Family Matters

I Didn’t Realize I’d Lose My In-Laws In The Divorce

I’d always wanted a bigger family.

Written by Julia Williamson
Originally Published: 
Candid family meal eating together with family
Lisa5201/E+/Getty Images

After the first night I spent with the man who would end up being my husband, he woke up and called his mother. I took this as a very good sign. And I was right: When I met her, I loved her immediately. She has a smile and a kind word for everyone she meets. His father was gentle and kind, a car buff and photographer.

I’d always wanted a bigger family, with grandparents who lived nearby and cousins and aunts and uncles. My own family is about as tiny as they come. My mother was an only child, and my father had one sister who didn’t have kids. While there were some second cousins floating around, I only met them once or twice. So when I was invited to their family camping trip for the first time, I realized that I just might have stumbled into the family of my dreams. Siblings! Cousins! In-laws! And every one of them was welcoming, apparently thrilled to add one more to the group.

Plus they were effusive in a way my New England family was not. Frankly, it could be a bit overwhelming at times, but I liked the way everyone spoke their mind and teased one another.

My now-ex’s sister and I became close, too; she was in the delivery room when I gave birth to our first child. She married her husband in our backyard. We had two girls, they had two boys, all born within three years of one another.

When our marriage started to break down, I was happy to have my ex’s family so close. Somehow I thought this would make things easier. It did not.

I don’t know if this is true of all large families, or just the one I was temporarily a part of. Often it seemed that their communication was like one big game of telephone. They told one another everything, but often the details changed with the telling. My mother-in-law would express surprise I wasn’t visiting a friend, for instance, because hadn’t her daughter said I was? We’d hear garbled versions of what renovations were happening at our house. Innocent mistakes, but sometimes they’d cause confusion or ruffled feathers.

Once we separated, though, it got complicated. I’d have a conversation with one person, and some distorted version would get back to my ex, sparking more tension between us. Finally, I decided I’d have to quit talking. Not permanently, but we had to get through our separation without the constant strain of misinterpretation.

We all like to believe that we won’t take sides when our loved ones break up. But it’s awfully hard not to. And families should support their own. My ex needed his people, and it felt right to back off a little.

I’ve been invited to lots of family events since we broke up 20 years ago, including the annual retreat to a pristine lake in western Washington. While I’ve sometimes joined in, more often I’ve demurred. It was too awkward, as we moved through our sometimes amicable, sometimes contentious relationship. And over time those ties grew weaker.

When I remember that time and how it felt, it feels like a distant dream. I have some regret; maybe I could have tried harder to stay close. But working and single parenting and all the other stuff of life kept me fully occupied.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to keep my mother-in-law in my life. I’ll never call her former, because she’s still the same warm, loving person she’s always been. Throughout the years she’s sent cards on my birthday, I’ve called her on Mother’s Day, and now we see each other when she’s in town visiting the kids. I learned that when it was too difficult to spend time with that side of the family, expressing goodwill and staying hopeful was enough to maintain the relationship until the past hurts began to fade.

Julia Williamson is mother to two very nearly adult daughters. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering wizard, and an inveterate optimist, regardless of reality. Visit her at

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