Mother-in-law in training: What variety will you be?

Mother-in-law in training: The transition from mother of the bride to mother-in-law comes with an ongoing choice: become a clueless but loving Aunt Clara or a critical and controlling Endora.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Mother-in-law to President Obama has been deeply involved with the first family. Here, she attends the 57th Presidential Inauguration services at St. John's Church in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.

My daughter, I'll call her Samantha, is getting married very soon. She is a professional violist and she is marrying a professional opera singer. I'll call him Darrin. 

They're artists, and as such, they are in perpetual search of the next gig. For them, these are both exhilarating and challenging times. They make careful decisions about how to spend money but they are also in love. When car repairs ate up their savings last year and Samantha suggested they forego a Christmas tree, Darrin agreed, then surprised her with one anyway.

Recently, Samantha mentioned to me that Darrin thought they should be frugal over the holidays and spend Thanksgiving – her favorite family holiday – in Cleveland, where they live. 

"It's tough to get away," she said to me.

"But it's your favorite holiday," I said. "I'll help."

Mothers of a bride can do that.

But I am to be a mother-in-law soon. When a wedding is as close as theirs is, mothers of the bride are in training to be mothers-in-law. If you are the mother of a bride and don't think so, I can tell you, the bride and groom think so.

"No," she said, "we have to do things like this on our own."

I can go a few ways with this.

I can be Aunt Clara: clueless, clumsy at times, but a kind and loving presence; always happy to spend any time I can with Samantha and Darrin because they are also kind and loving.

Or, I can be Endora: manipulative, divisive, critical, judgmental, controlling; blowing in to sit atop the bookcase in my elegant pajamas and point out what she's giving up, even as she is trying to tell me what he has given up for her on many occasions.

I could be Endora, and overlook that Samantha is considering Darrin's needs along with her own now, the way healthy witches do when they don't wish to abuse their power. 

I could be Endora, and lay on the guilt and pressure from up there on top of the bookcase, telling Samantha what she already knows: "You live in Cleveland all year round. You miss New Hampshire. You need to come home to feel connected. Give up another trip home, not this one."

And, I did say that, while she was home. And, I'm sure she went back and reported it to Darrin, who probably rolled his eyes to think of the discussions we would have like it in the future.

But, time has a way of making you hear your words again, and again, as someone else might have heard them, while you were abusing your power.

And so, I did two things. First, I channeled my inner Aunt Clara who helped me look at things anew:

As Darrin's future mother-in-law, I have his wishes to honor now as well as Samantha's. Even if from afar, Darrin will be a presence in our family as Samantha is in his, and as such, his needs must be considered with everyone else's.  Those of us on top of the bookcase are not "helping" when we put our own affection for past traditions before a couple's attempt to establish future traditions that blend both their needs.

And then, I had a discussion with Samantha in which I urged her to try and forget what I'd said, and promised not to ask her to defend this or any other decision she makes with Darrin in the future.

Mothers-in-law come with power and I can do a few things with mine: I can be Aunt Clara and use it in a kind and loving and supportive way that will get me invited back. Or I can be Endora and abuse it so that poor Darrin is always checking the top of the bookcase on his way in the door.

I'm training to be the right mother-in-law. Because, I just don't want to be Endora.

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