What word in the English language commands a high degree of reverence but when combined with five other letters at the end makes it a monstrous creation of humanity, an incurable and devastating plague that you’d avoid at all costs?
The word “mother” is as sacred as your country’s flag and constitution, but add “in-law” next to it and it sends shivers down the spine. Did you know that among some tribes in Africa, the males do something to their heads so that their mother-in-law’s shadow doesn’t fall on their heads?
Dealing with your in-laws is twice as difficult as dealing with your own family. The snide remarks, the gossip, and the bickering are at their most intense when the in-laws come to visit.
Mary Kelly is a psychotherapist who says that her practice is busiest right after the holiday season – particularly during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year. The holidays, according to her, are supposed to bring good cheer and tidings; instead they become breeding grounds for family quarrels. The strife is enough to send one off scurrying to tumbuktu and seek a bomb shelter. To many people who have been through a number of holiday-get togethers, the perfect Christmas would be one with not much ado, no visits, no in-laws and no gifts. It’s not exactly how motherhood and apple pie envisioned it.
But dealing with in-laws remains a thorn, and it’s a real prickly one.
Mom’s share of in-law problems…
When mother had just married, her mother-in-law – our grandmother – would drop by around lunch time everyday to sniff at my mother’s pot on the stove.
“Didn’t you add turmeric into that”?
“No”, mother would answer politely.
“Why not? It would taste a lot better with turmeric.”
“Precisely. I want John to lose his appetite from now on. I aim to be the lousiest cook in town. Every time I look at his waistline I know who’s to blame.”
After that, grandmother stopped her forays into the kitchen. She chose the garden next to dish out some advice. If it wasn’t the garden, it was the wash, or the paint in the den, or the finances. Mother was visibly annoyed but she was determined to annoy her mother-in-law just as much, if not more.
“Actually, I could use some advice from you – I mean real advice.”
Grandmother looked at mother as though she had just uttered the magic word.
Mother asked very slowly, looking at grandmother straight in the eye. “You don’t really mind, do you, if I asked you this one thing? You’d be helping me make the decision.”
“No, of course not. Go ahead.”
Our mother then rose from the sofa, headed straight into the master’s bedroom and came out clutching a magazine close to her chest. It was the latest issue of the hottest and mostest pornographic magazine at the time. She turned to the page where she had left a bookmark. She enjoyed watching grandmother’s eyes pop and her cheeks turning crimson.
“Which position do you think John would get most excited about? You seem to know more about him than I do, and I’d do anything – sitting, standing, kneeling, bending, twisting, writhing or whatever – to make him the happiest man alive.”
Fortunately, mother had been a voracious reader of Psychology books, and became the most sought after “Dear Abby” by her circle of friends who didn’t have the foggiest about dealing with the most difficult people on the planet. She also had the uncanniest ability of seeing through people. She told us one day, “in the case of your grandmother, I didn’t even have to look at her. I knew right from the beginning that she was the kind of person that needed to be towed by a 14-wheeler.”
Dealing with the in-laws – dad’s style
Dad was a top shelf snob. His snobbishness got even worse when he married mother. “Now you see me, now you don’t” was his mantra. He thought Houdini was an enigma and admired him for all the disppearing acts he performed in public.
When mother’s parents dropped into town, father would have an unexpected business trip out of state. “Give them my love, darling, and next time, they’re not to leave until I’ve had a chance to take them out for dinner.”
Dad of course was a glib-talking lawyer and he knew what words sounded like music to mother’s ears. He never had those out-of-state meetings, he was actually just a mile away in a motel room, the owner of whom he became good friends with.
“# 7 as always”, he’d say as he tossed the room key to father. “Guess the in-laws are back.” Father only had to nod.
After a few days, he’d call us on our cell phone. “Coast clear”?
“Coast clear. Time to re-appear, Houdini”, we’d say.
“So are you ever going to take them out for dinner, like you always say?” We asked him one day.
“Of course”, father would reply. “Soon as I find a restaurant owner I can befriend so I can ask him to put something on granny’s plate – just to put her to sleep”, he’d wink at us. Knowing dad, however, he was capable of doing malicious but harmless acts like those. Funny what marriage does to some people.
Dealing with the in-laws - Why not move in?
Home is where the in-laws are was a humorous article written by David Docherty in 2000 for the New Statesman magazine. He said that surveys revealed that a third of men under age 35 still lived with their parents. He set out and beat that record. At 40, he decided to move in with his wife’s parents. And the kids were part of the package.
For Docherty, however, it wasn’t so much dealing with the in-laws that was the problem. He was actually delighted to be able to live in a household where English was spoken differently by three generations – grandparents, adults and the kids. If we remember it correctly, one conversation between the youngest child and grandmother went something like this:
“Please may I chill out, Granny”?
“Yes, just wrap up well.”
We’ll add our own. How about this conversation?
“Grand pop, you rock!”
“Ah yes, just love my rocking chair!”
Despite the inconveniences brought about by the physical proximity to one’s in-laws, Docherty said it was actually a lot of fun. He learned the art of debate, rebuttal and compromise – but to a lesser extent on the third. His tongue got sharper, his wits wittier and his risk aversion ploys more sophisticated.
Whatever benefits there are to be gained from being that close to the in-laws, we’d much rather stay away and live apart. Even if suddenly homeless, we would not want to duplicate Docherty’s experience. Our nerves and sanity are worth much more.
Our country can probably withstand foreign invasions indefinitely. We’ve got the wherewithal to deal with emergencies of that sort, but an in-law invasion is the worst possible kind. You can never underestimate the nuclear fallout from an in-law confrontation.
Chat with a few lawyers. Dealing with the in-laws ranks up there in divorce cases. In fact, we saw a movie once about a young couple about to be married and they sat down with the groom’s father and mother. The future bride thought that they were going to discuss wedding arrangements. It turned out to be an eye-opener for her. Her mother-in-law had the temerity to bring out a contract and even if the document was not directly facing her, she could make out the big black letters: PRE NUPTIAL AGREEMENT.
She looked at her mother-in-law in disbelief. “Why would I have to sign a document like that”? She wailed.
“Just in case you and Dan decide to divorce in the future, we’re at least assured that majority of the family’s wealth will stay in the family.”
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is one instance where mothers-in-law rightly deserve to walk the plank!