Last month, I joined ranks with one of the most maligned groups in the civilized world. Members of this sorority are stereotypically described as conniving, undermining, competitive, superficial shrews. Historically, they have been the butt of jokes, fodder for stand-up comedians, and a staple of classic sitcoms. Perhaps the only other familial role depicted as equally villainous is that of stepmother. Yet, in spite of all the unpopular press associated with this group, I could not wait to join!
There are no prescribed qualifications for membership. During the initiation ceremony, I was not even required to make a pledge. However, my son was asked to take a series of vows. That’s right! You guessed it. On the first Saturday of October, I officially became a mother-in-law.
My first order of business is to make an adjustment to this antiquated moniker. The name “mother-in-law” smacks of an obsolete patriarchal system that identified everything in terms of its relationship to property. The property, in this case the bride, was transferred from ownership by the father to the husband, so that the husband could track, with confidence, the distribution of his wealth to his legal heirs. Well, hooey on that!
For six years, I have witnessed my son and his now-wife creating a vibrant relationship that is extraordinary to behold. Law had absolutely nothing to do with it. Their devotion to each other and their future together has been inspired, motivated, guided, and enhanced by love. It is through love, with love, and by love that her presence has been added to our lives. And so, that is how I plan to refer to myself, as her mother-by-love.
The next order of business is to avoid perpetuating the myth of the stereotypical mother-in-law. Fortunately, my own mother-by-love has provided an exceptional role model for conducting myself in this new facet of my parental identity. From the very beginning, she welcomed my involvement in her son’s life. Over the years, we have become friends and confidants. We have walked miles and talked for hours. We have recommended and discussed books with each other. We have traded recipes, shared parenting strategies, and travelled and vacationed together. We have debated politics and religion. We have elected to agree to disagree because keeping our relationship intact has been more important than asserting our point of view. We have helped each other find humor in the most trying of circumstances. We have comforted one another when no humor could be found. In her, I discovered what Anne Shirley called “a kindred spirit.”
Underlying the success of our 34-year association has been mutual respect, genuine affection, and a shared conviction that when it comes to love, there is always room for more. My love for her son has not diminished, nor was it intended to replace, her love as his mother. Her love for my husband has not threatened, nor was it intended to usurp, my love as his wife. My husband’s love for his mother is not a sign of disloyalty to me, nor is his loving me being disloyal to her. It is because of her love that he is capable of loving me and accepting my love in turn. Each of us has benefitted from the love abiding between the other two.
Love does not exist in limited quantities to be doled out incrementally. Love is a quality of character we learn to demonstrate toward others because of the way we have experienced it ourselves. The quality of love is not strained by the presence of additional people in our lives. Love deepens and expands to embrace all those who seek it. Love begets love. Each of us is better for the love we have known from each other.
As parents of young children, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with you. Well, after 26 years of parenting a son — meeting his basic needs, surrounding him with people who loved him, providing him with opportunities to explore and develop all of his abilities and talents, encouraging him to always do his best, guiding him through making decisions, coaching him in creating and nurturing relationships with others — and six years of observing his courtship, engagement, marriage preparations, and wedding, I have come to the conclusion that this is the role we have been preparing him for.
There is tremendous pressure to raise our children to be successful. And when people say successful, they are primarily referring to financial success. Well, statistically speaking, of all the things our children could become, they are most likely to become spouses. I tell you right now, there is nothing like having your son whisper in your ear, during the mother-son dance at his wedding reception, “Thank you for being such great parents. I am ready for this. Thank you for preparing me so well.” And when he presents you with a young woman whom you are honored to call your daughter-by-love, you know you have done something good.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Ky. She has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren