I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I have two adult sons, both of whom who are married—one for 10+ years and one for 2+ years—so I’ve had some time to practice. My guess is if you are reading this blogpost, you either have an in-law relationship that is driving you crazy and you are hoping you can send this anonymously 😊…or…you are an in-law (or anticipating becoming an in-law) and you are wondering if you are doing it “right”.
First, let me establish that I am no expert. And, my guess is, that if I was an expert, I would start off by telling you that there is not a “right” way to be a good in-law. So, I’m just going to tell you a bit about what I have learned in my journey:
- I have learned not to place demands on my sons & their wives about holidays. I started with this one because, in talking with my friends, this seems to be a critical sticking point. There are a lot of expectations about “sharing the holidays”. I recognized from the get-go that wives’ families tend to get the lion’s share of holiday time. It was true for my mom, and it has been true for me in our marriage. So, I came into the “in-law” relationship as the mother of sons knowing that it would be foolish of me to expect a different outcome. In fact, I had a preemptive conversation with both daughters-in-law and told them, “I don’t expect you to be with us on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas. You may have special traditions with your extended family or you may want to establish your own traditions. I just hope that we can schedule a time to have a special meal sometime around the holidays to celebrate with you.” You would be amazed at what good will that generated. And, you know what? We’ve enjoyed some pretty special times with both of our son’s families during the holidays because we’re not insisting on a particular schedule. Everyone is relaxed and glad to be together.
- I have learned that it is best to assume the best. I am clear that my sons and their wives have their own family units now. They don’t need me to be checking in to make sure everything is okay. They don’t need my unsolicited advice. In fact, I find great pleasure in the fact that they are settled into a new life that doesn’t include me as a key participant. I don’t need to know everything that is going on in their lives. I don’t take it personally if they don’t invite me into their decision-making process about buying a home or changing jobs. I am glad that they are competent and able to handle their life affairs. I can rest peacefully at night.
- I have learned that providing some needed service (as defined by my son & daughter-in-law)is generally welcomed. In the book The Five Invitations, the author wisely states, “When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” My son has a medical procedure. Yes, I’m worried and would like to be there, too, but I am more needed to babysit the grandkids so my daughter-in-law can be by his side. This is welcomed. Sometimes, I fail at this one. I see something I can do to be of service, and I text and make an offer. Then…crickets. I don’t take it personally. The silence tells me that this is not something they would like me to do and they don’t want to hurt my feelings with an outright no-thank-you.
- I have learned to show whole-hearted support for the marriage relationship and to express confidence in their ability to work things out. First and foremost, I’m not playing detective on their FB page to read between the lines to glean information or develop theories about what is or is not happening in their relationship. If they want me to know something, they will tell me. Second, I try to put myself in their shoes and see life from the young couple's perspective. It seems parenting expert Jane Nelsen’s definition of encouragement works well here: “Encouragement is the space we make for our child to become his/her best self.” I regularly ask myself…am I creating the kind of space for my sons and their wives so they can become their best selves?
- I have learned to have a long-range perspective with the foremost goal to maintain and strengthen the relationship with my sons and their wives. Sometimes, I get this one wrong, too. Sometimes, I think I am right about something and I just have to let them know. When I get in this mode, I’m not thinking right at all. The most important thing is not that I am right, but that I have a good, solid relationship with my sons and their families. And, with this, comes learning the fine art of asking for forgiveness.
Finally, I have learned and keep learning that the most important aspect of this journey is that I invest my energy in creating a rich and interesting life for myself. Then, whatever is happening in my sons’ lives is not at the center of all my thoughts. As Carl Jung said, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on the environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
What lessons have you learned on the journey of being an in-law?