By Debra Karplus, MS, OTR/L
When you and your husband were dating, umpteen years ago, and the relationship started to become serious, it became time to meet his parents. You expected that his folks would be pleasant people. But you were young, your backgrounds were so different, and when alone in the room with his mother, there was absolutely nothing to talk about. The silence seemed to last forever, but perhaps was only a mere few minutes.
But, you and your mother-in-law grew closer and developed a special friendship. You enjoyed visits when just the two of you spent time together, and long phone calls exchanging news, confiding in each other and sharing thoughts and dreams. At her request, you helped take care of her a few days before cancer took her away. It’s hard to believe that was several years ago; you think about her often, look at old family photos, and definitely miss her presence especially at family celebrations. Over the years, she had evolved into a model mother-in-law, interested in your life, but not judgmental or intrusive.
A few years before your mother-in-law’s death, your son married. He chose a lovely woman. But living far away made extended family gatherings somewhat infrequent. Quirky work schedules and different time zones made it challenging to synchronize optimal times for phone calls. And with the widespread use of cell phones, and fewer land lines, you weren’t even sure which phone number to use if you simply wanted to chat. But despite those obstacles, you have become much better connected with your daughter-in-law and appreciate your visits. Having grandchildren has definitely enhanced that closeness with your daughter-in-law. How blessed you feel!
Just when life couldn’t seem any more wonderful, a curve ball hits you in the face; your son’s marriage is coming to an end. You force yourself to maintain a positive attitude, not take sides, and learn to be an exemplary listener. After all, one of life’s important lessons is that you can love people even if they no longer love each other. If your child divorces, that concept becomes your reality.
But things become murky when new girlfriends and boyfriends, step children, half children (your grandchildren but with one parent different than the others), and an entourage of new grandparents, aunts and uncles and assorted step relatives. Your family tree takes on a three dimensional look with all of these new in-laws. People might require name tags stating their relationship at the next Thanksgiving dinner, such as” Susan, ex-step-mother-in-law of Bobby”!
All of a sudden you might find yourself with a daughter-in-law who has a new spouse. You like him, or maybe you don’t. Or possibly your son has a new partner, and though you only have this one son, you now have two daughters-in-law, and you adore and feel deep affection for both of them. Your son’s first wife might be an “ex” legally, but to you she will always be your daughter-in-law. But now your son may be bringing someone new into the family, possibly a woman who is very different from his first wife, but she’s wonderful, and most important, she makes your son very happy. Welcome to today’s world of marriage!
The relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is unique. As your son’s mother, you were the first woman in his life; he was born from your womb. Your daughter-in-law might have self-imposed expectations that she feels that she somehow needs to measure up to you. But that’s just silly, because everyone has their special and personal attributes and shortcomings that all need to be embraced. That’s what life is about, isn’t it!