I was thinking about writing a guide on how to be a good mother-in-law, but truthfully it can all be summed up in two words: “Shut. Up.”
My long-time motto, to which I have, alas, faithfully failed to adhere, has always been “A closed mouth gathers no feet.” As anyone who has read my column for a while might guess, letting an opinion go unvoiced is not my strong suit.
But I really try hard with my two daughters-in-law who are truly the daughters I never had and whose good opinion is my utmost priority. Having been a daughter-in-law twice myself, I vowed I would be a dream mother-in-law. A friend of mine insists that’s an oxymoron. But then, this is a woman whose bedroom sports a throw pillow averring “The only good in-law is a dead in-law.”
I’ve learned a lot from both of my mothers-in-law (my second husband’s mother is still living).
My first mother-in-law only ever referred to me in the third person, even when I was there, and preferably without conjunctions, as in: “Ask The Shiksa she wants dessert.” These in-laws escaped from Russia in the dead of night with the clothes on their backs, enduring incredible hardships in their new land all so that their son, the doctor, their phoenix rising out of immigrant ashes, could marry … me? SO not part of the plan.
Ironically, with the passage of time (and the raising of two sons), I have tremendous empathy for her position. Now that I have adult sons, I know I would be devastated if either of them married someone I truly thought was wrong for him, regardless of the reason. I wish she were alive today so I could tell her. (She’d still probably tell me to drop dead, but I’d feel better saying it.)
My current mother-in-law actually likes me. And I adore her. Although very fond of her son’s first wife, I think she wishes Olof and I had married the first time around. (So do my former in-laws.)
The one thing I told both of my daughters-in-law from the get-go was that I was trying to learn their tastes so that if I got them a gift they didn’t like, they needed to say so. As a cautionary tale, I relayed the saga of a friend who, as a new bride, politely gushed over a hideous china tchotchke her mother-in-law gave her. She has continued to receive another one for every birthday and Christmas for the last 34 years. Two years ago, her mother-in-law surprised her with a display case for them.
Honestly, I knock myself out to stay on my daughters-in-law’s good sides, and fortunately they are such sweethearts that they make it easy for me. But occasionally, despite my best efforts, I just screw it up. When my tiny grandkids were down visiting a few months ago, I thought it would be really fun to take a bunch of cheapo on-sale hotdog buns down to our favorite sunset spot to feed the seagulls.
Now at the time, the sun was setting at around 5 o’clock so it was just before dinner. Neither of my daughters-in-law are food fanatics, but they quite reasonably prefer to maximize the nutritional value of whatever they happen to be feeding their kid. So as you might guess, not a lot of white bread.
But as soon as we got down to the sunset place and each kid had a bag of hotdog buns in hand, they started eating them instead of tearing off pieces for the birds. (“Whoa! You don’t even have to chew this stuff!”) Mom quickly confiscated the buns and handed them pieces to throw but these went into mouths just as quickly, despite admonishments to the contrary. I could see daughter-in-law’s jaw tightening.
This well-intentioned happy activity was tanking fast. It was such a good idea! Which so totally failed!
The kids were, of course, way too full of nutritionally-bankrupt processed flour product to eat dinner. My daughter-in-law was totally nice about it. But in my mind’s eye, I feared becoming fodder for her next dinner party.
Sadly I know women who really don’t like their daughters-in-law and have even engaged in the ultimate mother-in-law act of aggression, i.e. sending the grandchildren drum sets for Christmas. I’m going to continue to be phenomenally grateful that I ended up with the daughters-in-law that I did. But next time: whole-wheat buns. After dinner.
— Inga's lighthearted looks at life in La Jolla appear regularly in The Light. Reach Inga at firstname.lastname@example.org