The Relationship-Changing Conversation with my Mother in Law
My Mother-in-Law said something to me shortly after the birth of our daughter that has stuck with me and irrevocably altered the way I viewed my burgeoning motherhood. Mainly, it affected the way I view my own parents.
We were having a moment, like only two moms could. One of us reflecting on the love she has for both of her twenty-something children, and the other reveling in the new and gut-socking love she was still adjusting to having for her infant daughter. She said to me, “You know what always struck me as I reflected on my love for my kids? That this is how my parents felt about me.”
I have mulled it over and tossed those words around in my head so many times over the past three-and-a-half years. I am convinced that one of the wrongs children are bound to commit over and over, generation after generation, is seeing their parents as flat, one-dimensional beings. Somehow, for much of our lives, we see them as only our Mom and our Dad, who may as well have been put on the planet in the state they’re in now. Full-grown adults who can help us with long division, enforce curfew, and mow the lawn. Moms who somehow, miraculously, never once let milk go past its expiration date in the fridge (super powers!) and stay on top of everything with what looks like minimal effort. In my experience, the love of my parents is something I counted on. I never processed it, because it was there; obvious and consistent. I accepted it into adulthood without fully processing the fact that it is something that we now share.
But what I failed to realize for most of my life is that my parents aren’t flat. They’re complex. They have decades of life experiences that led them to where they are today. They have baggage and scars. They’ve made mistakes that have molded who they are and how they view the world—and inevitably, how they parented my brother and I. They took things away from their own upbringings and told themselves, and each other, that they would do it differently. There were things outside of us that kept them up at night. There were bad days and relational issues and work stresses behind the scenes. There were times that they had to bury their faces in their sleeves so they didn’t laugh in my face during a dramatic toddler (or, ahem, adolescent) tantrum. There were dreams and values they held onto and brought to fruition in us. And you know what else? Times they doubted themselves and their decisions. Perhaps, at times, they sat downstairs after a punishment was doled out and agonized to themselves and each other on whether or not they made the right call. Wondered whether or not they were succeeding in raising us to be who they hoped we would be. Blamed themselves when we made poor choices.
I’ve realized in my own parenting journey that my parents were just as scared as I currently am. They were scared when they brought tiny, floppy newborn me home from the hospital, just as my husband and I were with our first. Scared the first time I got seriously ill. Scared that I wouldn’t fit in when I walked through the doors of my middle school. Scared when I got behind the wheel of my first car. Scared that they were doing the wrong thing and messing it all up.
Talk about relatable.
It’s why I was so fascinated going through my Granny’s old photo albums a few years ago. I sat next to my mom and poured over every photo of her that I could find. Six years old and wearing cat-eye glasses in a black-and-white photo. Or her at twelve, standing in her front yard in a mini-dress with hair past her shoulders (much longer than I’d ever seen it before!) before her confirmation. A shot of her at twenty, with feathered hair and wearing high-waisted jeans, smiling with my dad (who was sporting a mean afro). Twenty-seven, tanned and beautiful, holding my two-month-old big brother at the beach in California. I kept those photographs and look at them every now and then. Hard evidence of many years, and experiences, lived before I was even a possibility.
I shudder to think of my son and daughter going through much of their lives not realizing that I, too, am a whole person. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that I am not scared, that I don’t make mistakes and agonize on certain decisions out of my gut-squeezing love for them. I want them to know that my husband and I duck for cover and crack up sometimes behind their backs when they say or do something equally naughty and hilarious, and that they know that much of our parenting is done out of a response to our own shortcomings. All I can think to do is to apologize without abandon when I’m wrong, allow myself to be appropriately vulnerable when life hurts or overjoys, and be available and empathetic in those valuable moments our kids allow us in.
How much wisdom are we missing out on when we don’t realize these things until we’re well into our twenties? Something I have noticed naturally evolving from this mulling over of mine is my natural desire to call or email my mom when I’m scared, excited, or questioning. Just the other week our infant son came down with a nasty and scary virus. After getting ahold of our pediatrician, my next instinct was to call my mom—not for advice, but for emotional support. And in talking to her, one of the first things she said to me was, “I remember how scary that used to be.” All over again I pictured my young mom, possibly a little worried when she received a call from our school, leaving her office job to come pick us up, and spending her afternoon tucking us in, making chicken soup and holding a bucket for us when we got sick.
This holiday season, may we all be encouraged to engage our parents in such a way that we welcome them into the inner workings of our lives and hearts. I am certain that we’ll find wisdom, encouragement, and a healthy dose of, “I remember how that felt.”
Rachel is a wife and mother living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s a fan of good coffee, wearer of gray t-shirts, and is constantly starting books she will never finish. Her family is her joy, and she loves to engage with other moms and dads on matters of parenting. Her blog posts have also been featured on the Today Show Parenting Blog and Scary Mommy.