Often, I get requests for posts on excellent questions, to which I have no answers. One of those excellent questions, which keeps coming up over and over, is the question of the Mother-In-Law. The most common variant of the question I here is this, “Back when we were just dating, I had a good relationship with my mother-in-law. She was nice, we were friendly, things were good. Then we got engaged, and sweet-baby-jesus-what-happened?” Sometimes the problem is that your mother-in-law became overtly, um, crazy, and started with the screaming and the bossing and the crying and the throwing things. More often the problem is that the relationship just became tense. Super tense. Either way, the question is “WHY?” followed by a plaintive, “How do I fix it?“
Since you know, I’ve only been a wedding graduate for 10 months now, and I’ve never been a mother…. I have no idea. So. Because it was a really good question, I thought really hard about who might have a really good answer. And I decided that LPC, who writes over at Privilege, was definitely the ticket. LPC is fantastic (like, real life fantastic, she gets drinks with me and gives me advice regularly) LPC’s kids are in, and just out, of college, and she’s not in danger of becoming a mother-in-law any time soon. But in my head, that made her perfect. She was a neutral party. She could look on both sides of the fence, say “Hum” very thoughtfully, and then write something honest and helpful. Well, she outdid herself. So the Mother-In-Law post comes to you in two parts. Today is Why, tomorrow is How.
If you are having trouble with your mother-in-law, as you plan your wedding, this is not why.
These are my children almost 20 years ago, and this picture can make me cry in 90 seconds. Your mother-in-law has one just like this, somewhere, of your spouse-to-be. Maybe without the hats. And it wails like a banshee in her heart. This wailing is hard to understand in the non-faerie world in which we live, but it’s real, to moms.
People will pretend mothers-in-laws-to-be are bad about your wedding because our banshees are wailing, because we love our children and you are taking them. That is hogwash. Hogwash.
Well, on second thought, sometimes we’re bad because of banshees. But only when we first meet you. When our children tell us they are marrying you, we may think you won’t take care of these people who have left their baby selves in our hearts. At those moments, we might act up. But once we decide that 1) you are the best person for our child, or 2) you aren’t but we can’t make their choices for them, our love for our kids will actually make us behave well. As you plan your wedding, and whenever good behavior is required.
So then what, pray tell, what makes us behave badly? Because I hear you. We do. Here’s the thing. We have invested in our identities as good child rearers, and we’re proud of everything we accomplished. Our children represent us in one way or another. And you are about to make a public cultural and aesthetic statement which reflects on us, the families we came from, and the families we created. So, it’s a whole laundry list of factors, which I am honored to be asked to share. I mean, how often does confessing one’s weaknesses offer value to others?
Social class markers and expectations. If there are parasols anywhere in a wedding either of my children are involved in I might break down. A money dance I could probably survive. Parasols trip my ding ding ding bourgeois alarms, money dances are so clearly from another culture that my tolerance wiring sustains me. I confess that to you in full understanding that it’s awful. And that your parasols might be just lovely and I have no right to my disdain. Does love make anyone perfect? Has your love made you perfect? I thought not.
Peer community opinion. I have mother friends. They were necessary. Never could have survived without other mothers to support and occasionally scold me over the years. What if they don’t like your centerpieces? Or lack thereof? What if they scold me? Question my skills as a mother in approving of you as the future wife?
Family dynamics and history. You are making a baby family, or as I’ve always called it, a family of creation. Then you’ve got your family of origin. That family of origin has traditions just like the ones you’re trying to make, only their traditions have been around a lot longer and have a lot more people subscribing. Traditions are like social networks; the more followers, the better everyone feels. So we want you on our tradition page.
The choices we’ve made. I remember, to this day, sitting under a pepper tree when I was 12. It was 1968. Our teacher was telling us about this new thing called, “women’s liberation.” I don’t ask that you spend a lot of time learning about the history, or admiring us for what we went through. I don’t expect that everyone in my generation have made the choices I made. But we lived through a time when the life path for women was upended, analyzed, and ridiculed in media everywhere. We’re sensitive. We know we didn’t do everything right. And some of us can’t help but feel defensive when you choose differently. I still can’t figure out when body hair became persona non grata. But that’s for another day. With a glass of gin in hand.
Aesthetic preferences. Sometimes we just won’t like the same colors you do. It happens. We should be able to restrain ourselves from saying so, but please don’t press us to say that we love jewel tones when we just don’t.
Finally, the banshees, while not fully responsible, intensify all of the above. Make it harder for us to recognize our bad behavior. Please understand the nature of our love for our children. It’s so below usual consciousness. It’s so layered into our selves. Biology does that to us or we’d have killed that person you’re about to marry a long time ago. You do know they didn’t let us sleep? So much of our identity and our emotional structure is now walking around in the body of that person you take to bed every night. You wonder why we act up? Give us a pass for this part. The rest you have every right to ask us to try and rise above.