This is the first in our series inviting writers to anonymously share family struggles. If you would like to submit your story, please contact [email protected]
What do you do when your values clash with those of your son and his wife?
Our son, Jim, and his wife, Cathy, are ultra-conservative Christians, while my husband and I are cafeteria Catholics.
Jim met Cathy at work. He’d never been interested in our Catholic faith, but a few weeks after their first date, Jim started going to Cathy’s church. He didn’t tell us he was going to church with her until after they’d been dating for a couple of months. Their wedding ceremony was performed by a minister Cathy had known since childhood. Clearly, our son was committed to his new wife, his in-laws and his new religion. He never discussed any of this with us. Perhaps he thought we’d feel wounded or disappointed. We took consolation in the fact that he wanted to live a faith-filled life.
After Jim and Cathy had their first baby, my husband and I noticed we were not asked to babysit, and the baby was not brought to our home to visit. Though we had never dropped in on Jim and Cathy unexpectedly, we had been instructed by our son to call before coming over to see the baby. At the time, I thought it was a reasonable, understandable request, but when we found out that Cathy’s parents were doing all the babysitting and allowed to visit anytime with no call-ahead reservation necessary, we felt like outsiders and it hurt!
At first I tried to convince myself that it was because we were the parents of the Dad, and maybe that’s how it goes: The parents of the dad have to wait until the mom (our daughter-in-law) is ready to allow us full access. I told myself I could live with that; it’s always been my goal to be a good mother-in-law. It seemed clear Jim felt closer to Cathy’s parents, but I consoled myself with the old fridge-magnet adage, “Your son is your son until he takes a wife, but your daughter’s your daughter all of her life.”
The first time we were asked to babysit, the baby was four months old. The other grandparents weren’t available. Last choice caregivers or not, we jumped at the chance to prove we could be the greatest of babysitters. When we arrived we were given instructions about sleeping and feedings. We were also given specific instructions about what we could and could not say in front of the baby. No “Oh my God” or any taking of the Lord’s name in vain. No four-letter words. I reminded our son that we don’t use that kind of language, and if we did, a four month old wouldn’t understand us anyway. He said the baby would pick up on our attitude. Really? Okay.
I could see my husband’s face. The vertical vein in the middle of his forehead – the one that’s not noticeable when he’s content – was bright red and throbbing. But we said nothing; we were afraid if we raised a fuss, we’d not be asked to babysit again. So we smiled and assured our son we would follow his instructions.
That’s how it goes most of the time. No screaming, no yelling, just subtle reminders that they have rejected our values and found something else. We fall in line because we don’t want to be any more excluded from their lives than we already are.
I don’t try to lure them into religious debates. But if they say something I don’t agree with, I’ll tell them calmly without anger. One day they were telling me I should live by the bible, word for word. When I said I didn’t agree and thought the bible was a good guide for living one’s life, but not to be taken literally, my daughter-in-law said, “I’ll pray for you to change.” Boiling inside, I didn’t show my anger. Instead, I said that I completely respected their right to believe as they wish and to raise their children as they think best; that I would always respect their wishes regarding their children; that I don’t believe in trying to one-up them with religion and that I can see what may be right for me may not be right for them. A couple of hours after I left their home, Cathy called to apologize.
Recently, Jim said his daughters won’t be allowed to date – ever. He and his wife believe that God will send the right man to marry them. Uh, good luck with that. People need the practice of dating and romantic relationships to make a good decision about whom to marry. When the opportunity arises, I will try to discuss this in a non-confrontational way. I’ll try! Due to the rules my son wants to impose, I’m concerned some of my grandchildren will rebel. How will they handle it? Will they reject them? I just don’t know.
Once in a while I’m encouraged. The other day, Jim said to me, “Mom, it makes me angry to see Christians carrying signs putting down gay people. Don’t they know Jesus would invite gay people to dinner?” Hearing this made me happy and proud. He has a loving, accepting heart buried in his fundamentalist chest.
I will not allow my family to be torn apart by religion. There is too much of that in the world. So I will continue to try to live and let live; to love my children for the virtues I see in them and to hope and pray that they’ll practice acceptance and tolerance too.
I felt rewarded by the Mother’s Day card Jim and Cathy gave me. In it they wrote that I am a helpful gift to their family. I hope they mean it because knowing that I am helpful to them would make my day, my year, and maybe, just maybe I might be a good mother-in-law after all, if not the absolute best.