I would like to think I am a pretty good mother-in-law. My two married sons think so. As do their wives. But I didn't get to this place easily. There aren't any books or websites that I've found that provide a fail-proof formula. I would like to say I learned how to do it the hard way.
I grew up in a nutty household. There was nothing to learn about proper in-law relations there, except what not to do. Both my parents detested their in-laws. Both in-laws interfered and instigated. My paternal grandmother never missed an opportunity to tell me what was wrong with my mother. She wasn't wrong, but she shouldn't have said it. She also refused to believe my father was capable of physical abuse. She was wrong and should have spoken up.
My husband grew up in a lovely household. People were pretty and nice and well-mannered. That was the expectation. Those who didn't conform, like the schizophrenic brother, were marginalized so as not to shift the focus from the smiling people in the black & white Kodak snapshot. I loved that image. I wanted nothing more than to be part of that picture.
When I first met my husband at summer camp, the buzz around him and his younger brothers was like an illuminated halo. The Slevin Boys! Catch one and you are set for life. Best family, best boys! They treat their mom like a queen. "You can judge a husband by how he treats his mother," I was told over and over. But I was young. I didn't understand that a kingdom has but one queen, that when I married I would be relegated to the status of distant duchess, at best. And there I would remain until the passing of the queen.
I knew from the very beginning that I didn't quite make the grade. I was a child of
D-I-V-O-R-C-E! The furniture I chose was too '"country." "Dad and I don't like that style," my mother-in-law declared as my father-in-law admired my new bedroom set. I was too fat even at my size 4 skinniest. "If only you had a waist," she sighed.
These were all faults I tried to overcome but never really succeeded in banishing. I was encouraged to hold my tongue and suck it up because my in-laws were actually good people. They "meant well." What did I know? I had a bad upbringing, so I assumed they were right about everything. I didn't know anything different.
But then I did. I raised my own children in an open household where we spoke about good things and bad. I was often outspoken and occasionally cursed. My kids were encouraged, and validated, and heard. I didn't keep secrets and I tried to teach them to be honest but not in a hurtful way. They saw humanity at its best. They witnessed the propriety with which my in-laws negotiated the world and the kindness with which they treated their sons and grandchildren - and the worst as they watched both my parents belittle and neglect me, and by association, them.
I had ideas and ideals that I wanted them to learn. I wanted them to be, above all, good people. Accepting people. If they could do that, I believed, they would find success in whatever endeavor they chose. And they have. My daughter is a good woman and my sons have chosen good women to accompany them on their life's journey. And I have chosen to do everything in my power to be a good mother-in-law to the wives of my sons. To L.O.V.E. them. It's a corny acronym, I know, but I think it works.
L is for listen. I want to shut up and hear what they have to say. Not an easy skill for me- I'm a real talker. But sometimes it's what is said in the small talk, the side conversation while passing the potatoes, that is most important.
O is for observe. There is much that is not said in any interaction, but plenty is expressed. I want to be perceptive to their unspoken needs. A night of babysitting, a new rug, maybe a business introduction?
V is for validation of their feelings, frustrations, and accomplishments. I want them to know that I accept them as they are. And I hope they accept me. Just by loving my sons in the way they do, they are already Number One in my book. Everything else is gravy. V is also for vanquishing their fears, where I am able.
E is for encouragement. I want to be their cheerleader and supporter, to station myself on the sidelines chanting "You GO, Girl!" but willing and able to run onto the field with a first aid kit if I am called.
Their needs change as they move from new bride to mother of my grandchildren to matriarch of their own clan. But the L.O.V.E. should not. I want to build a strong foundation of mutual trust with my daughters-in-law. I want us to be one family, working together for the betterment of all. We have a bit of a journey ahead of us, I would like it to be long and peaceful.
I finally earned my own mother-in-law's acceptance and respect at the very end of her life, in the final months of her battle with brain cancer. By then it didn't matter what my furniture looked like. It was enough that we had a spare room for her and my father-in-law when she had to leave Florida suddenly and begin treatment in New York City. It didn't matter if I was overweight when I took her for a wig to prepare for hair loss during chemo. I didn't need refined manners to apply her eye makeup, pluck a stray hair from her chin, or help her dress. And really, who cared by that time what kind of upbringing I had had as I moistened her dry and cracked lips with the little sponge on the stick.
In the end, as I lay on the bed next to her, I would tell her stories about the kids and the new puppy to keep her mind off her fading world. One day she stretched out a papery hand and clasped mine with what little energy she had. "Like a daughter," she whispered in what was left of her broken language. "Like a daughter." And that was enough L.O.V.E. for me.