How to Be a Mother-in-Law

I was thinking about writing a guide on how to be a good mother-in-law but truthfully, it can all be summed up in two words: "Shut. Up."

My long-time motto, to which I have, alas, failed to adhere, has always been "A closed mouth gathers no feet." Unfortunately, letting an opinion go unvoiced is not my strong suit.

But I really try hard with my two daughters-in-law who are truly the daughters I never had and whose good opinion is one of my utmost priorities. Having been a daughter-in-law twice myself, I vowed I would be a dream mother-in-law. A friend of mine insists that's an oxymoron. But then, this is a woman whose bedroom sports a throw pillow averring "The only good in-law is a dead in-law."

I've learned a lot from both of my mothers-in-law.

My first mother-in-law only ever referred to me in the third person, even when I was there, and preferably without conjunctions, as in: "Ask The Shiksa she wants dessert." These in-laws escaped from Russia in the dead of night with the clothes on their backs, enduring incredible hardships in their new land all so that their son the doctor, their phoenix rising out of immigrant ashes, could marry... me? So not part of the plan.

Ironically, with the passage of time (and the raising of two sons), I have tremendous empathy for her position. Now that I have adult sons, I know I would have been devastated if either of them married someone I truly thought was wrong for him, regardless of the reason. I wish she were alive today so I could tell her. (She'd still probably tell me to drop dead but I'd feel better saying it.)

My current mother-in-law actually likes me. And I adore her. Although very fond of her son's first wife, I think she wishes Olof and I had married the first time around. (So do my former in-laws.)

The one thing I told both of my daughters-in-law from the get-go was that I was trying to learn their tastes so if I got them a gift they didn't like, they needed to say so. As a cautionary tale, I related the saga of a friend who, as a new bride, politely gushed over a hideous china knick-knack her mother-in-law gave her. She has continued to receive another one for every birthday and Christmas for the last 34 years. Two years ago, her mother-in-law surprised her with a display case for them.

I knock myself out to stay on my daughters-in-laws' good sides. But occasionally, despite my best efforts, I just screw it up. When the grandtots were down visiting a few months ago, I thought it would be really fun to take a bunch of on-sale hotdog buns down to our favorite sunset spot to feed the seagulls. Now at the time, the sun was setting at around 5:00, so it was just before dinner. Neither of my daughters-in-law are food fanatics but they quite reasonably prefer to maximize the nutritional value of whatever they happen to be feeding their kids. So as you might guess, not a lot of white bread.

As soon as we got down to the sunset bench and each kid had a bag of hotdog buns in hand, they started eating them instead of tearing off pieces for the birds. Mom quickly confiscated the buns and doled out bits to throw but these went into mouths just as quickly, despite admonishments to the contrary. This well-intentioned happy activity was tanking fast. It was such a good idea! Which so totally failed! Kids were, of course, way too full of nutritionally-bankrupt processed flour products to eat dinner. My daughter-in-law was really nice about it. But in my mind's eye, I feared becoming fodder for her next dinner party.

Sadly, I know women who really don't like their daughters-in-law and have even engaged in the ultimate mother-in-law act of aggression, i.e., sending the grandchildren drum sets for Christmas.

I'm going to continue to be phenomenally grateful that I ended up with the daughters-in-law that I did. But next time: whole wheat buns. After dinner.