Lately I’ve been thinking about fences, which in turn led me to consider walls. “What’s the difference between the two?” I ask myself. A wall seems impenetrable; a fence possibly has a gate or not, slats to see through, vines to grow along it. Yet, aside from actual fences, there are invisible fences — ones you can feel even though they’re not there. These shadowy structures crop up in families between people related to one another by blood or marriage. They separate as surely as concrete walls and cause conflict and hurt.
The invisible fence between women in a family stumps the bravest, and the antagonistic relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is particularly corrosive. Confused and saddened, I hear MILs ask the same question, “Why does my DIL hate me?” I, too, have pondered this question with a kind of embarrassment. In particular, a former DIL and I were like oil and water. We could not forge a bond. I felt as if I had failed. But the signs were everywhere — exclusion from family events, invitations that were ignored or turned down, and when my granddaughter arrived, rules about how often to see her and rules about childcare. I wasn’t alone. A friend confessed her DIL passed her a typed-written sheet of do’s and don’ts when she was given an hour of two alone with her grandchild. “How does she think my son made it through childhood?” she wailed. “It’s so insulting.”
But why does it have to work like that?
We all know the barnacled quote, “A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life.” I remember feeling my precious boys could never match up to having a daughter. How blind I was. What I didn’t know then is that now studies have shown that a woman who has a daughter has an easier time navigating the role of the being the paternal grandmother. Perhaps her daughter has given her a grandchild and this softens the blow when the DIL turns to her own mother at the birth of a child. Let’s face it: a woman is closest to her own mother when she brings a child into the world. After all, where else does a woman turn when she’s a new mother? The sting of feeling like a “second string” grandparent doesn’t hurt as much when there’s a daughter to tip the scales into balance. Consequently, I have wrestled with what has felt like losing my beloved sons to their wives — unions that are perfectly natural, marriages that I supported. Happily, I can now report my present DIL and a former DIL are lovely, generous people whom I now count as precious friends.
However, the stressful question still lingers. So, I decided to take a poll and ask female strangers whether sitting next to them on a plane or at a chance meeting in a coffee shop. The question was simple. “May I ask, do you have a mother-in-law? If she responded affirmatively and curiously, I took the plunge. “What’s your relationship with your MIL?” There were stories about invasive MILs, clueless MILs, pushy MILs, and DILs who reported their lives were so busy between work and children and husbands, that they didn’t have the time or energy to maintain a relationship with their MILs. There was the one glowing exception, “My mother-in-law is my best friend. We even travel together. Alone!”
But the response that simply set me back on my heels came from a nurse practitioner at the close of an exam. She stood, paused and looked out the window. “It took my MIL and I a long time to get to know one another. My spouse and I went to visit her mom for the first time at Christmas.”
I computed rapidly. Her mom. She explained, “My spouse has one sister and two brothers. I have a twin sister who is also gay and two brothers. None of us are in a traditional relationships. We’re all either single, gay, divorced, or in committed relationships. The first time I met my MIL, I watched her navigate a number of different partnerships. I gave her a lot of credit. She and her husband have been married for 40 years and here we come. She was gracious to everyone. Over time, with respect and kindness, we got to know one another. I didn’t have unreasonable expectations. We allowed the trust to build. Now, we’re happy to see one another and share our lives. You know, the surprises never stop.”
My mind quieted after our conversation; I realized the focus of my search had been too narrow. In today’s changing families the challenges between women aren’t confined only to the traditional roles of MILs and DILs. All members of a family, whether male or female, are called to navigate new roles.
Some key words in that conversation popped out at me:
Credit — given for the years spent raising a child to adulthood.
Graciousness — offered in the name of civility.
Respect — demonstrated by regard for the traditions of another.
Kindness — showing generosity rather than judgement.
Expectations — abandoning assumptions for possibilities.
What I’ve learned is the change has to start with me, and with practice I’m improving. There will be starts and stops because after all, I’m human. But I do know that invisible fences can evaporate. I will continue to practice these lessons. There’s a new grandchild in our family. He unites us all with his sweet innocence and joyful smiles, and I have learned that no matter what, the compass of my heart leans toward love, and there is more than enough to go around.
This essay was written by Christie Nelson, a third generation San Franciscan, longtime Marin resident, and the author of Woodacre, Dreaming Mill Valley, and My Moveable Feast. She lives in the 1880s brewmeister’s home of the San Rafael Brewery with her husband. Her novel Beautiful Illusion releases May 1, 2018.