For the most part, I got pretty lucky in the mother-in-law department. She’s a nice person, very caring and sympathetic, and she absolutely adores our children. But, like all moms-in-law, she’s not my mom, so any piece of advice often sounds like a judgment, any mild suggestion sounds much more weighted than it probably is. Thing is, she’s a mom, a mom to my husband, and she cares. So she’s going to dole out advice and passively-aggressively criticize because, well, that’s what moms do. And sure, I’ll bristle, but I’ve also accepted that this is the nature of the in-law relationship and it’s not wrong or bad, it just is what it is. So I make the best of it and don’t let the little things irk me.
She has two sons and I have two sons, so I try to put myself in her shoes and think about how I would want my daughter-in-law to treat me. If my sons, once grown, tune me out, I hope they have a kind wife who will at least humor me. So that’s what I do. I respect her, I listen to her, and I share with her what’s going on with us and her grandkids.
In some ways, I recognize that I may be like the daughter she never had, so I want her to feel that we are close. So I’m always very honest with her about our family life, and also, my own personal family history. When she has asked questions about my upbringing or my background, I tell her the truth, without sugarcoating. And the truth is, it’s not really a “Leave It To Beaver” family tale. More like a dark, twisty saga with divorce, multiple marriages, drug use, bankruptcy, even a murder, some of it in my immediate family, and some involving extended family.
I guess all of my stories would make a great mini-series, and are definitely fascinating, especially to good people whose lives have been fairly by-the-book. So when my MIL always pressed for more details, I just assumed it was because she was intrigued, that she wanted to hear more because it was better than her soap operas. And I told her everything, not only because she wanted to hear it, but because I assumed she was absorbing it all without judgment, without it being any reflection on me, my parents, or my grandparents.
Oops, I was wrong.
A few weeks ago, my MIL was over for dinner and somehow, we started talking about my kooky great-aunts and their sordid marriages. My grandmother’s sisters were good people — generous, funny as hell –but they had married the wrong men. Abusive men. Controlling men. And in the 1950s, men like that always got away with it. Anyway, I ended up saying something to the effect of, “Yeah, my grandma is the only one who had a normal family.” And, without skipping a beat, she quickly responded with, “But your uncle has never been married and can’t hold a job. That’s not normal.” Whoa, what?!?! It was as though she was saying, “Well, how normal can your grandma’s family have been if your uncle has these troubles?” Even if she didn’t mean to say it like that, it’s clearly what she was thinking.
My heart stopped. I felt my face get hot and tingly, like it might explode. I wondered if fire was literally shooting out of my nose. I took a deep breath, looked her right in the eye and, and with my best death glare said, “My uncle is a good man and a sweet man and a smart man who was raised well. We all are who we are.” She quieted immediately, without response, and looked down at the plate of fish in front of her.
We went on with dinner, just pretended like what happened, hadn’t happened. Except something big had happened: With one comment, she had lost my trust forever. I felt betrayed. I felt taken advantage of. I felt judged. I felt as though she had been stockpiling all of these stories and, with them, building judgments about my family. I felt like I had betrayed my family too, by sharing with her. Thing is, I don’t think anything I was telling her were family secrets, just our story. But it was like she had twisted it all up into a statement about who we all are when, in actuality, most of it is just what happened to us, no fault of our own.
Regardless though, I now see this woman for who she really is — someone who is judgmental. Someone who likes to hear how hard everyone else has it, so she can feel better about herself. Someone who seems like she’s asking because she cares, but really is just asking so she can feel holier than thou. She is someone who I trusted, who I can never trust again.
I’m not a very judgmental person and in fact, often share my stories because I know that my own honesty helps others to be more honest about themselves. It feels good to share, trusting that the other person won’t use it against you. But my mother-in-law, despite her sweet facade, is clearly someone who will use it against me. So I’m done telling her anything but the most benign details about our lives. It’s sad because we could have continued to have a close relationship, but her narrow-mindedness and her thoughtlessness, ruined that forever.