BY PATRICIA A. PATTON
I am the mother of an only son. If you had told me when he was growing up that he’d marry someone who didn’t like me, I would not have believed you. It did not seem that he’d made that choice during his courtship and engagement to my now daughter-in-law. But once the courtship ended and they actually married, our relationship became my adult nightmare. It seemed she was consciously seeking to alienate my son’s affection for me. I didn’t believe she could do this, but she had me engaged in some self-doubt that took me a minute to realize was not real.
My daughter-in-law stopped engaging me in conversation and was unresponsive to my efforts to bond. Most evidently, she disengaged whenever the three of us were together. My son would try to start a group conversation that was inclusive of the both of us, and she (not me) would not participate. Any words that escaped her lips were directed to my son and generally whispered, as if to emphasize the separateness of their entity. Yet I would witness an effervescence in her conversation with others that was not shared with me. If one of their friends stopped by, I would sometimes not recognize her as the same person that had been in the house an hour before. In their company, my light began to dim. When it was clear I could get nothing from interacting with her, I began to give the bare minimum. Even though I was the grown adult in this situation and felt I should not give in to this kind of behavior, I was too far in by that time to stop myself.
Passive Aggressive Clashes
We seemed to have nothing to share between the two of us. She did not want to do girl things with me. She seemed to only be interested in doing things with my son or her immediate family.
I was so accustomed to a close relationship with my son we had our own language, and I was also used to talking to him. We were friends and we were both writers. Creatively, we were in and out of each other’s heads. That did not mean I called their house at 7 a.m. in the morning or at dinnertime. But it did mean that, because we shared an intellectual curiosity and a familial cryptography, I could blast her sometimes without words and use shared memories that left her out. Often I’d see something that happened in the world and I’d ask my son’s opinion, not hers. Initially this was not meant to leave her out, until I began keeping track of how she often she seemed to leave me out.
I began to act in a passive aggressive way, like bringing up remembrances she was not a part of. By the time my grandchildren were en route, I felt desperate. I would visit their home and other than saying “good morning, good night,” or “do you want something to eat?” she wouldn’t talk to me. She would only talk to my son when I left the room. If a decision was to be made about what we’d have for dinner, she’d state, “We haven’t talked about that yet.” In other words, he was clearly in for some re-training. No group decisions by she, he, and me. All decisions were to be made “after” the two of them talked about it.
From the standpoint of a woman, I could not be mad at her wanting to train him to her ways and not those of his mother, his primary caretaker and first love interest. From the standpoint of a family member, however, it infuriated me. How can you be in a family and treat people like that, I wondered. She was my daughter-in-law and I could not envision a time, when by some sheer grace, she’d be able to become my daughter-in love.
But it did happen. After the birth of my second grandchild, I realized no matter what I was going to have to submit. I wasn’t proud of everything I’d done, from the standpoint of ignoring her or sending the nonverbal message that she was only so important in my life. I tried to send her the message that she couldn’t hurt me. The reality was not involving me in my grandchild’s life was hurting me. I watched her share with her mother and with my son’s father and stepmother. She made time to share with other people who gave gifts. If I handed a gift to her for the kids, she’d leave it lying on the floor. She wouldn’t touch it. In my culture we call that signifying.
Someone Has to Submit
She came home from the hospital after the birth of the second child in 18 months, and I was waiting for them to arrive. I smiled and was very happy that everything had gone well; but I did not stand up to greet her when she came in. My son blasted me for that behavior. I realized it didn’t matter how I felt. It didn’t matter if I had a fairy tale relationship in my head with my daughter-in-law. What mattered to me was whether I was going to be able to have a good relationship with my grandchildren. I didn’t want to spend my energy misappropriating my behavior because of a perceived slight.
I asked for a private Come-to-Jesus meeting with my daughter-in-law. During our meeting, I asked for her forgiveness. I said I was sorry and I did not make my apology contingent upon what she thought or felt. It was my sincere apology, during which I asked if we could try to make things right. I have gotten along with people that I did not like in my professional life. Surely I could get along with my daughter-in-love, who sincerely matters to me. And to see that little character above, age 24 months, change and grow, I’d move mountains. That was the day my daughter-in-law became my daughter-in-love. I have been happier ever since.
Patricia A. Patton is a writer and reinvention strategist focused on what we must do to feel alive as mature adults. She is the creator of the Dream Yourself Awake Retreat, content creator of her own blog on creative aging, and a freelance writer. Most importantly, she is a new “Amah,” overjoyed by two grandsons who have given new meaning to her life. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BoomerWiz