Today, Lisa of Privilege returns, talking about HOW to deal with, what shall we call it? A delicate situation with your Mother In Law. Yesterday she wrote about possible reasons, from the mother end of the spectrum, why said delicate situation might exist. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to catch up first. Lisa talks about a lot of important things here – like the protecting of the baby family (this takes practice, and will probably be sloppy at first, but will pay dividends for years. Imagine if it were a baby and not a wedding that you were discussing. Exactly). Lisa talks about all this from the perspective of wedding planning, but I think what she says is equally useful for those of us who are (blessedly) done with the wedding circus. Now, onwards to the ever fabulous Lisa (When is her book of essays and advice coming out, anyway? Achem.)
So. What to do, as a planning bride faced with a mother-in-law? A bride wrestling with her own family of origin, her own identity as represented by her vintage wedding dress, to say nothing of, um, a new marriage? In times of stress and high emotion, I resort to extreme rationality.
Here are some assumptions.
1. The most important thing is your relationship with your partner. He or she should also believe this.
2. You do want to facilitate as much happiness for your mother-in-law as possible.
3. You are willing to approach this project with your best, most rational self in place.
Of course, you might wonder, why facilitate happiness for your MIL? Other than the general rule of Be Nice Whenever Possible? Because. You want: a) to thank her for spilling her blood giving birth to your spouse b) to smooth the way for a good future relationship. Some day she might be the grandmother to your kids. Good grandmothers are invaluable, and worth any reasonable investment that practical wedding planning can provide. She will always be the mother of your spouse. And mothers run deep.
Here are a few recommendations.
1. Before you begin to involve any extended family in planning, cloister yourself with your intended.
2. Agree on 2-3 non-negotiable values for your wedding. (These might change, but the discussion will set necessary context.)
3. Agree on 2-3 details that you both think you really care about. (Again, things change, a place to start is good.)
4. Agree on with what strings you are willing to accept any money from your partner’s parents, and on the best way to communicate this. (Only if it’s completely yours to do with as you will? Willing to have discussions as long as you get the final call? Amenable to concessions? Remember, we’ve spent a lot of money on your spouse over the years and we always used to get a say in how it was spent.)
5. Now, and only now, open up the phone lines.
Because if you are going to have mother-in-law issues, or mother issues for that matter, a united front is useful. In fact, a united front will be not only useful, but devastatingly important for your entire marriage. And united rarely means floating blissfully in agreement. It usually means bashing it out, at one point, or another, or many.
Here are the details. The juicy part, if you will.
Imagine the easy mothers-in-law. Because clearly some people are more evolved and more adult than others. If you’ve got an adult for a mother-in-law, defined as one who puts her love for her child over the rest of her personal agenda, proceed as you would in any job with a matrixed management structure. Treat your mother-in-law like the important vice-president of your sister division, a talented lawyer on your side of a massive case, or the scientist across the country doing similar research. Keep her in the loop. Ask her questions when you are really prepared to take her advice. Work with her even more closely if that’s productive. Always with an eye to your own mother, of course.
If or when you hit a bump, step back. And let your partner handle the interface. The most important thing is that,
1. your partner is on your side.
2. your partner navigates.
At least at first signs of trouble. If your partner can’t resolve the issue to your mutual satisfaction, call a “wedding time-out,” for the two of you only, and emerge with a joint decision on how to proceed. An adult mother-in-law will respect this and will be glad that you two are showing signs of good marriage skills. (Understanding when things are getting out of hand, taking a time out to focus and resolve – even if conflict is required – will stand you in extremely good stead during your marriage. This advice and this process remains relevant even after the wedding.)
But what if you don’t have an adult for a mother-in-law? What if the woman in question is close-mouthed, tight-lipped, and disapproving? Or loud, narcissistic, and lacking personal boundaries? Even delusional? It’s my hypothesis that if you are dealing with a truly difficult mother-in-law, (as opposed to someone showing a little crankiness that they will get over) your partner has been dealing with a difficult mother for some time now, and he or she has to own the issue. Your family of creation comes first, and your partner has to stand by you.Which may be tough. Because he or she has likely not fully even understood that maternal relationship, especially if it’s been difficult. He or she may have set up a bubble of denial in which to survive. It was necessary, for survival, but now may be time to dismantle all kinds of coping mechanisms. For the sake of your new family. May be tough. A word of caution. If your partner deserts you, in favor of previous coping mechanisms, reverberations may be felt for years.
Your comments yesterday reminded me of one other case. The distant mother-in-law. Shows up, does what is asked of her, but demonstrates no affection, no joy in your joining the family. Three possibilities. First, she is DYING to get involved but hesitates because she doesn’t want to seem needy. Ask your partner. Have him or her check in with MIL. Move forward. Second, she hates everything you are doing and feels it’s best to stay away. Leave it alone for now. You will have years to work on rapprochment. This may be the best way for her to cope. Third, she’s always like this, either cold or manipulative and playing victim. Or both. Oh well. Move on, with my condolences. Sometimes life just is what it is.
Finally, if you find your mother-in-law distant, there may be something for you to investigate in your own makeup and your own maternal relationship. Are you looking for a replacement mother? Hang in there. You and your mother had years together, including those when you were so cute she cried. You and your MIL may or may not get close, but it will most likely take time and intent.
In sum: families are not easy. But they are worth more effort than napkins. They are worth effort, even when the napkin circus is over. You’re not marrying your mother-in-law, but, on the other hand, she probably has no intention of going anywhere. And even if she did, your spouse might be sadder than you expect. As I said, mothers run deep. So only you and your future spouse understand how much effort expended on a happy mother-in-law is like to be worth to your new family. All I can offer is a perspective from the other side, in full humility. Not one of us can know whether we ever have this motherhood thing figured out.