Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How to Be a Good Mother-In-Law

Back in 1992, I met a boy named Bill at a dance at the local all-boys' Catholic high school, as Peter Gabriel crooned over the speakers on the gym floor, "In your eyes...the light, the heat..."

And soon, our teen-aged hearts were smitten.

After a few weeks of dating, Bill asked me to meet his parents, and my smitten little heart leapt for joy, because meeting your besmitten's parents for the first time? 

Kind of a big deal. 

When the day arrived, Bill picked me up, drove me to his family home, and I nervously stood on the front porch as he opened the door. Instantly, we were greeted by a smiling, friendly, blonde woman who immediately pulled me into a strong, welcoming embrace as she said, "Clare! I'm Bill's mom! I finally get to meet you!" This woman, who was a stranger to me just seconds ago, did not let me out of her embrace until we were properly introduced.

She did not hold me at arm's length and sneer at me and wonder if I was good enough to date her son.

She hugged me without really knowing me, and offered me complete acceptance into her family fold, with no questions asked.

And instantly, a friendship was born.

This woman that I met a little over two decades ago, who eventually became my dear mother-in-law, and thus an integral part of my life and marriage, passed away two weeks ago on July 23 at the way-too-early age of 68. She was hilarious, spunky, social, creative, caring, kind, and a million other things.

But now? She is gone.

Stupid, stupid cancer.

Over the past few weeks, Bill and I have received many, many heartfelt condolences and cards from various family, friends and acquaintances, and we have appreciated every single one of them. When someone dies, people often struggle with what to say, or what to write to try to do the loss justice. Quite often, there is nothing adequate to say, because how do you sum up a person - a whole, essential, wonderful, crucial human being - into just a few words? You can't. It is impossible.

However, on today's trip back up the driveway as I retrieved the mail out of the mailbox, I was struck by a sentence in a card from someone who knew my mother-in-law. After describing a few things that she will miss most about her, she said, "Mourn her well. She deserves it."

Mourn her well? 

What a beautiful thought. Don't mind if I do. She does deserve it.

And because every person in our life exists to either teach us something, or to change us, I have had ample opportunity to reflect on what being a daughter-in-law to this woman for almost 14 years has taught me.

She has taught me how to be a mother-in-law. Not just a mother-in-law, but a damn good mother-in-law. 

Of course, this is a skill that I won't need for probably at least 15 years or so, as my oldest child is only 11 years old; however, when the time comes, I am ready. 

I already know how to be a daughter-in-law, but unfortunately, and sadly, that time is over, as both of Bill's parents are now gone. I was my mother-in-law's first and only daughter-in-law, so it's not like she had years of practice and other test subjects. She had a daughter, my sister-in-law, but the mother-daughter relationship is completely different from the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship.


Ever hear of the movie, "Monster-In-Law"? 

Fortunately, I could not relate to that movie. 

My mother-in-law taught me by example how to play the role successfully, and these are a few things that I have learned, and plan to store away for future use. 

How to Be a Good Mother-In-Law:

1.) In most cases, your daughter-in-law already has a mother. You are not her. You are the mother-IN-LAW. Do not try to compete with, or replace her mother. She does not need your "helpful advice" about how to cut her hair, how to dress, or how to decorate her home. Even if you are prim and proper and never leave the house without perfectly coiffed hair and pearls, and your daughter-in-law never leaves home without a mohawk, black lipstick, and a dog collar attached to her neck, remind yourself that this woman loves the same thing you do: your son. Find a way to compliment her and befriend her. Even if it hurts at first. After awhile, it won't. 

2.) Get to know your daughter-in-law as an individual, and do not treat her as just as the woman who stole your son from you and now lives in his house. Find out her interests, even if they are completely opposite of your own. Ask questions about her friends, and listen to her responses. If you get the opportunity to ever meet her friends, be kind and conversational. Offer to take her to lunch or shopping without your son having to be present. Try to find common denominators among the two of you besides just sharing the same last name.

3.) Befriend your daughter-in-law's parents. Perhaps your daughter-in-law is the child of two liberal strategists for the Democratic party, and you are the head of your local chapter of Tea Party Republicans. So what. Perhaps your daughter-in-law comes from a non-traditional family situation, and has two biological parents and 8 different stepparents. So what. Just be nice. Even if it hurts. When you put aside your own hang-ups, and you are kind and respectful to the people that raised your daughter-in-law to be the woman that your son is madly in love with, then you are telling your daughter-in-law that you respect her. And believe me, she will notice, and she will appreciate it. 

4.) Do not tell her how to raise your grandchildren. Perhaps you had 10 children of your own, and you birthed every single one of them, sans epidural, at home. Then, you proceeded to make every meal they ever ate from scratch, using only organic food, most of which you grew yourself in your own garden, as you home-schooled each of your 10 children through high school, all the while keeping a perfectly clean home, while also writing an advice column for the local newspaper about how to be a good parent. Good for you. Those were your choices, and if your daughter-in-law makes the same choices, then good for her. The two of you will have even more things to talk about. But most likely, she will not. She is her own person, and she is parenting and running a home together with your son, and this is not a threesome. Recognize that you made parenting mistakes along the way, just as your son and daughter-in-law will make mistakes. Let them decide how to educate your grandchildren, discipline them, dress them, and feed them. Keep your mouth closed on these matters, and trust that you raised your son to be a good parent, and trust that you raised your son to choose the right spouse with whom to parent. I can almost guarantee that if your daughter-in-law does not feel judged by you as a parent, she will come to you for parenting advice, and that is when you can give it. When asked for it. Other than that? Nope. Shut it. Even if it hurts. Your job is to be a grandmother who spoils her grandchildren with endless amounts of love, adventures and experiences, the occasional junk-food binge, toys, and obscenely large stuffed animals. 

5.) Remember that your grandchildren are watching. As they say, "Little pitchers have big ears." And those little pitchers love their mommies. And they love their grandmas. So when you are unkind or judgmental towards Mommy, the little pitcher...er...child is confused. And hurt. Do not create a situation where they feel like they have to choose between you or their mom. Because you will lose. 

6.) Buy your daughter-in-law nice presents for birthdays and holidays. This might sound superficial, but it IS the thought that counts. Whether you have the budget of a pauper or the budget of a Trump, put some thought into it. Perhaps you are into homemade gifts, and your family is the recipient of your hand-crafted delights year after year. Then make your daughter-in-law something too. Perhaps you hit the Black Friday sales with a gusto every year and your family is the recipient of your bargain-hunting treasures. Then make sure your daughter-in-law receives a treasure too. Perhaps you search all year long for that one perfect gift for your son. Then add your daughter-in-law to the list as well, and search for that one perfect gift for her. When she truly feels like another important, highly-valued member of your family, and not just the recipient of a rejected, clearance toaster from the Walmart bargain bin, then your relationship will thrive. Unless that's your thing. You know, buying your family presents from the Walmart clearance bin. Then g'head and get your daughter-in-law one too. As long as you make her feel like one of the family.

7.) Do not treat your relationship as a competition. Sure, you may know exactly how your son likes his eggs cooked, the names of all his friends, and precisely how many moles he has on his body. So what. So does your daughter-in-law. You love him. She loves him too. This isn't a tug-of-war about who loves him more, or who knows him better. You both do. Isn't he a lucky guy? 

Of course, all of this is a two-way street. If you are going to be an oversensitive, grudge-holding hag of a daughter-in-law, and not open to any kind of happy, functional relationship with the woman who raised the boy into the man that you fell madly in love with, well, then, I've got nothing for you. You're on your own. But remember that you, too, are leading by example for your children, and when they see you honor and care for their grandmother, then hopefully they grow up and marry nice people that honor and care for you too.

It's a win-win situation. 

Good-bye, my dear friend and mother-in-law Nancy. Thank you for loving me, being my friend, not judging me, and treating me like a valued member of your family. If I can be half the mother-in-law that you were to my children's spouses someday, then I will be a success.

Until then, I will mourn you well. 

You deserve it.