our children’s relationship with us.

I have come to see the wisdom of God in doing everything I can to prize my married children’s relationship with their spouse over their relationship with me. This hasn’t been easy. At times I have wrestled, cried, battled self-pity and fought resentment. Then I remember that God called them to leave me and cleave to each other. The best thing I can do for my married son or daughter is release and encourage them to cherish their mate. This is especially important in the early years of the new marriage when in-law children understandably wonder how their new parent(s)-in-law are dealing with the changes.

One of the most endearing things that happens in my relationship with my sons-in-law, PJ and Eric, is when they send their wives to Mom for counsel. This is so meaningful because it demonstrates their trust that I (hopefully!) won’t say anything to my daughter that will put a wedge between her and her husband. This hasn’t always been easy. There have been times when I have been tempted to take up an offense for my girls; after all, I’m their mom! But in cases of martial strife or difficulty, the best thing any friend or advisor can do is compassionately point the person to the One who has all the help that is needed for whatever is happening rather than quickly share our mom-tainted advice. When our children marry we want their spouses to come to trust that we will not do anything to sentimentally draw their spouse — our child — away from them and toward us.

Second, resist any temptation to make critical or unkind comments to your child about his/her spouse. Again, as Christians the scriptures should be our guide in every relationship. Sinful speech in the form of gossip, fault-finding, sarcastic or critical words are not forbidden in the Bible except when in-laws are involved. As parents, we will certainly observe and perhaps hear struggles our children are having with their spouses. Our children are imperfect sinners who married imperfect sinners! But then something usually happens: they kiss and make up. In the aftermath of a conflict or when our children are hurt or hopeless, they may actually want us to agree with them that their spouse is a louse! But later they and we are left with the sarcastic, judgmental or accusing words that were spoken in the heat of the turmoil. As parents, it is our responsibility to wisely choose our words when talking to our child about his or her spouse, especially when they and/or we are upset or concerned.

I have heard in-laws on both sides of the relationship who have had to take a hard stand. Married kids have had to say, “Please don’t criticize my spouse anymore. If you have any concerns or criticisms to share, you will need to speak with them and not me.” Parents-in-law who speak negatively about their child’s spouse may let off some steam now but will likely pay later. Additionally, when married kids develop a pattern of sinfully bashing their spouse to Mom and Dad they, too, blow off steam that tempts parents to resent a child-in-law. In both of these cases, the damage can be serious.

Third, and last for today, recognize you are building a lifelong relationship. There have been things about each of my in-law children that have bothered me — and certainly things about me that have bothered them! All relationships are flawed. Even the best of friendships are tested through conflict, misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s no surprise that people-in-law confuse, disappoint and sin against one another. And on top of that, there is a common weirdness to in-law relationships because two families are being united to some degree. Even in-laws who have little interaction are affected by the upbringing, traditions, values and family “culture” of the person to whom their child is married.

Loud marries boistrous. Tidy marries sloppy. Tradition marries “whatever we’d like to do this holiday.” Resolve it now marries this can wait. Greet by hugging marries wave from across the room. Make sure you see Mom on her birthday marries give her a call that day-ish.

Throw some sin in the mix and of course there will be challenges! Now that I’ve had married kids for nearly fifteen years I am learning that I need to be as patient with my New Kids as God is with me. God doesn’t point out all my faults and areas of needed growth at once. Wow. If He did I would be completely overwhelmed. I’ve tried to imagine how hard it is on a new husband or wife to wonder if the in-laws approve of them. Who wants to live under that kind of pressure and concern, even if it’s unspoken? Being married is hard enough without the added pressure of wondering if a parent-in-law is pleased with who you are.

Most of what has bothered me about my New Kids centers on personal preference. Yes, they sin just like I do. But most of the weirdness has been lessened by the realization that I’m tempted to elevate my preferences over our relationship. That’s why I decided to give my relationship with our New Kids two years before I bring up any uninvited concerns. (If they’re reading this post they probably learned this for the first time.) Certainly if there was something serious that needed immediate attention, Benny and I would speak up. But most of the things that worried me were no longer a concern in two years. Any weighty issues that became a pattern were more easily discussed when they were secure in our love and commitment to not meddle.

The fact is this: if you’re a parent of married children like me, our children made a choice. We may or may not agree with the person or timing of their choice. But once the choice is made we are wise to build a culture of love and trust. Alienating our children and their spouse is no way to build a bridge over which the joys and challenges to come can be carried.

P.S. I know this post is long. But if you made it to the end you now know that I’ll post the other three lessons I’m learning tomorrow. I would love to hear any helpful lessons you are learning. Please share them in the comment section for my and others benefit!

Don’t Send This Email to Your Daughter-in-Law!

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.

A Mother-in-Law’s Confession

Our beautiful Jaime with PJ, our first New Kid, March 1998

If you’re a mom of both a son and a daughter, let me warn you: your son getting married will likely affect you differently than your daughter. My daughter, Jaime, married two years before her older brother. While saying goodbye to her was hard, it was painful for different reasons. I’ll explain…

The night before Josh got married I was a mess. My first son was about to say “I do.” How could one heart be full of both joy and sadness at the same time? We had just enjoyed a fun wedding rehearsal where Rachel surprised her soon-to-be-husband with a choreographed and lip-scyned rendition of “I Will Follow Him.” I witnessed my husband “practice” officiating the wedding of his firstborn. Mom, who hated flying, made the trip to Texas from Virginia and just hours earlier we sat laughing about the time she thought she was scooping 2-year-old Josh’s chewed gum off of his outstretched finger one Sunday morning during the worship, only to discover it was a booger. We had just finished cleaning up after a Mexican-themed rehearsal dinner to celebrate our new daughter-in-law’s wonderful Mexican heritage. I was happily tired.

Josh and our first beautiful New Girl, Rachel, in March 2000

However, when it was all over Benny and I retired to our room and warm tears started flowing. I loved her. I knew she was God’s gift to my son and to our family. I was genuinely happy for my son and deeply enjoyed seeing him so happy and in love. But along the way I realized something. I was no longer his second favorite lady. Nannie had always had first place in his heart and she had, rightly so, fallen to second as Rachel took first place in my son’s heart.

Months earlier, stirrings I couldn’t quite put my finger on suddenly became clear. Rachel was visiting from Texas and she came into the kitchen asking for Sprite. “Sprite?” I asked. “I’m sorry, we don’t typically keep that around, sweetie,” I responded, thinking the request was for herself. “Okay, I just assumed you did since that’s Josh’s favorite,” she responded. “What???” I thought, but didn’t say. At that point his favorite had always been Dr Pepper!

Jesse brought Rebekah, New Girl number two, into our family in January 2005

Some time ago a friend and I were chatting about her son’s recent marriage. This normally articulate and outgoing mom was fumbling to communicate how things were going. She seemed overly careful about her words. Eventually, though, she admitted she wasn’t sure how to do the mother-in-law thing.

I asked if I could ask her something personal to which she agreed. “Do you ever feel sad that you’ve been replaced by your son’s new wife?” She seemed startled. “Of course not! I love her! She’s the best thing that’s even happened to him!”

“Karen,” I empathized,”feeling like you’re competing with your sons’s new wife doesn’t mean you don’t love her. It’s natural to feel like you’ve been set aside. There’s nothing weird or silly about that. The fact is you have been replaced. You raised your son for another woman and now he belongs to her. It’s good and right, and you acknowledge that. But it’s okay to miss him and to sentimentalize the days when you were the one he woke up to. And sometimes you’re jealous or resentful or sad. I went through some of this when Josh and his brothers got married. And ya know what?  It’s probable that your new daughter-in-law has feelings about you she doesn’t understand either.”

We enjoyed a good cry together. She asked me why she had never heard this before from fellow mothers-in-law. I told her I thought it was because admitting these kinds of struggles seems childish or petty. As the old person-in-law we are taken off guard by tinges of jealousy or feeling like we have to compete with a young woman who may be relatively new to our son’s life when we’ve been there since the beginning! Yet thinks she knows him.

New Girl number three at Joey and Lauren’s wedding in September 2008

Grown ups aren’t supposed to have feelings like this so we stuff or deny them. Not all mothers struggle with these temptations. What a blessing that must be! But many have, including me.

Josh and Rachel have been married for twelve years. During that time we’ve walked through some rough but common waters. I’ve made mistakes that have benefited my relationships with Rebekah and Lauren — the New Girls that married Jesse and Joey. Hopefully Jake’s future wife will benefit, too.

I’m grateful for Rachel’s patience with me because she was the first of four New Girls in my life. I’ve asked forgiveness, inquired about what I do that makes things challenging and worked hard to make sure my son knows that when Rachel rightly replaced Nannie as first in his heart, I was content to take a “lesser” place in his life. Any temptations to compete with my first new girl dissipated quickly.

Janelle married our Newest Kid, Eric,  in May 2011

For 22 years Benny and I prayed for the women who would live with our sons far more years than I would — the women who would become their God given helper. God wasn’t talking about a mother when He told Adam it “wasn’t good for man to be alone” — He was talking about Eve. Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, Eve was created by God to help her husband not just for 20 or so years, but for life with her encouragement, service, rebukes, respect, love and counsel. Once God identified the answer to three of my four sons prayers, I had to step aside. Willingly. Gladly. With faith.

Tomorrow I’ll share some specific lessons I’ve learned. (And more about being a MIL to guys in a later post.)

Is Alice a Monster-in-Law?

Prior to Carrie and Adam’s wedding, at the photographer’s request, she made a list of the must-have pictures she wanted from her special day. She was careful to keep the list at the number he requested since they had limited photo time before everyone involved in the wedding needed to get to the reception.

Toward the end of the photo session Alice, Carrie’s new mother-in-law, started calling her husband and children together for a photo with Adam. Hmmf. Carrie hadn’t even bothered to ask her if there were any special pictures she wanted. Carrie mentally ran through her list and realized this wasn’t one she had given to the photographer. Time was running out but she quickly remembered the photographer had agreed to deal with any requests for not-listed pictures. However, he seemed oblivious to Adam’s mother.

Suddenly, Alice started encouraging her hubby and kids toward the front.

“Carrie, I’d like a picture of Ralph and I with our kids if that’s okay,” she said as she gently took Carrie’s arm to move her aside.

Carrie’s eyes stole to Adam.

“Ummm, Mom, we don’t have much time,” he said, awkwardly. “We need to finish up the rest of the pictures in time for the recep…..”

“Oh, silly!” she chided. “Of course you want a picture with your family on your wedding day!” she concluded as she started placing family members around the new groom.

Carrie was hurt. Why would Alice want a picture on Adam’s wedding day that didn’t include his bride? And now this meant she needed to allot time for a similar picture with her parents and siblings so Dad and Mom wouldn’t feel slighted. Then when Alice decided after several shots were taken that her children needed to be placed differently for a few more, Carrie inwardly fumed. Precious minutes were being lost…

Alice was having a great time celebrating Adam’s wedding day with a picture of his family, one that would probably hang on the wall with…oh my!…Carrie realized now that there were two other family pictures at weddings with only one of the happy couple. Great. Now she would have to be reminded of Alice’s insensitivity and selfishness every time they went over to the house!

Alice and Carrie were off to a rocky start. Over the coming years their outwardly affectionate interactions were masking underlying issues. Alice was being insensitive to her new daughter-in-law on her wedding day and a thoughtful bride would have likely asked Alice for a couple of requests when she was making her photo list. Both women were likely judging one another’s heart and motives that day — and by doing so they were adding to an already growing list of normal and common misunderstanding between gals who love the same guy.

Why are in-law relationships so challenging, particularly between women?

Our culture certainly doesn’t help. I did some online research and found the following:

  • A site that says: “Next time you are fuming about your mother-in-law, visit us and find a sympathetic ear.”
  • Did you see the popular 2005 romantic comedy Monster-in-Law that depicts how the guy’s mother (Jane Fonda) tries to destroy his relationship with Charlie (Jennifer Lopez)?
  • In 2001 A&E did a series of “real-life” situations, also called Monster-in-Law. Families sit down with a relationship “expert” to talk through their problems. The site says it’s for all in-law relationships, but the name of the series puts the emphasis on the meddling, overbearing MIL.
  • Cartoons, picture and jokes abound that negatively depict an assumed inherent tension and rivalry between a man’s mother and his wife. (You see some of those here.)
  • Books including How to SURVIVE Your In-Laws; Toxic In-Laws; A Wife’s Guide to In-Laws: How to Gain Your Husband’s Loyalty Without Killing His Parents.

Wow. The assumption seems to be that in-law relationships stink and all we can hope for is survival, lessening the toxicity and trying not to kill one another!

A new book written by a Cambridge University psychologist who has researched this issue for years indicates that words including “strained,” “infuriating” and “simply awful” are used by 60% of women to describe their relationship with their mother or daughter-in-law. I wonder what adjectives the other 40% would use. Perhaps tolerable? Okay? Bearable? Decent? Would anyone say caring? Helpful? Affectionate? Or (dare say) warm?

The Bible doesn’t specifically communicate what healthy in-law relationships should look like.  And just as with any area in our lives, we don’t want to look to others as the standard of how of in-law relationships should work in our family.  Yet the Bible is clear on how Christians should treat one another  even when they are all-out enemies.

Benny and I have children-in-law (“New Kids”) with whom we share a close relationship: two sons-in-law and three daughters-in-law. Frankly, it hasn’t been easy to marry off our kids. We wrestled, cried, worried, wondered and did the whole “where in the world have the years gone????”  thing each time. (I admit it; I did more of all that than he did.) As the kids were growing up we told ourselves we would prepare ourselves for being replaced by young guys and girls who won the hearts of our sons and daughters. But no parent can fully prepare themselves for seeing the child they birthed, loved, nurtured, protected and cherished fall in love and start a new independent family. It’s exciting but sad, wonderful yet heart wrenching.

One day they’re in fifth grade talking about someone cute they want to invite to an upcoming birthday party and then…whoosh!…they’re a young adult falling in love for real and wanting to get married! It’s doubly hard when your child’s choice is someone you don’t like or don’t think has the character and maturity to make your child happy for a lifetime.

I’m obviously writing as the old person-in-law. While I want to identify with and share the perspective of the younger generation, my burden is that of one who has been on both sides of the in-law relationship for fifteen+ years. I have struggled on both sides. Yet, with God’s help three generations of Phillips women actually like each other and enjoy being together.

I want to both identify with Carrie and Alice as well as help to unravel some of the common heart issues behind their unspoken struggles. In the process,  I will share some of my own temptations and joys as Jewel’s DIL and the MIL of five beloved new kids.

Today I want to end by thanking PJ, Rachel, Rebekah, Lauren and Eric. Thank you for being patient with me in the learning curve of figuring out how be a mother-in-law to five uniquely wired but commonly terrific people. Thank you for answering my “what am I doing right and wrong” questions; extending me grace and forgiveness when I’ve failed; allowing me to be weak and flawed; never making monster-in-law jokes (at least in my hearing…smile); and spending lots of time at the house eating my food. A few of you and I have been through some pretty rough times together but God has been faithful, hasn’t He? More challenges will undoubtedly come because of the crazy family He put you into, but I wouldn’t trade any one of you for another new kid.

More tomorrow….