Ah…the mysterious relationship between a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. While many from a Judeo-Christian point of view would like to turn to the story of Naomi and Ruth as the perfect model of selfless love and acceptance, the modern American reality is more like the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray was stuck between the two women who love him; his wife and his mother. This iconic program used humor to touch on the delicate in-law relationship.
I’ll never forget the first time I met my mother-in-law. I was very intimidated because she is an extremely intelligent woman with a PhD, is organized, quiet in nature, and has probably read every etiquette book available. When we met I was immature, disorganized, a dreamer, outspoken, and totally in love with her son. Nathan and I had only met a couple of months before he asked me to meet his family. His poor mother was not used to her son moving fast about anything especially when it came to making life-long decisions.
So on Thanksgiving of 2005, Nathan and I left Virginia to make the journey to see his family in New York. I was nervous but loved meeting new people so of course I thought this would be a piece of cake and we’d all live happily ever after. When we walked into the Michalak home I realized immediately that Nathan’s family was the complete opposite of mine. The house was eerily quiet with no electronics in the background to fill the room with noise. I started to panic as I realized that they wanted to just sit down and talk—for hours. In between topics there would be complete silence, something I was not used too. My family is noisy and we yell over TV’s and even each other.
Soon, Nathan’s Mother asked me to go alone with her for breakfast at Perkins restaurant where we ordered potato pancakes. As we sat there eating, the silence was killing me. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to just fill empty air space with conversation. So, out of the blue I said, “I want us to have a relationship like Ruth and Naomi…” She looked at me and said nothing. I sat back in my chair and tried to change the subject. Today, as a mother I realize that I had freaked her out. Mainly, because I had just started dating her son and she didn't know anything about me.
Nathan and I were engaged on New Year’s and the wedding plans began. Unfortunately this brought out the worst in our family dynamics. Wedding invitations were ordered and re-ordered because of wording, there were location disagreements, and our families were being hurt as fighting and emotional insecurities kept popping up. I even thought about canceling the wedding and told Nathan that I didn’t know if I could even be a part of his family because we were so different. Nathan stood up for me on multiple accounts but I can now see how utterly immature I was behaving.
The back-drop for my mother-in-law was that her husband had just been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. Therefore, as I was making all of this about me—I can now see that when Nathan’s mother may have seemed unreasonable it was because not only was she losing her first born to marriage, but her husband was dying right in front of her eyes every minute. Nevertheless, on October 7, 2006 Nathan and I were married--but not without trials.
There was a major storm that wrecked our wedding venue and it began to look like there wouldn't even be a wedding. Then, all of our family and friends came together to plan a whole new wedding in just four hours. We were married in a location I had never seen until I actually walked down the aisle. Instead of our plantation wedding by the river-- we were married in an old furniture store that now held an art gallery. It was a wedding miracle and Nathan and I couldn't have been more filled with joy that day. It ended up being the best celebration we could have imagined given the circumstances, leaving us with the message that love really can overcome all obstacles.
Unfortunately, this model of “catastrophe-before-connecting” became a pattern in our first years of marriage in regards to the in-law relationship. Time and time again, Nathan’s mother and I would hurt each other and would have misunderstandings forcing us to discuss the uncomfortable friction in our relationship. Often Nathan’s mother would feel we were insensitive to the disease she was caring for each day. While we felt she was expecting too much of a newly married couple. However, in the midst of this mess, our relationship began to grow. With each coming conflict—we didn't allow division, but would face it and accept each other through the trial. Then four years into our marriage Nathan and I became parents ourselves.
While being pregnant with our first, something began to change—in me. I realized that Nathan’s mother did not have a daughter so she would never be able to sit in the labor and delivery room while watching her grandchild be born. As it came time for my delivery I asked her to stay in the room so that she could watch the birth of her first granddaughter. And it was not pretty, I pushed for two hours, so needless to say—she saw everything that most women would never want their mother-in-laws or anyone else for that matter, to see. Eventually, as a Mom and working a career as a TV Producer, I completely became a different person. As Nathan’s mother now says, “you are more Michalak than the Michalak’s.” I became type A, organized, and slower to speak. In this time-frame Nathan’s mother became more outspoken, a little less organized, and we grew to love one another like… Ruth and Naomi.
Today, my in-laws don’t live next door to me like Everybody Loves Raymond, however, they did move to the neighborhood next to mine. Together, we work as a unit caring for my father-in-law and our two daughters. We are going on a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s as it attacks one of the kindest, loving, and most positive people I have ever met in my life. My Mother-in-law is now one of my best friends, role models, and confidantes. We are not perfect and can still have our struggles like any other family, however, we are more apt to speak up and be honest with our needs.
When I think back to that moment in a Perkins restaurant 10 years earlier--I realize that an immature future daughter-in-law did speak a heart-felt goal for a mother and daughter-in-law relationship. However, I never knew the sacrifices it would take to have a Ruth/Naomi style bond. Both of us have had to die to ourselves, grow spiritually, and become more connected. I can see now that through all of our pain and misunderstandings God has birthed a selfless love and a friendship that will last a lifetime.