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May 11 2013

Trying to Make Nice with My Mother-in-Law

By at 9:20 pm

yellow yarnWe present this piece about that tricky mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship just in time for Mother(-in-law)’s Day.

My mom and I are so close that we can finish each other’s sentences, or at least harmonize in what my husband calls the Parade of Horribles (“Hope this milk’s not expired/Hope it’s not too cold for shorts/Oy, oy, oy”). But this Mother’s Day, I need to make a special effort to knock down the walls that have risen between “MIL” Dearest and me. 

I got to know Bobbi pretty quickly since Josh had decided after mere weeks that he and I would get married. I went to dinner with his family every night for a month. Fine steakhouse, Red Lobster: it didn’t matter, as long as we could get acquainted. What I learned most swiftly, and vividly, was that Josh and his mother shared a fierce distaste for cheese. Soon Bobbi was helping me shop for wedding dresses, scanning duvets with the registry gun, and hosting my bridal shower. When our calligrapher disappeared into the Adirondacks three days before the wedding, leaving us place-card-less, Bobbi designed a poster-sized “seating board” with fancy fonts and stopped at Kinko’s to pick it up en route to the wedding.

After the flurry of wining, dining, and wedding, Josh and I moved out-of-state and I scarcely saw my in-laws for a year. When we did meet up on Cape Cod, differences popped into sharp relief. I insisted upon fresh produce for breakfast while everyone else noshed on fudge, lobster innards, and little chocolate balls revoltingly packaged as “Seagull Poop.” They did puzzles; I jogged through seaweed.

While both of our families are Jewish, at times it felt like that’s all they had in common. My family: openly (sometimes even lovably) neurotic, planners, researchers, studious. His family: social, spontaneous (save for the food aversions that force them to plan), laissez-faire. We’re Reform, yet more observant. They’re Conservative but barely go to temple.

When I found out I was six weeks pregnant that fall, Bobbi took me to the knitting store to buy soft yellow yarn. My mother frowned upon this excursion, and told me so; it was too early in my pregnancy to assume all would be well. Of course, everyone was thrilled–they just processed the emotion in different ways. My parents, hoping against hope, resolved to avoid the Evil Eye. As for me, though I never admitted it, I had to cave in and get excited over the yellow bunting with little animal buttons. Yet when Josh and I visited our parents during pregnancy, I craved my mother’s cooking, not Red Lobster. My hormones weren’t playing fair. And along with her tuna noodle casserole, I digested both wisdom and neuroses.

Our son was born, we moved back home, and my anxiety spiked. The differences that had seemed so exotic–the Seagull Poop, the Persian kitty, junk food, no dairy–grew menacing as my pediatrician warned me not to leave the baby around cats or feed him hot dogs, but extolled the benefits of milk and yogurt.

Like my mother and grandma, I vocalize my worries as a means of exorcism. By speaking them, releasing them, they’ll never come to pass, and in the process I can flaunt how much I love my children by fretting over their comfort level, growth rate, and general well being.

When my mother pre-empts my vague anxiety by giving voice to a specific fear, I get irritated and fall silent. But around MIL I become my mother, and she gets just as quiet. When I worry out loud, she thinks I’m judging her, much as I bristle when my Mom frets about whatever mishaps may have occurred on my watch since she last saw the kids (never more than a day). I’ve asked Bobbi not to mention to the kids her dislike for dairy, still a favorite topic of conversation; she takes it as an insult regarding my husband’s upbringing. We speak different tongues, and now we barely speak at all. And neither of us has talked things out because we hate forced politeness and confrontation. Nor do we like picking up the phone. Josh has remarked to me countless times: “You two have no idea how similar you are.” But it’s hard to see mirrors through walls. Truth be told, I get a thrilling power trip from assuming my mother’s persona around someone who’s so much like me.

A Spanish term for in-laws is “padres politicos,” or political parents, and maybe there’s something to that: you have to take a stab at diplomacy whether by squelching impulses or feigning pleasantries or even re-routing battles, seeking family peace over perfection. My challenge is to find shalom bayit (peace in the home) while struggling to exert the control through which I derive peace. I don’t know if I can subdue my anxiety, but I would like to reach through the wall. And I hope she can meet me halfway.

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