My mother-in-law arrived for a weekend visit yesterday.
You’re waiting for the joke, right?
Of course you are, because mothers-in-law are comedy gold. They nag, they demand, they butt-in. At best, you enjoy a detente with her; at worst, she’s a perpetual thorn in your side. Or something like that.
Our enmity isn’t reserved for just mothers-in-law. Stock in-law characters abound. The father-in-law should be off drinking in a corner, crass, and always willing to share unwanted opinions. The sister-in-law should be needy, high maintenance, with a perpetual string of bad relationships. The brother-in-law should be recently out of rehab, need a few bucks, and root for a sports team you hate. The remainder of the in-law clan are straight out of central casting too, filling out the scene with an oddball cast of characters, sometimes entertaining, usually infuriating.
One of the most important functions of the in-law is the capacity to ruin a holiday. I’m not talking about Aunt Matilda having a gout flare-up. I mean full on, no holds barred, drama. Food may be thrown. Voices will definitely be raised. Life choices will be second-guessed. Huffs will be made. Tears will be shed. Conflicts thought long-settled will rise like a phoenix. Dishes will be washed with violent aggression. Football games will be watched in awkward silences. Promises will be made internally to never visit again.
It’s too bad we have this cultural hostility to our adopted families. I guess our antipathy is rooted in some kind of resentment about being forced to spend time with people we didn’t choose. We choose our spouse, but we get his family as a non-negotiable part of the bargain. You’re stuck with them.
But what if our national conversation about in-laws was different? What if the default setting wasn’t a punchline? What if the norm was an expectation to work toward fostering actual relationships with our new family members? Would we meet our in-laws with our guards down a little more, hearts a little more open? Would the price of losing some clichéd jokes be worth gaining new relationships that add color and variety to our lives?
My in-laws have been an amazing addition to my life. Uncle Riley fascinates me with his voracious reading and study of philosophy. He’ll profess to not know much, but the secret is he’s as well read and intelligent a gentleman as you will ever meet. And, then, there’s Aunt Penelope, with her academic and military pedigree. Most importantly, she’s just plain fun. You haven’t experienced a family event until you’ve tag-teamed it with Aunt Penelope, standing on the sidelines, people watching and taking in all the action. Sarcastic remarks will be made, savored, and remembered! Hubby’s three brothers entertain me as they each travel their own unique paths through life, and his dad sheds light on a slice of life completely foreign to me.
So, when my mother-in-law Belinda arrived yesterday, I greeted her with a big hug, and I meant it. I’m looking forward to the weekend together. A true lady that, under those stylish clothes, is a real fighter. Wise from life’s lumps, she’s got a big heart and a vulnerability not born of weakness but of openness to life and its offerings. She’s also filthy rich with love for her boys.
Ultimately, whether it’s your in-laws or not, meaningful family relationships don’t just happen. You have to be open to them, and they take work. But it’s better than resenting time spent with virtual strangers. Your in-laws aren’t playing a part. They’re in your life because they love someone you love. And, who knows, maybe you’ll end up loving them too.