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Learning How to Be a Mother-in-Law

Frankly, I was completely in shock. Not that we didn’t expect it – we’ve been expecting it for some time. And, it wasn’t that we weren’t happy about it, either, because we were and still are. No, I was in shock because this would make me the…you know…the… mother-in-law. I’ve heard about those creatures, the brunt of an endless array of biting jokes and sarcastic one-liners. I’ve heard the crass stories of busy-body interference and snooty judgmentalism. I’ve heard about the divisive manipulation, too. Yes, I’ve heard about those fearsome biddies, and now I’m about to become one of them.

Our middle son recently announced his engagement to a lovely young woman who he’s been dating for almost four years. A couple of nights before he officially proposed, he came into the home office while I was working, and I could tell he had something on his mind.

“Mom, promise you won’t freak out,” he said. Oh, sure. Merely saying that is enough to send me spiraling as visions of totaled cars, million-dollar speeding tickets, and school expulsions dance through my head.

“Okay, I promise,” I replied (I lied).

He eyed me suspiciously. “Promise?” he asked again.

“Yes, I promise!” I said, fingers crossed beneath the keyboard shelf.

He set a small, square, felt-covered box on the workstation in front of me – you know, the kind that jewelers use for… I tried to keep breathing.

“Open it,” he prompted.

I couldn’t move. He opened it for me. I can’t even remember what I said, or whether I even said anything at all. If I did speak, it probably was something outrageously fitting and profound, like “Um?”

Luke was planning to ask Audrey to marry him, and he’d come to ask his dad’s and my blessing first. I know we gave it with great joy, but I can’t relate that part of the conversation to you. It’s not too private or anything of the sort. It’s because the second I saw that little blue box, the word “mother-in-law” started hauntingly flashing in the air all around me in different sizes, fonts, and colors. Ugly, terrifying voices were taunting me, “Mother-in-law! Mother-in-law! Mother-in-law!” just like when the protagonist in an old Alfred Hitchcock movie goes mad because she’s under the spell of some wicked criminal. I would have clapped my hands over my ears and run screaming out the door, but I wasn’t wearing a poodle skirt, pearls, and heels, so I stayed put. Besides, I’d look totally ridiculous in a bouffant.

Two days later, the announcement went viral (okay, it merely went public, but it felt viral to me), and I then became, irrevocably, universally, a mother-in-law-to-be. At the end of May, I will become a full-fledged mother-in-law.

Since the initial shock, I’ve taken lots of time to think and pray about becoming a mother-in-law. In spite of all the mean jokes and biting tales I’ve heard, I intend to grab onto that title with gusto, because I want to learn how to be a good – no, a great – mother-in-law. In that regard, class began the minute our son and his fiancé announced their engagement. You see, mothers-in-law-to-be turn into mothers-in-law, and for that reason the engagement period becomes as vital a part of marriage preparation for the mothers as it does for the couples. How we handle the pre-wedding affairs will impact how we handle the post-wedding ones.

So, I’m taking care in my approach to the wedding plans. I want Luke and Audrey to look to each other for plans and decisions, and not to my husband and I. Most certainly, we’ll be there for anything they need from us, but it is and remains that they are in charge, and not us. That’s as it should be once they’re married, and so it begins now. Engagement and wedding planning is an essential time – a dress rehearsal, so to speak, for married life. During those months, the young couple has to learn how to make decisions, consider consequences, face difficulties, navigate tough situations, set and manage budgets, and accept responsibility. I won’t argue that engaged couples need help and support, but I will argue that parents need to stand down and wait to be asked. Sure, we can offer this or that idea or assistance, but we’d better do so without any expectation or strings attached. Parents who don’t do this deprive engaged couples of one of the most important learning experiences of their lives. In fact, it could cripple their future together.

Well, here we go, then. I’m on my way to becoming one of them, and as the days go by, I’m finding myself fearing the title less and less. Perhaps to the horror of some, I’m actually finding it…yes, I admit…endearing. I know I’m not a perfect mother-in-law-to-be, and I guarantee I won’t be a perfect mother-in-law. But I can guarantee that I’ll work hard at it, pray fervently about it, and beg ceaselessly for God’s grace to excel at it.

Go ahead, tell all the jokes, stories, and one-liners you want; they won’t bother me a bit. I’m looking forward to becoming one of them – a full-fledged mother-in-law!


Marge Fenelon is a Catholic wife, mother, author, columnist, and speaker. She’s a frequent contributor to a number of Catholic publications and websites and is a regular guest on Catholic radio. She’s written several books about Marian devotion and Catholic family life and has touched the hearts of audiences in a variety of venues. Her latest book is Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom (Ave Maria Press, 2013).
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  • CDville

    Bah! M-i-l is a piece of cake! Wait until you have to develop your Grandma style! How indulgent is too indulgent?

  • Now as a double MIL, (sons married sisters) and expecting our fourth grandchild, I am still somewhat fearful of ‘over-stepping’ or in some way alienating the DILs ! Finding the balance between showing love naturally (which is a bit unrefined in our household of many men) and being too remote (so as not to frighten the DILs) still has me a bit worried. On the other hand.. I have noticed that the grandkids fill in the ‘relationship gaps’ very nicely 🙂