The mother-in-law mystery

4 June 2012

I really like forming relationships with women who’re older than I am. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m inclined to admire them; or maybe it’s the fact that my mom and I get along so well. Maybe it’s the chance to imagine variants of my own future. Likely it’s the way these women might occasionally behave maternally toward me — and who doesn’t enjoy a bit of mothering? — yet maternal doesn’t really capture what’s so enjoyable about those relationships, nor what I get out of them. Rather, I can form common ground with women inclined to believe quite strongly and apologetically in feminist principles, whether or not they term it feminism.

My partner’s mother, Janet, is different than virtually any other woman I’ve met, and I haven’t yet found a familiar groove with her. She’s been visiting us for over a week now, and I think I’m finally starting to figure out a little of the mystery.

We have far too many stereotypes about mothers-in-law. Take Monster In Law (2005), in which bride-to-be Jennifer Lopez faces off against said monster, Jane Fonda, who exemplifies the overbearing, disapproving, upper-middle-class woman.

In contrast, my mother-in-law doesn’t have a mean or aggressive bone in her body. Really. I’m not being nice. In fact, she’s so easygoing and mild-mannered that it often amounts to passivity. I think what baffles me the most is her eagerness to remain free of any visible needs or emotions, to almost render herself emotionally invisible.

She’s very shy — a true introvert — but although she readily confesses to feeling awkward in social situations, it’s not due to a lack of confidence in herself. When I first met her, I worried she’d find me too opinionated, too willing to spar verbally with my partner, too prone to a sharp-edged wit. She’s not the kind to hug you or show other kinds of physical affection, which at first alarmed me.

The only clue my partner ever offered was that although she was doubtless disappointed I wasn’t a good Christian, she had probably given up on her son ever returning to the church.

When she agreed to come visit, she drove my partner crazy when she refused to help in planning. Even though she’s originally from New England, she never called her relatives who still live here to make plans to see them. “Would you like to go to Boston?” he asked her, and got no clear answer.

Ordinarily you might think this was a form of passive aggression, but with her it’s not. She genuinely doesn’t want to be any trouble. She’s genuinely ambivalent about seeing her relatives, or touring through Boston. She doesn’t care much about food, so it wouldn’t occur to her to request a night out for lobster rolls or fried clams or a local chowder. She’s a Zen master of self-possession and contentment.

She likes everything we’ve done, but she doesn’t go out of her way to sound overly delighted.

Her kids mock her mercilessly for her forgetfulness and her slightly ditzy cluelessness about major news events or cultural phenomena. She inevitably responds by laughing with them at herself. It’s hard to explain this odd dynamic except to note that in most families, teasing is a way of adjusting family relations: it pushes someone away, or draws them in closer by shared acknowledgment of their role in the group. With Janet it’s different: she laughs, but overall it’s a laughter that simply maintains her slight distance from other people.

Who is this? It makes me realize that the older women I like so much are loud, opinionated, eccentric, physically affectionate. It’s given me no practice with someone like Janet, whose emotions seem so hermetically sealed. Or has she rid herself of them entirely?


On her first night here, she offered me a gift: two boxes of scrapbooks, clippings, and notes from my partner’s childhood and school years. It’s a treasure trove of good stuff: those square vintage 1960s and 70s photographs showing dark, oak-panelled rooms and horn-rimmed glasses and shadowy figures no one can identify anymore. And of course my partner as an alarmingly gorgeous teen, dressed in awful prom outfits and visibly revealing his use of a hair dryer for his late teenage years.

My favorite part was the baby book. All About Me, it’s called — Janet did a brilliant job, filling every page with notes and baby cards and little hand- and foot-prints. She created a hand-colored chart to keep track of all the baby gifts:

Just look at the renderings of chubby baby clothes and booties! In the section of this pre-printed scrapbook entitled “Funny Little Things I Said and Did,” she displayed the same sweet maternal attention to the new baby, all the while maintaining the spirit of the first-person tone established by the scrapbook’s publishers:

July 24th I started sleeping in the crib. Gee, it was sure big. There was room for four of me.

August 2nd I turned over on my back to look at the birds.

Daddy was quite tickled when I started saying Daddy on April 1st and then bye-bye to him on April 5th.

The account goes on for eight pages in her careful handwriting. Maybe I find it so affecting because it reveals how much she was willing to identify as the baby. Now that’s a new mother: revealing her own crazy love for that baby while placing herself in his booties.

But then I looked a little closer at specific passages, like the narrative about how he learned to talk, and I realized she never recorded when he learned to say “Mommy.” She just left that unsaid. She wrote her own feelings, even her role in the story, out of the narrative.


The last time I saw Janet was at a family reunion, at which one night a group of the older cousins sat around talking about their grandparents’ and parents’ generations. One cousin remembered, bitterly, how much Janet’s mother-in-law had disapproved of her, and recounted stories that would make your skin crawl. Apparently the mother-in-law had found Janet a poor cook (to this day she holds no truck with cooking), a poor conversationalist, and altogether a poor choice for her precious son. Family dinners were, according to the storyteller, deeply uncomfortable affairs, as the mother-in-law attempted to amass forces against Janet from amongst the assembled daughters, female cousins, and little girls.

“That must have been horrible!” I say to Janet. “What did you do?”

“Oh, I just ignored her,” Janet says, showing no lingering resentment. If anything she seems to feel sorry for this now long-dead woman who made her life so uncomfortable amongst the extended family.

Coming from a long line of people who hold grudges about the most inconsequential matters, I found this impressive to say the least. And not a little perplexing.


Shortly after arriving last week, we drove down to visit her sister, whom Janet has not seen in more than eight years. Janet is visibly awkward at this reunion, at least at first. When her sister invites us to sit down for a bit before lunch, we leave room for her to sit next to her sister on the sofa. Instead — incomprehensibly — Janet pulls up a chair from the kitchen table, positioning herself as far from the conversation as possible, and in the most uncomfortable chair.

I catch a glimpse of my partner’s face, and he’s embarrassed and frustrated, as if his mother has committed some kind of social faux pas.

A week later, when we take her to visit other relatives, she repeats this scenario, this time sitting in a dark corner of the room. Who does this?


At some point as a teenager I decided I didn’t like being shy anymore. I made a self-conscious decision to be less introverted in social situations; I had fretted that my shyness made me uncomfortable to be around. I didn’t want to be no fun. I practiced being more outgoing than I really was — I spoke up in class more; I studied the patterns of the most confident kids I knew.

Some of this personal re-education resulted from a misplaced sense of responsibility. I felt I was a social burden rather than taking my fair share of the weight of the responsibility.

That sense of responsibility comes from another angle now, too: when I meet visibly shy or socially awkward people, I feel driven to make them feel at home. I feel responsible for them. At times I can become cartoonish, too eager to have them join in the conversation.

Sometimes I wonder whether these shy people find me loud or aggressive. I’m willing to take the risk because I want them to feel comfortable.

When we leave her sister’s house after an afternoon of conversation — during which I did more than my fair share, trying to make up for Janet’s awkwardness — I tell Janet how much I like her sister. “She’s a talker,” she says mildly, inscrutably.


Here’s what I’ve discovered: Janet has a long history of not being wanted. It makes me teary-eyed to write that, but it’s true. And I think what now appears as bland contentment might be the result of a lifetime of learning to suppress her feelings of hurt.

When she was little, her parents were very poor, and they fought — such that her father became an intermittent figure in the household. It was tough already — their little apartment had no running water, for example — but with him gone, most of the money dried up. Janet can’t remember much of it, but it appears he left the house by the time she was about 5 and divorced her mother shortly afterward — this during the late 1930s, when no one got divorced.

At that point her mother started drinking heavily and ceased to care for her children.

By the time Janet was about 7 (and her younger siblings would have been about 5 and 3, respectively), someone reported the situation and the children were removed from their mother, placed in different homes. Janet was placed with her Uncle Dick, her father’s brother, who had a good job and a family of 3. No one had any idea how long she’d remain with her cousins — a few months? a year? two years?

I ask her whether it was Uncle Dick who reported the neglect, and she confessed she has no idea. But she thinks it must have been a teacher. “Who else would have noticed that we were coming to school dirty and hungry?” she asks, again in a tone of voice that revealed no emotion, even though it captures a horrific scene.

Janet’s father eventually remarried and got a blue-collar job. He barely had enough to live on, but years later he managed to take in Janet’s younger sister, who’d been placed with another member of the family and became miserable under the watchful eye of her strict, unwelcoming aunt. Janet lost track of her brother — who became itinerant and to some extent homeless — and had only sporadic contact with her mother for the rest of her life. To this day she speaks of herself as lucky for landing where she did.

She doesn’t speak about feelings of abandonment.

Uncle Dick’s family became her family. Yet because she had no idea how long she’d stay with Uncle Dick, Aunt Nancy, and her three cousins, she never called them “mom” or “dad,” and always worked to show them how grateful she was to be there. Insisting on calling them “aunt” and “uncle” helped to show them she understood the boundaries, conveyed her gratitude.

“Uncle Dick was the most Christian man I ever met,” she says when I ask whether he’d resented the fact that his brother had left a child on his doorstep indefinitely. “He never hesitated to do good by other people. Aunt Nancy was another matter,” she adds, delicately. “She did resent the imposition, and she didn’t care if I knew it.” If this sounds bitter, I’m not describing it properly. Janet delivers that information with the same mild-humored equanimity as when she announces she’s going out for a walk.

So even at age 7, Janet was effectively abandoned by her parents and unwanted, at least at times, by the aunt who’d taken her in. She was the child of divorce during an era when divorce made you a social pariah. She never knew whether one of her parents would take her back. She learned early to feel marginal, and to suppress her emotions rather than feel sorry for herself. She learned to sit in the corner.

This is a model of someone who has no therapeutic framework, no unresolved trauma. She doesn’t see herself as a victim. Nor does she see herself as a protagonist.


In school, Janet was doubly different than the other kids. First, her “parents” weren’t her parents at all. And second, she lived in the country. “Oh, those town kids didn’t want anything to do with us,” she says. “We were considered hicks.” She made up for it by playing sports — every sport they had. The other team members weren’t friendly, but sports gave her something else to think about.

She made herself useful by becoming an expert babysitter — sometimes for her youngest cousins, and later for the little kids in the neighborhood. She understood children, their fragile emotions and their need for care. She was really good at it. Is really good at it. Now, at family gatherings, she fades away from the adults to keep an eye on all the little ones.


Janet wanted to be a veterinarian when she was young, so much so that she volunteered for the small animals vet down the road. When she applied to colleges, the vet wrote a letter of support on her behalf, attesting to her carefulness and experience in his clinic.

She didn’t get accepted because no veterinary science program in the 1950s admitted women.

“If you were a girl, you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. That was it,” she explains. “And you had to get married to be respectable.” So she went to a teacher’s college to get her certificate.

She worked her way through college by cleaning people’s houses and working in the college cafeteria. She never dated, so everyone told her she’d be an old maid. “That was the worst thing imaginable.” She laughs as she says that, showing no animosity toward the college girls who predicted such a fate.

Is this feminism, this comparatively strong statement (for her) about the bad old days for women?


By the time she met that sweet man with the curly hair, she was in her mid-20s and had never been on a date. She and her best college friend had left New England and moved west, where teaching jobs were plentiful. They’d wound up in Wyoming, where she met him in a church group. “The whole group started finding ways of putting us together,” she explains: other couples paired them up at dinner parties; older church members asked them to team up on bible study nights.

It took them a while to decide to start dating. I’m afraid to ask why. I’m afraid it’s because she was so shy, so accustomed to being part of the woodwork, so naïve, so self-effacing. He was the social animal, the one so charming with customers and strangers and employees. I don’t want to know whether he didn’t feel attracted to that shy girl in the corner, at least at first.

When they eventually had children, she loved those children so impossibly, so unconditionally — they always knew they were appreciated and supported and cared for. Naturally, those children made fun of their mother, because children always seem to know subconsciously where their parents’ weak spots are. She let them tease her. She was used to it, after all.

Even now my partner gets exasperated with her. “I tried to get her to call her cousin in Maine, and she can’t be bothered!” he whispers one night. “I give up!” We whisper together as we lie in bed, trying to fathom why an 80-yr-old woman wouldn’t use this opportunity to see her cousin one more time, how to entertain someone who doesn’t articulate any needs.

Should we call the cousin anyway? Does Janet not want to see the cousin, or does she just not want to bother? What would she want most? I have no way of answering these questions, and to push is the worst thing.

I can’t help but note a certain irony in observing his frustration, as in our relationship he tends to be the even-tempered, mild-mannered, occasionally passive one (which can be maddening for us impatient types). Now I know he learned this behavior from his mother, even though he doesn’t have the personal history to undergird it. Even though with the tables turned, her passivity can send him into a rage.


Last night I finally realized I have spent her entire visit feeling anxious — it’s my misplaced sense of responsibility again, plus the sense that as the daughter-in-law I need to make things nice, comfortable, relaxed. I’m exhausted and have no sense whether I’ve succeeded in the least.

It was our last weekend together, so we drove up to a rural lake where we know someone with a lakeside cabin. A beautiful day: zero traffic noise, the birds are singing. We take a short hike through the dark woods — the forest floor is so dense that it feels like you’re walking on mossy, spring-y sponges. After, we sit outside and drink wine (Janet only has a sip) and gaze out at the water.

For a moment, she grows unusually chatty, nostalgic. “When I was growing up, we had a wood near our house where I spent all my free hours,” she says in her rural New England accent, looking happy. “These woods are just like it, with lady’s slippers and rhododendrons and birches. We even had those wild roses that smell so good.” For a moment, I feel relaxed, as if we’ve reached a new level of comfort. We all fantasize about moving up there, having the money and the freedom from a job to live on that lake and hike those woods forever — and Janet insists that we get a place with a mother-in-law apartment.

We eat chicken pot pie for dinner, and she marvels at how good it is. We’re full and happy as we look out at the darkening lake.

But as we drive home through the dark, I’ve got no energy left for conversation and nor does anyone else, so we’re silent, and I feel like a failure again.


 There’s so much to admire in her, whether or not you know about her tragic family background. Even now, the image of the New England schoolteacher who went to Wyoming gives me huge pleasure, as if it’s inextricable from some screenplay in which the pretty young thing will ultimately shoulder a gun to kill a rattler, and marry the laconic hero in the end.

Janet has not lost a single nasalized iota of that New England accent, even after nearly 60 years in the wild west. I always heard that people with strong accents have strong personalities, so I try to reconcile my image of her with this refusal to change the accent.

What am I to do with this admirable woman who refuses to be admired? Who refuses to be even a secondary character in the story, much less the protagonist of her own tale? Who sits in the corner? Who has no needs or wants?

This analysis has no satisfying conclusion — I’m not sure we’re any closer than before, nor that it’d be possible to get closer. I’m baffled. But don’t mistake it for giving up.


12 Responses to “The mother-in-law mystery”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Just a remarkable piece of writing.

    Having recently seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I feel a kinship with those older folks. And now with Janet.

    You wrote that this analysis of Janet has no satisfying conclusion. But that is how life works – we are ourselves always despite the influences of time, age, geography, and the efforts of others.

    The conclusion that I have after reading this piece, about a woman I’ll never meet – is that reading this, and the images that occur in my head, about Janet, are in themselves more than satisfying.

    I’ll be happy to wait for the sequel to this slice of life.

    • Didion Says:

      Thanks, friend! It’s at least one attempt to understand a fascinating, inscrutable, evasive woman.

      Who knows? We just had yet another lovely dinner together, and she was more forthcoming than ever. But also not forthcoming. And tomorrow … who knows?

  2. Hattie Says:

    oh, be careful not to leap in and defend her. If you are a six, especially, as I am.

    • Hattie Says:

      Oh, and BTW: I LOVED Monster-in-law. It gave Jane Fonda a rare opportunity to show what a good comedian she is.

      • Didion Says:

        Yeah — and I must admit it’s sometimes hard to meet people and not think, “She sure seems like a Monster In Law to me.”

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, so interesting! I think after hearing these various stories about her not being wanted when she was young make me overly (misguidedly) eager that she feel welcome and included. But you’re right: I run a lot of risks in playing the sheepdog in this scenario. Point taken.

  3. tam Says:

    My response, as a newly assertive introvert, read this book:
    Introvert Power Why your Inner Life Is your Hidden Strength By Helgoe, Laurie A.

    And don’t try so hard. It’s your issue, not hers.

    And my wild guess about Janet’s feelings around visiting all her relatives? She’s not interested, but she’s doing it on sufferance. If your partner wants to keep contact with his relatives, why doesn’t he just go ahead and do it and stop dragging his mother into it.

    (Hmm, I guess this hint of irritation comes from personal experience. My sister has this propensity to keep in touch with all and sundry, and I’m not in the least bit interested.)

    • Didion Says:

      It’s more ambiguous than this. My partner wouldn’t stay in touch with anyone if he could get away with it, unless it could be achieved through email. If I read the situation correctly, Janet’s more afraid to inconvenience us than to tell us she’d like to take a weekend trip to Maine.

      But that’s a guess.

      I love the idea of Introvert Power!

  4. servetus Says:

    Whether you’re correct or not, I don’t care, this is just such a beautiful reflection, one of the most beautiful of many beautiful things you’ve written here.

    My mother isn’t quite this bad, but she has certain tendencies in this direction and I also interpret it as the result of a particular kind of childhood trauma (that in her case didn’t involve losing her parents but did involve similar kinds of threats about what would happen if she ever implied or acted in a way that indicated that anything she thought, felt, or did mattered independently of what others with power thought about it). I think it’s a great point about lacking a therapeutic framework — how do people like this change their worlds if they are not the protagonists of their own lives (and hence, if they are not the hero, cannot ever see themselves for one second as the victim?).

    re: babybook — maybe also placing w/r/t family? The clothing pieces also have family names associated with them.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, that’s interesting. It makes me curious to know about other women with tendencies toward passivity — again, true passivity rather than passive aggression — what is it that leads them to step out of the active role of agent? It’s so contrary to my post-1960s worldview that I have a hard time imagining such a subjectivity.

      Many thanks for the compliment. She’s someone who inspires so much curiosity; I mean, I really could imagine a film made of her life, but that’s about the farthest thing from her mind.

  5. […] which I am heavily in synch in terms of the general sentiment with Funky Blue Dandelion, I link Didion’s really great Mothers’ Day post about her mother-in-law. This is simply fantastic writing and […]

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