Want to know something that is totally joyous and kvell-worthy? It’s when your child gets married. But if they get married, you aren’t just a parent anymore, now you are an in-law.
We have all heard the Jewish stereotypes of in-laws who obnoxiously dump their unwanted opinions, major complaints and continual nagging on the young married couple. They can often be heard saying things like “if you would just listen to me… why don’t you… in my day, we did it this way… did you ever think about… how come and what about me?” Those words could be the quickest way to ruin a relationship with your married child and their new spouse.
So it’s important for parents to check any supersized egos and judgmental behavior at the door before anyone heads down the aisle toward the chuppah. As parents and in-laws, we have to understand that the young couple have to find their own way, without our interference, no matter how much we want to inject our thoughts into their lives.
Being a new mother-in-law, I am especially sensitive to how I act and react when speaking with my son and daughter-in-law. I remember all too well what it was like to be a new bride and have to side-step negative and hurtful comments from my own parents toward my husband and a few clunkers thrown at me from my in-laws. Why don’t you make coffee for your husband? What do you do all day at home? I would like to think that those comments and others like them that we heard so long ago were not supposed to sound mean spirited. Honestly, however, critical and cutting remarks are usually better off left unsaid.
But as a mother, I admit, this rite of passage for my son, while very exciting, is still a bit of a jolt for me. I can’t help but wonder the inevitable: Have I lost my place of prominence in my son’s life? Will he ever ask for my opinion again? Where do I stand in his eyes? Will my daughter-in-law think that she landed the best mother-in-law on the planet or does she hope she can avoid me whenever possible? If our goal as parents is to raise smart, independent children, then we should not be surprised when they want to make their own independent decisions. As a new family unit, their loyalties should be to each other.
So we are approaching our new family dynamic with a lot less talking, more listening and more open-mindedness. Here are some of our leading off-limit phrases, topics and actions that we have adopted as new Jewish in-laws.
Food. There will be no cooking and baking critiques. Those are completely off the table. I don’t care if the challah gets too brown around the edges, is chewy or didn’t rise at all. The same goes for the brisket, the green beans and any other food. My own cooking and baking skills, while not bad, aren’t perfect either. I have plenty of cooking horror stories about entrees that wound up in the sink’s disposal before they ever hit the plate.
Jewish holidays. We know we can’t always be together for holidays like Passover and Hanukkah. During COVID, we all made those special holidays work by sitting in our own homes and celebrating on video chats. While not ideal, if that is what needs to happen because of time or travel constraints, so be it. We won’t be infusing guilt into our conversations if you are unable to be with us in person.
Jewish guilt. Speaking of guilt, we won’t be guilting you into doing things or going places you don’t have time for, aren’t interested in or can‘t afford. I’d like to think that when we are together, we can compromise on activities that we can all enjoy and afford. That helps to avoid disappointment and unrealized expectations.
Visiting. Since we live in two different cities, we have to travel to visit. Just to be sure, our visit won’t be about trying to rearrange your cabinets, dusting furniture or cleaning and scrubbing every surface in your home. Fragile egos aside, our goal is to be helpful and kind, not heathens that make you wish we’d stayed home.
Repairs. Sorry, but we won’t be packing toolboxes in our luggage. We would love to help fix broken things, but not unless we are asked. Nothing deflates an ego faster than making assumptions about anyone’s fix-it skills, or timeliness of getting things repaired.
Gifts. When it comes to gift-giving holidays (and what Jewish mother doesn’t love giving gifts), we say no to sending random ones. Nothing says “regift immediately,” donate to charity or throw in the back of a closet more than tchotchkes that you didn’t ask for, don’t need or want. We would rather give money, gift cards or simply ask to ensure you get what you really want or need.
Babies. Babies are a very touchy subject for in-laws to get into and one that we consider completely off limits. Babies are amazing and we would love to be grandparents someday; it would be a major joy. But you won’t find us pushing, pressuring or repeatedly asking about your fertility. Babies represent a big change and responsibility so when and/or if you have any babies is up to you. We don’t want any discussions to dissolve into defensive or anxiety-ridden arguments.
We want to be the best in-laws we can be and trash all those stereotypes from the past. There is no manual on how to do it or how to do it well. We have to base how we act and what we say on instinct, common sense and our own experiences. We are going to fumble and possibly say or do things that may be insensitive, probing or none of our business. So, if we overstep, don’t get mad. Give us some slack and let us apologize if necessary so we can get on with being the kind of close family we all want.
Laurie Einstein Koszuta is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife Magazine.