I cringed through the movie Meet the Parents. I tried to laugh, but it was just so uncomfortable. My cringing came from all of the AWKWARD, really awkward moments, of someone trying to fit into an existing family. As Ben Stiller’s character is introduced to his girlfriend’s clan he learns being accepted won’t come instantly. And her family’s “circle of trust”, is an either you’re in or you’re out kind of thing, and he spends the whole movie trying to push in. From the way they pray to the way they joke he finds he can’t quite get it right. His missteps are painful to watch because they are exaggerated points of truth we all can relate to.
Melding into another family is just plain hard. You meet a man you love and sometimes loving the people who raised and grew up with him is natural and easy. And sometimes it’s just the opposite, uncomfortable and even painful. For most of us I think it lies somewhere in the middle. And here’s the thing about relationships, the hard thing, we can’t control how other people behave, we can only control ourselves. So even if we try our hardest at our in-law relationships, it’s often rocky, because there is no formula that guarantees marital bliss with the extended family. Then enter children into the picture and the dynamics of grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins can make the already complex dynamics even more complicated.
Don’t hate me, but I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I married into a family of people who I genuinely love to be with. We are friends and they have been wonderful at bringing me into the fold. Though I’ve never referred to my mother-in-law as my mother-in-love (not quite my terminology), it is a spot-on description of how we are bonded apart from my husband. But even in the best of cases, we are all imperfect people and we’ve made mistakes and hurt each other and started over multiple times. In order to move our relationships from superficial to meaningful, you know with real trust, we’ve had to keep working at them.
So Darling, as moms of young ones, we are in a unique all-consuming space of caring for kids all. of. the. time. We’re often exhausted to the point of falling asleep at the dining room table, so being gracious about Christmas plans and parenting advice can feel unattainable.
But I believe in us. And I believe in the families we’ve married into.
They’re not perfect, no families are. So let’s do what WE can to create some trust. So I’m going to direct these comments directly to you moms to focus on what we can control:
This is so simple and yet so difficult at the same time. Especially when tensions are high and words have already been said. But taking the intentional zingers out of the conversation will bring down the pressure and mellow everything out a bit. Besides it’s your number one prevention tool against saying things you’ll regret.
Keep conversations private
If your sister-in-law confides in you, be a good confidant. There’s no need to tell anyone else. There just isn’t. This keeps gossip and factions from building and in turn makes trust possible.
Now that I have multiple children I understand fair does not mean equal in all circumstances. Comparing how your husband’s siblings or their children are treated by his parents helps no one. If there are hurts there, it’s time to have a conversation or two. Which leads me to…
Sometimes we hear “I’m just being honest” as a way of excusing all kinds of hurtful words. Speaking truth allows you to say what you’ve experienced and you feel without accusing someone else. It IS possible to say difficult things and be kind at the same time.
Sometimes we make assumptions and don’t even know we are making them. And if our assumptions are incorrect we may have hurt feelings or misunderstandings that are based on false information. Ask yourself, Do I know this to be true? How? You want your relationships to be centered on truth, not half-truths.
I’ve failed at all of these at some point (remember we’re all imperfect?) It’s from these failures I know just how vital these principles are to building and maintaining trust with the family you married into. Family dynamics will never be perfect, we can give up on that hope. But there are things we can do to make them better, and in fact quite good and precious.
As a mom to four girls, ages 11, 8, 4 and 2, Alexandra Kuykendall is offered daily doses of the ludicrous and sublime. She is the author of this year’s MOPS International theme book, The Artist’s Daughter, A Memoir and is the Mom and Leader Content Editor for the organization. This means she reads a lot and writes when she can. But don’t be fooled by long and fancy titles, most of Alex’s days are spent washing dishes, driving to and from different schools and trying to find a better solution to the laundry dilemma. You can connect with her at AlexandraKuykendall.com.