catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 12 :: 2011.06.24 — 2011.07.07


When Mom moved in

Three years into our marriage, my mother-in-law phoned. I was surprised that she called me at work. Usually, all of our communication was done through my husband.

Helen asked if I would help her find a place to live. The couple who owned the apartment where she currently lived was selling the building.

“Milt and I can help you find a place,” I reassured her. “How much are you paying for rent?”

“$150,” Helen replied.

My heart sunk. This was impossible.  And, on a fixed income and minimal social security, that was all she could afford.

I took a deep breath.

“You can move in with us,” I declared. And with those six words, I sealed our future.

I did not know then that my mother-in-law would live with us throughout my marriage; Milt and I will celebrate 19 years this September. Helen (now 84) has lived with us for 16 of those years. She would be with us through momentous events like the birth of our daughter and tragic events like the unexpected death of my dad. She would wash my dishes, mend my clothes and give me advice (welcome or not) about raising my child. She would help me and aggravate me. We would love one another, and we would fight. She would teach me to make stuffed cabbage rolls, and I would introduce her to sushi.

When I tell people I live with my mother-in-law they have one of two reactions: they either think I’m a saint or that I’m crazy. How do we manage?

The answer is complicated.

Helen and I are very different. She was born to Polish immigrant parents in the 1920s and is more like my grandmother than my mother. She is a devout Catholic. I was raised Baptist. She loves rules and routine. I like everything to be different. Helen never learned to drive or worked outside the home. I have held a job since I turned 16.

Those who call me a saint have not seen us in action. Helen lives directly in our home. We share a kitchen, a living room; our paths cross every hour. The impact on our marriage has been positive and negative. We are only human, after all, and some days are easier than others.

My husband would agree that the biggest sacrifice was the loss of privacy. We no longer felt comfortable exchanging long kisses or snuggling on the couch. We wait to have sex until late at night when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet — and even then I am afraid she might hear us.

One afternoon, when Sabrina was about six, my husband and I chose a quiet moment to sneak into the bedroom. Helen was reading her book; Sabrina was watching a television show. When we emerged from our bedroom, Helen was smirking.

“Sabrina wanted to know what that knocking sound was,” she said. “I told her maybe it was a woodpecker on the side of the house.” My face blazed. That was the last of our afternoon escapades.

But, the lack of privacy also caused us to be choosy about when and where we fought. While in the early years of marriage, we would let a minor disagreement escalate into yelling, we were too embarrassed to fight in front of his mom. By the time we were alone, the hurt feelings were usually forgotten.

Perhaps the most challenging part was the realization that we now had to share authority — or, at least, compromise. Like any young woman, I looked forward to having my own home. Three years into marriage, I had barely learned to compromise with Milt. I was much less prepared to compromise with his mom. These conflicts started in simple areas of taste, like decorating, but escalated into more serious areas, like how to care for our daughter.

The first Christmas after she moved in, Helen brought out her box of Christmas decorations. She had a cornhusk broom decorated with elves that she wanted to hang on my front door and plastic angels for each of our front windows. Her decorating style did not match mine.

Most of these differences in style were trivial. I could generally set them aside. The harder part came in the raising of our daughter. She and I just did things differently. She wanted socks on my baby’s feet, while I wanted her to wiggle her toes. She wanted the television on every second, while I had read that too much television hurt children. I often felt that my decisions were challenged at every turn, and I usually gave in.

Milt struggled with whom to support: his wife or his mom. While I wanted him to take sides, I also realized he was in an impossible situation. It’s no wonder that he often chose to avoid our conflicts altogether. Whenever this critical spirit wore me down, I forced myself to remember the benefits Helen’s presence gave us as a couple. Because Milt and I always had a ready and willing babysitter (she never really went anywhere), we could go on dates practically every weekend. We have always been able to escape for a dinner out or even to run errands together.

Her presence in our home allowed me to keep working. Teaching and writing are very much a part of my identity. While I love being a mother, Helen’s willingness to care for Sabrina meant I could retain that part of myself.

Perhaps the biggest plus is the love that has grown between her and my daughter. At 13, she has always had a grandma nearby. Her Nana dotes on her. She waits for her each day when the school bus pulls up with a glass of 7-Up and a bowl of goldfish crackers. Her devoted attention has fostered an intimacy with her grandma that would not be possible otherwise.

Milt and I are called to honor our parents. This responsibility doesn’t end when we turn 18. With each angry word I withhold, I am paying respect. With each errand I take her on, I am showing God’s love. This is not the easy love that comes with holiday presents and phone calls; this is day-in, day-out love that is demanding and sometimes overwhelming.

My husband and I are just one link in this chain of loving and giving and caring.

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