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The Un-Monster-in-Law

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A mother-in-law helps a new mom accept the loss of her own mother.

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Maureen Dempsey: I lost my mother when I was 23 years old to leukemia. She was diagnosed in September; by May, she had passed. That was 10 years ago. I don't think I understood then just what had been taken from me at the time. Sure, no one to send me care packages, no one to call when I needed to know how long to microwave the baked potatoes ... but I was, after all, 23. These were things that I could live without or find from another source. In addition to my very loving, very dedicated father, I also have five older siblings. There was plenty of advice to go around.

mother and daughter

Our mother-daughter relationship ended as just that: parent and child. We never established a friendship. We didn't get the chance. There were so many things I never knew about her. Questions that you only think to ask your mother when you are going through a life-changing event or hitting a milestone of your own -- falling in love, landing your first big job, getting married, giving birth.

It wasn't until I hit these major milestones that I began to notice something missing. I single-handedly planned my wedding. And while my father courteously paid for the entire event, I couldn't help but skimp on everything. How could I explain to him that flowers really can cost more than $6.99 a bunch? If only my mom were here, I'd think, there'd be no explaining. Splurge on the table linens? Sure! In the end, I was proud of myself for putting a New York City wedding together all by myself (for $6,000!), but I also felt a little sad.

I was not without helping hands. My boyfriend's mother, Marsha, was ready, willing, and able. Anything I needed, she was there. I just couldn't accept the help. When I complained about her to my soon-to-be husband, the worst insult I could come up with was, "She's too nice." Terrible flaw, isn't it?

This immature behavior of mine continued, and worsened, as we broke the big news six months after the wedding: I was pregnant. Oh, a grandmother's joy. I immediately felt overwhelmed (and territorial) by her good-natured attempts. This is my news, I thought. My joy. My moment. I wasn't accustomed to having someone care so much. After 10 motherless years, I had developed an iron-clad self-reliance, which probably wasn't too healthy.

With a newborn on the way, I knew the question was fast approaching: "When can we visit?" They were coming from South Carolina, so it would be easy to dodge the "Can we be there for the delivery?" -- but they knew the due date; they could plan a very early visit.

Again, I felt territorial. Why won't they back off? Being a first-time mother, without a mother, stressed me out. I thought everyone would judge me, and I didn't want my mother-in-law there. I didn't need witnesses to my ineptitude.

Embracing her was out of the question. I could not do it. At first, I deemed her overbearing and meddlesome. I needed to place a five-foot bubble around myself for metaphorical space. She and my father-in-law always stayed in our tiny New York apartment when they visited. (Hadn't they heard of hotels?) I didn't want help. I didn't want her affection. I wanted her back in South Carolina.

They arrived. Marsha took that little six-week-old baby in her arms, rocked her, soothed her, even got a giggle out of her. She was a baby whisperer. Although I'd never admit it, I was taking mental notes. New ways to hold her, burp her, quiet her down.

With the birth of my daughter came the clarity to see why I rebuffed her: I did not want my mother-in-law to replace my mother. That hole in my heart was purposefully empty, a placeholder for the mother I couldn't have. My immature behavior was stuck back in my 23-year-old mind, the one that lost her parent far too young.

I've learned to accept Marsha and all of her good will. I never want my daughter to see my unwarranted distaste for this very warm-hearted person, and I especially don't want her to treat her grandmother this way. I learned how to develop a new bond with someone who wants to share -- not take.

It took gaining a daughter to find a mother -- not the one I was originally given, but a supportive, giving parental figure nonetheless.

I can't have my mother back. But I can be a good mom to my daughter and show her how to love in the face of loss.


3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous July 16, 2009, 8:27 AM

I too have an amazing mother-in-law. I too lost my mother, but at 7, not 23, and not by her passing—by her own choice. She had decided to be a mother, but then, suddenly, she decided she didn’t want to be one anymore. For 16 years I passed off maternal affection from anyone with glib, snide remarks and purposeful push-offs. When I met MIL, I tried to keep up that facade. But she was so persistent in her kindness and love that I finally allowed myself to trust her. It still leaves me amazed.

K&C's mom July 17, 2009, 12:25 AM

What an inspiring story!!! Thank you for sharing!!

Sandy July 17, 2009, 12:29 AM

Wow, I really liked this. Insight into something I’d never given a moment’s thought to. I will tuck it away for my future daughters-in-law.

(I hope you’ve told Marsha all of this!)


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