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.