My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.
Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.
In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?
Throw Grandma From the Train?
Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,
Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness. I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?” The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.
I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law. You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore. But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love. It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.
I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law. It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable. It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home. It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.
But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them. Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.
So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law. Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.
Accept the way you love your husband. Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law. Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart. Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.
Accept the way you run your household. Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross. Accept your home just as it is. Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine. Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.
Accept your parenting. Celebrate your relationship with your daughter. Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.
I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years. Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me. But she didn’t have to, because her son did. I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made. But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion. I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire. I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am. But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me. And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.
So, you have to be your own existential detective. What are you insecure about? Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds? Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.
And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option. Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.
The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.
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