When I met my husband, in the fall of 1996, I had no idea what I was getting into. We were both 12 and we both liked reading. We both liked The Simpsons and Pokemon; video games and art. Not fine art or anything like that. We just both enjoyed drawing. We both enjoyed making cartoons.
So like any sound-minded seventh grader, I asked him out.
I mean, a few shared interests, a couple of 10-minute conversations, and one slow dance were the basis for a solid relationship, right? Well, yes and no. It was enough for two 12-year-olds — especially since our “relationship” was nothing more than hand holding in the halls and long walks through the park, or to and from school — but it wasn’t enough to be real. It wasn’t enough to be love.
Three months later, we split up. (Or as he puts it, I was “the first girl to break his heart.”)
But less than five years later, we were at it again; well, we were dating again. Before long, things turned serious: we were serious. By 19 we were living together, by 21 we were engaged, and by 24 we were married. And on that wet and unseasonably warm October day, that’s when “it” happened. That’s when I acquired in-laws and an extended family. That’s when I acquired the dreaded mother-in-law.
(Dun, dun, dun!)
But contrary to the stereotype — the myths and rumors and long-standing jokes — my mother-in-law is not “evil” or some dreaded presence in my life. She is not intrusive or overbearing, she is not difficult, and she is not a punchline. Instead, she is compassionate and funny. She is supportive and loving, and I turn to her as I would my own mother.
I love her as I love my own mother.
You see, I got to know my mother-in-law long before I was married because it’s hard to avoid “meeting the fam” when you are still in high school. And while I don’t recall much about our first meeting, I do know my mother-in-law welcomed me into her home from day one. She was kind to me. She would joke with me, and she embraced me with open arms.
Before long, I was being invited to “family-only” events: parties and weddings and holiday meals.
Before long I was going on family vacations: their family vacations.
I’ll never forget one of the first trips I took with them — they being my husband, then boyfriend; my brother-in-law; my mother-in-law; and their significant others. We went to Williamsburg, Virginia. We spent the afternoon in Busch Gardens, riding roller coasters and water rides — like the Roman Rapids and Escape from Pompeii — before eating in the historical city. We bonded over peanuts and colonial beer. We bonded over rabbit stew. But the real bonding (and the real fun) occurred back in the room, where we all kicked back and cut loose. We did Jägerbombs in our pajamas, and we danced and sang through the living room. And because of the booze, my guard was down. Because of the booze, I was able to open up, and let them in. And because of the booze, we were all able to joke and laugh and talk with ease. And for me, this was huge.
This sheltered, shy little girl was finally letting her hair down. This frightened young woman was finally opening up. After years and years of “fighting it,” I was finally ready to let people in. I was finally ready to let family in, something I had avoided since the death of my father. Because after my father died when I was 12, I pushed everyone closest to me away. I wanted to pull them closer — and hold them tighter — but I couldn’t. Because it would hurt to lose them. Because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing them. So I pulled back.
I shut down.
But this day, and this trip, allowed me to experience something different. I remember how happy I was and thinking I didn’t want it to end. Not just the vacation, but the feeling.
I already knew I didn’t want to lose my second family.
Of course, I never did — and hopefully I never will. Instead, our bond grew stronger. We became closer, and our relationship blossomed long after that bottle of Jäger was empty.
But back to my mother-in-law, because my mother-in-law really is something special. She is one of my greatest cheerleaders and one of my greatest supporters, both personally and professionally. She reads almost everything I write — even the heavy stuff, i.e. the difficult stuff about my depression and the non-so-perfect stuff about my relationship with her son. She shares almost everything I write, too (and brags to all of her friends) and then she reaches out to me. She lets me know she is there if I ever want to talk. If I need an ear.
She reminds me I am not alone.
Because my mother-in-law is compassionate. My mother-in-law empathetic, and my mother-in-law is kind. (Did I mention she’s also funny as hell, especially when she embarrasses my husband/her son? I love it!)
My mother-in-law was at my side when I picked out my wedding dress. She was in the stands when I graduated from college, and she was at the hospital — pacing the halls with my own mother — when I gave birth to my daughter.
Ah, my daughter: I cannot begin to tell you the ways my mother-in-law supports me as a parent. My mother-in-law listens to each and every one of my struggles and worries without judgement. She will drop everything she is doing— and I mean everything — to come babysit. To give me a break. To give my husband and I a break. To simply offer her presence as help: much needed help. And she even embraced my insane “newborn instructions” — you know, the “schedule” which outlined when to feed my daughter, when to change my daughter, and when to nap her (how to read to her) — without complaint; well, at the very least, she took it all in stride.
So thank you for always keeping a seat for me at your table. For keeping your fridge stocked with juice boxes and your pantry full of Goldfish and Cheerios and other “toddler snacks,” even through your own house is now quiet. Even though both of your boys have grown up. Thank you for being my Christmas karaoke buddy, for making delicious turkey dinners each and every Thanksgiving, and for creating adorable bunny cakes every Easter.
Thank you listening to me. For supporting me. For offering to help me and my family any time, and at the drop of a hat.
Thank you for raising an amazing young man, a young man who is now an incredible father and a great husband.
And most importantly, thank you for being you.