Posted by: Kate | September 9, 2008

What Lies Beneath

Well, that was interesting.  I thought maybe I’d do a little sociology experiment, by posting the emails with as little outside context as possible, and see if anyone responded.  Boy, did you.

And, thanks.  Honestly.  I had decided that I wouldn’t post any of my responses publicly, because I just wanted to watch the ball roll along, but I was in touch with just about everyone who commented by email.  And even if I disagree with you, I appreciate your willingness to state your opinion.

I wanted to offer a few bits of background, before I share my own reaction to my mother-in-law’s email, and our ongoing thoughts about how to respond.  One is that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an isolated incident.  No reason you should know this, unless you’ve been with me here for a while, but a search for the term “mother-in-law” on this blog brings up something around 130 hits.  Even if, once in a while, I was writing about someone else’s mother-in-law (I hear others of you have them, from time to time), that’s still a big chunk of this blog.  She has been unpleasant, passive-aggressive, unreliable, and sometimes outright cruel, since the earliest days of my relationship with Willem, and has figured prominently here.  (Once upon a time, my blog was actually titled Post-Traumatic Grandma Disorder, until I made a conscious decision to stop giving her a starring role in my life.)

Though if you’ve been visiting more recently, say in the past two years, the frequency has been lower and the level of audacity has slacked off a bit.  This is because, on Thanksgiving Day 2006, a month after my father-in-law’s memorial service, she looked Willem dead in the eye and said, “Kate is not family.”

After the initial shock, I realized that she really meant it.  I had been spending the prior six or seven years trying hard to be a good-enough daughter-in-law.  I never aimed for perfect, just good-enough.  And it turns out that she was never even considering me within the category of family in the first place.  Abductor-of-son, breeder-of-grandchildren, perhaps, but not family.  Continuing to try to treat her like family, while simultaneously accepting her view of me as an imposter, was unhealthy for all of us.  I cannot think of one circumstance, at all, ever, in which such disparate views of each other has led to a workable relationship.

Forgetting that, though, let’s act as if she was family.  For many years, I’ve been working hard to enact what I call a “grocery store rule” for family: that is, I won’t accept any bad behavior from family that I wouldn’t accept from a stranger in a grocery store.  Shared history does not provide permission for disrespect.  In fact, I feel that family deserves to be respected and appreciated, and part of the way I can respect and appreciate them is to believe them capable of at least a minimal level of socialization.

I do believe that family deserves a second chance.  And a third, and a fourth, and a fifteenth… to whip out a sports analogy (can you hear my husband’s heart rate increasing?), an acquaintance or friend might get the proverbial three strikes, or whatever.  Some finite number of chances to hurt me and mine before I need to sever that relationship.  A family member gets two strikes, and then each subsequent offense is like hitting a foul ball instead of swinging and missing.  Unless they cross a line into abusiveness or dangerousness, which would qualify as a true “third strike and you’re out,” they get an unlimited, endless, infinite number of foul balls and they still get to take another swing.  Because they’re family.  And family matters.

So.  For what it’s worth, I just wanted those things out there and said.  Tune in later this afternoon for the actual post about her email.



  1. I didn’t read all of the responses yesterday, but I say it’s not your responsibility to get her on your calendar. You’re not her babysitter, she’s not an invalid.

    I know she has more than put you through the ringer. The bottom line is this: You, (your children, Willem, etc.) are not responsible for her happiness. For me it is cut and dry: she either wants to be in your life and will take the necessary and appropriate steps to plan on doing so, or she doesn’t. Looks to me like she “cares” only because she thinks she ought to, hence the low blow emails to your children.

    And the “clean slate”? Awfully convenient for the person who has been offensive to try and wipe out your history. A more adult and proactive suggestion on her part would be to request an adult only meeting in which you could sit down and talk about what has been happening, lay down new ground rules for her behavior, and let her know exactly where the boundaries are, in writing if necessary.

    I know she is family, but in my experience family are some of the worst behaved creatures on the planet. I would probably have cut her off altogether by now, but that’s me. I can’t wait to see your response.

  2. I’ll have to check back during a homework break…I am so in anticipation.

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