On Relationships: Getting Along with In-Laws.
The scene is a café where two men are chatting. One of them gloats and says, “My mother-in-law is an angel.” The other sighs and says, “You are lucky—mine is alive.” In another case, a man laments: “My mother-in-law and I were happy for 20 years. Then, I met her.”
Okay, enough with the mother-in-law jokes. The point is that relationships do not operate in a vacuum. There are in-laws to contend with. The anecdote that Adam and Eve were the luckiest and happiest couple in the world because neither had a mother-in-law is not amusing. Many marriages either thrive or disintegrate depending on the couple’s relationship with the in-laws.
I married an American woman from Michigan when I was 21. We met at a student conference in the Midwest and, after several months, we ended up getting married. However, her family was rightfully perturbed by our fast courtship. I was a student at Ohio University who met a young lady working and living in Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue University is located. She already had her college degree and came from an upper-middle-class background.
Her parents were understandably worried for their daughter and the future that awaited her. They wanted to give us a big wedding and even bought the cake. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts (I had to go to Somalia briefly on behalf of a charitable foundation), the big wedding never happened; instead, we had a small ceremony attended by friends in Indiana, but no relatives from either of our families.
We are here!
Several months after the wedding, that longed for but dreaded day finally came when my in-laws graced us with their presence in Ohio. It was a memorable weekend.
Our first meeting was awkward and replete with niceties and nervousness. My in-laws were kind and courteous. Occasionally, they groaned when I drove like a moving glacier (alas, I was in a small town in Ohio) and gasped and winced when I spoke about the quality of American cars compared to Japanese cars. I was oblivious to the fact that they were from Detroit—also known as Motor City. It was obvious that more work had to be done in areas of confidence building and bridging our real or imagined conflicts.
A unique woman
My then-mother-in-law, Patricia, passed away in 1998. She was the total package: beautiful, smart, educated, inquisitive, caring, and family-oriented. She was the principal of a school for disabled children. She genuinely tried to know me as a person and asked many questions about my country and culture. I, in turn, admired and appreciated her. Later, when she made her annual trip to visit us in California, she was a hands-on grandma to my kids. She was resolute in her love for them, and they adored her. She spoke the Queen’s English and utterly eschewed all slang. I never heard her use foul language. She was an avid reader and introduced me to Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, long before Steven Spielberg made the novel into a movie. Initially, I would say “No” when she offered me something I did not want, and her usual response was succinct: “You mean, ‘No, thank you.’”
Her husband, Ike, now 91, was more reserved and difficult to read. He was not happy that “daddy’s girl” had left the nest and married to a young man from another continent. He wanted to protect his daughter and do what was best for her. He once grumbled that he wanted his daughter to marry a physician or a lawyer. I even ignored the little digs and disses that came from him at one big family gathering in Michigan about life in Africa in general and clean water there in particular. His wife later apologized to me for his uncouth behavior. I respected him rather than vilifying him, welcomed him with open arms, and never shunned him.
Take my son-in-law, please
One winter day, my in-laws, who owned a vacation house at a lake near Jackson, Michigan, had their boat drift off the dock. Ike and I were asked to drive the 78 miles from Detroit to Jackson to retrieve the boat. My then-wife told her dad to watch out for me because I did not know how to swim. “Don’t worry,” he said, laughing, “He will be fine.”
As my father-in-law and I took a small canoe to get the loose boat, my head was buzzing with negative thoughts. Are we going to sink? Will we make it? One sinister thought was that maybe my father-in-law finally had the chance to get rid of me, the annoying son-in-law, once and for all. All he had to do was flip the canoe in the middle of the lake. My natural instinct for survival and self-preservation suddenly became questionable. Then, in those tense moments, I heard his calm, but collected, voice: “You are doing well, Hassan.” His words filled me with peace and I relaxed. Ironically, that excursion gave us the rare opportunity to understand each other better. As the years went by, he came around and once told his daughter that I was “a fine, young man.”
I had no major issues with my mother-in-law except when it came to food. She was health-conscious and perhaps the only person I have ever met who paid such clinical attention to what she ate. I saw nothing but green food in our house when she visited. One day she offered to prepare my lunch. At noon when I opened my lunch bag, I saw nothing but salad. I was furious at the sight of food without meat. At the time, I did not care much about vegetables. Whenever I was presented with vegetables, I would growl: “Take that away from me. I am not a goat!” The salad was a surprise, but then came the bombshell: There was no dressing. As I sat seething with anger, one of my co-workers, Lorenzo, asked what the problem was. “It’s my mother-in-law,” I said, sheepishly. “She gave me a salad for lunch and no dressing.” He broke into rapturous laughter. His lighthearted moment saved the day, and I almost forgot about my culinary letdown.
It is a woman’s world
Interestingly, most conflicts are not between husbands and their mothers-in-law. Research by Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter has shown that most conflicts with in-laws arise between wives and their mother-in-law. In her book, “What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws,” she argued that this “woman-to-woman” conflict is due to unmet expectations that are not delineated. Apter wrote, “Each is the primary woman in her primary family. As each tries to establish or protect her status, each feels threatened by the other.”
However, in-laws have legitimate concerns that cannot be ignored. In a study by Sylvia L. Mikucki-Enyart of the University of Wisconsin, the majority of the 89 mothers who were surveyed about their greatest worries regarding their children’s marriage expressed more uncertainty and insecurity about their sons marrying than their daughters tying the knot. Those fears mostly involved concerns that their sons would not be taken care of, that they would not visit their moms very often, and that the daughter-in-law would change the son.
One thing that is no joke is that tensions with in-laws can be hazardous to your health. In a 2009 study from Cambridge University, 60 percent of women said they were stressed due to their relationships with their in-laws, whereas only 15 percent of men felt the same way.
1. Your mother-in-law is a part of your family. You chose your spouse, but not your in-laws. As Dr. Phil once said, “If you plan on sticking with your spouse, then you are also stuck with your in-laws.” As an example, one woman cooked a sumptuous meal for her in-laws. When her mother-in-law asked about the recipe, she responded, “It is a family secret, so I don’t give it out.” The daughter-in-law committed a faux pas because she forgot that her mother-in-law was also a part of her family.
2. Your mother-in-law raised her son—your husband—well enough for you to marry him. She was the woman in his life long before you met him. She must have done a good job. Treat her with respect and courtesy.
3. Age, experience, and wisdom are what in-laws bring to the table. You can learn a great deal from your mother-in-law if you show her an open mind.
4. A bad relationship with in-laws always affects your children. Your mother-in-law is someone who cares a great deal about your children and loves them unconditionally. Grandparents are assets, not liabilities.
5. Communicate with your in-laws and tell them about your expectations. This helps remove uncertainties and draw boundaries.
6. “Mi casa es su casa” (my house is your house) is a noble approach for dealing with in-laws. You can communicate to your in-laws about family events, children’s activities, your parental expectations, and the best times to visit. You do not want to experience what the late American comedian Joan Rivers complained about: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”
Try to know your mother-in-law as a person and accept her for who she is. There is more to her than just her status as your in-law. I once saw a quotation from the Sprit Science website that read: “The greatest gift you can give someone is your time, attention, your love, and your concern.”
Hassan M. Abukar is a Sahan Journal contributor and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.