All my life I’ve looked for meaning, especially the deeper, unseen significance in events, ceremonies, holidays, even details of God’s creation. So when a new friend, Judy Dabler, made this comment at the start of small gathering, I wrote it down in my journal and drew stars around it:
“Human beings are meaning makers!”
I was dazzled by the implications … made in His image, the Author and Creator … who as the Word is the meaning behind everything … my search for meaning was and is always a search for Him!
What does this have to do with being a mother-in-law?
Simply this: These often troubled and ridiculed relationships are, at the heart level, a quest for meaning. When we swing and miss, when we believe the worst, when we retreat in fear and therefore withhold love, we miss the rich golden ore God desires to reveal.
Here are three common mistakes I have made as a mother-in-law, and I guess you have too.
Mistake #1: Wrong assumptions
“When we assume the motives of someone else we are wrong about 80 percent of the time,” said my friend Judy Dabler, a Christian conciliator and educator. How many times have I assumed the worst about a daughter or son-in-law? “She doesn’t like me … he is angry … I bet they don’t want me to ever come again.”
What we mothers-in-law often forget is what it’s like to be in their shoes. Remember when you were newlyweds or new parents? What did you want from your parents and in-laws? What did you wish for?
The danger of assigning motives, of assuming intent, is we never know all the facts. Our in-law children are new to our family. They come with their own often un-named values, beliefs and assumptions about what we, their in-laws, should or should not do. And … they are still figuring out their young marriage. It’s very complicated.
The temptation is always to side with your own children, to assume they are correct. But God is clear when He says, “You shall not be partial in judgment … For the Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who is not partial …” (Deuteronomy 1:17;10:17). Meaningful in-law relations can’t happen if we are assuming the worst or assigning blame without knowing all the data.
Mistake #2: Impatience
We’ve had a lifetime to get to know our child, but only a very brief time knowing their spouse. It’s all too easy to impatiently expect this grafted-in new member of the family to feel as comfortable with your family as everyone else. Relationships take time … lots of time with many of investments grace, love and patience.
During a phone conversation with my friend Joanne as we discussed lessons learned with sibling and parent-child relationships, she mentioned to me the phrase “healthy detachment.” I instantly knew what she meant. I was feeling responsible to fix the rift in a relationship with a married child and spouse. I felt like I should … do … something … that not doing something was neglectful, unloving. But in this case the breach was not mine to repair; I needed to detach myself from the situation and let them work it out.
Healthy detachment is loving and caring your adult children without letting your daily happiness be ruined by a circumstance you cannot change. This isn’t easy. I know it is painful. But it’s important that parents continue to develop their faith in God regarding the outcomes in our children’s lives.
This is true even when they are still living at home as teens. God has given all of us the gift of free will. All children will make poor decisions. The critical factor is will they be allowed to fail or suffer and learn from these choices? Our adult children must experience their own consequences to want to avoid the same thing in the future.
“Waiting is not wasting,” my friend Joanne reminded me during our call, and again I felt an exhale. She was right, of course. Releasing our children to God’s care is needed over and over throughout life. Trusting Him is the foundation of every healthy meaningful relationship.
When we sense or fear danger or suffering because of poor decisions, the most loving thing we can do is create a healthy detachment and wait for God to work. Don’t offer advice or suggestions unless asked, and then reply with “what does your spouse think about this?” Always point them back to each other and to God
Mistake #3: Defensiveness
Judy Dabler says, “Christians should not be defensive because we are forgiven. Seeing a flaw in ourselves is a joy because we now have the opportunity to be rid of it” as we take it to Jesus the healer, the perfecter of our faith. The truest truth about us as Christians is we are forgiven.
The natural response of my flesh when I see my weakness and failures, or when I’ve been shown to be at fault in a relationship, is to defend myself. I want to say, “Don’t you see how hard I’ve tried? Don’t you know what it’s cost me to do this for you? It’s because of the way I was raised that I do this. I can’t help it.”
But the most mature and faith-filled reply is, “Yes, I was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that. Will you forgive me?” Only when we own our mistakes with our kids and admit where we failed them will we grow rich relationships with our kids and their spouses. The truth is always your friend.
Pretending never creates meaning. Only humility produces the beauty of meaningfully deep relationships. And continually acknowledging our own sin and failure before God makes beautiful our lives and the greater body of Christ.
At the end of this post I want to acknowledge my friend Judy Dabler, whom I’ve quoted several times. Judy has founded Creative Conciliation and wrote Peacemaking Women. She has given us wise biblical coaching as we navigate the unseen workings of God in six marriages and families. We love our kids so much, including their spouses. They each bring uniqueness which challenges us to greater faith, and that is always good. I think God is smiling on us as we navigate this family journey by faith.
He’s got us and He’s got our kids too!