Dec 14, 2020
The challenges of a daughter-in-law relationship are common, and they're not insurmountable--but working them out takes good communication, inclusivity, selfness, and love in action over time. (Sounds like grandparenting!) Emily's guests are two authors who have done a lot of thinking and writing about this rich but sensitive topic. Plus, Emily describes how her mother-in-law relationship started, then ended early (transcript below).
Guest Donne Davis runs an online social network, the GaGa Sisterhood. Her book is When Being a Grandma Isn't So Grand: 4 Keys to L.O.V.E your Grandchild's Parents.
Guest Ellie Slott Fisher is the author of It's Either Her or Me: A Guide to Help a Mother and Her Daughter-In-Law Get Along.
THE STRETCH IT TAKES (Emily's essay)
My first visit to my future husband’s family was significant for me. I was in graduate school in the college town where he lived, and his family lived a two hour drive away. We had only been dating for about six weeks, but we both knew almost immediately that we had a long future together. So the next step seemed obvious...he should take me home for Thanksgiving to meet his mom and dad before I left for a winter semester abroad. I remember riding in the passenger seat up the winding driveway to his old Kentucky home. White fences, horses, a red barn and a beautiful home. It was impressive and so different from my New England roots.
In fact everything seemed different from that moment on. The southern accents, the giblet gravy made with hard-boiled egg yolks, bourbon balls, and the slow conversation with long pauses. I was greeted kindly and warmly, yes, greeted with true southern hospitality. But it didn’t take long before my curt, New England style of speech shot out of my mouth when at the dinner table, my future father-in-law kept insisting - in a kind way, but persistently - that I enjoy some more turkey and stuffing. I replied, “you can serve it to me, but I probably won’t eat it.” I remember that there was a long pause, and then an awkward laugh...except for my father-in-law. His laugh revealed to me that he admired a woman who knew her own mind. We bonded immediately.
It was a little harder with my future husband’s mom. Her youngest son was the apple of her eye, her golden boy. I could tell by everything she said that she was happy for him, but was unsure of me. She greeted me kindly, told me at one point that I had bedroom eyes, and graciously endured the indignity of a fart in her face when she was teaching me a Jane Fonda floor routine. It was humiliating for me, but fortunately, hilarious to her.
She was by all accounts a lovely woman who was not only beautiful, but also kind and accepting. We had our moments in the year and a half that I knew her. When talking about wedding plans I mentioned that I might not want children in the wedding. She took that to mean that I didn’t want any children at the wedding, which really upset her. I ran away from the conversation, crying and feeling very misunderstood. One time, unaware of how meticulously she washed dishes before she put them in the dishwasher, I accidentally unloaded her dirty dishes into the cabinets. And another time I brought down dirty sheets from upstairs and was reminded that I needed to ask before stripping the bed. She had not intended for me to do that.
I say all these things, not to disparage my mother-in-law, but to illustrate that booby traps are everywhere when navigating the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship. And, as you can tell from my essay, once detonated, forever remembered.
She lived only six weeks from the diagnosis of her lung cancer to her untimely death. The last time I saw her before her illness was when we were car shopping. We stopped by a dealership where my in-laws knew the owner very well. While my husband and father-in-law were engaged in a conversation, she and I stood next to a red convertible with white leather seats. My mother-in-law leaned over and playfully said to me, “Can’t you just imagine the backseat filled with two car seats?”
Her banter stuck with me for two reasons: one, having a baby after only a year of marriage seemed like a crazy notion. Way too soon, I thought, to be thinking about that. Secondly, now that I look back on it, I am so sad that my mother-in-law didn’t live long enough to see that happen. Not the purchase of a red convertible, but the birth of our four lovely children whom she would never meet.
Here’s the thing: there was a lot of potential in our relationship for good and for bad, but I like to think that we would both have leaned towards the good. We grew up in extremely different regions of the country and looked at things in different ways, but we had many shared values, a shared love of children, and most importantly, a shared love for the man I married.
Even though I didn’t get to experience what it’s like to have a long relationship with my mother-in-law, I like to think that we would’ve worked out our differences and come together to make our visits and holidays together ones to cherish.
I take that hope into my relationship with my new daughter-in-law of only three years. I can’t say I’m not nervous about making mistakes - I know I’ve already made a few - but with my virtual vision board, I picture years of warm conversations, affirmations, meals together, and many happy shared experiences. And if I’m lucky enough to be around and she suggests I sit in the front seat of the car with my son, I will counteroffer with “no, thanks, you sit up with him.” Then I’ll take the back seat where I hope someday there might be a baby’s car seat next to me.
© 2020 Emily Morgan