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.

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Middle-aged business exec who had aspirations of being a writer someday. I believe that lifting people up through authentic and vulnerable storytelling creates connection and possibility. My story may not be the most inspiring, but it is the one I know the best and have the right to share.

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