I have sort of an odd relationship with my mother-in-law, and by “odd,” I mean, I adore her. We got off to a bit of a rocky start in the early years, but we quickly worked through our differences–which really were just misunderstandings–and my mother-in-law has become one of my favorite people in the world.
I know many people’s relationships with their mothers-in-law are the reason for heavy drinking around the holidays, and there seems to be an especially tenuous dynamic that arises between wives and mothers of husbands. Wives feel like their mother-in-law wants to remain the number one woman in her son’s life and can’t accept that the wife now comes first. Mothers-in-law see their son’s wife as unappreciative, trying to change their perfect son, or worse, trying to “steal” him.
I’ve heard wild stories of mothers-in-law coming to visit and completely rearranging their daughter-in-law’s kitchen. Loading the kids up on sugar when asked not to. Making passive-aggressive (or actively aggressive) comments to belittle the wife, whether it’s about her clothes, her weight, her cooking, or her parenting. I’ve heard of mothers-in-law inserting themselves into the couple’s relationship, asking about their problems, trying to find dirt on her daughter-in-law, confirmation the daughter-in-law is as beneath her son as she’s always believed.
My mother-in-law is nothing like this. For starters, she is the best grandmother to my two children anyone could ask for. When she travels here to the States from Peru, she always remembers to bring my kids fun Peruvian treats that can’t be found in the U.S., and she almost always has something she made for them by hand. Just small things–she’s not overdoing it with gifts–but she’s making sure they know she has been thinking of them.
When she’s here, she spends every minute possible with her grandchildren, truly playing with them, even diving into complex games that take her longer to learn the rules for because playing a rules-heavy game in a second language is hard. My Spanish is pretty good, but I sure couldn’t play Scrabble in Spanish. But my mother-in-law does it because the kids ask her to and she won’t say no to them. She teaches the kids Spanish, plays music and dances with them, pops popcorn and watches movies with them. They sit and play together, and she gives them her full, undivided attention in a way not many adults really know how to do.
When she comes to the States, she usually stays at least a month, so she becomes part of our household and does everything with us. We go grocery shopping together, to Target, out for lunch. She rides along for the kids’ various afterschool activities. She has even come with us on several vacations.
She is an extra set of hands in the house too, pitching in without my asking but having the sensitivity to ask when she’s not sure whether I want her help with something. She is so considerate that if she’s unloading the dishwasher and doesn’t know where a dish goes, she will either ask me or leave it out on the counter. I’m never frantically opening cabinets and drawers looking for a misplaced item. She is always conscientious like this, and I’m grateful for it. Several times she worried aloud that she was “in my way,” which made me almost cry because I feel exactly the opposite. She is a gigantic help and a joy to have around.
But there is something extra special about my mother-in-law, something above and beyond her just being a great grandma and supportive second mother to me, and that’s that… she still loves me. See, her son and I are in the middle of a divorce. I came out to him as gay last year, and we’ve been slowly unraveling our lives and working to forge a path to a new normal. One of my absolute biggest fears in coming out was how my mother-in-law would react. I had no idea what to expect. She’s a devout Catholic–would she think I am a sinner and write me off forever? Would she try to “talk sense” into me? Would she want to tear her grandchildren away from me? Would she hate me for breaking up her son’s family?
But, when my soon-to-be ex husband called her to give her the news, I was in the room listening. I heard her gasp when he said the word “gay,” but I also heard the gentleness in her tone. I heard snippets that my ex later confirmed: that ours is a sad situation but that she knows my sexuality is something I can’t help, that divorcing is the right thing for all of us, that living as my true self is the only way I can be happy. She said I am an amazing mom to her grandkids and that she trusts that her son and I will lead with love going forward. She said she hopes that the last time she saw me would not be the last time she sees me.
In a perfect world, anyone in my shoes should be able to expect this level of compassion from each and every person they come out to. But this isn’t a perfect world. This is hard. Every one of us is working from a foundation of allegiances and biases and expectations and cultural norms, and our first instinct is often to defend our expectations for what we believe our lives are supposed to look like. No matter how blameless, change can be painful and tolerance is not always the first reaction. Acceptance is not guaranteed. In fact, for me it is guaranteed that I will sometimes be met with intolerance and bigotry.
But my mother-in-law has within her a heart so big and compassion so great that she somehow immediately intuited, not only the devastation of a family reshaping itself into something very different than it was before, but the many excruciating battles I fought inside myself to get to a place where I could finally admit who I really am and say it aloud.
Her son and I may no longer be married, but she will always be the best abuela my children could ask for and she will always be mi suegra, my mother-in-law. The best I could ask for.