Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I must have been first in line when God was handing out mothers-in-law. I managed to get one who can make creative children's toys using only a live scorpion and a ziplock bag; who gets so excited about her grandkids' pictures that she flags down people at Wal Mart to demand that they admire them; and who even manages to produce the occasional revolutionary theological insight.
On top of all this, she's always been a great mother-in-law. My husband and I recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary, and as I was reflecting on our first couple of years of marriage, it occurred to me that I must have been a kind of annoying daughter-in-law for a while there. Knowing little about the domestic arts, and nothing about children, I had read books to learn about The Right Way to be a wife and a mother, and I understood that adhering to these authors' philosophies with 100% accuracy was the only thing that stood between me and my entire family descending into ruin. I was unwilling to yield to other people's (wrong) ways of doing things, sensitive to criticism, and generally just kind of a pain in the neck.
I would like to think that I'm a little more tolerable now as a daughter-in-law (or, at least that I'm annoying in different ways), and I give a lot of credit to that to having an understanding and supportive mother-in-law. She set the tone for the dynamic between us from day one, and was a source of comfort and strength as I bumbled around trying to figure out what this whole marriage/motherhood thing was all about. I keep telling her that she needs to write a book to share her expertise with the world, but she's too busy wrangling grandkids and killing stinging insects with her bare hands. So it'll have to suffice for me to just list the most important three things she did, especially in those first few years of my marriage to her son, that really helped set a great tone for years to come:
1. She told my husband to make our family his first priority. The mother-son relationship is sacred, and there will never be anyone who replaces a mother in her child's life. However, my mother-in-law always had a clear understanding that when her son got married, he would need to make his new family his top priority on a day-to-day basis. It must have been a little scary for her to so boldly hold to this conviction, especially since my husband is her only child and she's a single mother. But the results have been good for everyone -- having everything going well under our roof means that my husband, children and I all have more bandwidth to offer my mother-in-law assistance whenever she needs help.
2. She never, ever complained about me. It may be rare for a mother-in-law to openly, publicly point out flaws in her husband's wife; but remarks whispered out of earshot, little asides, and passive aggressive comments are not unheard of at all (I know more than a few wives who have been on the receiving end of Thanksgiving dinnertable remarks like, "My, what an...interesting way to make turkey dressing.") My mother-in-law didn't criticize me to my face, to my husband, or to anyone else that I know of. There were no little hints or pointed observations spoken under her breath. If she offered any constructive criticism, it was done gently and with humility (like, "What do I know -- I really have no idea what's best -- but maybe, just maybe, you might feel better if you arranged the baby's schedule so that you got more than two hours of sleep at night.")
I remember one time when she'd come for a visit, and I knew I was being horrible. I was exhausted, utterly overwhelmed by new motherhood, and was snapping at anyone who so much as looked at me the wrong way. One afternoon I came inside from a walk to hear her talking on the phone with a friend, and she said, "Jennifer is just the most wonderful daughter-in-law. I don't know how I got so lucky!" Hearing her say that was more effective at inspiring me to change my behavior than if she'd spent a thousand hours telling me what I was doing wrong. I was so touched by this image she had of me, and so profoundly humbled by her generosity, that I wanted more than anything to be that wonderful daughter-in-law that she seemed to think she had.
3. She makes plans through me. This may seem like a small thing, but over our nine years of marriage I have found this to be huge. Whether my mother-in-law would like to do a holiday dinner at her house or just needs my husband to swing by and help her fix her water heater, she schedules it through me, not him. This makes sense for a lot of reasons. Since I'm the keeper of our family calendar, it's most efficient for her (or anyone else) to talk to me directly about events that would impact the whole crew. Also, men are notorious for not understanding the impact that plans can have on their families. Plenty of spousal spats have begun with a husband saying something like, "I told my parents they could stay with us for three weeks next month. That's not a problem, right?" or, "I told my mom we'd come visit her on Saturday. I saw that thing on the calendar about you decorating the house for Fall that weekend, but I figured it wouldn't be a big deal to skip that."
. . .
I'm thankful to have learned so much from my husband's mom. Not only did it get our marriage and our family relationships off to a good start, but I hope that one day I'll be a great mother-in-law as well. What are a few things that your mother-in-law does right?