Turning 30 was a blast, turning 40 was a breeze and as I turned 50, I counted my blessings. Becoming a grandmother was a time of joy and fulfillment. So you see, I have no trouble with transitions. The one transition that troubled me however, was becoming a mother-in-law.
What was my problem? My son married a wonderful girl who we love dearly. Clearly, the problem wasn't with the daughter-in-law, but I still felt very uncomfortable with my new role and title. Perhaps it was all the old mother-in-law jokes. I heard plenty of those jokes around the time of my son's wedding from well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning people. But my discomfort outlasted the jokes and I knew the problem ran deeper.
I have only recently gotten to the bottom of my discomfort. I always had role models of strong, independent, older women to guide me into adulthood, so growing older was not seen as a threat but an opportunity. I adored my grandmother and still hope to follow her footsteps so I saw becoming a grandmother as stepping into a coveted position. My mother-in-law, however, was a different kettle of fish.
We never got along. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that she was afraid of me. I came from a different world, with different ideas. I threatened to take away her only son, someone she had depended on since he was a child. He was a boy who had taken on adult responsibility very young. Her reaction was withdrawal. Her solution was not to speak to me. If she didn't talk, the reasoning went, she wouldn't insult me.
Well, of course I was insulted. And sometimes she did talk, and she was right -- she did insult me. The apparent apathy continued toward her grandchildren. She would come and visit and then ignore them. We would visit her and she would pay no attention.
The story does have a happy end. She adores her great-granddaughter and is clearly delighted to see her. Perhaps she feels that this role is liberating. No one expects her to give a hand, baby-sit or change a diaper. She is free to enjoy this darling child and she does.
Stepping into a new role with only negative models to guide you is difficult. I knew what I didn't want to be. I had seen plenty of cold, critical mothers-in-law. I had heard daughters-in-law criticized for being too smart, too social and too ambitious. One future mother-in-law even complained that the young bride was only marrying her son because he had such a good heart; the cunning bride knew he would take very good care of her. Is this a problem? Sounds like a good reason to get married to me.
I knew silence was bad and criticism was even worse. One bit of folk wisdom says that a mother-in-law should come to visit her daughter-in-law with her arms full of gifts and her mouth shut. I would change that to coming with arms full and heart open, welcoming and loving. There is always room for one more person to love.
So I just love her, worry about her, and celebrate her achievements. I rarely give advice but I listen and compliment often. Sometimes that is also a problem as in; "Beautiful outfit" "Didn't you like what I was wearing before?" but as we know each other longer, this sensitivity is wearing off, I'm less worried about stepping on toes and we're becoming more comfortable with each other. I stopped cutting out helpful articles on child rearing - for some strange reason she didn't appreciate them! She also didn't seem to appreciate the exercise tape I gave her as a gift after the baby was born. Now I stick to gifts of cosmetics and food. I have finally gotten used to being a mother-in-law.