My mother in law doesn’t like me. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. There’s a story behind it, as there is behind every contentious relationship, and the story has two sides, as they all do, and I believe mine is right, as every person does.
The particulars don’t make a bit of difference, so I won’t go into them. Imagine the worst kind of misunderstanding occurring between two people with vastly different perspectives and attitudes about life. Now multiply that by divorce, strong wills, the minefield of a blended family, independent attitude, a dash of Irish temper, and a silenced, divisive family history working like a burr under the saddle, and the result will be unpleasant with a factor of ten.
There was no way I was going to come out of that encounter with the loving, close, mutually respectful relationship I had longed for. I barely made it out with both of my eyeballs intact.
But I have made it out. My new residence 2,000 miles from the MIL epicenter has given me a break from the persistent blows. Relieved from the looming specter of family gatherings, I can look at the relationship in ways I wasn’t able to when I was regularly girding my loins and buttressing my defenses for another encounter.
I agonized about this relationship since the first day Tim and I got together as adults. It’s been the centerpiece of some major explosions in our household, has caused dangerous fissures, and has been the source of hours of discussions with therapists.
And what I find as I examine the pieces of this painful puzzle is that no matter how hard I tried to be the perfect Wife/Mother/Stepmother/Daughter-In-Law, I’d never quite make the grade. I tried to be the peacemaker, the bridge-builder, one who got things done so everybody could get along. I worked so damned hard at taking care of everybody’s needs, I hoped at least that would gain me some favor. If I was the “bright penny”, my in-laws would judge me favorably, and deem me worthy.
But I had it all wrong. All those years, I had everything wrong.
I mean, my husband and my kids are My People, and I’m happy to have had a hand in putting this assortment together. I’m deeply proud of the work I did raising these young people, and of the marriage Tim and I have forged through some pretty intense fires. The five of us are a funny, intelligent, loving, loyal group of people, and there’s nobody I’d rather be around. I know that was due in large part to the work I did.
But to have my emotions running like a hamster in a wheel, constantly seeking something so ridiculously out of reach, well, that was a waste of time. No matter what I do, there are going to be people who don’t like me, who don’t approve of me, who judge me poorly.
Sometimes, those people will be related to me.
Sometimes, they’ll also be people *I* don’t much like myself.
I lived for many years with the belief that people who didn’t like me was proof that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I were a good enough person, that everyone who met me would see that and immediately think I was wonderful. That my MIL saw something on our first meeting other than perfection was a source of great bewilderment; that her perception of me over time became worse and not better was a knife in the back. How could I be doing everything “right” and STILL not be universally loved? HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN?
I’ve kept this largely a secret because I’ve been ashamed. I mean, obviously, if there are people who don’t like me, there must be SOMETHING wrong with me! That can never get out.
But then I started meeting other women whose MIL stories were just as bad and hurtful as my own. Instead of loving, close, mentoring relationships with women who shared mutual respect, I heard of pettiness, greed, ignorance, intolerance, classism, racism, and just downright meanness. Some of the women who were among the “hated”‘ were my best friends; kind and devoted and loving and hardworking…and their MIL hated them TOO.
By God, it was as if the heavens opened and the sun shone through.
And so it is with this new knowledge and a confidence in my own perception that I can pass along this wisdom: there WILL be people who don’t like you. There will be people you don’t get along with. To strive to change their minds about you is a colossal waste of your time and energy, resources you could and should be using to delve into meaningful activities for yourself and the people who matter.
And that time and energy, I’m realizing in my dawning middle years, is not infinite. We only get so many ticks on the clock, so many sunrises. Too few, in fact, to spend, just as we do currency, on the sucking vortex of personal discord. The opinion they hold about you means less than a gust of wind to a tree. It may shake things up for a bit, but it doesn’t change the tree.
Thanks to the emotional and physical distance of the last few years, the stabbing pain I once felt at being thus “rejected” has faded to a distant ache, felt only when that remembered wound is pressed. The distance has allowed for an understanding of their limitations and my own. Everyone has shit they’re dealing with, even in-laws. And I am incapable of contorting myself into some incalculable shape acceptable to them.
Even if I could, the odds are very good that my new dimensions would be something I’m not happy with, and *I* have to live with myself.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The converse is also true: you can’t *like* all of the people all of the time. Expecting such perfection in my relationships has cost me dearly. Removing the filter of expectations is profoundly freeing. One of the healthiest things I’ve done is to stop engaging in the losing battle of failed expectations. I don’t want to play that game anymore.
The best we can do is to be kind, to be respectful, and to take care of ourselves as doggedly as we take care of the people we love.