Since I’m married to her son, my kids are her grandkids. That hurts me, you know? It hurts me because I went through a lot of pain to have them and now someone else can call them their kids too. I mean I’m hardly okay with my husband calling them kids, let alone MIL calling them her grandkids. Why couldn’t the world coin a better term for this relationship? Like “grand descendants” or “related by son” or “partners in dynasty” or “carriers of legacy”? Why couldn’t there be another word for my kids in relation to their grandmother? But whatever I may be capable of, changing the relational nomenclature isn’t one of my strong suits.
So suffice would it be to say that I enjoy a cordial relationship with my MIL which is arguably somewhat tense also at times. And with time I’ve determined that the reason for some of our tension is definitely her disagreement with the way I’m raising my kids.
For example, she doesn’t agree with indulging kids. According to her this leads to bad habits and kids blackmailing their parents. Her mantra in life has been to find out what someone absolutely loves and then hold it away from them, dangling on a string, a way to have them comply with whatever it is that she wants them to do. She doesn’t like to be nice to people unnecessarily or even necessarily. In her opinion, people take advantage of nice people and therefore we should only practice niceness with truly nice people. Can’t say I disagree with her completely but if I chose to be abruptly honest with all my friends then I wouldn’t have any friends, much like her. So usually when my friends are being mean I smile and bite my tongue and wait for the moment when they’re in deep trouble and I can return the favor of biting them with my words. In the same vein she doesn’t want me to indulge my kids unnecessarily. According to her, some boundaries need to be set. Now I’m all for boundaries but with my kids I think all boundaries were blurred a long time ago when they occupied a place inside of me in my uterus and then came out of my most private parts. How can I have boundaries with them? That’s just crazy talk, in my opinion.
She also doesn’t like kids eating at all hours of the day. I know what you’re thinking. Was she a jailer in another life or a hostel warden or even may be, a flight attendant that she would only give out food at designated times? But she was none of those. She is just one of those people who can’t imagine a child enjoying their life. She thinks that children should have a schedule and a time table and they should stick to it as much as they can. Now, I’m a very cool parent so I don’t enforce these useless rules. I keep my pantry stocked with all sorts of treats that my kids can access anytime they want to. I will agree with her that this interferes with their mealtimes directly and they usually don’t eat regular meals but aren’t they getting enough calories? That’s what it’s all about. And thank you to my fabulous genes, they’ve always been on the 95th percentile of everything. Plus, why do the stores have delicious treats if kids aren’t to avail themselves of them? The whole argument that she makes of processed food, nonorganically raised food and sugary food is obsolete as per all the women magazines I’ve read recently. I think she’d find a mind like hers in my pediatrician but I don’t listen to that woman either. I have to see her every year for the flu shot so that’s the long and short of that relationship.
MIL also thinks that kids shouldn’t be lied to. Now that’s just plain hard and impossible for me. Because I have to lie to them all the time. Like when they asked who ate their candy I had to say it was their grandmother. I couldn’t say it was me. They’d hate me. (They didn’t hate their grandmother after my lie either but that just shows she has a spell on those kids). Or the time when they asked me if I had been watching TV when I had sent them to bed. I couldn’t say I was because then they’d be heartbroken and feel I’m not a fair parent. Why should bedtime be one time for them and another for me? Now if you asked MIL she’d say that it’s perfectly fine to tell kids that adults can delay bedtime as long as they want because they’re unwinding and that kids have to sleep in order to wake up for school. But I don’t operate like that. I’d much rather lie and say that I was forced to watch a show by a monster who would’ve taken me away if I hadn’t done as he asked.
So because our parenting techniques differ a little, MIL and I have been at many a tiff regarding my kids and have usually come off with a huffy air.
My kids are really smart though, bless their little hearts. They are constantly keeping me updated of their time at their Grandma’s and how much they like it there even though they aren’t allowed to run the show. It fazes me a little because if I did that to them and told them that TV time was over, they’d shriek like elves and cry at the top of their lungs. We live in a small community and my neighbors have already complained about how loud we are after it’s general bedtime that I usually give in when they do this. I have wanted greatly to ask her how she keeps the kids on a leash when they’re at her place but that would just prove that I’m asking for help and motherhood doesn’t need help. It’s supposed to come naturally. What type of mother would I be if I couldn’t mother my own kids?
But because my husband makes out of town trips every now and then, I have needed MIL to coparent with me. We usually butt heads the first day, acquiesce by the second day and become quite symphonic by the third. So generally it has been good.
This time around however was fall and my kids had been asking me to go to the pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins and just experience fall in all its glory. I was reluctant because fall hasn’t been my favorite time of the year ever. It is chilly and dry and I have to moisturize my hands a million times during the day. Not just that, fall asks that I clean the front of my home at least twice everyday because of the millions of leaves and dried up flowers that end up there.
But because my kids can’t hear no (they’re really determined little monkeys and are so adorable when they argue) I had to ask my MIL, while my husband was away, if she’d accompany me to the patch.
She immediately agreed which is what I love about her. But honestly, what does she have to do with her life anyway? I mean it’s not like she has a great social or professional life. If she wasn’t invited by me she’d be spending the weekend curled up in her recliner, drinking coffee and watching her favorite shows, and may be chatting with a girlfriend or two over the phone.
MIL came over when I was having an embarrassing moment. My youngest was screaming and wanted to go out naked. I mean not literally naked but wearing a tank top and shorts in October is practically nakedness to people like me. He tried to lunge at me but I dodged him. Years of mothering my kids has made me kinda like an NBA player. I had a sweatshirt in my hands that I was forcibly trying to pull over him. I then heard a loud and commanding,
“What’s going on over here?”
I turned around and saw MIL in the doorway, looking at my child like she’d eat him. My child who was moving enough just a while ago to shame the best of critters now looked meek and scared. My oldest had come running out of his room, half-dressed and excited-looking at the prospect of his brother getting an earful.
“Why are you not wearing your clothes? Do you not want to go?” She asked him again, imperiously.
“I don’t want to wear a sweatshirt. I’ll just wear my shirt and shorts”.
“But it’s cold outside”. She argued with him.
“I don’t care”. He said mutinously.
“Okay”, MIL started going downstairs, “Then we will just have to stay indoors today”.
“Noooo!” He shrieked like his life depended on it and ran down the stairs to argue with her some more.
“Grandma! That’s not fair. I will wear what I want to wear. You can’t force me”.
“Sweet child! Just like I can’t force you to wear clothing that’s appropriate for this weather, you can’t force me to leave the house either. I’m giving you about ten minutes to see what you’d rather do, listen to your elders or stay home today?”
I could see my oh-so-cute baby boy making some quick calculations in his head. Then he finally ran upstairs, pulled the sweatshirt over his head and came down, chanting,
“I’m ready! I’m ready! Let’s go, go, go”.
MIL laughed and embraced him.
“You look handsome”, she said.
Oh God! Why didn’t I remember to say that? Now she had him all starry-eyed at her.
We finally got out and MIL asked me abruptly,
“What’s that big bag for, dear?”
“Oh! Just some treats for today”. I said casually.
“Why do you need treats, dear? They just had a full breakfast and we’ll be back by lunch. The pumpkin patch is so much fun on it’s own. Why do we need to entice the kids for a favored activity by giving them treats?”
I could sense an argument coming on. She wasn’t going to let this one go. Therefore I quickly lied,
“Okay. I agree with you. I’ll just throw it in the back of the car and they won’t know it’s there. It would be too much going back in and putting it back.”
We finally got into the car and the kids told their Grandma all about their school and games. I was surprised to hear that she knew all about their practice and horseback riding and what not. I was secretly happy to see her so involved.
We got off at the patch and my kids ran in two different directions. They started grabbing at pumpkins and comparing sizes. MIL joined them and sorted out the small from the large, bright orange from light orange and started to comment on how they could scoop out the insides and make nice lanterns out of them.
I felt a little left out. I had never been good at crafting and making things from scratch. My kids always had a great time when doing crafts with their Grandma. I had a little sadness about it but I didn’t realize that I was so sour about it until that day.
As the kids and MIL sat there, happily in the autumn sun, chatting about the sixty ways fall decor could be made at home from recycled products, I made for a forlorn picture of a mother.
MIL called out,
“Come over, dear! Why are you not sitting with us?”
I joined them and thought of smart and interesting things to say but couldn’t think of any.
Soon my kids got hungry.
“Mom! I’m hungry”. My youngest wailed.
“Honey! We will go home for lunch soon”. MIL said.
“Oh I’ve got that big bag of treats in the car. We can get that”. I said brightly, finally sensing something that was up my alley.
My youngest’s eyes started to shine at the mention of candy.
“Really, Mom? Have you brought candy for us?”
Elated at this sudden interest in me, I scooped him up in my arms.
“Yes, honey! There’s loads of candy in the car and other snacks”.
I could sense MIL’s reproaching eyes on me but deliberately avoided them.
“Dear”, she finally said, ” Do you think it would be a good idea to give them snacks so close to lunch time?”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving them something to hold them over until lunch”.
“But dear! Sugar is a known appetite killer”.
“It’s also an excellent mood lifter”.
“Well,” MIL didn’t concede, “they’re in excellent spirits as far as I can see”.
“Dear MIL”, I said, exasperated that she would argue like this, “can I not offer my kids some snacks without a whole hearing and judgement about it?”
She pursed her lips and didn’t say anything anymore.
I handed out candy and cookies to my kids. I offered some to MIL but she politely declined.
Soon after, we decided to leave. I noticed that she was quiet. I knew that she was looking for something to criticize me again but I really couldn’t care any less. Her constant judgement of my ways had made me bitter towards her in such moments.
We reached home and MIL warmed up lunch while the kids and I showered and changed. When we came downstairs the kids announced that they weren’t hungry.
“Are you guys sure? You love pot roast”.
“No Mom!” My oldest said. “We had so much candy. It’s hard to fit everything into this belly in such short amount of time”. He stroked his belly funnily and burped loudly and rudely.
My youngest and I rolled on the floor laughing. My oldest, heartened by how entertaining his burping was, continued to burp and then started to make rude sounds of flatulence with his mouth.
This caused us to laugh even more. This was so funny that I didn’t even notice MIL’s steely glare and stern look in her face.
She finally said,
“If no one wants to eat then I’ll put everything back in the fridge?”
I casually said,
“Yeah! I’m not hungry either. You can put it all back in”.
Soon we were all in bed for a nice siesta.
When I woke up the sun had gone down and my kids had been up for quite some time. I asked them if they were hungry. They said they had eaten some more snacks.
Relieved that they had already taken care of their dinner I decided to watch a movie and have a snack myself.
As I was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for myself, my kids came over.
“I want one too”, my youngest said.
“One for me too”, my oldest demanded.
I sighed resignedly. They’re very spirited and I usually don’t argue with them but if truth be told, I did want to point out to them that they hadn’t had any lunch or dinner so far during the day and that I would like them to eat a proper meal right now.
Just as I was ruminating over their unhealthy eating habits, MIL materialized next to me.
“Listen, dears,” she started politely and reasonably, ” May be we should have the pot roast that your mom worked so hard to prepare for you”.
“I don’t want that”, both my kids said simultaneously.
“Why not?” She asked them, smiling but I could sense that she wasn’t happy.
“It’s yuck”, my youngest made a horrid face and my heart dropped in my stomach. I never expected him to insult my cooking like that and especially in company.
“It’s not yuck”, I protested. “It’s delicious. It’s exactly how you like it. It’s so tender and juicy”.
“We don’t like it, Mom”, my oldest said in a way that was patronizing and infuriating, “It really isn’t that amazing. Why don’t you have the pot roast and we will have PB&J?”
Before I could argue any further, MIL whisked the jar of peanut butter and put it back in the pantry.
“If you are not having the pot roast”, she said sweetly, “then I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep on an empty stomach”.
“Says who?”, my youngest yelled rebelliously.
“Says I”, MIL matched his tone, “I say that you can’t have anything to eat if you’re not eating the pot roast”.
My kids grumbled and argued some more. I didn’t say anything further. The fact that they had remarked on my cooking unfavorably while MIL was here too was stinging at me. I was close to tears.
After arguing for what seemed to be twenty minutes or more, they both sat down and finished the pot roast.
“There, that’s a nice boy”, MIL said as my youngest asked for a third helping, ” Isn’t this delicious?”
He nodded and smiled at me but I didn’t feel any joy. I told them I was going to sleep and with heavy feet I went up the stairs to hide in my room.
I slept fitfully. I dreamt of MIL taking full custody of the boys because I’m such a bad cook. I dreamt of my husband mixing peanut butter in the pot roast to make it taste better. I dreamt of the boys becoming giant PB&J sandwiches and dancing in a pumpkin patch. When I woke up, I was drenched in sweat.
I went downstairs to find MIL sitting in the recliner, reading the newspaper and having tea and toast. She smiled at me and then peered at me from above her glasses,
“You didn’t sleep well, did you?”
“Let me make tea for you then”.
She brought over my tea and some warmed up croissants. I asked her if the boys gave her any trouble after I went to bed.
“No, dear, why would they give me any trouble? They’re very nice boys”.
I looked at her face intently to detect any signs of smirking or laughing at my expense but all I saw was an honest woman. MIL is honest, and sometimes brutally honest so I’m always careful about how honest I want her to be. But today I felt that I needed her opinion so I said,
“They’re very nice boys but….. I don’t know…… sometimes they’re so pesky”.
“Kids are sometimes pesky, child, what can you do about it!”
“No,” I ventured further, “They’re one way with me and another with you and their dad. They don’t listen to me. I feel like they don’t listen to me because they’re not afraid of me. Last night they really were being annoying and I had to remove myself from here before I yelled at them”.
MIL is very wise so she’s usually a listener and an observer. She let me finish.
“You know, I don’t lay down a lot of rules like my friends do for their kids because I don’t want them to be miserable. I let them stay up as long as they want and I let them have snacks as many times as they want. I get them everything they set their heart to. I am always laughing at their dumb jokes because I don’t want them to feel stupid. I try to make light of their mistakes because if I didn’t they’d be so consciously fearful of ever trying again. Does that make me a bad parent? I feel like it does. They take a lot of license with me. They share things with me that I was afraid to share with my mom. I try to be a good parent but then they act out all the time. They don’t know how to rein it in when I ask them to. If they want something, they want it and I usually give in because they’re so forceful and because I don’t want them to hate me”. I finish with giant tears in my eyes.
“Dear”, MIL said, “I had no idea you were so introspective”.
Have I said too much, I wondered. Darn! Trust my feelings to get ahead of me and expose my weakness to the enemy.
“Well, before you run with your feelings of being a bad parent, let me tell you that you’re not a bad parent. You’re in fact an excellent parent”.
I look at her suspiciously. Is she making fun of me? But she looks serious and thoughtful.
“You’re a great parent to not repeat the mistakes that your mother made with you. I wish I had befriended my kids. It’s a truly personable quality of a parent when they transcend age difference and generation gap and become one with their kids. This is a marvelous thing about your parenting. Never change that”.
I’m hanging on to every word.
“But, dear, just like your kids need a friend in you, they also need a parent in you. Don’t be afraid of them hating you. That’s natural and normal. All kids hate their parents at one point or another. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything. It just happens because kids live through the defense mechanism of splitting and when you agree with them you’re awesome and when you don’t, you’re a monster. They live in absolutes. That’s part of being a kid. They’re still developing their abstract thinking and critical reasoning . They can’t understand why you can’t allow them to go to a doctor’s appointment or a soccer game or a shopping trip with friends unchaperoned. If you explained your reasons they will likely not get them. That’s where you have to be a parent and practice that authority. And you don’t owe them an explanation if you’re protecting them from a hazardous situation.”
“So it’s okay if they don’t like me?” I asked timidly.
“Sometimes it’s okay if they don’t like you or even hate you. A parent however should be worried if their kid hates them all the time. That’s truly cause for concern”.
I was starting to feel warm in the October sun. She was making me feel validated and heard.
“Dear”, MIL continued, ” Raising kids is a huge deal. And not everything can be answered by an online column or a help page. Some of it is truly winging it. Don’t beat yourself up. No one knows all the answers. What I can tell you from my experience of mothering for forty years is that kids thrive when boundaries are placed. Kids like it when there are rules so you relax them for their sake sometimes and make them feel accommodated. Kids like a structure where they have designated times for learning, playing and just being kids. We have to make a tower that has some loose structure. I’m not saying you should be so strict that you stop being their friend. What I’m saying is that you’re their parent and there is a chance that as time goes on you’ll need to parent a lot more than being their friend. As they grow older and go out and live independently, there are more chances of them getting into trouble. You’ll have to tell them of what is out there. For that, they have to listen to you like they would a figure of authority and experience. Don’t give up your role in their life”.
That’s the thing with MIL. She has lived for so long that she has lived practically most of everything.
We both finish our tea quietly. My boys come rushing down.
My youngest, who is also the more rambunctious of the two, puts his arms around my neck,
“Mom! We were so mean to you last night. We made a little card to cheer you up”.
My oldest kisses me and hands me the card.
It has a picture of two boys sitting on a table with their family eating what looks like pot roast. There are speech bubbles above them that say “yum” and “tasty”.
I laughed and told them to wash their faces so we can have breakfast and then go to their soccer practice.
We had a great day. I really made the most of MIL’s wisdom on parenting. I was so glad I had her to make me feel better and even give a great pointer or two.
As I retired to my bed I propped the card that the boys gave me in the morning on my nightstand. Something made me pick it back up.
There were the boys’ pictures of me, their dad and their own selves at the table, eating. But there was someone else in the picture too. A tall, old, slightly large woman, sitting in the far end of the dining room by the window, with a cup of tea in her right hand, a newspaper in her left, looking at us smiling, her eyes blue and black like the waves in an ocean, her expression one of love and pride. She filled an entire corner of our dining room. I hadn’t noticed her this morning but now that I did, nothing else stood out in the picture like she did.