Who you callin’ mother-in-law?

I’d really prefer it if M-I-L stood for “mother-in-like.”

Daniel Nevsky | Stocksy United

I never wanted to be a mother-in-law. But on a mid-January evening two years ago it happened to me anyway. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t want my son to find someone to love and marry. It wasn’t that I feared being “replaced” by another woman. It wasn’t that I wished to avoid the role or the relationship. And it certainly wasn’t that I didn’t adore the woman my son chose … because I truly did (and still do).

I just didn’t like the name. Mother-in-law. And I still don’t like it.

Mother. In law. (AKA the M.I.L.) It sounds so remote and cold. So technical and obligatory. It has about as much poetry and warmth as “Power of Attorney” or “Certified Public Accountant.” It conjures up the image of some highly unlikable soul that you must pay attention to only because you are legally obligated to do so—someone, perhaps, like an imposing state trooper who has just pulled you over for speeding. You do everything he asks. You treat him politely. You may even act as though you like him! But you also can’t wait to get away from him. He is an Official-in-Law. Do I really want to be placed in that same bucket? Honestly, the word “mother” comes with enough baggage without getting the word “law” involved, too.

I wonder if we can’t come up with a better acronym than M.I.L.? For example, why can’t I simply be the O.M.? The Other Mother? “Om” is a sacred sound and makes me feel like a spiritual adviser. I kind of like it. Or a V.I.M? A Very Important Mother? I could live with that. Alternately, we could break the mold and come up with a newer, friendlier term. Like “mombuddy.” Cute. Non-threatening. Sounds like someone you would want to take to a movie. Someone who would probably share her Milk Duds and popcorn with you.

But I realize change is hard to effect. So for the rest of this essay, I will grudgingly accept that I am a MIL. Of course, I prefer to believe MIL stands for “mother-in-like” instead of “mother-in-law.” So I put together five little ways we MIL’s can try to be sure it does.

Dress appropriately at the wedding

Yes, the MIL should look nice. Yes, you should wear something that makes you stand out from the crowd. But that does not mean an outfit that will have all eyes glued on you. Nothing white. Nothing too low cut. Nothing too tight. Nothing too short. I had a lot of trouble finding the perfect dress for the occasion of my son’s wedding— and not because I felt unduly constrained by the “no J-lo” plunging neckline rule. I was just so worried about wearing the wrong thing.

First, I spent hours online. Then I wandered through stores, fingering dresses and staring at tags. But I bought nothing. The date drew closer. And closer. So close, in fact, that I dreamed I showed up at the wedding in sweat pants because that was all I had. So then I shopped with gusto and I bought everything in sight. At one point I may have owned as many as 8 MIL dresses! I took selfies on my iPhone, and I showed them to everyone—including random people I barely knew.

Everyone had a different opinion. My husband liked the off-the-shoulder purple one. My son liked the long, green one. My daughter voted for the cocktail-length pink one. My mailman liked me in navy blue. The deli guy disagreed. I was distraught.

Then I realized there was only one opinion that really mattered (and no, I don’t mean mine!). I sent the pictures off to the bride. Ever decisive and always tasteful, she wrote back right away. They all looked amazing, she said, but that I could not go wrong with the silver one! What a nice way to put it. I knew I liked that girl! And so I wore the silver one, and it was perfect.

Don’t give too much advice about the wedding

(Read: do your best not to be judgmental.) This is a tough one for me. I’m sure it is for a lot of women. We are used to being right. We honestly believe that mother knows best. We are accustomed to being in charge. We are famous for giving reasons like “Because I said so!” Weddings, however, are not the time for this kind of behavior.

This is the moment to find out what your son and his future wife want. This is the beginning of the way that the two of them will make decisions together. Let them do this. Respect that they are both adults. And after you have really listened and heard what they want, it’s time for you to simply say, “Good idea!” And if you can’t get that out of your mouth, try just nodding.

Still too hard for you? Excuse yourself for a moment and leave your husband alone with them. He likely wasn’t listening to the wedding talk anyway and will happily approve anything. Forgive him later when you find out that he agreed you would dance down the aisle with a mariachi band.

Love her unconditionally

Maybe you only just met. But remember when you first met your son? You didn’t know him either but you were in love from the minute the doctor or nurse put him in your arms. No need to wait any longer for the magic to happen here. He loves her. So you love her. Simple.

The benefit is that when you love someone you try to be good to them. And when you are good to someone, they tend to like you. And when they like you, you like them. See how this works? From the very beginning, if possible, bring her into the fold and treat her like an insider, not an outsider. That means everything from sharing a special secret family recipe to including her in family traditions and photos.

Spend some quality time together

Without your son. The first time I met my daughter-in-law was on a family vacation. We rented a house (all 8 of us) so there was a lot of time for togetherness. There were also times when the two of us found ourselves quite naturally, alone—the only ones left on the beach when everyone else was in the water, the only two who wanted to poke our heads into a particular gift shop or the two who decided to join forces on a meal in the kitchen.

These moments don’t always just fall into your lap, however. More often, you will have to work to find time to get to know one another. Invite her for a cup of coffee, chat with her on the phone, text her an update on something of mutual interest, share a book recommendation. In turn, hopefully she will include you in the wedding planning by inviting you to a dress fitting or asking you to check out cakes with her. Good communication is the basis for a good relationship and if you are not used to talking to one another, it will only get harder over the years.

Show gratitude; shower praise

Most DILS (who I hope are reading this, too!) and MILS sincerely want to have good relationships and are trying hard to be the best they can be, even if they sometimes fall short. Remember to thank each other for the little things and recognize acts of kindness and generosity. “Thanks for inviting me over.” “Thanks for including me in the tasting.” And when you see something the other does well, say so. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It just has to be sincere. “I love the invitations you chose. You have a great eye.” “You found beautiful readings for the ceremony.” “I can’t believe your incredible knack for getting great things on sale!” We all appreciate that little pat on the back.

Needless to say, even though I am writing this article, I am not a perfect MIL. Far from it! But I try to do the best I can, share my Milk Duds more than my opinions, and hope that my daughter in law forgives me when I mess up.

Antonia van der Meer
Antonia van der Meer
Antonia van der Meer is a magazine writer and the author of "Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water."

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