Not long ago, a friend called, a smile in his voice, and told me he had a serious problem. Playing along, I asked in my best pastoral tone, “How can I help you?” He said something had happened that made him wonder if he should be happy or sad. I inquired about the event that brought on this conflict of emotions. He told me his mother-in-law had driven off a cliff in his brand-new Cadillac. At that point, I had no advice to offer.
My travels across the globe have left me curious as to what and why people name things. When my book, Rite of Passage Parenting, was being translated into Korean, the translator had many questions about my use of the English language. He wanted to know what a “shoulder” of the road was. Did roads in America also have legs and arms? It took a while to explain this term.
In our country, what do we call the end of a loaf of bread? You know the answer: “the heel.” In some nations, though, the ends of the bread are referred to as “the outsiders.” Still others call these pieces the “sore hands,” “crusts,” “ends,” “cap and foot,” “upper crust,” “toppers” or “noses.” The good news is that we are in the majority. More than 59 percent of the world refers to this part of the bread as “the heel.”
In Mexico, the end piece of bread is not “the heel” but “la suegra” or “the mother-in-law.” When explaining how they arrived at this term, the Mexican people almost always say, “Because no one wants it.” In the recent movie “Monster-in-Law,” Jane Fonda portrays an overbearing mother who tries to prevent her son’s marriage to a young woman, played by Jennifer Lopez. Again and again, this mother-in-law lives out the life of a monster-in-law. You might say she’s . . . a heel.
Of all the titles my wife and I have carried, I think the two most difficult are those of mother- and father-in-law. Becoming parents came naturally to us. We grew into our title along with our sons. But becoming the right kind of in-law has not proven quite as simple. One moment, we heard the words, “I do.” The next, we became in-laws. Since no one taught or prepared us for our new roles, we made many mistakes.
My wife and I love our daughters-in law (as you know, I prefer to call them my daughters-in-love) with all our hearts. There is nothing we wouldn’t do for them, and we are happy each of our boys has found the love of his life. But for several reasons, our relationships with these dear daughters-in-love have taken time to develop:
1. Distance: We don’t get to see our children as often as we would like because their jobs have moved them away from Tulsa.
2. Expectations: We had to change our expectations of what it would be like to be a mother- and father-in-law. Some families make the transition quickly. But for our family, like many others, this new relationship had to be nurtured and developed with care.
3. Family Time: We also had to shift our expectations in this area. We no longer have the luxury of having our children at home every Christmas, Easter and birthday. Instead, we had to learn to share them with the other side of their families. Today, we rejoice whenever our children make time to come our way.
4. Norms: As our family expanded, we had to develop new norms. When I was growing up, we had bread on the table at every meal. My-in-laws did not. When Cathy and I married, the bread never found its way to our table, and I thought that was abnormal. Since I haven’t seen a stack of bread on the dinner table since 1976, I have adopted a new norm. And still more new norms have come in our relationships with our daughters-in-love.
This thing called “family” requires work, even more work than we anticipated. The process has also required adjustments on everyone’s part. I am thankful to report that our relationships grow closer and deeper every day. Last summer, I had the privilege of taking my entire family on vacation. I will cherish the week we spent together for the rest of my life.
You see, the Moore family has never questioned our love for one another. We love our sons and our daughters-in-love, and they love us. What we continue to work out by the grace of God is not the loving but the living. And even “the old man” (as my sons call me) is learning that the best way to live with one another is not in-law but . . . in love.
Walker Moore is president of AweStar Ministries in Tulsa, P.O. Box 470265, Tulsa 74147, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 800/AWESTAR (293-7827)