When I got engaged to Jim, I planned on marrying into a normal family. I envisioned a wonderful set of in-laws: a mom who baked turkeys, a dad who could fix leaky toilets, and sisters who would share clothes with me. Then I actually met the family and reality kicked in: They didn't like me.
For one thing, I was divorced. Nobody in my fiancé's family had ever been divorced. They had a problem with "little Jimmy" marrying a wanton woman.
And I was divorced with a child. Before my future mother-in-law even met my son, she let me know – via e-mail and postcard – that she and Jim's dad would not be grandparents to my son. They wanted to be "just grandfriends." I was livid.
Under their scornful glances, I still had a wedding to plan. Jim's mother and sisters wanted to make sure I was on track with the type of wedding they wanted. I resisted the urge to remind them that I'd planned a wedding before.
"I'm sure it's going to be a small wedding. I can't see Jimmy having a large wedding," his sister said.
"And I'll need a copy of the guest list to look it over. You are inviting all the cousins, right?" his other sister asked.
"And you have to invite Aunt Sarah and Uncle Donald to the rehearsal dinner," his mother said.
"Well, rehearsal dinners are typically for the wedding party only," I said.
And on and on it went. Until it all just blew up.
A week before the big day, Jim's mom called and yelled at him for an hour. She told him I "didn't care about family." Didn't care about family? She was the one who wanted to be "just" a grandfriend! Then Jim's sister called and asked him if he "was absolutely sure" I was the right person for him.
Jim and I survived the wedding, but then we realized that despite taking vows, I didn't automatically become a member of their family.
Year One: Distance
I wanted no contact with people who had treated me and my son so badly. Jim and I spent the first year of our marriage distancing ourselves from them. That year, he and I hosted our own Thanksgiving dinner – for three.
"But, what if Jimmy doesn't like your stuffing?" my father-in-law asked. "He's used to his mother's stuffing."
I tried to attend Christmas dinner at the in-laws' house but had a panic attack on the way there. As soon as my husband turned the car around to take me home, I felt better.
Year Two: Therapy
The panic attacks continued with every family event. Finally, I went to my pastor for counseling. The more I talked, the more it sounded like a comedy routine. There's a reason so many mother-in-law jokes exist.
"Put yourself on a five-year plan," my pastor said. "Pretend you're a missionary setting up camp in a new culture. Observe the ways of the natives."
"I don't get it," I said.
"When I send a missionary to a far-off country, that person will want to quit almost immediately," he said. "But if a missionary can tough it out for five years, he'll end up staying forever."
For some reason, that advice clicked. I made a plan – a five-year plan – to slowly assimilate into the in-law tribe. I was heading into only my second year of marriage, so things were going to take a while.
"Just think," my husband said, "we're two-fifths of the way there!"
Year Three: Have a Baby
OK, I would never advise anyone to have a baby just to improve in-law relations. Jim and I had planned to have a baby regardless. It just happened to be a bonus that my in-laws were so happy about it. My mother-in-law took me shopping for maternity clothes and hosted a baby shower. We still didn't have much to say to each other, but we were both excited about the new arrival. When my daughter was born, we named her Lila, after my mother-in-law's only sister who had died years ago. When my mother-in-law heard the name, she wept tears of joy. I really do think that's when our relationship took a turn for the better.
Year Four: Host a Party
For Christmas that year, my mother-in-law gave my son a present with a gift tag that read, "From Grandma." My son didn't notice, but I did – and choked up. Buoyed by our first good Christmas visit in years, I asked her if she'd mind if I hosted her January birthday dinner. She was thrilled.
I invited all my in-laws and all 15 of them came. The sisters-in-law even complimented my cooking and washed all the dishes afterward.
"Wow, we've never had a visit that good with my family before," my husband said. Sure, my father-in-law talked nonstop and maybe my mother-in-law was quiet, but she was smiling – a sign of happiness in any culture.
Year Five: Destination
As I head into my fifth year of marriage, I feel like a successful missionary. This tribe, after many years, has finally welcomed me. Things aren't perfect, but we've grown more comfortable with one another. I now have a mom who cooks turkeys and a dad who knows how to unclog a drain. I'm still working on sharing the sisters' closets. But, there's time. After all, I'm going to be a part of this family forever.