Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas with My Mother-in-Law [long post alert]

I’ve done the searches, read the articles and engaged in the therapy sessions that have explained how becoming a step-grandparent isn’t easy. That just because their child has remarried doesn’t mean they’ll spontaneously love the new spouse’s children.  And I get it, because, well, the same thing applies to step-parenthood.

Not to mention all the factors that can complicate the equation. My husband’s mother was blindsided by his divorce and couldn’t wrap her head around how quickly things changed (and it wasn’t her fault that they had successfully faked a happy marriage for quite a few years). The ex moved down the block to set up house with her new husband, and I moved from out of town to test-drive our relationship locally. Within six months of coming to town, I had married her son and brought three new kids into the family.

That was a lot of change to process in not a lot of time. And like I said, while my head understood that she was experiencing understandable difficulty, my heart still
ached to see her chill in the presence of my children.

For the record, my mother-in-law is a wonderful person. She’s made a real effort to welcome me and my children into the family. But there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that still sting (and generate a little bitterness on my end). She’s on friendly terms with my husband’s ex and routinely invites their children over for sleepovers, shopping trips, and movie dates. Without my kids.

And while my husband and I have been married for three and a half years, last Christmas was the first time our kids opened the grandparents’ presents together in front of my in-laws. She had been slightly resistant to the idea, and when the unwrapping began, I could understand why. There was a noticeable difference in the time, energy and expense put into her biological grandchildren’s gifts verses her step-grandchildren’s gifts.

But when you’re in a blended family, there are many things you shrug off, and even more things that you hope will eventually improve given enough time. Besides, how petty is it to confront your MIL by saying, “I could tell you didn’t dedicate as much time or money to my kids’ Christmas presents”? Like on the Petty Scale, 10 out of 10.

Flash forward to this year, when, on the way out the door on Thanksgiving, my MIL hands my husband an envelope and says, “Could you get the kids their Christmas presents, and I’ll wrap them when you’re done?” Only later did he discover that the envelop did not contain money for all our children, but just my three kids.

I was mad. Okay, livid. Because that felt like she had given up on getting to know my kids. She no longer wanted to expend the energy trying. So, I did what I always do in tricky blended family situations like this—I went to my dear support and vented like a mad women.

When the dust had cleared, Delilah Sue said, “I might be sweet and offer to go shopping with her.” That was a brilliant idea actually—a proactive one where I stopped complaining and did something positive in attempts to improve the situation. But the idea made me uncomfortable. There had been enough awkward exchanges with my MIL that I questioned how she’d receive the suggestion.

It got to the point where I was sick of stewing about it and ready to do something. I texted to see if my MIL wanted to go shopping for those presents together. And guess what? She said yes.

We spent less than one hour in Hastings as I made the effort to explain what my kids are into these days. We found something for each of them with money to spare. When we said goodbye, she said she now felt confident enough to add a few little gifts for each child on her own. AND she thanked me for inviting her.

Like I told my support group, in a blended family you often feel like you take three steps forward only to be forced back two. That night I went shopping with my MIL, I felt like we had taken three paces together, and I was going to celebrate each one of them.
For me there are three morals to this story:
  1. When looking for a support group, be sure it really is a support group and not an excuse to merely commiserate about your shared difficulties. Venting is valuable (necessary, I’d argue), but only if it’s followed up with worthwhile suggestions for improvement and change.
  2. Don’t assume to understand what anyone else in a blended family is thinking. My MIL wanted to get my kids something they would like and didn’t know where to start. I tried reading more into her actions than they warranted, and that’s always dangerous.
  3. Complaining can feel so good. There’s something about putting a while hat on while talking smack about the person to which you’ve assigned a black hat. But that’s not a place of change—it’s a place of wallowing. At some point, after you’ve spewed all those negative feelings, it’s time to take action and do something positive.
What kinds of successes have you experienced with your in-laws? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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