When our sons marry …

I went from resenting my mother-in-law to accepting her, finally to appreciating her. What appeared to be her diffidence when I was first married, I now value as serenity.” — Ayelet Waldman

Nate and Andrea-1153Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal ran a feature stating the obvious: “Mothers worry more when sons marry than when daughters marry,” according to researcher Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart.

Duh. I’m hardly a leader in the field of social psychology, but I’ve telling my son Nate the same thing ever since he married last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, the family dynamic changes significantly when adult children marry. Whether were debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

Google the term “mother-in-law,” and you’ll find dozens of crude mother-in-law jokes and blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.” Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, shes the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs. Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husbands mother, an emotionally distant woman whose personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with ones in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dads mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mothers alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator.

Over time, however, Mom learned Rubys language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isnt the sort wholl need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes. Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, Im proud of the capable young woman shes become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldnt strive to be the worlds best mother-in-law?

Nate reminds me that Im “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my career as a family columnist. Even so, if hes lucky enough to be a father someday, hell find that letting go of ones children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldnt meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that Ill never compete for my sons attention; Ill do my best to respect her boundaries. Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our familys future unfolds, I hope shell turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

Parts of this column originally appeared in Michigan Prime magazine, February 2013.

–Top photo: That’s me helping my son Nate with his boutonniere, moments before his wedding.–

Motherhood and letting go

Our goal is to work ourselves out of the job we spend a lifetime perfecting.” — Ann Pleshette Murphy

Coinciding with graduation season, Mother’s Day always tugs on my heartstrings. Not only do we celebrate the women who gave us life, or raised us, but we also pause to consider what it means to be a mother.

For mothers of high school and college seniors, graduation season is the gateway to a new phase of parenting. I talk about this issue — and the art of letting go — in today’s “No Place Like Home” column on Royal Oak Patch. Click here to read it.

-In the photo above: My son Nate’s graduation day at the University of Notre Dame, May 2008. At left: Nate’s girlfriend, Andrea; Nate; my husband, Doug; and me. —

Parenting advice

A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~Sloan Wilson

Note: This essay was published earlier this year (“A New Season of Parenting”) in Metro Parent magazine. It was written especially for friends whose children will be starting college this fall…

It’s going to be a roller coaster year for a friend whose youngest child will graduate from high school in May, then head out of state to college in August. My friend is already working through some conflicting emotions. She gets a little teary at the thought of one less place setting at the family dinner table, yet she’s thrilled about the prospect of a keeping neater house (and gaining a spare bedroom) in the fall.

My son’s last year in high school was a bittersweet time for me, too. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and endings, I found myself looking forward and backward as my son closed the door on high school and prepared for his new life at college.

When I wasn’t caught up in the May-June whirlwind of award banquets and graduation ceremonies, I spent a lot of time wondering where his childhood had flown. When no one else was looking, I’d search for it in a family album crammed with precious photos of birthday parties, Fourth of July bike parades, Cub Scout camps, Christmas mornings, and Halloween nights.

Around that time, it also hit me that one of the sweetest gifts of midlife is the maternal amnesia that blurs the other memories of infancy and childhood — the post-partum blues; the exploding diapers; the marathon temper tantrums. Not to mention those snarky adolescent insults. When our kids prepare to leave home for college, after all, we tend to focus on the Hallmark moments.

All of this reminiscing seems a bit maudlin to me now. But revisiting the highlights of my son’s childhood helped soothe my empty-nest blues. Pausing to savor and reflect on my early years of motherhood made it easier for me to move on. It also made me grateful for the privilege of raising a child — and grateful for the chance to spend time with so many terrific young people.

During the high school years, for example, our home was a favorite gathering place for my son’s friends, so I always stocked up on extra snacks and soft drinks. Looking in our refrigerator in those days, you wouldn’t have guessed that we were a small family of three. When I unloaded my grocery cart in the checkout line, clerks would often ask if I was feeding a very large family or hosting a party. I always answered yes to both questions.

And since my “extended family” left for college when my son did, my feelings of loss encompassed more than one child.

Taking flight, moving on

Grieving isn’t unusual in the early weeks of empty nesting. Raising children gives us a sense of mooring and purpose. That sense of mooring suddenly disappears when they move out, and getting used to a quieter household can be a huge adjustment. As essayist Marion Winik wrote, “Once you’re a mother you can never think something else is the most important thing.” Still, few parents I know are comfortable with the term “empty nest.” An empty nest sounds pathetic and forlorn  — adjectives that hardly fit the millions of accomplished women and men who are reinventing their lives after child-rearing.

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press). But even more important than finding a new catchphrase for the empty nest is shifting our focus to the fresh opportunities awaiting our kids on the other side of the threshold.

Our job, after all, is to help them learn how to leave us; to let go.

It’s also our job to get on with our own lives. Just as we hope our kids will thrive without our constant supervision, they need to believe we’ll be just fine, too. In the long run, helicopter parenting doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, even if your kids aren’t leaving home this year, it’s not too early to sign up for those ballet lessons you’ve postponed for ages. Or to rediscover the sport or the craft that kept you juiced up and inspired before your name was Mom. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. A new season of parenting will unfold. — Cindy La Ferle

— Nest photo by Cindy La Ferle —