You can’t help but immediately like your child’s significant other when she insists your non-communicative son answer your calls. And you’ve got to hand out a generous helping of brownie points when she messages you on Facebook or texts you a photo of the happy couple out and about, a photo you likely would not have gotten otherwise.
This I’ve learned after almost a decade of being a mother-in-law, a role I wasn’t prepared to assume and one I had never thought very much about, either. But here I am, a mother-in-law three times over, and now with the two younger sons in serious relationships.
In my immediate circle, where only recently have grown children begun to marry, this makes me an expert among friends. They come to me for advice they believe I’ve gleaned from experience.
“Show up and shut up,” I tell them, repeating the wisdom another woman offered me before I began in-lawing.
Actually that advice refers to dealings with my own children, not necessarily to those who entered the family by ceremony.
Being an in-law requires a varied skill set. You have to be part listener, part diplomat, part psychic, part cheerleader, part sounding board, part always-willing hostess — and fully, completely accepting. As a mother-in-law, I’ve discovered misinformation precedes me. Too much of popular culture portrays us as … well, as wacky and meddling, as annoying and bitchy. (Think “Meet the Parents" and "Monster-in-law." Think "Portnoy’s Complaint.")
Surely there’s an art to in-lawing and a calling in serving as a surrogate, but the crafting of a new relationship can be equally intimidating for both sides. It’s not any easier for a girlfriend or a boyfriend to meet the parents for the first time or, in the case of divorce, maybe a second and third time, too. So many doubts: Will they like me? What should I wear? How do I address them? Are there subjects I should avoid?
As a parent, I’ve learned that the introduction of a girlfriend or boyfriend is a big deal. For my children, it means the relationship has been elevated from casual to steady, from fling to serious. For me, that first meet-and-greet comes with all kinds of instructions which can be best summarized in one sentence.
Don’t ask too many questions.
As in: Don’t. Ask. Too. Many. Questions. This isn’t a job interview.
Though, of course, it is in the truest sense of the word. Because after the pleasantries and performance, there’s always the matter of getting on and getting along. Of acceptance. And if a marriage is in the cards, the event you primped for turns out to be an audition for the rest of your life. Where you will spend the holidays. Who will be your future children’s grandparents. Even how the Thanksgiving turkey will be cooked. (In my case, we got rid of the bacon and welcomed the kosher.)
I’ve lucked out with the people my children have chosen and hope they feel the same about me. But let’s be honest here, merging two families doesn’t have an endpoint. It’s a journey that demands more than showing up and shutting up. It also requires giving up claim and welcoming strangers. After all, every family has its own trials, its own mysteries, its own dysfunctions, and it takes a careful navigator to learn the way through and past them — and to do all this graciously.