by Karen Craigo
It’s conventional wisdom that men marry a version of their mothers. Like most conventional wisdom, this piece is probably partially true about half the time. Still, the notion lodges in our brain and keeps us looking sidelong at our spouse’s parents, trying to spot the resemblance.
I’ve been blessed with two beautiful mothers-in-law. The first seemed completely unlike me. She was narrow and angular, while I’m a big cushion; she was cultured and polite against my bluster and occasional blue language. She was schooled in home arts; my bread dough doesn’t rise, and I’m mostly clueless about how to remove hard-water stains from the toilet bowl.
My current mother-in-law is cushiony like me, if a head shorter. We share a love of classic TV. We kind of like playing the slots. But she’s delicate where I’m hardy, and she’s innocent where I’m (for lack of a better term) worldly. She likes to be surrounded by people and cared for; I sometimes feel smothered without some alone time, and I honestly prefer to take care of myself.
But my current mother-in-law loves nothing more than to cut up apple slices for her grandsons and have long conversations with them about their drawings and Lego creations. Even my ten-year-old’s video games interest her, and she asks him such earnest questions: “So what is it these Super Smash Brothers smash, then?” My son soaks up her interest and answers her in exhausting detail, and she nods and listens attentively, no matter how lengthy his reply.
With both my former and current mothers-in-law, I often spent time in their homes, and long times at that–sometimes weeks at a time under their roofs (too long for a visit, truth be told). This is when I’ve been most adamant about the fact that, no, in marrying me, my spouse did not marry his mother. I plan dinner right before dinner, rather than all day long. I occasionally turn off the Weather Channel. I have an alternate expression or two for “Oh, my heavens!”
Little things about our in-laws build up, if we let them, and their quirks can start to wear on us, especially after a prolonged visit. I’ve grown more patient over the years, but something about this specific relationship makes it a hard one to negotiate. I sometimes find myself arguing like a teenager, solely for the purpose of asserting my individuality. Every debate over trivialities–how to slice cabbage, the best way to correct a naughty dog, whether or not to refrigerate ketchup–is really a declaration of independence: I’m me. I’m not you.
I would never dream of hurting either of my other-mothers. I know them both as dear people—kind and wise, unusually patient with a woman who has been a teenager for three decades now and who would waste no time telling herself to straighten up if our roles were reversed.
A friend tells me about her hypochondriac mother-in-law. The older woman is convinced that eating grilled meat causes cancer, that wet hair gives you pneumonia, and that if your nose is running, you are sick. She has visited the doctor for the slightest scratchy feeling in her throat and for waking with just a little bit more grit in the corner of the eye than usual. She keeps an array of beverages on hand to make her burp.
This mother-in-law is also very kind-hearted and fun to be around. It just so happens that she always thinks she’s at death’s door, which is, of course, stressful. It’s also a little ridiculous: my friend has dealt with serious and even life-threatening illnesses, and it’s frustrating to her to hear about the dangers of grill marks on hot dogs. Like me, my friend sizes up her mother-in-law and looks for traces of herself there. And like me, she occasionally sees them.
The mother-in-law relationship doesn’t have to be so fraught. I’ve discovered that for me, the key is to quit scrutinizing this person, the spouse’s first love, for traces of the self. Some similarities are inevitable, as with any two human beings. (“You convert oxygen to carbon dioxide? Wow, me, too!”) And some are uncomfortable, but it’s good to see ourselves in others.
Here are some suggestions for keeping the peace within this somewhat uncomfortable relationship dynamic.
Ask. Your mother-in-law is the world’s other leading authority on your spouse. When things threaten to go sideways, your spouse can be a safe go-to topic–particularly your spouse’s childhood. Cute kids are cute kids, even when they grow up to become the adult who snores and hogs the comforter.
Learn. Like our own parents, our in-laws have observed and experienced a lot in their lifetimes, and they have wisdom to share. I’m a fan of the verse 1 Peter 4:10, which says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” My visits to my mother-in-law’s house go best when I’m learning about old times and different ways of doing things. That first mother-in-law I mentioned taught me to knit. My current mother-in-law has great ideas for being thrifty and conserving resources.
Leave. If you’re able, it’s a good idea to head out occasionally and give each other a break, especially when visiting with children in tow. When you leave the house, your in-laws get a chance to rest and regroup.
Explore. You can also leave the house with your in-laws to explore the area, to visit interesting restaurants, pretty parks, or unusual historical sites.
Do. Have a joint project. My mother-in-law and I sometimes enjoy working in the kitchen together. Particularly, we like to chop up fruit and freeze it, then run it through a machine that makes something like ice cream. There’s something kind of childishly fun about that.
Distract. If nothing else, you might have a TV show you both like. My mother-in-law and I love old game shows on the network that shows the classic ones. It’s a fun distraction, and I’m reminded of how smart she is.
We’re not Naomi and Ruth leaning together in the wilderness. We’re just stuck for a bit at our in-laws’ house—a little bored, maybe, with small behaviors getting on our last nerve. But there’s no reason we can’t love and support one another, especially since a profound and lasting love is what links us.
Lord, thank you for the gift of wisdom just waiting to be explored and cultivated through our in-laws. Please help us to take advantage of chances to learn from them, and help us to have the wisdom sometimes to leave them. We ask that you keep us mindful of the fact that love is what links us—it’s what we have in common, even when so much else seems foreign. Please grant us your patience and love, and help us to bear one another up when sometimes we feel far from home. We ask this through Jesus who taught us to love. Amen.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She maintains “Better View of the Moon,” a daily blog on writing, editing and creativity. She teaches writing in Springfield, Mo. Her spiritual home is Peace ELCA in Bowling Green, Ohio, and she currently attends Unity of Springfield.
Photo by Unsplash.com. Used with permission.