Of course I’m excited for my bride-to-be daughter and, yes, I really like the guy. My concern is, will he like me?
Everyone knows the role of mother-in-law is the belly of the beast. Last year, I attended an educational workshop where a friend and I chose a class about this controversial role because she had recently become a mother-in-law and was struggling with it.
The presentation began with an on-screen image of a lovely middle-aged woman, smiling tenderly with the title “Mother” written in fancy calligraphy. The presenter then adoringly described this reverenced and respected role.
Suddenly the hyphenated word “in-law” was added to the title in a grisly gothic font and the mother’s head was replaced with that of the Wicked Witch of the West. And not Idina Menzel’s cool Elphaba version, but the nightmare-invoking 1939 film starring Margaret Hamilton version. The audience laughed at the portrayal of this common perception.
While I’d like to tell you the presenter then revealed the secret code of reformation for this bewitched role, she didn’t. She told some sweet stories about nice things her mother-in-law did for her and nice things she does as a mother-in-law, but she didn’t get to the guts of why this role is so freaking hard and hated. So, I’ll tell you my non-expert theory of a major saboteur of this role and how to rectify it.
I think the key culprit of the curse is revealed in a quote by William Shakespeare, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” I mean, who knows more about doomed relationships than The Bard, right?
A married couple’s relationship came about by love, but the family associated with them became relations merely “in law” as marriage is a legally binding contract. The fact is, we’re barely acquaintances yet we immediately put the expectations, titles and roles of the most intimate human relationships, that of family, on each other.
After a wedding, new relatives are instantly supposed to feel the same way we do about our own family? An affection and connection that’s been fostered over a lifetime of care, experience, endearment, memories, traditions and inside jokes? No wonder Shakespeare chose to kill off Romeo and Juliet before they had to face that.
Right out of the gate, a mother-in-law says to her child’s new spouse, “Call me mom.”
I suddenly expect this kid to put me on the same level as his own mother, call me by the same name given for the woman who gave him life, raised him, and didn’t kill him when he totaled the car?
Maybe he’ll want to and I’ll be flattered if he does, but maybe instead I should ask, “What do you feel comfortable calling me?” Hopefully he won’t be the type who likes sci-fi nicknames, but even if he is I’ll do my best to respond cheerfully to Lwaxana Troi and anxiously await the day I’ll become Grandma “LT.”
As a mother-in-law I’m really going to try to ask more questions and make fewer demands. Communicate more and assume less. Accept more and expect less. Or just early retire to Hawaii.