I had to really give some thought to how to welcome our new daughter-in-law to our family. I loved it when our empty nest re-filled with kids coming for a visit – sometimes one-at-a-time, sometimes all-at-once. I loved the chaos of people foraging through the kitchen at odd times; I loved them throwing loads of laundry in the washing machine whenever; I loved them arguing about the TV remote, music, Monopoly™ games. This new person would seem like a guest at these times, and I didn’t want that. I wanted her to be part of the gang. I wanted her to be another one of my kids. How could I develop that relationship?
It’s an uncertain thing, adding an in-law to your family mix, so adding our first, a daughter-in-law, was a big concern. Our family was loud, opinionated, and familiar. She was quiet, reserved, and different. Although I knew she was the perfect choice for him, I also knew this would change our family dynamic, and I was concerned about the change.
Face it – shared experiences are what create relationships, but I noticed whenever the kids would start down memory lane, those shared experiences would shut her out. She inevitably felt like an outsider. I knew time would eventually bring that familiarity, but my dream was a house full of married kids and grandkids all creating happy chaos, and I wasn’t willing to gamble it would happen “sometime.” As I noticed her actions and attitudes when she was with us, I discovered some things that would help the becoming-one-of-the-family process . . .
- I included her in planning sessions for family get-togethers. At first, texting was a lot less stressful for us both – we could communicate off-and-on without forcing a phone call. I’d ask her for meal, activity, and schedule ideas. I’d ask her what kinds of games her family played, and would she share them with us. I’d include her in any text-strands I sent to the rest of the family as we discussed our plans.
- I made sure she understood my house was her house. Really. I’ll bet she got tired of me saying, “If you’re hungry, there’s . . . just help yourself” and “Don’t feel like you have to always be in here with us – if you’d like a nap or to watch TV in the other room – just go do it.” or “The washer is there whenever you need it; don’t bother asking, no one else does!” After saying these sort of things over and over, she eventually felt more at home in my house and began “helping herself” to whatever she needed.
- I gave her things to do. We had our routines in place, and I noticed she didn’t always feel comfortable just “pitching in” when we prepared meals or cleaned up afterwards. I had to make sure she was given tasks and was part of everything involved – whether is was getting extra chairs, setting the table, or chopping lettuce. Eventually, she recognized those routines and would volunteer for what was needed, but it took some training to get to that point.
- I realized I couldn’t assume she’d like the same things the rest of us did. Some meals were awkward because I’d fixed something she didn’t like. Some movies we chose were not ones she would choose. Some games we played were uncomfortable for her. I finally realized I’d have to learn her preferences. I had to start by asking my son what she liked because she would go along with whatever we suggested (not wanting to offend us.) Eventually, she realized we were sincerely trying to learn her likes and dislikes, and as she felt more comfortable with us, she’d answer more honestly.
- I recognized her need to spend time with her family. At first, things at our house were awkward, forced, and very stressful for her. She never really relaxed with us. I could see she needed time to feel comfortable and at ease, and I realized she was able to do that with her family. Sometimes it seemed they were spending more time there than at our house. I didn’t nag my son about it; I just tried harder to help her feel comfortable when she was with us. When the other kids would make comments about it, I would remind them how hard it must be to get used to us. I encouraged them to try harder as well. I admit it wasn’t always easy – sometimes I had hurt feelings, but I had to remind myself this was a process that would be worth it (eventually!)
The real relationship comes after the experiences begin to add up and everyone feels more at ease.
Once she started feeling more at ease, we were able to add in experiences that created the common bonds necessary for a comfortable relationship – we could spend more time laughing and sharing our moments, and less time being careful of what we said and did.
One summer I invited my daughter-in-law and granddaughters to stay for a week without my son. I set up swimming lessons at the local pool, and we went to storytime at the library. We shared meal ideas, cooking, and vacuuming! She now stays with us often, and I’m thrilled when she calls or texts, “What are you doing this weekend? We were thinking of coming to see you.”
The family dynamic does change, but we stay a family.
The process we went through to get to a comfortable relationship with the first daughter-in-law has helped create relationships with the other in-law children who have joined our family. Recently our daughter brought her fiance home for a weekend; he was welcomed immediately. When he happened to mention he was “just a guest,” everyone shouted, “No, you’re part of the family!” and proceeded to give him a job in the kitchen.
The dynamic changed some, but we are still loud, opinionated, and familiar because we worked to include our in-law children as our own. I can’t imagine how narrow our lives would be without our in-law kids. They’ve added so much to our family, and now we have a house full of married kids and grandkids all creating happy chaos; my dream came true.
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