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What’s In a Name?

Okay, so here’s an idea that popped into my head while on my way to the airport to fly to Chicago. We would be spending the weekend with our older son and ….

That’s where we get to fill in the blank.

Am I thinking “our son and his wife”? or “Our son and our DIL”? or “Our son and Natalie”?

Do you find it all surprising that these three titles, names, labels all connect with their own flavors, connotations, and each evokes its own particular emotion, attitude and mindset? I considered this realization to be an “Aha! moment – an epiphany.

Does it bring up a feeling of possessiveness when I think of Natalie as my DIL? Is she somehow “mine”? Is there ownership or overseeing to be done if she is? Think about this: my husband, my friends, my parents. What is mine I have a say over. What is mine I influence; I sometimes control; I have a special interest in and, perhaps, investment in. So, I might be more inclined to interact with “my” or “mine“. I am definitely connected with “my“.  Somehow, it might feel quite natural to take more liberties with my ____________. What do you make of that?

Now, let’s try this: Let’s say “my son and his wife”. That feels different. That seems to acknowledge that Natalie is primarily related to Kristof; that my relationship with Natalie is because of him; that they are a couple and because she is in relationship with him, she is in relationship to me. So, there feels a bit of space, perhaps personal distance between her and me.  After all, she is not mine.  She is his.

Then again, I might simply refer to her by her name – Natalie. “I’m going to call Natalie.” “I wonder what Natalie would enjoy for a birthday present.” “Natalie is a fine cook!” More space around Natalie here, isn’t there. It might seem like she stands more as her own person with her own unique history, personality, gifts, preferences, style, … unencumbered by role expectations, obligations or even forced feelings of familiarity.

“My DIL” I might assume I know. “Kristof’s wife” I don’t know as well as he does. “Natalie” I’m getting to know and I’d like to know better.

Does it feel the same for a DIL who considers these options toward her MIL?  My MIL?  His mother?   Ginny Liz?

What’s in a name? Perhaps more than any of us has recently considered!

What’s your take on this?

 

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For Those In-Law Visits

“I think this is really big between the MIL and DIL.”

Avery and I were talking about the challenges of being grafted into a new family through marriage.  One frustration she shared was that, especially early on in a marriage, those in-law visits can be downright difficult!

Oftentimes when adult children return home to visit, they slide right back into their former roles and relationships with family members.

Does that happen to you?  To your spouse?

The oldest sibling immediately exhibits characteristics of “Ms. Bossy Boots” and the youngest becomes “the Baby” yet again.  The two who rarely got along while growing up find themselves arguing with one another … again … over anything or nothing.

Their spouses can be mystified by this metamorphosis.  Hard to say why it happens, but … it does.

Another thing is that the new inductees to the family are introduced to a culture possibly quite foreign to them.

“There are these habits, how they were around each other.”

She really didn’t like it.

“When your Dad comes home, everyone hides.  When your family members are done eating supper, they simply get up and leave the room without waiting for everyone else to finish.”

“There’s all this engagement and activity and the MIL, as the elder, she kind of sets the tone and the pace.  ‘I don’t want you to help.  I expect you to help.’  I think it’s really critical for a person and their partner to really talk explicitly about how to partner through that.”

“There’s this activity, this behavior, that he (her husband) doesn’t even notice, that’s really hurtful to me.  And I don’t even know how to respond because I look to him and he’s not even responding.  So, I don’t have any clues about how to ‘do it right’ and if I try to talk to him about it without a lot of intention, he replies ‘Don’t worry about it.  She’s just like that.’  It’s not helpful to the spouse who’s trying desperately not to drown in this pool of missteps.  I’m going to say the wrong thing.  I’m going to do the wrong thing.  I’m going to do the thing that no one does.  And then…. I’m done.  Not in real life, but in your own in-law way.  I’m the outsider now and I’ve sealed the deal forever as being the outsider.

“Here’s the lesson.”  Avery leaned forward as she spoke.  This was important for her to share with other DILs.

“I needed to know that when we’re together in his family’s home that he’s on my team – even if he’s also on their team.”

Couples need to be very intentional about communicating this regularly during family visits – verbally and otherwise.  This could look like the two of them going out for a long walk, hopping in the car and going for a ride, or going upstairs to the bedroom, closing the door and taking a nap together.

In-law visits.  They can be daunting.  So much so that, if you don’t find a constructive, healthy way of conducting them, you might find yourself saying – as I did one weekend – “Honey, I think I’ll skip this trip to the Lake House.  Why don’t you just take the kids and go?”

Here’s another idea from someone who’s been “in the game” for 19 years.  Suggest to your spouse that, each evening, perhaps for 15 minutes or so before bed, the visiting in-law (or outlaw as my father-in-law calls me) gets to share some of his/her observations about how things are done differently in that household.  These can and should be done without judgement.  For example:

“I noticed that your family likes to take photographs whenever we sit down all together at the dining room table.”

“All the women of the family are expected to clean up after a meal.”

“Wow, your family sure likes to get up early in the morning and get going!”

“Wine is a regular part of every supper at your parents’ house.”

“Your mom is quite the hugger!”

There is no need for explanation by the spouse.  No need to defend the practices.  The sharing could simply provide a safe place for the in-law to articulate what he or she is noticing and this could aid in the processing of those differing behaviors, assumptions and attitudes.  One way of doing things may be just as valid as another.  Different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong or bad.  But, just being able to say “Gee, I’m really uncomfortable with the way this is done” and know that one is being heard can go a long way toward releasing stress and sorting out one’s feelings.  Maybe, just maybe, it would move the couple toward recognizing,  understanding and perhaps even accepting one another’s family and upbringing.  And future visits might be more enjoyable and comfortable for everyone.

I wish someone had suggested these things to me and my husband many long years ago.  It might have prevented a lot of pent-up frustration that had plenty of time to turn into bitterness.  Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I will take heed!

What do you all think?  Weigh in on this topic with your insights and experiences.

 

Taking Up Another’s Offense

I feel so privileged and humbled when a woman entrusts me with her MIL/DIL story. This warm, Spring afternoon was no exception. Avery traded seats with me so that I could enjoy a gorgeous view of the mountains of the Pacific Coast Range. Things were quiet at the moment in a household with two teenagers and we were taking advantage of a lull in activity to enjoy a cup of tea together on her back patio.

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Avery is the mother of one son and one daughter and has been married to Quentin for 19 years. I asked her to tell me about how she met Quentin and his family and how their relationship had changed over time, what she had been through and what advice she would give.

Here’s just a part of her story.

“In hindsight, your relationship with your MIL begins before you get married”.

Avery and Quentin met when both of their fathers were ill. They would travel most weekends from Washington, DC to New York City in her car because he didn’t have one, dropping him at Penn Station where he would take the train out to Long Island to visit his Dad. She would visit her Dad in Westchester County and then go pick up Quentin on Long Island on Sunday and they would drive back home to DC.

“And so it was this amazing kind of courtship that really involved our families and in a very tender time. I only knew Quentin’s Dad for six months before he died. So, my relationship with Quentin’s mom, with my MIL, started in the midst of this very kind of “sped-up” getting to know each other because, really, his Dad was dying.

“I was really close with his mom. His mom was a real “girly girl” and I wasn’t … and she just loved going to get her nails done and I’d never done that before. It was a very sweet, familial, loving beginning relationship. So close, even, that …….. I would often, when we visited, stay the night with her in her bed, if there were a lot of people visiting and we needed to ‘bunk up’. She and I would often be the ones ‘bunking up’. So, we were really, really close.

And then Quentin’s father passed away.

It was then that Avery heard about ” this crazy family story” about Quentin’s mom having had an affair with the same man since Quentin was five years old. Turns out that it wasn’t just a “crazy family story.” It was true and Quentin’s Mom had shared that information with her two children when they were in their early twenties before their father died.

“It was like this unspoken, spoken thing. But, the kids were grown and out of the house and I think Quentin was in law school. So, this was like something he was supposed to accept and deal with. So, along I come in the midst of all this sadness around Quentin’s Dad having cancer and dying. It didn’t come up and when it did, I was absolutely mortified. I just couldn’t believe it. It was so far out of my experience of what someone would do, let alone talk about, let alone ask the children to endure.

“And I think what happened over the next, you know, five years, ten years, is that because of my husband’s choice and reality of how he could deal with those facts … I reacted to that. So, in other words, he felt like there wasn’t much he could do but accept it. …. I wasn’t okay and so I became really angry at her for hurting him, for hurting my husband, for hurting her husband, for presuming that her behavior was … whatever. I had a lot of judgment and I got angrier and angrier.

“You know, we’d go and visit, but I just tried to endure it, and, you know. …. It was hard. It was very, very hard. When Quentin and I, as a couple, grew older and learned to do things differently in our own lives, with each other – we needed to grow and be better about taking care of ourselves, our well-being, our mental well-being – we started to change.  As a result, Quentin, probably six or seven years ago, started to finally deal with that relationship – he and his Mom – and allowed himself to at least express to me and I think also to her, tremendous sadness and misgiving about how that all happened. And what I noticed – which was a miracle – is that the minute my husband, could say what was for me the truth about what had happened, I didn’t need to do it anymore! And my ability to see her as really a part of my family – she’s my MIL, she’s family, she’s as damaged as any of the rest of us or anyone in my own family or me, … no different – no better, no worse – I could really love her again.”

Avery recognized that she had felt the need to protect her husband from someone who had hurt him deeply. When Quentin realized his pain, where it came from and how he needed to address it – and then acted on that – something changed inside Avery. Something significant.

“It allowed me to actually do something better for my husband which is love him and his family … I thought I was protecting him, being mad at her. And really, if I want to protect and love him, I need to let him take care of himself and I need to love his family. And so all of that happened and I could just feel the relationship come back together … in terms of me and my MIL. It’s okay. It’s okay.

“It’s certainly been great for me as a DIL to not be so angry with her for what I perceived that I needed to be angry with her about because of my husband and I think that’s the interesting thing about the MIL/DIL relationship is that it’s all about the spouse.”

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That’s hard-earned wisdom.

What are  your “take-aways” from this story?

Is it about honesty and love and truth and forgiveness and acceptance and brokenness and family? Is it about letting go of offenses against someone other than ourselves … or perhaps, even better, not taking them up in the first place?

Challenging when “the two become one”, don’t you think? But, what Avery figured out – does she suggest providentially? – is that loving our husbands can often be expressed by leaving them the room to maneuver through life’s obstacles and trusting that they will find a way to address the issues that face them. Didn’t we marry them because we believed they were able?

For me, another “take-away” from this is that we don’t love our MILs or DILs because they deserve our love. We love them because we love our sons and our husbands.

More from Avery in a future post

Self-fulfilling Prophecies?

Ever heard of Bob Rosenthal? He is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. His interests include self-fulfilling prophecies, which he explored in a well-known study of the Pygmalion Effect: the effect of teachers’ expectations on students. Much of his work has focused on nonverbal communication, particularly its influence on expectations: for example, in doctor-patient or manager-employee situations.

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On my way home from meeting with my writing partner over a cup of coffee at Me and Ollie’s, I heard a broadcast of This American Life and they were talking about how expectations influence behavior. Yeah, we’ve mentioned that in this blog before.

Bob Rosenthal conducted experiments with rats. He brought a bunch of experimenters into his lab and told them that some of them were going to work with incredibly smart rats and some would work with incredibly dumb rats and that they were to see how well the rats from each set would run through a maze.

Now, the rats were all your ordinary run-of-the-mill lab rats, but he had labeled their cages “smart” or “dumb” and had told the experimenters what to expect. Guess what? The experiments ratshowed what they expected. The “smart” rats went through the maze almost twice as fast as the “dumb” rats.

Turns out that what the experimenters were thinking and feeling greatly affected how they handled the rats. The “smart” rats were handled more gently which affected how they performed.

Carol Dweck, who’s a psychologist and researcher at Stanford says that this same phenomenon holds true for people as well. Teachers expectations of students has been shown to raise or lower their IQ scores. A mother’s expectations can greatly influence the drinking behavior of her middle school son. A military trainer’s expectations of a soldier can actually influence how fast or slowly he/she runs.

And so on.

Somehow we communicate our expectations to people around us – sometimes by how far we stand from them; sometimes by our eye contact or lack thereof; how we touch or don’t touch them. Our assumptions and beliefs about people – what we exWoman Thinkingpect from them – is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, there it is. Wouldn’t you guess that it applies to our MIL/DIL relationships, too? We’re not talking “control”, but influence that can tip the scales in one direction or another.

What do we expect from our DILs? Our MILs? Are we even aware that we have expectations?

What are some of mine? Yours? How might these be affecting our relationships with our MILs/DILs?
Might we want to change our thinking??

To listen to or read the entire broadcast, click here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/play_full.php?play=544

Fascinating!

I Mean Her No Harm

The simplest and silliest of experiences often trigger insights into complex concepts and relationships. Remember how John Nash was inspired to develop a new concept of governing dynamics when discussing with fellow grad students at a bar how to approach a group of women? (see “A Beautiful Mind”) Let me share with you a recent “Aha!” experience.

On a breezy Saturday morning, my husband was digging up a patch of our back lawn so as to plant some tomato seedlings. You know that you need to relocate your tomato garden from one place to another if you’ve experienced “tomato blight” or simply because tomatoes – or so I’m told – quickly exhaust the soil of its nutrients. I, too, was in the back yard, hanging laundry and thinking about how my clothesline also needed to be relocated this year as the nearby trees have filled in with more branches and leaves and little sunshine now graces that plot of land.

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With laundry basket tucked under my arm, I walked toward the back porch door when, all of a sudden, I saw a blur of movement overhead. It was a robin. You see, while we were traveling for 4 weeks, Mother Robin had decided to make part of our home, her home. Carefully, and with one piece of grass or twig at a time, she had constructed her nest on top of the light fixture outside the back porch. When we returned to introduce noise & motion to the area, the die had been cast – her eggs had already been laid inside and it was too late to relocate and start all over again.

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As we entered or exited our back porch, we did so carefully, trying not to upset her, Sometimes we forgot, however, and the door slammed and Mother Robin would swoop away when we inadvertently invade her space. This time she had perched in the nearby Flowering Crabapple tree and I saw her anxiously waiting for us to “Go away!” As I brought out a hat to my husband, I again saw something streak past. She had returned to her nest and was feeding her newly hatched chicks!  I was fascinated!  Perhaps I was even gawking in wonder as she inserted her beak into those of her babies. She eyed me warily as I stood about 10 feet away, motionless.  My husband, however, came strolling over to check out the scene and she didn’t quite like the looks of him – or so he said.  She quickly ducked back over to the Crabapple.  Perhaps if I waited a bit, standing still, making no noise?  Still, Mother Robin would not return.  Doesn’t she know that I mean her no harm?

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That’s when it hit me.  Doesn’t she know that I mean her no harm?  All I wanted to do was to witness a special moment as she cared for her young.  All I wanted was to see their cute little faces upturned.  I was hoping to share a somewhat “sacred” practice – a mother providing so that her little ones would thrive.  Did I want to interfere?  Challenge her feeding schedule?  Tell her there was a better way to do what she was doing?  Was I critical of her menu?  Or her housekeeping?

Not a chance.  I was admiring, amazed at how the baby robins knew to keep silent when Mama flew away.  “Danger!” they must have thought.  But, I was no danger to them or her.  In my heart, I was cheering them all on, wishing them a safe place and time in which to grow. The furthest thing from my mind was to impede, disrupt or undermine Mother Robin’s efforts.

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But, she didn’t know that.  Perhaps she saw me as she had been programmed to do – a threat, an unknown, an intruder.  Unwelcome.  She continued to look at me uneasily, wondering if I might try to unseat them from the comfort and safety of their home.

Do you perhaps see yourself in this scenario?  Either as a MIL or a DIL?  On one side or the other?

I walked away slowly and made a point of entering and exiting the house through another door.  Each time I’m checking on the progress of the tomato garden or the dampness of the clothes on the line, I peer into that corner above the porch light to see what’s going on there.  Will she become accustomed to my  presence?  How long might it take for her to trust me?  Will she ever?

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We have only a limited amount of time to forge this pact, she and I.  Her babies will only be babies for a short time.  And I can only share and enjoy what she is willing to allow or welcome.

But, what am I talking about now?  Birds?  Or MIL & DILS?

 

What I Learned in May

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Did you catch the rainbow?  They always make me smile!

 

Okay, okay!  So, I seem to be a bit “behind the eight ball” so to speak, with getting my “What I Learned In …. ” posted in a timely manner.   I could tell you I learned it in June so as not to look like I’m late announcing this.  However, truth be told, I did “learn” this in May.  So, I might as well say so.

This was definitely worth recognizing, worth writing about, because it changed my perspective on the MIL/DIL thing.  So, perhaps you’ll find it worth the time to read.  😉

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This is one thing I became very much aware of in May …..

I’m HIS mother.  And he is a grown man now.  (THAT part I already knew!  Keep reading.)

I’m not HER mother.  I’m not HER friend.  I’m not HER family.  She need have nothing more to do with me than she would with an acquaintance.  My daughter-in-law did not choose me and I didn’t choose her.  They chose one another.  He is HER husband and she is HIS wife.  I have no claim on her – her time, her attention, her friendship, her love.  It may come – and I hope it will – but I have NO claim.  Nada.   Rien.  Niente.  This is at the core of the MIL/DIL relationship.

We both get to choose how much time, energy and effort we will put into the relationship, how far we let the other into our life, how often we want to spend time with one another, … whether we will choose to be friends …. family … allies ….

It may have been different years ago … in previous generations.  And it’s most likely different in other cultures.  (This we will explore in future posts!)  But, for here and for now, that’s what I see.  That’s what I hear.

That sheds some light on the subject … for me!  And in some way …. it seems to make the whole relationship a bit …. easier.  I feel more relaxed.  And that’s got to show.  This “I get it!” realization dissolves any pressure I might have been experiencing – even unknowingly so.  Fewer expectations … fewer “should”s ….. fewer “need to”s …. more time and space to see what, if anything, will come together.

Rainbows?   Perhaps.  But, there’s no rush.  I feel less inclined now to “make it happen” and much more comfortable to “wait and see”.

“Nothing” (Five Minute Friday)

Occasionally, I join the Five Minute Friday community and write for 5 minutes flat on the one-word prompt given for that week.  This week’s word: Nothing. Here we GO!
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Nothing will keep me from loving her.
I’m a MIL – mother-in-law – now.  And I’ve got a DIL – daughter-in-law – who’s not quite sure about me … whether I’m friend or foe; whether I can be trusted as a confidant … will I regard her critically or supportively.  I’ve got my own brand of quirkiness, “interesting” attitudes, ways of doing things … and so does she.  We approach life & politics & religion from different angles.  She & I … we expect different things from our new relationship.
But, nothing will keep me from loving her.
We may annoy one another, inadvertently offend one another, misunderstand, miscommunicate & at least at first, mistrust.
But, I will love her.
Why?  Because that’s what I’m called to do.
STOP