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Observations From a Rookie Mother in Law
by Deborah McDade 
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Snow sprawled in pristine mounds across the open fields as a blizzard blew across the highways. Iridescent icicles reflected the setting sun hanging at varying levels from rooftops. Inside the church, candles cast a glow on pine walls, creating a surreal scene of warmth and beauty as my oldest son married the woman of his dreams.

A few years later . . .

Sand clustered in golden dunes along the open beach as traffic created havoc on the adjacent highway. White capped waves reflected a fiery orange sun as it slid into the Pacific. Inside a small enclave above the shore, family and friends created an intimate scene of serenity and delight as my youngest son married the love of his life.

Two different sons, two unique weddings, two new daughters-in-law, and I gained a dubious title ~ mother-in-law. This title did not particularly electrify me. In fact, I found it rather disheartening. Motherhood was considered glorious, but mother-in-lawhood carried a stigma. After all, the role is common fodder for jokes and comedians.

However, the new role was here to stay, so I thought to make the best of it. Lovingly, God’s Spirit urged me to move beyond that type of thinking, reminding me He would provide all the help and guidance needed to create a loving and enjoyable relationship with my new daughters-in-law. He did not want me to settle for making the best of it.

I soon found each daughter-in-law was also rather unsure of the new relationship. Each suddenly became part of a larger and more boisterous family than they had ever experienced.

One grew up in a small town in the Midwest, the only child living with much older parents which did not prepare her for our Southern California “cruizin’- in- the- fast- lane” lifestyle. At times, she was completely overwhelmed. Unfortunately, it took a while for all of us to catch on to this. After her first visit to our home, my first daughter-in-law told my son she never wanted to come to California again. Fortunately, she did come back.

My son soon learned to give her ample attention instead of spending so much time visiting with old friends. We learned to plan less activities, while she learned to go upstairs and regroup when our activities became too much for her.

Much to my delight, she asked me to help out when both grandchildren were born. Gradually, we have come to understand and respect each other.

The second daughter-in-law came from a small family of four, with no extended family in the United States. She was not at all accustomed to large family gatherings composed of extended family and a few extra friends. She did not understand our wacky sense of humor or our giving ways. Due to the hardships suffered in her parents' country of origin, they held tightly onto everything they possessed, including their children.

By the time this daughter-in-law came into our family, I had come to understand how urgent it is to observe these types of varieties and work with an open heart and mind toward understanding. It takes a lot of work to capture the true essence of a new family member. There are miles to go before this new relationship becomes as familiar and natural as the relationship with your own children. Your ways may not be the same as their ways.

Leave behind the motto: There is a right way, a wrong way and there is MY way. Learn not only to accept, but also to delight in your son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their unique individuality.

One of the wisest things I did was to forego being called mom by both of my daughters-in-law. Each had a mother they loved and adored. They have come to love me, but I am not their mother and they obviously do not feel comfortable calling me such. I know this defies conventional wisdom, but I found both daughters-in-law relieved when they were told, “Just call me Debbie.” It left us all free to ease into becoming an extended family.

Becoming a close-knit extended family requires lots of finely tuned communication. Communicate about what is coming up; new family members don’t know your long established family patterns. At times, my sons and I have wrongly assumed that their wives knew what was about to happen within the family. Further, sometimes the wives have not communicated their expectations or needs.

We have worked our way through these stressful times of miscommunication by being willing to apologize, by learning together, and eventually by laughing together. My motto has become “Give ‘em lots of grace.”

We all need lots of grace and truthfully, I want them to give me grace because sometimes I blow it too. Blowing it generally takes the form of unwanted advice. For mothers, or fathers, who have been chief advisor and mentor for years, it is hard to relinquish the role. Unwanted advice or forceful demands can create an "us-against-them" dilemma. Our words and actions have a deep and long-lasting effect. Proceed with caution.

Proverbs has much to say about the value of words wisely spoken. It compares them to apples made of gold and those would be highly valuable apples. Wisdom takes time to acquire. My own store of wisdom came as the result of years of experience, mistakes, and just plain old living.

Sometimes, the couple will ask for your advice. At that point, carefully share concrete advice in small amounts, laced with large amounts of love and affirmation. When they talk, listen with your full attention and refrain from jumping in with loads of good ideas. For example, my oldest son’s wife was terrified of becoming a mother. As we labored together to take care of the new little one, I encouraged my daughter-in-law at regular intervals. I also worked to refrain from constantly dishing out advice, but rather tried influencing by my actions. Sometimes as older and wiser ones, it is hard to allow the younger generation to work through untried situations.

The young couple will learn best through their own trial and error. In fact, they might come up with a solution you never thought of trying. On one occasion, my granddaughter would not stop crying no matter what any of us tried. Finally, my daughter-in-law scooped her up and started waltzing around the room while singing “Shall We Dance” soothingly to her. My granddaughter immediately stopped crying as she gazed adoringly at her mother’s face. In a million years this would not have come to me as a solution. Yet, it worked! It also created an enchantingly winsome memory. By the time our grandson was born, my daughter-in-law had become a relaxed and confident mother.

During one of our Christmas reminiscing times, my youngest son shared how elated he was to be married to his beautiful new wife. I grandly added, “And now I have a beautiful daughter-in-law!” With an impish grin, my oldest son’s wife said, “Oh! NOW you have a beautiful daughter-in-law.” Very flustered, I blustered, “That is not what I meant!”

She has had a lot of fun teasing me about that remark. It’s a good thing I’d already spent five years letting her know she was loved and accepted. Being a mother-in-law is an ongoing challenge. I have learned, it helps immeasurably if you keep a sense of humor and add loads of prayer for discernment into the mix. It is well worth the effort!

~Deborah Kaye McDade~

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