Every time we visit them, we fight — and we visit them at least three times a year. I never want to go. My husband does. He adores his family and wants to see them, wants the kids to see them. I adore his family too — just not my difficult in-laws. And they’re the ones we stay with.
Oh, we all try. I do genuinely like my father-in-law. He’s kind and wise and generally a wonderful human. Except when politics comes up and I want to throat-punch his Southern gentleman politique and all that comes with it.
And my MIL tries. She really does. But she’s shackled by, well, her own personality. Which can be overbearing and bang-your-head-against-the-wall-annoying. It’s the details, sometimes, that wear on you. Because a close relative shares my name, I’m known as “The Other Catherine,” which makes me feel like “Lucille 2” in Arrested Development: second-fiddle and ignored except when convenient.
I’ve got a giant grudge to carry too: they halted an adoption of ours a decade ago by shunning my husband until he relented. Their reason? The child was from Haiti.
So how do I deal, three times a year? Truthfully, the pre-visit dread of it generally sucks worse than the actual visit, though there will be a few painful, miserable moments. I try to minimize them, mostly by using basic rules of Southern charm.
Find something you can like in common and hold tight. My MIL likes her garden. I like my garden. My FIL is smart, and can talk just about any historical subject into the ground. I grab those topics and cling like a life raft. It’s not terribly painful, I have something to add, and we’re avoiding the Bad Topics, like politics and race and how-old-is-your-nursing-kid? My MIL actually sent me home with plant cutting this time. Very kind of her. I’ll need to …
Send a card. Yeah, it sucks. It’s annoying. But everyone loves a card. Remember birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Send get-well-soon cards and art from the grandkids. And framed pics of the grandkids. Send things. The post office should know your name. You don’t owe it. But then they owe you.
Make sure your spouse stands up for you. At a certain point, I simply can’t deal and plead the need for a nap, or worst case scenario, fake a migraine. Make sure your spouse will back you up on this one. They’re their parents, after all. They can take the kids without dying for a few hours while you get some peace. Make sure they will also stand up if their parents belittle you or do things that really bother you. For example, any time I crafted anything, my MIL would crow, “You should sell those!” Which I took to mean, “You’re a SAHM. You have no life and bring in no income. Start.” This pissed me off, obviously. My husband finally had a talk with her.
Find your non-negotiables. While I let many things go and “pick my battles,” there are certain things I can’t and won’t bend on. For instance, we recently decided that we are not buying anything but books and art stuff for the kids this summer, because they have enough toys and both will not clean them up and are throwing tantrums for more. So we told them: sorry grandparents, you can’t buy them shit. And they didn’t. Mostly because that non-negotiable came from my spouse. It always works better that way.
Find your happy place. For me, it’s a book and the hammock while the kids play in the sprinkler. I visit it as often as possible.
But try to respect their boundaries that don’t somehow piss you off on moral or emotional grounds. Grandma says no sand outside the sandbox? Yeah, it’s annoying as hell, but keep the sand in the sandbox. Grandma says we can’t go to the pool because there’s a chance of rain later in the day? Head to the museum instead. Don’t flush at night so you don’t wake Grandma in the adjoining room. And don’t ever use their nice towels to wipe up your makeup.
Just … leave. Plead a migraine. Plead a tummy bug coming out one end or another (I can’t pull this one, as my MIL is a hypochondriac and has anxiety surrounding sickness). Make a Starbucks run, and take orders. Make a trip to the grocery store. Claim you need something vital and toiletry-related at Target. Just get the hell out.
Clean up. Hate after-dinner convo? I tend to avoid it by clearing plates, sticking stuff in the dishwater (my MIL will reload it and this will piss me off, but I live with it), and putting away food. This is when the barbs usually come out: someone brings up politics or their own personal Jesus or the state of kids today and whether kids should play organized sports. When this happens, I love the shit out of that dishwasher.
Never, ever say anything bad about them in front of the kids. Ever. No matter how bad they piss you off. My dislike is obvious, and my oldest knows the real reason (the adoption) why I don’t like them. But I don’t complain about them on a regular basis, I don’t complain about them on a specific basis, and I try very very hard to only say nice things.
Find the good in them. Yes, you can’t stand them. Yes, they drive you bonkers. But if you’re going to survive this long-term, you have to be able to find the good and overlook the bad as much as possible. I let my MIL parent over me, with my teeth gritted, as long as it’s something I don’t hideously disagree with. I also value her gardening, her kindness in getting me a pass to the local pool, the way she never says a word about co-sleeping. The way she tries to connect by looking for my glassware patterns and tailoring gifts to my interests. My FIL is brilliant. I borrow his books and talk to him about them. We discuss Federalism in the later 1700s. We visit historic landmarks and use him as a tour guide, which he loves.
All in all, they are nice people. We just don’t get along. At all. Our quirks rub against each other; our values skew wildly to the left and the right. But I found out that once I started putting in effort, instead of throwing tantrums, life got a lot smoother. Just go to them armed with your zen, whatever that is. Know what to fight (as little as possible) and what to let go (as much as you can). Then maybe you won’t fight with your husband when he tells you he wants to visit them. Sigh.