You're probably wondering by the title of this post what in sweet baby Jesus' name I am about to tell you, but it's relevant and essential information. And I believe that as a result of this information I am one of the lucky ones: I love my mother-in-law.
I don't mean I "tolerate" her, or have feelings of acceptance; I love her in a way that I feel I could tell her anything, and I want to hang out with her for hours while drinking and laughing over poop stories. (Seriously, her favorite stories are poop stories -- the ones about situations where people cannot hold it or have to poop immediately in unfavorable situations, or the ones that involve babies and changing diapers -- really any old poop story can turn into hours and hours of laughter and entertainment.)
Aside from her being fun, cool, and hilarious, it doesn't all come without some give and take. There are things that the both of us do - and don't do - that I know help our bond, and I'm going to list them here.
I want to start this off by saying that I am not a therapist nor do I pretend to be one on the internet. The tips I'm about to share are from my own experience as well as my knowledge gained by interviewing the many therapists I spoke with while writing my book. So here we go.
WHY I LOVE MY MOTHER-IN-LAW
She doesn't meddle. Oh, I'm sure she has opinions. And I wouldn't blame her one bit. But overall, she does not ever cross lines or make me feel uncomfortable. She truly lets us be, which in turn makes me feel safe around her, and never judged.
She can take a joke. One year I sent her a gift basket that had glitter in it, and when she opened it, glitter got everywhere in her house (this was not my intention). Instead of getting aggravated and cursing me as she busted out the vacuum and then holding a silent grudge for ten years, she joined in by mailing me a lovely "thank you" card. Full of glitter. One that spewed said glitter everywhere when I opened it. And when I called her about it she laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Whether you are a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, find ways to take otherwise aggravating situations and turn them into glitter.
She takes a "no strings attached" approach to gifts. I never have to worry that something she gifted us needs to be dusted and displayed in a shrine on our mantle every time she comes over, or that every outfit she gives our kids must be cleaned and pressed and worn at every visit. When a gift is given she tells us, "I thought of you with this, now do what you like with it!" No pressure. The groundwork for this was laid at our wedding when she and my father-in-law contributed to the event, but did not do it in a controlling or agenda-pushing manner - they simply gave us a check for an amount they were comfortable with, and told us to use it as we wished. No strings attached. This may not sound like a big deal but I count my blessings every time I hear someone say "My mother-in-law wants to pay for the flowers, but now she's trying to control all of my centerpieces!" It happens more than I ever would have thought, and I'm grateful that wasn't the case with us.
We aren't afraid to call each other out. We decided early on that the terms "mother-in-law" and "daughter-in-law" tend to come with a dun dun dunnnnn sound effect, so right from the start we decided against using them. But whenever I cross a line, she'll threaten me with the word "daughter-in-law". It's done in a joking manner, and it makes me laugh while disarming me enough to consider the situation. Likewise, I'm quick to shoot her a look every once in a while that prompts her to say, "Am I being a 'mother-in-law'?" and the situation instantly lightens up.
Here's how this works if, say, I send her an adorable photo of our baby:
Her possible response #1: "Where are her socks?"
My response: "I'm not sure, dearest Mother-in-Law!"
Her possible response #2: "What an adorable photo of the cutest baby ever created!"
Result: "Aw, thanks Mom!!" (Insert all the heart and smiley emojis.)
Differences of opinion are taken lightly. Shortly after our first baby was born, my in-laws came to visit and my mother-in-law offered her advice on our landscaping. Sure it was a little unkempt, but hello, newborn in my arms. In particular she commented on a rosemary plant that I loved, but had grown out of control. As I went on about how much I loved that plant, she insisted on telling me I needed to hack it and pull it out.
"But I love it there," I said.
"Nope. It needs to go. It looks like crap."
"I really like it though, it makes me happy."
"Nah. Looks junky. Pull it."
This went on and on and while it was probably the hormones, I was taking this attack on my beloved rosemary plant way too seriously. After her visit, what I could have done was stomp around and yell "How dare she make comments about our landscaping!!!" while breathing new-mom fire across our shrubbery. But instead, I went outside and snipped a few giant sprigs of rosemary, put them in a box, and mailed them to her with no note or explanation. I have no idea why I did this but I was postpartum and a little bit insane, so bear with me. She called me cracking up.
"Is this the horse's head?!"
(If you've seen the movie The Godfather, you know what I'm talking about. If not, google at your own risk.)
That was 3 years ago, and the plant still lives on our front lawn. And whenever things get a little heated, she says, "I'm going to get rosemary in the mail, aren't I?" And sometimes, she does.
She always assumes the best of me. I know there have been times over the years where I've been ragey, hormonal, uptight, and maybe a little bit snappy due to wedding, pregnancy and newborn stress. Or maybe she took something I said or did the wrong way. But she's never held me accountable for any of it. (I had a great conversation on my podcast with Dr. Samantha Rodman where we discuss these instances between family members, also known as "empathic ruptures", and how to get past them - you can listen to that here.) Because of that, it never turns into an issue. And she in turn motivates me to always assume the best of her when the reverse happens. I believe it's because I know in my heart of hearts, that we know each others' heart of hearts.
She's fun. Whenever I see her, wherever we go, she shows up with a smile. There is no tension in the air, no unspoken feelings of animosity trailing behind her. Just a bright orange aura and a smile. This sets the tone for whatever we are doing and no matter what, we start off on the right foot. It's contagious, really, because even if I'm having a shit-storm of a day, her energy brings me up rather than the other way around. I aspire to be like this in my every day life, and also, if and when I become a mother-in-law.
I know she loves me. One day, she called me and said, "Thank you for not being a 'daughter-in-law'".
"Huh? But aren't I your..."
"No, no. You're not one of those. I just had lunch with my friends who were all complaining about their daughter-in-laws, how this one is rude, that one wont let them see the grand kids, etc. and when it got to my turn, I said, 'Nope! I don't have any issues, move along!'"
I am not delusional. I know I am not daughter-in-law of the year. Believe me, if she dug deep (even just lightly skimmed the surface, really), I'm sure she'd have plenty of smack-talking material for her friends. But instead, she chooses to see the good in me. Even during those times when I'm feeling like crap for not calling in a while, when life gets in the way, I know she still loves me. Not just because I'm the one her son married, or the mother of her grandkids - I can feel it.
Maybe it won't work in every situation for everyone reading. Lucky for me I love my mother-in-law, but that doesn't mean I haven't experienced relationship struggles with others. In these instances I've found that taking ownership of my reactions helps. Even if I misinterpret something another person has said, or take offense to it, I know I have control over how much I'm going to let it bother me. I can't change what was done or said, but I do have a choice as to how I'm going to react. If I walked around allowing the world to dictate my mood and other people's actions to rule my own emotions, I'd not only be pretty exhausted but I'd be giving up a lot of myself, too. When I find myself in these sticky situations I often pull back and try to view it as a fork in the road, and when I do that, I can clearly see that I have a choice in the path I take next. The path I try to choose is the one with the best view.
If you've tried everything with your in-laws, if you absolutely cannot; if they have zero sense of humor and are truly monsters and your pressure goes up at the sight of their incoming call on your phone, then find a healthy limit to the amount of time you'll be spending with them and make the best of the time you have. Make the most of the great relationships you do have in your life, and devote your energy to being thankful for those. Because in the laundry list of all the things to stress about in this crazy world, your in-laws shouldn't make the cut - they should be on your side instead. I am grateful that is the case for me.
Now, go find your metaphorical horse's head, put some glitter in a card, and have a laugh about poop.
Alessandra Macaluso is author of The Real-Deal Bridal Bible, available on Amazon and Kindle, and What a Good Eater!. She is the voice behind her lifestyle blog, PunkWife.com. A version of this post first appeared on RealDealBrides.com. Alessandra also writes screenplays and articles, and is a regular contributor for The Huffington Post and Scary Mommy. Her original screenplay, "Polar Suburbia", placed as a semi-finalist in the Moondance Film Festival.
Learn more about Alessandra and the projects she is currently working on, here: AlessandraMacaluso.com.