Help struggling seniors. Deliver hope this Giving Tuesday. Donate

The In-Law Switch

It really was a glorious day. The scent of new-mown grass blended with the perfume of white roses as the bride and groom spoke their vows in the shade of the old gazebo. As mother of the groom, I felt entitled to be a little weepy. My husband squeezed my hand, the music lifted, and the sun poured down like butterscotch…uh-oh, wait a minute. Like a hammer to the kneecaps, the thought hit me: I was now a mother-in-law. Mother. In. Law. Read: gorgon, dragon, harridan, witch, radioactive thermonuclear bitch from hell.

What a stunning concept. No more snarky mother-in-law jokes. No more rolling my eyes in the universal sign for “Yeah, that’sjustwhat she’s like!” Struggling for Zen calm but breathing as if someone had just thrown a bag over my head, I looked at my beautiful new daughter-in-law. I wondered what she saw when she looked back at me. I wondered who we were to each other and who we might become. There was a time, years ago, when I was this girl. If there was a punch line anywhere in this scenario, I guessed I was it.

I probably wasn’t anybody’s idea of the ideal daughter-in-law, back in the day. My first mother-in-law—a cultured German refugee—was somewhat alarmed when I first arrived in her son’s life, just minutes out of high school. After the obligatory waitressing summer, I’d be off to college, with no idea of what I’d do once I got there. My mother, a secretary in a local insurance agency, kept five children and a husband clean and well fed; she introduced us to theater and vegetable gardens, and made sure we all knew how to boil water, scramble eggs, and keep our promises. But (since it was never her plan that I’d wed in my teens) she had not yet prepared me to be a wife, much less a daughter-in-law to a sophisticate who’d envisioned a glossy name-brand wedding and a commensurate dowry. Instead, they got me: a girl who flunked out after freshman year, got pregnant and eloped, and became pathetically eager to know which fork was which and what color wine went with what, long before I’d learned to make a bearable pot of coffee.

I looked at my beautiful new daughter-in-law. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me.

My groom was headstrong (not to put too fine a point on it), and I was naive, even stupid, about what was important to him. But as the mother of the first grandson, I was granted some stature, and more than a little slack. Slowly, my mother-in-law and I made our way to each other. By the second winter, we skied together once a week, calling down from the chairlift to the people we knew. One hot spring weekend we planted more than 300 bedding plants together, laughing and dirty and sunburned. She introduced me to soft Brie and hard Parmesan; I introduced her to waterproof mascara and held her hand when she had her ears pierced. She was dismayed that I didn’t iron the sheets; when I offered to let her do it, she declined. She insisted that it was a wife’s job to forgive all husbandly trespasses, even (or perhaps especially) infidelity. I disagreed.

And when, inevitably, her son and I separated, she howled like a she-wolf, then offered me money to stay. When that failed, she offered me continuing friendship instead, a bittersweet gift that I still proudly own. How arrogant I was, how chaotic. How slow to learn my lessons and take responsibility. And how tolerant she was—as well as hopeful and critical, loving and mercurial, and, ultimately, forgiving.

Years later I fell in love again. There was an I’M PRO-CHOICE AND I VOTE! bumper sticker on my car that first time I drove into my conservative, not-quite-second mother-in-law’s driveway. She was still reeling from her son’s divorce, so she couldn’t have been thrilled to see me. She’d dearly loved her son’s first wife, and the first wife’s parents, sister, aunts, and uncles. Now, they’d all gone from her life, to be replaced by me, plus my lanky, 12-year-old boy, sporting serious attitude and a mouthful of glittering orthodonture. What must she have thought?

And what had she so quickly done with all the family pictures? The years of celebrations, birthday parties, cocktail-hour-and-cookouts at the lake? With barely time to grieve the departure of a woman she’d cherished, she’d seemingly put it all away, then opened the front door to welcome me, my kid, and our history. If she winced, I didn’t see it; if she complained, I didn’t hear it. If she doubted what I could give her son (or feared what I might take from him), it never showed. However much her heart ached and her brain protested (like a Super Bowl Klaxon, I’d guess), she opened her arms and drew us in—graceful, courteous, and warm. Her son loved us, and that, it seemed, was good enough for her.

Happily for me, it still seems to be. Not long ago she was cheerfully wallpapering in my house while I made an overcomplicated stew, and we giggled like sorority sisters at the messes we were making. But she lined up the seams perfectly. No one else I know could’ve done that.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my moments with these two women, muttering about their issues, their interference, or their insistence that the holidays be conducted just so, because “we’ve always done it that way.” “Damn woman,” I’d think. “Damn girl,” they’d think. Days, even weeks, went by when nobody spoke to anybody, while the men looked increasingly alarmed, waiting for one of the women to break the impasse.

“How do you do it?” I asked my own mother after she’d slowly hung up the phone one cold December afternoon. She’d just negotiated a who-goes-where Christmas schedule with my brother’s sweet wife, and I watched as her face first crumpled in disappointment, then softened with acceptance. “How?” she asked me, then gave a rueful half-smile. “I just do the best I can. And try to keep my mouth shut. I love my son, I love his wife, and she makes him very happy.” Then, fiercely: “But don’t forget to have a life of your own! Make plans, take trips, and don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring.”

Leah came into our lives when her little boy was two. My husband and I recognized all the signs—our son had been hit by lightning: this one was his One. Tall, with long legs, long hair, and shining black eyes, she had her own history, an admirable spine, and a temper to equal mine. Karma, I thought, recalling that long-ago day when I drove into that driveway, fretting about my hair and my raggedy fingernails and my boy in the backseat. “It doesn’t matter what his mother thinks,” I’d told myself then, knowing full well that it mattered as much as air and water did.

I think I love this girl; I think that she loves me. On the other hand, whole weeks go by when we wonder if we even like each other. The thread that holds us is the man she lives with; she is the tender heart to his rough-around-the-edges soul, and the reason a child calls him Daddy—surely, a music of the highest order. So for that, we negotiate the terms of endearment. Sometimes, it all goes well. Other times, not. “She thinks I’m the Dragon Lady!” I wail to my husband. “Well…” he says, weighing his response. Then he grins, and it saves him.

So now it’s my turn with the control issues and the holiday menus. Now I’m the one who’s learning to step back and wait, puttering around the Toys “R” Us, or sneaking extra ice cream to the kid. It’s my turn to sweat through the phone call that says yes, we’ll see them this weekend, or no, inexplicably, we won’t. I’m learning to count on nothing more than the way my heart lifts when my son laughs, or when the little boy does, with that wide, summertime smile that echoes his mother’s.

The truth is, I would throw myself under a train for her (although I hope that won’t be required); for her part, she has pledged to care for me in my old age (I hope that won’t be required, either). Ultimately, though, we often have more in common with each other than we do with our men, so sometimes they give us a wide berth—not such a bad thing, really. Especially when we’ve scheduled a trip to the mall, or a manicure and pedicure together. It’s not seamless wallpapering, but it’s not a bad place to start.

Larkin Warren, a Connecticut freelancer, is at work on a novel.

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.

Next Article

Read This