I sat at my then mother-in-law’s kitchen table, trying to feed my son, but he kept spitting out his carrots. At 9-months old, he liked most things, but not carrots.
After watching me for a moment, she got up and said, “I don’t know why you have so much trouble. Sleeping was never an issue. Eating was never an issue. My kids just ate, slept and did as they were told,” she said, turning her back to me and starting to wash the dishes.
“So they were basically like little robots, huh? Where can I get one of those?” I asked her.
My snotty response irritated her further, and she went on to tell me how even though she and her husband had four kids within a short period of time, she did everything. Her husband worked outside of the home; her job was to do everything inside of the home. “He never changed one diaper or got up at night. He had to work,” she announced.
This wasn’t news to me; I’d heard her say it before. Many times. So many times, in fact, that I could easily translate it as her passive-aggressive way of saying, “You ask my son to help too much with the kids, and you should be able to handle it yourself.”
She would drop not-so-subtle hints whenever she witnessed me asking my husband to do something she deemed to be “my” job, or when I’d disagree with him about anything. For the record, he always was and still is, very hands on with his children. He didn’t mind getting up with the kids, changing diapers or feeding them, but that wasn’t the issue.
The issue was the way his mother acted around his father for my ex-husband’s entire childhood. According to my ex-husband, his mom never questioned his dad or spoke up for herself if there was something she wanted or didn’t agree with. She let him run the household. She never talked about unpleasant or uncomfortable things. She swept them under the rug and acted as though everything was fine all the time.
Now, we all know this isn’t true. Everything was definitely not fine all the time.
The thing is, my ex-husband assumed this was true. That things were peachy, happy, and smooth-sailing all the time. He will tell you that he had a “perfect” childhood, and that his parents had the “perfect” marriage.
That’s what he wanted too. This image that he had built up in his mind of what his parents’ marriage looked like.
And that was a huge problem between us, because — surprise! — I was not his mother. When I would question decisions he made, when I would disagree or argue with him, it was too much for him to take. He couldn’t deal. What he wanted was a subservient woman who went along like everything was fine no matter what was brewing on the inside. Someone who ‘stood by their man’ whether they agreed or not.
What felt like me being my normal self and having a voice in our relationship came off as being as “difficult” to him because his mother painted such a different picture about what marriage and partnership entails. She never stood up to her husband or voiced her own opinions, and in doing so she essentially taught her son that women are servant-bitches who tiptoe around the house and do as they are told without feelings or opinions.
My ex never saw the problem with his mother’s behavior and his parents’ marriage, despite the fact that I brought it to his attention many times and it was a major hot button issue in our marriage. It wasn’t always done in anger, or with a mean spirit, in many ways I felt sad for his mom and pointed out how never having a voice, constantly sacrificing for other people, and having no emotional support makes life really hard for someone. His mom deserved better than that.
He didn’t see it that way, of course. And I truly believe that, by never making waves, my ex-mother-in-law taught my ex-husband that this is how you deal with problems: You keep your mouth shut and make it nice for everyone else. That’s your role as a wife.
I don’t play that way, and he knew it when we got married, but I think he hoped I’d change. We all know when you throw a mortgage and a few kids into the mix, things get harder and more complicated to navigate; it’s part of life and it’s normal to have disagreements with your spouse whenever there is a big life change. I saw these disagreements as normal; he saw them as a problem he wanted to run away from.
So, he would run. And, I would try to reel him back in. Vicious cycle.
No one has a perfect relationship — it simply doesn’t exist — and I made a lot of mistakes in my marriage. It ended and I had a hand in that, but do I blame my former mother-in-law for some things that went wrong in my marriage?
Yes, I do.
Of course, she wasn’t in our relationship, but she raised a son who believed a wife should be submissive, who would let the man take charge and didn’t speak up when she was angry. She raised a son who believes repressing your feelings is the way you deal with situations — so that’s what he did. And when he was unhappy with me or felt neglected, instead of talking to me, he had an affair hoping to make himself feel better instead of facing the hard issues.
He’s a grown man and is 100% responsible for his actions, and his mother didn’t force him to behave the way he did, but sometimes I think he couldn’t handle me at my worst because he remembers his mother always having a smile plastered on her face and agreeing with his father. I hold him accountable for his actions (hence the divorce), but I also recognize that the environment we are raised in has a profound impact on our adult relationships.
I want to raise my children differently. I want my sons to know women are not possessions or passive creatures. Women can ask for what they want, and should be listened to/respected, because they are their equals. And I’ll be damned if I let my daughter see me just sit there and go along with something that bothers me just so I don’t make a man feel uncomfortable.
I couldn’t just sit there and take it, and my ex-husband couldn’t handle having an equal partner. So, we amicably parted ways.
When you enter into a partnership or marriage with another person, you are equals. My former mother-in-law didn’t see it that way and, as a result, neither did my ex. This isn’t the only reason our marriage ended, of course, but I am determined to set a different example for my kids so that it’s not an issue for them and their relationships. When we know better, we do better.