How My In-Laws Became My Friends
My husband and I married fairly young, at just 23 years old. Of all of the stress and changes that I expected in the process, there was one that came as a huge shock: in-laws.
I had no idea how much work in-laws would take. I was young and knew very little about the world (though I was certain that I knew it all). Somewhere in the back of my mind, I suppose that I assumed that, when I got married, my husband’s family would automatically become mine and then we would just have lovely relationships and effortless Thanksgivings.
It took years to get my head on straight. It’s never that easy, of course. People do not just *poof* become family. Family takes effort. Relationships are built around shared experience. And also, Thanksgiving is never effortless.
At first your in-laws are like a foreign culture
Before I go any further, I think I had better clarify that I have incredible in-laws. They are witty, intelligent, and a hell of a lot of fun. Today, I consider my husband’s siblings my personal friends. But when we first married, I barely knew them and they barely knew me.
In her book, Carry On Warrior, Glennon Doyle tells a story about Maya Angelou who walked all over a beautiful carpet at a party in Senegal, only to discover that the carpet was really a tablecloth because in this culture people ate on the floor. The carpet she walked all over had to be rolled up and replaced before dinner was served.
Doyle tells this story and relates it to her relationship with her mother-in-law. She describes how early in her marriage she walked all over her mother-in-law’s metaphorical tablecloth, laying down her territory as it were:
In a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, I tried to change my in-laws. I suggested new traditions. I offered advice. I found fault with their personalities and marriage and their relationships with their children and grandchildren. I dragged my dirty shoes all over my mother-in-law’s tablecloth. The one she’d spent decades carefully weaving.
When I read this beautiful story, it reminded me of my own relationship with my in-laws. They seemed to do everything differently than my family. They had traditions that felt foreign and strange to me – like celebrating Chanukah the morning after Thanksgiving. So, in my dumb immature mind, I thought I would “show” them how it could be done. I stomped all over their metaphorical carpet, too.
Recognizing when the carpet has been rolled out for you
Two years into my marriage, we spent a year in Jerusalem while my husband began seminary. I was in a foreign country with no family, few friends, no job, and very little to do all day. I was depressed quite a bit of the time. My mother-in-law asked me what I missed there, what was difficult to get. I told her that English novels were very expensive there and I only had a few. So, she began to ship me books she liked from the used bookstore. She didn’t just purchase books. First she read them. Then she shipped me the ones she liked. I got a few of these shipments that year. The kindness of her gesture blew me away completely. She rolled out her metaphorical carpet for me.
And I began to realize that each person shows love and appreciation in unique ways. There isn’t one correct way to be a loving parent. And because up until that point in my life everyone in my family had always been there, I did not realize that family takes as much work to develop as any friendship or partnership. Family doesn’t happen from signing a marriage certificate. It happens through shared experiences, small and large gestures of care, celebrations, mourning, and food. Food, I’ve learned, is really quite important in the equation.
That same year we lived in Israel, we traveled to England to visit my sister-in-law and then she came to visit us in Jerusalem. Because my husband was busy in school that year and I had absolutely nothing to do, I was the one who spent most of the time with her when she came. We spent about every waking moment together for her four or five day trip. And I learned something very important during that time. She is a hell of a lot of fun. I knew she was fun. But, I mean we actually had a great time. We laughed a lot, ate a lot (food matters!), and walked a lot. I’m pretty sure that trip is when we became friends.
When she left for the airport, I watched my husband let out a huge breath that I hadn’t realized he had been holding onto for the three years of our young marriage. I don’t know how it skipped my notice that he was worried about whether his wife and his family would become friends.
I wish I had known when it was still early on.
If I could, I would go back and tell my young engaged self to date my in-laws, too. Find out about their interests, their stories, their hopes and dreams. It’s not enough to marry one of them. Each one needed their own relationship tended to and nurtured.
Well, I can’t change the past. But I can say I’m so grateful for the present. I have an enormous family now. I have friends and confidantes in my husband’s siblings. They are an incredible group, much different and more wonderful than I understood at the beginning of this journey. Perhaps that’s the real lesson… it’s a long journey, and one well worth sticking to.
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