This will likely come as a shock to many of you, but I genuinely like my in-laws.
They’re generous, loving people. My mother-in-law is a therapist and artist, always able to see the beauty in the chaos around her. My father-in-law is a well-regarded doctor who appreciates my ability to go toe-to-toe with him on any steak dinner. They welcomed me into their close-knit family right away, even though I didn’t grow up in the same way they raised their son — modern Orthodox Jewish. They’re involved grandparents, even from afar, and committed to their relationships with all of us. Sure, they drive me nuts on occasion, but overall, they’re solid.
Basically, I hit the in-law jackpot. Even so, there was a time I didn’t much like visiting them, and to be honest, I’m still a little anxious about spending time with them on their turf. I wish I could blame them, tell you they’re controlling or too nosy (they’re only a little nosy), or critical of our parenting or lifestyle choices. Typecasting them as the judgmental, meddling in-laws would be easy. The real reason I’m not always thrilled to visit them is because of what it does to my marriage.
When we visited my to-be in-laws during our engagement, the characteristics I loved about my husband were confirmed in ways I hadn’t seen before. His deep love for and talent for music, piano-playing specifically, was in full view. We didn’t own a piano, but watching and listening to him play at his parents’ house filled me with happiness and pride. I already knew about his enthusiasm for good food and wine and traveling, but listening to him regale us with tales of his time living in Israel or whipping up a favorite egg dish for all of us reinforced his passion. His respect and love for his parents and the openness of their relationship was impressive. I’d gotten a glimpse of it from overhearing him on the phone with them, but seeing it in front of me was even more powerful. This was the man I wanted to marry.
Away from our families of origin, we strove to establish ourselves as a unit. Living on the other side of the country gave us plenty of room to define “us.” We were each other’s go-to person, partner, and sounding board. We built ourselves a nest of comfort and care, a place to seek advice, unload the crap, and belly laugh until we were out of breath. His piano playing melded with my writing. We traveled and each pursed careers we enjoyed. There was plenty of space for each of us as individuals and the two of us as a couple.
This worked wonderfully for the first year of our marriage. Then, three-quarters of the way into our second year, we had our first daughter. Our focus shifted away from us and toward her as we painstakingly figured out the whole parenting thing. Our effort and love poured into our small, expanded family.
We were thrilled to be parents but run ragged by it too. We reoriented ourselves to accommodate our new roles. We took on the tasks of parenting together and decided I would work part-time, which meant more of the financial pressure fell on him and more of the domestic duties fell on me. It wasn’t an easy transition, and in our new world, there was less and less time for us as a couple, let alone as individuals. I really struggled with this, but found consolation in knowing that my husband was in it with me.
Whenever we visited my in-laws, though, I felt like my husband abandoned me. He, his dad, and his two brothers shared inside jokes around the kitchen table along with a good measure of Scotch. The three of them inevitably found their way to their instruments and jammed on and off throughout our visits. They’d all dissolve into good-natured laughter, closing their ranks as my mother-in-law and I stood outside the circle up against the kitchen sink washing and drying or sipping tea.
Nothing could make my mother-in-law happier. I, on the other hand, sulked. It irked me, the way my husband unwittingly left me behind to carry on our parenting routine with our young girls, while he traversed the well-loved roads of the place he came from. The tight knot of “us” untangled whenever we visited his family. I felt alone and insecure, as if the life we’d crafted wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the one he’d grown up in. It stung.
For years I carried around this discomfort and envy, always preparing myself for the disconnect between myself and my husband whenever we visited my in-laws. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to see my husband’s behavior as something else entirely. Rather than disconnecting from me, he’s reconnecting with himself. He can tap back into the music-loving, gourmet-food appreciating, top-notch swimmer he is without the demands of work and our busy day-to-day schedule.
Now that the girls are older, the work of parenting has lessened so I don’t feel as burdened by keeping up routines when we travel. I’ve let my husband know that I need extra TLC when we’re with his family, and he’s good about giving it. I’m still slightly insecure when he lapses back into the warm swirl of his original family, momentarily leaving me hanging around the edges, but now I keep in mind the upside — getting to see the man I fell in love with in his entirety — and remember why this marriage, in-laws and all, is worth it.