This essay about dealing with in-laws was written by Jenna Patrick, author of The Rules of Half.
I sift through the pans in the cake decorating aisle, my daughters in the cart behind me. There is no Minnie Mouse; only Mickey. Can I manage some sort of bow and a pair of eyelashes? I’ve only been making cakes for a few years and the last time I attempted eyelashes, Cinderella looked more like a call girl than a fairytale princess.
“So, what do you want for your birthday, Possum?” I ask my youngest daughter, placing the Mickey pan in the cart. We’ve called her Possum since she was a baby, a nickname my father-in-law gave her because she always hung around my neck. She’s turning two, so I expect her answer to range anywhere between a baby doll, a princess crown, or a real live pony.
Instead, she looks at her older sister, Ree, and then says something I’m not prepared for. “Can Granna and Pawpaw come to my birthday party?”
I can tell by the expression on Ree’s face that she has put her sister up to this. It’s hopeful, yet reserved, like when someone has offered her candy and she’s waiting for me to give her the okay. Only, this request is bitter—not sweet—and it’s far from okay, because we aren’t on speaking terms with my in-laws.
Dealing With In-Laws
To say I’ve had a rocky relationship with my in-laws is an understatement. Throughout the years, every big event in our lives was overshadowed by some sort of drama entangled mess. Our engagement. Our wedding. Our first home. Every decision made outside of the scope of what they deemed acceptable caused tension, and my response was always the same. I would get angry and quickly get over it, because asking my husband to choose me over his parents was something I wasn’t willing to do.
Two months before Possum’s 2nd birthday, the straw hit the camel’s back. My in-laws had come to visit, as they often did on Sundays after church, and a minor disagreement led to the eruption of 10 years of pent up tension and aggression, on both sides. Much of it is a blur now, as intense situations become over time. There was yelling. There was cursing. There was not-so-nice name calling. But there is one thing I remember from that day very vividly—seeing the terrified expressions on my daughters’ faces when it was all over.
My husband saw it too. The following day he wrote his parents a letter—on his own accord—telling them he was his own person and they needed to accept the man he’d become instead of blaming me when he chose a path they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. He also asked them to give us some time and space to heal, a request that, I’ll admit, selfishly brought me happiness. He’d chosen me, and the years of tension and bitterness had finally come to an end. Or so I’d tried to make myself believe, anyway. Which brings me back to the cake decorating aisle, where all my bitterness has suddenly rushed back and revealed a thick, suffocating truth.
Sure, I don’t have the tension with my in-laws anymore, but my kids don’t have their grandparents and my husband doesn’t have his mom and dad. And despite our differences, my in-laws have always been wonderful grandparents. They also raised my husband, who is the most generous, tender-hearted man I know. They are good people who would give you the shirts off their backs if you needed it. So, why then, can’t we seem to get along?
The answer is clear; I just couldn’t see it until now.
I was born and raised in the north—a Yankee, as I’ve been called on many occasions (yes, they still call us that); my in-laws are native Southerners. I am outspoken and I don’t turn the other cheek for sake of appearances. I use profanity, drink alcohol, and I don’t go to church. To put it plainly, I’m not the southern belle my in-laws had always pictured their son marrying.
To be fair, my in-laws aren’t what I had dreamed of either. I grew up in a large, loud, Hungarian family, where everyone was invited to Christmas dinners, even the ex-spouses, and it was common practice to show up unannounced at 3 or 4 in the afternoon for coffee. Foolishly, I thought every family was that close—I didn’t realize we were the abnormal ones. I craved that same bond with my new family, and anything else just felt wrong.
My in-laws and I simply aren’t the same kinds of people. Neither is wrong—just different. And we are both at fault for the mess we’re in.
Making a Change
The next morning, we invite my in-laws over for Possum’s birthday. Over the next few days, I shift my focus. I no longer want a different relationship with my in-laws, I just want to be okay with the relationship we do have. I commit to not being consumed by it, to letting go, to not caring if they disapprove of our choices.
My in-laws do come to the party, and it’s obvious they feel just as awkward as I do. They change the way they approach our relationship, too. They stop overstepping their boundaries, and if they don’t agree with our choices, they keep it to themselves. Maybe they heard my husband’s pleas in the letter he wrote them. Maybe they realized what they stood to lose by not letting go.
It doesn’t happen overnight, but through the years I come to respect our differences. I see the joy my in-laws bring to my daughters’ lives, and the lessons that they can teach them that I can’t. I see all that they do for our family instead of all the things that they don’t agree with. There are times our differences still come to light, and when they do I shift my gaze toward the only acreage of common ground between us.
The love we both have for my husband and my daughters.
Raised in northern Ohio, Jenna Patrick moved in 1998 to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she received her Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. After 10 years of devoting her brain to science and math, she returned to her true passion: writing. Jenna's debut novel, The Rules of Half, has been praised by Redbook, Working Mother, SheKnows and more. She and her family currently reside in North Carolina. Connect with her at jennapatricknovels.com.