MILs… the most maligned of the female species

They say the most intimate relationship a woman has is with her daughter, and the one with her own mother. It makes sense if you think about it because only a daughter has the potential to truly identify with that feeling of life within you, and shared birth experience.

And if that’s true, then the most challenging relationship a woman has is the one with her mother-in-law. And vice versa.

What is the struggle that sometimes happens between wife and mother, with poor husband-son caught in the middle? Why does one not feel good enough while the other feels there could be so much more?

For many people I think the in-law relationships become power-struggles as family traditions struggle to be blended acceptably.

And likely, the greatest ally to mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is time. Mellowing. Perspective. Empathy. And the birth of the grandson/son which lets a young mom look at life through her mother-in-law’s eyes.

And so, this Mothers Day, I want to pay tribute to my mother-in-law, Emma, who is no longer with us in body. And yet at every Christmas, Easter or birthday dinner she is present. We long after her special potato dish that none of us has mastered. We’re thrilled that our father-in-law perfected her perog recipe while she was still well enough to give instructions. She’s there, she’s there.

It wasn’t always like this. As a young bride I certainly felt an enormous gulf in understanding between us. There was not only our age difference, but there was a difference in culture and language and background. As a woman who had sacrificed her professional career and station in life to flee her communist-invaded country, her role as Mother was carried out with fervour. She wanted her sons to have everything their new country could offer. And I think in her eyes I took far too much for granted.

She was eager to have grandchildren; I was eager to establish my career. She wanted to teach me how to bake; I wanted to get my pilot’s licence. She hated denim; I loved denim. I could fill this page with the things I thought were differences and I think in my youth I saw those ‘differences’ as ‘wrongs’ rather than just differences.

Anyway, the years passed and we both mellowed. I pursued my career, got my pilot’s licence, learned how to do some stuff in the kitchen. I had children.

And while we weren’t in agreement all the time about raising children, she was the devoted caregiver of both kids at different times.

It’s funny but as we grew older, what emerged was our appreciation for many of the same things… the colour blue; knitting; daisies and brown-eyed susans, photography and photo story albums; playing piano; friendships; good books; her son.

When she died, four and a half years ago the 38 years between us had melted to a moment. I had grown to love this woman whose family meant everything to her. I had come to appreciate how much she lost in her political escape, how much courage she had to bear children during wartime, how tough it was to move to this country where people from Europe were called DPs, where all the clothes her kids wore were from her own hands.

I learned how much she appreciated about her boys; how well she knew their characters, their strengths, their weaknesses. I learned how great her goals were for them.

And as I watched my own son grow from toddler to teenager, the gap between mother-in-law (MIL) and I shrunk to a speck.

Years ago I read a poem written by a young woman to her mother-in-law. It recognized the effort that Mom had made, caring for the baby boy, teaching him right from wrong, nurturing him, giving him grace, applauding him, enhancing his self esteem. The poem recognized the sleepless nights, wondering where was the teenage boy with the car. It paid tribute to the dollars spent on clothes, sports activities, character-builders and education.

And it concluded:

With love, with care you raised your son
And gave to me, the man.

What perspective that poem released. The gap was gone. How fortunate I was that it happened when it did.

And so, today is the day for Mothers. For children to give hugs, kisses and maybe gifts. For fathers to call their Mothers and check in.

But today, while I gift my own cherished Mom, I’ll also send a skyward message to that other intimate relationship, to the woman I wish I could see and hear today.

Thanks, Emmy.