My husband has a full-time job. He has three kids, a demanding wife, and an entire house to look after including all the piddly tasks that come along with homeownership — lawn-mowing, filter-changing, tire-pumping, dryer-fixing, heavy lifting, picture hanging. But a few months ago, my mother moved into town after an ugly divorce. She left the tiny town she grew up in, the only town she’s ever lived in. When she did, she also left all her best friends and her entire support system, just to move closer to her grandkids. It was a momentous change for her, a brave change.
We’re so grateful she decided to come. We love having Nana here. But Nana needs help sometimes. Nana has no one here but us. And the good son-in-law stepped up.
Marriage is usually a contract between two people. But what happens when it’s suddenly … not? What happens when other people are suddenly right there, butting up against your former autonomy? We desperately wanted my mother to move down to be with us. But as the time drew closer, I started to realize what a momentous change this would be for us. After 14 years of total autonomy, my husband and I would have extended family in town. Family has opinions. Family needs things. Family especially needs things when they are aging, and you’re the only family they’ve got within 600 miles. It’s a huge role to fill. And that scared me.
And my mother certainly needs help. She has arthritis in her joints and can hardly pull her trash cans up to the curb without help because it causes her pain. So Chris does it when he can. She can’t find someone to reliably mow her lawn for a decent price, so he hauls the mower across town and shears her lawn while Mom and I play with the kids. He hangs her pictures. He fixes her dryer, and when he can’t fix it, he hooks it back up after the repairman’s done. That includes trips to Lowe’s on her behalf. He carries boxes out to her shed. He moves furniture. He moves large items in and out of her car, stuff she can’t carry because of her joint pain. She apologizes profusely, but he always says it’s no big deal.
This good son-in-law does all these things in his meager spare time between teaching, family’ing, and taking care of his own stuff. I swear the man has no time to take a breath that doesn’t belong to someone else.
It would be easy to resent this. It is, after all, a loss of our own party of five. Suddenly, we’re a party of six. This wasn’t what we had bargained for.
But I love my mom. I love having her around. And … so does my husband. He’s fine helping her out, because he’s a good son-in-law and a great husband. When he sees that something needs doing, he does it, without complaint, usually before anyone asks. He stepped up to a role no one asked him to do, but a lifetime of helping his own grandparents prepared him for. He loves to be needed. He thrives on being told he’s helping, that he’s valued. And he’s certainly both.
My mom reciprocates, of course. Usually with food. In exchange for doing all the things he does, he’s fed enormous quantities of home-cooked food. My mom will babysit when we’ve had a tough week, cook when we need a break, or feed us when we’re just fed up and need someone to take care of us instead of the other way around. She also plays unending games of War with the children. This is thankless and she probably deserves some sort of Grandmother of the Year award for it.
But then again, the call will come. “While you’re over for dinner, do you think Chris could …” she’ll say, and a small list of things will follow, anything from carrying enormous pumpkins out of her car to carting dog food bags around to moving her trash cans again. Or he’ll need to hang some pictures. Or maybe he could help her move a couch? Or check her fire alarm, which keeps going off in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? He will carry it, move it, check it. Not because she’s his mom. Because she’s my mom. Because she’s my kids’ grandmother. Because she moved all the way down here just to be with us and he knows how much that means to me.
Taking care of her is not just a sign of love for someone who just really, officially, sort of permanently joined our immediate and present family. It’s a sign of love for me as well. He helps her not just because she needs it and he cares about her. He helps her because he cares about me.
It goes this way in most families with extra relatives, I think. Resentment would be easy. Helping is not. But it’s much warmer and more rewarding — even when it can be a pain.
So my husband is left with two houses to take care of. Two women whose happiness to assure. We are always careful to invite Mom on family outings: she comes trick-or-treating with us, we ask her to meet us out for dinner or come to our house to eat, she joins us for the farmer’s market on Sunday. Our family has suddenly increased by one, and that’s a lot for people who are used to living completely on their own.
But my husband has never complained. He’s never said, “Can’t we do this without your mom, with just us?” He actually asks her to come on our vacations so she won’t feel left out. She generally declines, but he doesn’t want her to feel left out or lonely. This is an important concern when you’re the only immediate family someone’s got, and it can be a big one, as you know if you’re in our position. But he makes it graceful, and he makes it fun. So does she.
My husband isn’t a saint. But he’s a good man. A welcoming man. A kind man, the type of guy who helps out when he’s needed. And my mother needs him, so he helps her. This is the simple equation that he works out whenever she asks for something else. I am so grateful to have her down here. But I am also grateful to see this side of him, the side of him that helps so much and cares so much for someone he could easily see as a rival or a pain.
Everyone knows the old tropes about mothers-in-law. They don’t hold water in my family. Chris may do a lot of work, but my mom loves to do things for him, too. She’s grateful and kind. They are, in short, family. I know this because when we leave, they hug. They both mean it, too.
Maybe this, in the end, is the greatest thing he could do for her. And for me.