When In-Laws Become Family

When I got married, I don’t remember thinking all that much about the family I was marrying into. True, we had spent time together during our two year courtship, but much of that time I had been living out of state. True, I had been in my husband’s sister’s wedding, but I was one of many bridesmaids. I did not yet have the deep knowledge of who they were as people, or of how it would work to become part of their family. And I’ll confess that I really did believe the old adage of “I’m marrying him, I’m not marrying his family.” I was 22 and still attached to some of the romantic ideals of young love.

I was so young.

Even now it’s hard to believe that I was so naive about the matter. Family is incredibly important to both of us and believing that we could have been happily married absent deep engagement with our families is crazy. Thankfully, over time I learned that we embrace family the same way. We both like to spend time with our parents and siblings, whether special occasions or just hanging out. We like to share our passions, hobbies and homes with them. And, we both believe in putting the needs of our family at the top of the list. I know that if someone calls and needs my help I don’t have to ask permission — I can act immediately and inform him later. He could, too.

I’m not sure when I stopped thinking of my in-laws as my husband’s family, but as our family. It didn’t happen at once but over time as we lived through the shared weddings, births and events that build a family in the first place. My first married Christmas our goddaughter was two days old. And over the years, converging around the pool at my in-laws, we watched as babies grew to toddlers, toddlers grew to children, children grew to teens. My goddaughter turned 20 last December, and it was our family — not his family — that watched her grow to adulthood.

As a woman there is no in-law relationship as fraught with worry as the one with your husband’s mother. And for me, my mother-in-law represented everything I felt most insecure about. The first time I walked into her home I thought I had been transported into a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Every room was tastefully and completely decorated, with thoughtful and elegant details. And everything was clean and organized without a spot of the clutter that was normal for me.

I was terribly intimated.

My mother-in-law has a talent and a passion for making things beautiful that is enviable, but she has never once made me feel bad about it. Of course, that didn’t save me from feeling incompetent by comparison. I remember the time that all of my worries about not being good enough came crashing down. We had returned from an international work assignment and bought a house out of foreclosure. Everything in the house was white or beige and rather than decorate immediately we bought self-stick blinds for the massive windows in our great room. Two years later we had still done nothing. And then one day I came home to my husband installing curtains.

Something inside me broke. It didn’t matter how great it looked, my husband had to get help from his mother to make our house a home. The new window treatments were infinitely better than what we had before, they had been purchased on sale for a great price and they met my style and color choices to a tee. It was perfect, except for the fact that I couldn’t have done it. And my husband knew I couldn’t do it. And my husband’s mother knew I couldn’t do it. 

I felt inadequate and I barely held it together enough to find a quiet space to process my emotions.

Strangely enough, it was that experience that helped me jettison the last feelings I had of ‘yours versus mine’ in my heart. I remember talking with my mother-in-law about it, telling her how badly I felt that she had to fill in for me and how envious I was of her talent. She seemed genuinely surprised. “You have great taste, Mel. You just don’t have any time.” I realized then and there that she knew me and that she didn’t judge me. Years later when we moved into our current house she visited and together we redecorated the dining room. We shopped and planned together and then she executed it flawlessly when I was at work. It’s one of my favorite rooms in the house.

This weekend I was hanging out with her and it struck me that is has been many years since I have thought of her as anything but my mother. I call her mom and I talk with the same level of openness and love that I share with my own mother. We were talking about life — love, kids, happiness — and she gave me the biggest compliment any mother-in-law can give her daughter-in-law. “I don’t think anyone could be better suited to each other than you two.”

And that’s family, no matter how you build it.

Look to the Comments

I read a Facebook post today that had been shared by one of my friends. It was a birthday post by a 31-year old man (blogger, writer, inspirational speaker) who was despairing that ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ was giving us a generation of adult males who wanted to stay boys forever and weren’t growing to be men. He went on to state that he (husband, father) was appreciative to be a man. It felt to me like the kind of post that might get people riled up, so I clicked through to read the comments.

Wow, was I right.

Comment after comment came down hard on one side of the issue or the other — men largely reflecting that they believed his was a single opinion on male maturity; women largely supporting his image of the male ideal. Few comments took a nuanced or balanced view of the issue.

I wasn’t surprised, not really. The Internet is flush with self-made experts and binary opinion setters. As a blogger myself I worry about whether my posts have a tone that might suggest righteousness. So, I try to frame these thoughts around my experiences and focus on that fact that my failures and successes are just those, mine. And while I enjoy hearing from people who share that I’ve said something that resonated with them or that they have had a shared experience, I would hesitate to advocate my life decisions for anyone else.

Of course that may be why my Facebook page has 68 likes and his has 109,596. The specific post I found had more than 300,000 reactions — I may never get that many total views. Part of me knows that people flock to someone who asserts their point of view not just as opinion, but as fact. I know that drawing a black and white line is sure to bring you fanatical fans and foes alike.

I’m ok staying in the gray because I don’t see life as black and white. Instead, I see it as a series of fascinating stories of how people have succeeded despite crazy conditions or failed masterfully and managed to pull themselves back together again. No one situation is the gold standard, comparing any two is silly. And if doing that means I generate less reader passion, that’s ok. I’d rather have a small following if that interest is made up of people who are looking for thoughtful questions.

Because in my opinion there is only one thing worse than telling someone you have the right answer — telling them you have the right answer for them.

Intervention

I will watch anything Sherlock Holmes related. My husband only enjoys the traditional setting with the traditional characters, but I will watch any version: Hollywood blockbuster, PBS masterpiece theatre, or a NYC crime mystery with a female Asian American Watson. What can I say? Smart socially awkward folks are my people.

So, I was watching Elementary tonight and was caught up in a recent subplot. In it, the medical examiner has survived a bombing which killed a woman he had just been getting up the courage to woo. The arch concluded tonight as Sherlock refused to take, “I’m fine, I’m managing” as an answer and continued to demonstrate in every way he could that he cared. It was a compelling set of scenes to me, partially because the characters were so poorly practiced in sharing emotion, but also because they helped me imagine what it must feel like to be part of an intervention.

I’ve never been in a situation where I felt that I stood in the way of a serious negative consequence for someone. I worry that someday I might be called to intervene — and I worry more that I might not be up to the challenge.

Part of it, I suspect, is the fact that I have a strong belief in allowing individuals to make decisions and take actions that are designed for their own happiness. At my core, I believe that looking in from the outside I can not possibly have all of the facts or insight that an individual has gained about who they are and what makes them happy. And while I have a strong moral code for myself, applying my sense of right and wrong to someone else’s circumstances has generally felt wrong.

But an equal part of my resistance comes from battle scars. In my earliest years I meddled in the place that most young girls meddle — I gave out relationship advice. I told my teenage friends that their boyfriends weren’t treating them well or pointed out actions that I thought suggested poor character. I learned the hard way that young love (like older love) is strong stuff and I found myself demoted to a less influential role. I learned that it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong if you are no longer asked for your opinion.

Years later when I had a friend who announced her engagement to a man of truly questionable character, I didn’t push her. In my head I rationalized that I only by being quiet and supportive could I ensure I was there if help was later needed. I worried in silence, convincing myself that she was not me and that she understood what she needed to be happy. I attended the wedding — and then watched as everything fell apart.

We’ve talked about it. We’re still friends and we connect reasonably often, although rarely now in person. The last time we chatted about it she shared the emotional scars she still carries and I told her how much I regret not intervening. I remember distinctly the moment when I could have, when I could have taken a harder line. I could have told her that I understood what it meant to be trapped in a relationship that no longer made sense — I could have done something, but I didn’t. And when I think about that, the years she spent as her life fell apart and the years she spent putting it back together, the guilt I feel is tremendous.

Frankly, it doesn’t help that she doesn’t blame me.

Now I simply wonder that someday I may be faced with another situation where I will have to ask myself how best to help someone I love. I will have to ask whether I should assert myself and intervene or give them the trust and space to go in a direction that might be wholly different than the path I would take. That’s just part of life, part of the delicate balance in relationships that we all face. Acting has consequences and failing to act has consequences and sometimes you can’t see the complex pattern to know what the long term impact will be.

Unless you really are Sherlock, I guess. That dude has it all figured out.

Moving Obstacles to Awesome

I am a passionate supporter of open door policies. So passionate that on the rare cases when I close my office door to focus on a looming assignment no one really feels stopped by it. They stick their heads in to ask me a question or to get pointed in the right direction. I remember turning away only one person over the years — and I remember feeling so stressed at the moment that I didn’t even feel bad doing it.

It was a “hair on fire” moment…and not my finest hour.

My desire to be seen as approachable and available goes beyond my office. I remember the dismay when I first put my personal cell phone number on my email signature. “Aren’t you worried that someone will call you?” one of my colleagues asked. I laughed, “Well if they need me, I hope they will. That’s why I put it there.” They were sure it would be abused, that I would fend off constant bothersome interruptions. That my number would become the 867-5309 of cell phones.

Turns out that I’m not that popular.

In fact, I only remember one unexpected call. One day, I was heading over to tour the construction site of one of the new residence halls. My phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize, but I answered it. It was a student voice letting me know that he was running late but would be at the tour; he asked if I could hold it for five minutes while he hustled across campus. I told him that we would wait and shared that I was glad (and a bit surprised) that he had my number. I asked him how he had gotten it. Now it was his turn to be surprised, “It was right on the email you sent.” Duh.

I was reminded of that moment because I spent most of the day telling groups of 30-40 people that I wanted them to see me as their technology connection. I reiterated that if they felt something wasn’t working, or they didn’t understand why something was the way it was, they should reach out. I told them I wouldn’t have all of the answers but that I would help them connect with the right people. I told them my cell phone number was on my email and in the directory so they could call.

I want to believe they will reach out, but safe money says they won’t.

Over the years I’ve found that very few people trust an open offer of help. Some worry that asking for help will mean weakness and be viewed negatively by others. Some worry that people are too busy or too important to be bothered. Some just don’t trust the sincerity. So, instead of reaching out for a lifeline, people stew. They struggle. They try to fix it themselves and too often they give up and live with the problem.

In my teams, I’ve watched people bang their heads against a wall for two hours tying to figure out an Excel formula before coming to my desk and getting a 3-minute answer. I’ve watched people navigate a corporate directory trying to find the right person only to ask me two days later when I quickly gave them the right name. I’ve watched people dig through online documents trying to find a desk procedure that I knew how to locate.

And, in case you think I’m suggesting that the path to everything good is through Mel, far from it. I reach out to my lifelines all the time. My point is that there is amazing power through collaboration, but only when you believe that individuals are open to helping you be successful. That if you are willing to give people the benefit of the doubt they can help you. You just have to be willing to assume that if they can help they will help. It is about believing in your core about the promise of shared success.

The idea of helping people succeed is so important to me that this year I made it my mantra. I grabbed a hot pink Post-It note and a Sharpie marker and I wrote down the phrase, “Moving obstacles to awesome.” It was scribbled and ugly, but I put it up on my overhead cabinet and there it has stayed. It is my inspiration when I feel low and frustrated, when things aren’t working and when I am not sure how I will make it to the next checkpoint. Hell, it’s my inspiration when I’m not even sure whether the next checkpoint even matters. Somehow just knowing that I have a chance to help someone move an obstacle to awesome gives me another jolt of energy. It helps me to push on.

So call — let me be a part of your awesome.

Why I Love Birthdays

I turned 43 today. I know there is some societal expectation that women don’t talk about aging, but I’ve never subscribed to it. When I was 25, I assumed it was because no one complains about being young and that at some point I would hit an age when I would fall in line and start being cryptic. Well, I’m 43 and I haven’t hit it yet so maybe I won’t.

I hope I don’t.

Because I honestly love birthdays. Everyone’s birthdays, but especially mine. My birthday represents the ultimate reminder of persistence, a time for reflection and a slowed down moment to be connected with the people who matter to me. And those are all things that bring me great joy.

You see, I wasn’t supposed to make it through my first week of life, much less 43 years. I’ve shared my origin story before so I’ll simplify it now: I was born too early and too small in a time when technology was less sophisticated to care for premie babies. My grandfather looked at me and said, “I’ve shot rabbits bigger than that.” The doctor told my mother she was young and could have more children.

So, while I don’t remember my first birthday, I imagine that it was quite the celebration.

The simple act of making it to another birthday is the first gift I open each year. I am here, upright, with breath in my lungs and beats in my heart. A close friend lost his wife to cancer before she reached her 45th birthday. Another close friend is living with stage four cancer now. Somehow, I am here living in what I believe is my prime. I love being in my 40’s when I am still strong and vibrant and capable — despite a few more wrinkles and jiggles. I don’t think I would go back, even if I could.

My second gift is taking a moment for reflection, giving myself time to consider what the last year given me. This year, I watched my teenage daughter find her own way in high school and she let me join her on the journey; I can see the shimmering outline of our adult relationship in the way we acted last year, and there isn’t much cooler than that. As my husband and I watched other marriages struggle, we doubled down on each other — talking intentionally about what our relationship meant to us, traveling more and going on dates. At work, I leaned into my leadership role by taking on new challenges and building new relationships. And then there’s Too Much Mel — last birthday, I was just Mel.

And, if those two gifts aren’t enough, all day I will get messages from friends and family across the globe telling me “Happy Birthday!” Sure, cynics will say that a Facebook birthday wish isn’t real, but I disagree. At 10:26am on my birthday, 65 people had taken time out of their busy day to write something to me. Sure, Facebook makes it easy, and it only takes 15 seconds to type a “Happy Birthday” in the box, but it was time and time is precious to us all. I respond to every single message I get, smiling each time about the memories it brings to light. From cousins to kindergarten classmates to people I worked with three jobs ago, it all means something.

So, I’m 43. I may get presents or cards today or I may not. Whether I do or don’t doesn’t really matter because I already opened my three most important gifts: persistence, reflection and connection.

Let’s hope I get the same things again next year.

Irreplaceable

This week, I moved into the office of a colleague who recently retired after 28 years. Sitting behind his (my) desk, I spent a few quiet moments reflecting on how supportive and influential he had been. I considered how in my first days and weeks I realized that he would be a safe harbor, an ally in my growth as a technology professional in a brand new industry. I thought about the many times I had walked into his (my) office to get candid feedback and he had given it to me — with helpfulness and without judgement.

So, I gave myself a few moments and then I got back to the work.

It’s a hard lesson to learn that you are replaceable at the office. At least it was hard for me. I wrap so much of my value around doing good work and providing support to my work teams that the idea that they could get someone else to do what I do hurts. I’m special, right? I’m important, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I do believe I’m special. Yes, I do believe the work that I do is important. But irreplaceably special? Irreplaceably important? Not so much.

In Lean In Or Recline Back, my post about how women need to be encouraged to swivel to meet their personal and professional objectives, I shared the story of leaving a high octane career in industry for a less demanding job in higher education. What I didn’t share in that post was what I learned from the exit process. How I learned that I was replaceable.

When I announced I was leaving, everyone swarmed to convince me to stay. I was certain in my heart and head that it was the right call, but the response impacted me. It gave me a bit of an ego boost, and it led me to believe that they were going to be lost without me. I felt badly that I was leaving them and so I gave three weeks notice instead of the standard two. In my loyalty I reasoned it was the least I could do; I wanted them to be able to recover from my abandonment.

I was misguided. My position was a critical one and the leadership team didn’t hesitate. Within a few days they had identified and announced my backfill. By the end of the week he was in my (his) office and I was squatting in a cube. By the end of the second week I had transitioned all of the critical work (most of which I had documented) to him and was just on call for questions. And, the third week? I sat unneeded in the cube watching the clock and feeling in my heart that in staying a third week I had made a noble but terribly wrong call.

Turns out, I was completely replaceable.

I try to keep that in mind when I start to get a little too full of myself. When I’m struggling to delegate effectively or when it feels like I’ve become an obstacle to progress. I don’t discount the unique talents that I bring to the table, but I try to remember that effective organizations and leaders will be prepared to respond to an employee departure. And as a leader I remind myself that it is my job to make sure my team can respond to change. To make sure we are all (including me) replaceable.

And while I am confident that as an employee I am replaceable, I know that I would not be easily replaced as a person. I hold a unique and special place in the lives of my parents, husband, siblings, children and friends. I have no shortage of data points that tell me the world will be a different place without me, a quieter place with less light and less energy.

And as far as I know, no one is ready to replace that.