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!