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'I am entering my mother-in-law era and I need to re-brand.'

In a few short weeks, I will become a mother-in-law. 

This looming life stage holds little appeal because no small girl or young woman ever dreams of becoming one. It is not an aspirational life stage. The mother-in-law has terrible branding which is why nobody is gagging to be one.

It’s not that I don’t want my son to get married. His choice of partner is top shelf and if I could have grown a person in a lab who would be perfect for him, it would be Jessie. She’s very nice and even though I wish she appreciated my fashion sense and laughed more at my jokes, on balance, I like her quite a lot.*

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The problem is not her, it’s me. 

Specifically, I’m having a problem adjusting to the idea of being a mother-in-law for reasons that are complex and not my fault.

I’ve only ever had one mother-in-law and like my future daughter-in-law, she too is top shelf. I adore her and our relationship is delightful and uncomplicated. After 27 years, we understand each other well. We are very different but she has never made me feel inadequate, guilty or resentful. She has always respected boundaries and led with love. The worst thing she does is bring us delicious home-cooked meals. Ugh.

But my lived experience of having a mother-in-law is not enough. I need outside inspo to craft my own version of who and how to be. Whenever I enter a new life stage - motherhood, peri, a new decade - I look for my role models. I am extremely literal about this.

I will Google and then print out photos of famous women who embody whatever it is I’m experiencing and blu-tak them all over my office walls. You can’t be what you can’t see - or you can but you feel lonely and weird about it.

Welcome to my first roadblock. The most notable pop culture representation of a mother-in-law I could think of was the movie with J-Lo and her mother-in-law played by Jane Fonda. It is called Monster In Law and you get the picture. At one point in the movie, on the day JLo is to marry Fonda’s son, they get involved in a fist fight.

An actual fist fight. As you can see, the bar here is low.

Image: Warner Bros Pictures.

Sally Hepworth’s best-selling novel The Mother In Law was my next idea because it’s a cracking book but frankly, it isn’t a great look in terms of aspiration either. Zero for two.

Recently, I had high hopes for Victoria Beckham when her eldest son Brooklyn married that woman who is sometimes blonde and whose name I keep forgetting but that whole thing descended almost immediately into a s**t show, didn’t it.

Here’s what I learned from Posh Spice: don’t ever offer to make your future daughter-in-law’s wedding dress because that situation is never going to end well for anyone and it didn’t. Sorry Jessie. Sort your own dress. It’s for the best.

Ask almost any woman about her mother-in-law and you will quickly learn that the relationship between a woman and her son’s female partner is specific and among the most fraught in any family.

But why?

I’ve identified one main reason: Main Character Energy.

When your son is small, you’re not just the main character but all the characters and also the set and the choc-tops and popcorn at interval. This can feel intoxicating and also overwhelming sometimes. It’s certainly all-consuming in ways good and bad but you know where you stand. IN THE MIDDLE OF YOUR SON’S LIFE.

Their first serious relationship is usually the first time, as a mother, you have a challenger for the role of Main Character in his life. From what I’ve observed, you need to be cognisant of this and handle it carefully or you can do irreparable damage. The stakes are high and the game is yours to lose.

The bond between a mother and her son can be intense because in many ways, you feel like you’ve created the perfect man inside your own body. Two weeks after my son was born, I vividly remember sitting in a nursing chair and feeding him as my tears plopped on his fuzzy little head. "What’s wrong?" my partner asked, concerned. 

"One day he is going to love someone more than me and I can’t stand it," I sobbed. I could already feel my heart breaking in anticipation of this horrific thing so far in the future. Back then, in my mind, being shoved out of the spotlight by a younger woman who captures your son’s heart was the stuff of anxiety dreams. 

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Note how I said shoved. I mean replaced. Supplanted. Usurped. I’m not emotional. You’re emotional.

And now the future is here, and it’s hard to explain how my son’s love for his partner fills me with an overwhelming sense of soaring joy that sits comfortably alongside my feelings of loss that I’m no longer the main game for him. 

To be clear, I am not jealous of my son’s partner. I love her with my whole heart and I am deeply grateful every day that she came into his life. But what if I didn’t feel that way about her? What if I didn’t think she was good for him or good enough for him?

What if I thought he had chosen badly, and that there was someone better for him out there? What if I insisted on trying to remain the main character in my son’s life?

Not everyone likes to share attention. Jessie and I are very close (IMO) and we have a friendship and working relationship separate from Luca. But what if she was less tolerant of all the ways I’m annoying? What if she resented how connected my son and I have always been? What if she didn’t understand how important family is to him and she felt like she had to assert herself in his life by insisting he distance himself from us?

The thing with your kids growing up is that you don’t love them any less or any differently just because they’re 14 or 22 or 35. But as they become adults, it’s healthy for them to draw boundaries to keep you out of places where you once had an access-all-areas VIP pass. 

They stop telling you everything. You don’t know all their friends. Yours is not the first opinion they seek or even the last. As writer Cindy Chupak writes in her movie The Otherhood, your son growing up is like someone breaking up with you really slowly.

But you remain as in love with them as you ever were. Forever. The boundaries though? They’re important, even when they hurt to bang into.

Remember Trey’s mother Bunny in Sex & The City? She had some issues with boundaries and (along with Trey’s impotence), it was a deal-breaker for Charlotte. Nobody wants to marry a Trey.

Image: HBO Entertainment.

So. I am determined not to be a Bunny. I will not demand a key to their house and arrive unannounced to mark my territory. I will try to feel secure in my role as a side character and revel in watching Jessie in the full glow of my son’s spotlight (I already do that - watching them together is my crack). I will continue to defer to their relationship and insist it take priority over all else, even and especially me. I will embrace my side character role as a mother-in-law and above all, I will welcome someone into our family who wasn’t born into it but came by choice and via love. I will re-brand mothers-in-law as cool women who are wise, respectful and content with our role as supporting and supportive characters in the lives of our adult children and the loves of their lives.

* For those not familiar with my relationship with Jessie, this is sarcasm. I adore her beyond measure and am in awe of her brilliance.

Feature Image: HBO Entertainment.

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