Mother-in-Law Piece in MORE magazine!

You’d think it wouldn’t matter, at this regal stage in life. We’re in our intellectual and sexual prime, know who we are and what we desire, and are proud of every bit of our hard-won perspective. For many of us, choosing a man to date, mate with or marry is no longer anyone’s business but our own. Privacy, one of life’s greatest luxuries, is restored with every passing year. Our children, if we had them, are grown, custody battles have resolved, and now we can relish life’s treats with an earned sense of entitlement. So if romance comes our way, we ought to be able to grab it with both hands (and that’s just for starters).

Not so fast. There are men, many of them gallant and good, who still feel a strong attachment to their mothers. And there are mothers, many of them loving and good, for whom these men (our men) are nothing less than a lifeline. This is not the laughable case of a mama’s boy who stayed too long at the breast. This may be a man who took off magnificently, forging his own life and making his mark. But now, time has passed, and his mother is that much older. He may now be dealing with a newly bereaved widow, a woman who has had her first medical encounter with mortality, or, simply, a woman who realizes that life is short, and that her family is all that really matters.

What to do when your man is torn between fiery love and filial loyalty? While it may be tempting to wish for a catastrophic illness to befall the woman who calls each time you take off your clothes, or to helpfully suggest that the weather’s milder in Miami, do not yield to these baser instincts. Instead, celebrate the fact that you have found a wonderful man with whom to spend the rest of your life. You know that old maxim, see how a man treats his mother, and you’ll know how he’ll treat you? It’s truer than ever when his mother needs him, calling on his resources (often at inopportune moments) to make her life better, as she once selflessly did for him.

I say this from the perspective of one whose mother-in-law was a total migraine-maker. Her son, my husband, was her golden boy, her savior from life’s banality. We were both charmed and thrilled by his wit, his warmth, his imagination. For me, she had only dislike, seeing me as the intruder into what could have been a perfect relationship between her and her painstakingly reared prince. Did she do all that work only to lose him to an upstart like me? He might have liked the fact that I was alluring, exotic, from exciting New York City, but she would have preferred the girl next door. Which would have made her a soft-spoken girl from rural England. If Mom had chosen, I would have had a love for pastel pants and matching Peter Pan collars. The more I boasted about my accomplishments, the more she thought I was boastful. The better I looked, by my own urban standards (higher boots, tighter suits), the worse she seemed to feel. The more witticisms I made, the less she laughed. And the more her son loved me (he laughed at the jokes)– well, you get the picture. There was no way to win her heart. It was taken – long taken — by him.

It took time and a trio of children before she could see any of my virtues. It probably didn’t help that her son moved to America to marry me, although we tried to compensate with long in-law visits, twice or three times a year. We sailed on ships, we travelled to Siena and sat under cypresses. We rode horses in Wyoming and sunbathed in the Windward Islands. You could even make a montage out of our relationship, hers and mine, the way they do in romantic movies. Everyone else faded away: I was wooing this matriarch. I wined her, I dined her, I told her all my hopes and dreams and toasted and buttered her scones. She listened, she ate, she softened. It took years.

In the end, we began to love each other. Over the decades, we’ve shared not only vacations, but heartaches and joys. My parents have passed away, as has her husband. Often, when she calls, her son picks up the phone and she tells him it’s me she wants. And I love that; we talk for hours about all our shared interests. Sometimes, though, I worry that her hearing’s fading. Osteoporosis is beginning to crumble her spine, bit by bit. She has begun to eat less, and to lose weight. When I tell my husband that I’m worried about her, we agree to invite her to live with us. So much for the restored privacy my empty nest is beginning to offer. But this is my husband’s Mum we’re talking about. She taught him to love, and in her 80th year, is still teaching him. She’s teaching me, too, and she’s teaching my children, her grandkids. We’re all beneficiaries of her wisdom. After all, she is the mother-in-law — the one who first knew how precious a gift her son was to us all.