09 March 2007

Let It All Hang Out

Here it comes: the mother of all mother-in-law posts. I feel a need to get the whole story out there.

The key things to know about my MIL are:
She is Korean and moved to the US when she was in her late 20s knowing no English.
She is a perfectionist.
She is incredibly intuitive about people.
She fights dirty and she would be the first to admit it.
She sees the world in absolutes: all or nothing, black or white.
She does not know the meaning of the word compromise.

When we first met, I think she genuinely liked me. For starters, she and GH's dad were both thrilled that one of their three kids was finally getting married. At 31, GH was past his prime in a Korean parent's mind. She liked that I was an editor (she's a writer) and that I had an interest in and respect for Korean culture. She liked that I was close to my family. She loved that I loved her son so much.

At first, our relationship was fine. She was then and still is on a quest to make me over; I don't dress stylishly enough for her or wear enough make-up. To try to fix this, she's always gifting me really nice shoes and handbags and clothes. I'm not going to argue with that, and I'm a strong enough person not to take that kind of things personally. So the reason that she bought me a Coach handbag is that she was horrified by my REI mini-backpack? So what? It's still a gorgeous Coach handbag!

I initially found her quirky. She's an intelligent, strong, well educated woman with no life skills. She is completely helpless when it comes to money or anything else practical. I think it's a learned helplessness--she's plenty smart to understand personal finance. She chooses not to. I found the juxtaposition between her uncanny book and people smarts and her complete lack of street smarts odd and kind of funny.

Fast forward, but just a few months because there was only eight months between when I met GH's family and when we got married. We get married. He gets his cancer diagnosis three weeks later. The day after he gets his diagnosis, his mom and dad show up at our house. At this point, GH is still working. He's actually transitioning to a new job. (Hello, can you say awkward? But that's another post.) I've taken a few days of unofficial, off-the-books leave from work because I am a complete and utter mess. This leaves me at home with GH's parents all day while GH works.

What happens in a nutshell is that they take over the house. They clean. They cook. They rearrange the furniture. They throw away things they don't like, including a painting done by a friend of ours. They buy us a new mattress and a few lamps. I'm so completely out of it that although I find their actions intrusive, I just don't have the wherewithall to stop them.

Meanwhile, GH and I are trying to make decisions about his treatment. We're talking to doctors, we're reading. So are his parents. GH and I are coming to different conclusions than his parents regarding action to take. This creates friction.

I dwell on this early stuff because from it emerge two themes that haunt me in my in-law relationship:

1. As Korean parents, they feel it is their duty to right to run their children's lives, especially in a time of crisis like this. To them, the home that GH and I share is just as much their home to do in as they please. They see no problem with taking over the kitchen, redecorating, etc. I find this almost impossible to deal with.

2. As a Korean son, it is GH's place to be dutiful and do what his parents tell him to do. When he and I started to make treatment decisions that they did not agree with, they could not accept that their dutiful son would not do what they said. So I became a convenient scapegoat. And thus I have remained.

When I say "they" in reference to GH's parents, I really mean his mother. Honestly, GH's dad is not so bad. If I had to boil down my beef with my MIL to one core issue it's that she shows no respect for me, my home, or my relationship with her son. I readily acknowledge that much of this is cultural--she is the elder, she is my MIL. OK, I get it, I really do. But I am not Korean and we are living in the United States. The cultural thing has to be a two-way street. She has to be wiling to acknowledge that as an American daughter-in-law, my expectations are going to be different. And she steadfastedly refuses to see that. I cannot be the only one to compromise here, I just can't.

And thus from that beginning we have had a two-and-a-half year spiral of GH and I making joint decisions that, if his mother doesn't like, she blames on me. Meanwhile, we're struggling with the usual mother/daughter-in-law stuff, the "You took my son away from me" stuff that I think the majority of MsIL and daughters in law go through, we just have it layered on top of this horrible cancer situation.

I feel like what I want is so simple. I want her to respect me and GH as a couple. I want her to stop trying to run our lives. I know this is not nearly as simple as it seems since she's just doing her job as she sees it.

I wish she could see how much her constant badgering wears on GH. He's exhausted after he talks to her. It's nothing but "Do this! Eat that! Wear this! Drink that!" She's really into alternative medicine and some of her suggestions are really ridiculous, too. (In fairness, some are good, but some? Crazy.) She sends us nearly a package a day. She'll Express Mail us boxes that cost $30.00 to send and contain a Ziploc bag of almonds. We have almonds in Boston! So we have to open the package, deal with recycling the box, find somewhere to put the almonds in our tiny house. She once sent us a five-pound Tupperware of seaweed salad. I love seaweed salad, but we can't eat five pounds of it! Especially five pounds that has been SENT THROUGH THE MAIL.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful. Why can't I just open the boxes, trash what we don't want, and move on, you might ask? That's what we do, but I still resent the time I spend doing it. It may not sound like much, but the sheer volume of stuff she sends creates a time drain in the processing. I barely have enough time to think, much less open endless boxes of stuff I don't need or want. I'm also bothered by the udnerlying control issue. I want to control my own life. Every box she sends is a reminder of how she's trying to do this job for me.

I know she's terrified of losing her son and she's just doing what she needs to do to deal with that. She sends stuff and bosses GH around. GH's dad goes to church for hours and hours each week. His sister talks and talks and talks and engages in some self-destructive behavior. His brother tries to keep life as normal as possible. We all have our ways of dealing with things. His mom's just happens to have a direct impact on our day-to-day life that I find draining and intrusive.

It's so tiring to write about and I'm so sick of thinking about it. I'm sick of accommodating her needs. I'm sick of the packages. I'm sick of her wasting GH's precious energy. I'm sick of being the scapegoat. I'm sick of her childish behavior. When she comes to visit, she expects that we will drive her to the mall, to Barnes and Noble, so she won't get bored. I need all my reserves to care for me, GH, and the babies! I cannot be running her all over tarnation!

This whole situation is exacerbated by the fact that I have a great relationship with my parents and welcome their visits. When they come to visit, they do everything they can to take care of me, GH, and the babies. They shop for groceries, they ask what we want to eat and they cook it, they ask what they can do to help and do what we request. They encourage GH to rest. They respect us and our home. That's the bottom line.

Writing about it makes it sound like it's not that bad. My MIL is not here much. I suppose I should be able to grin and bear it when she is. I just don't like being treated like a child, even if I'm married to her child. I'm used to being treated like an adult. I don't know.

This is a long, somewhat senseless post. There's really nothing to do. I am her scapegoat. GH telling her to back off just sounds like, "Snick told you to tell me to back off" to her. I'm behind every decision GH makes that she doesn't like. I can't change that. She won't compromise, so there's no meeting in the middle, and I'm too tired at this point to meet her on her side.

I am a problem-solver, but I've gone around and around on this one and I can't find the solution. I've asked her how we can work together to help GH. She won't discuss it with me. What else can I do?

We want the same thing. We want GH to be healthy and happy. She refuses to accept that GH and I are the ones to decide how to make that happen. She wants to make those decisions that aren't hers to make. She keeps trying to control.

It's exhausting. If anyone is still reading, you must be exhausted, too, from the sheer magnitude of how much I've written.

I think I'll go get ready for bed and snuggle with GH. I need a hug.


OTRgirl said...

I'm so glad you posted all this. In some ways just the length of the post conveys how much there is to deal with. You were very fair in how you wrote about her and the situation. I imagine you do the same when you're dealing with her, but you're right, if she won't compromise then you're stuck. Cause really, what can you do? Maybe your upstairs neighbor would like some care packages? ;-)

Feeling stuck and trapped with the only solution being to endure it is such an overwhelming feeling. Sigh. I send you a virtual hug, sympathy, and box disposal service...

Robin J. said...

I understand completely how you feel with dealing with your MIL. I am a nonkorean married to a korean for nearly 18 years now. We have three terrific kids and live 6 miles from my inlaws. Even though my husband is not sick with cancer, I have experienced from time to time what you talk about because my husband has high blood pressure and high cholestrol. My MIL gives my husband a million different Chinese medicines and "natural" medicines to take along side of his prescribed medicine. We live in a tiny house with five people. We don't even have a pantry. Where is all this "stuff" supposed to go when there is no way one can consume it all (or should at one time)? They spend hundreds of dollars on things that they have heard from a friend of a friend that make a difference.

After 18 years, my inlaws have come to terms with the fact that I am no Korean and therefore must treat me (and even my husband!) differently than if I was a Korean DIL. Thankfully that means we have some space even though they live so close. I think my husbands attitude too has helped the situation. Early on he did not return his parents' calls immediately. He has used the children as excuses as to why we cannot do things. He has patiently listened to a "lecture" and then has explained in detail why we have chosen a different path and how it is a successful path. He, basically, has not "jumped" quickly which has in turn been interpreted as we cannot be manipulated easily. I think it has all helped. But my husband is not sick like yours.

It's a sticky thing -- wanting to love and respect the family of your husband and the grandparents of your children. Keeping that in mind yet setting boundaries for your family is something that must be done but methodically and respectfully (in my opinion). Even though it is unfair that you must deal with one more (big) issue, it probably would serve you well to plan ahead with your husband as to how to deal directly with these issues. Because even though he is the one with the medical problem, your sanity should not be overlooked.

I hope that you have a wonderful weekend.

Klynn said...

Yikes. It's not like you don't have enough to deal with, without having to worry about in-law tensions. I'm glad that you can think it through and write about it so eloquently. At least you understand the situation, even though it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

It's kinda like PMS...you know it's coming, you know why you feel the way you do, and yet you still either cry at the drop of a hat, or snap someone's head off without warning. In your case, you understand why your MIL does the things she does, but it doesn't keep you from being driven batshit crazy by it. But it will help you mitigate your response.

I'm extremely lucky with my MIL. She's a dear. But whever Bob's being particularly irritating, she gives me a look that says, he's your problem now. Heh.

Hope you got in some good snuggle time, and that things are looking brighter.

Leggy said...

I think you've been more than fair in your description here. You understand why she is the way she is, but it still drives you crazy. And you are right to be frustrated that its not a two-way street. Our circumstances are different, but I have similar feelings about my inlaws re: respecting where their family ends and ours begins, and recognizing that there are certain things I will never get from them.
I wish I had some good advice, but all I've got to offer is a vigorous nod in agreement that its incredibly aggrevating and my sympathies.

Anonymous said...

You cannot control what she hears. It's still important for GH to tell her to back off. Also, you cannot work with her. She doesn't want that.

Problem solving only works when both parties want it too. Boundary setting is the next, difficult step but the crazy will go up if unchecked.

Best of luck.


Steph said...

I have experienced many of the same MIL woes that you have, although my MIL is Eastern European. One of the most offensive things she did (besides hanging curtains that she picked out) was to open our wedding presents while we were on our honeymoon and then tape them all closed again. She still talks about how cheap certain relatives were with their gifts and we've been married 15 years. Unfortunately my husband didn't have a clue that she was doing anything unusual because he was raised in a totally insular community and had very little to do with mainstream America until he went to college. The good news is that our relationship has completely turned around over the last few years because she is is so happy with the way the kids are turning out. I'm the one who takes the to church and to soccer, both things that are very important to her. So now I would actually say I love her when ten years ago I would have said I hated her (and meant it).

Christine said...

Ah, Snick. While your situation is different than mine, many of the cultural things you describe are inherent to my own situation.

My MIL is Italian. My husband is an only child. She holds on way too tight and has a need to be a control freak. While I am almost pure Italian myself, I need more space than an astronaut, as my hubby says. We've gone through her calling every day, wanting to come in our house when we're not home, planning her own birthday party and paying for it and saying we did it, etc. etc. etc. She tries to be a mom to me. I have a mother and don't need another one. Honestly, the way I've found to deal with it is to let hubby deal with her and be polite when we interact. It's not perfect, but it beats being frustrated and annoyed all the time.

When it comes to relationships, especially with someone you've got embedded in your life, sometimes it pays to pick your battles. I think you've been eloquent and more than fair with your description of her, but it also may be a matter of accepting certain things and fighting over others to save your energy for important stuff -- like taking care of your children and GH.

Hang in there. And keep posting. I'll keep reading.

Frederic Guarino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

OMG, my particulars are different, but I could have written this post. I SO understand how you feel. Especially the "Snick told me to tell you to back off" part. Every decision he makes that they like is from him, every decision he makes that they don't like is from me. I can't win.

You are kind of where I was two or three years ago. And I don't know the answer, but I hope it turns out better than my situation did. Even though I don't see my MIL anymore, she is ever present cloud of a failed relationship that hangs over me. I do understand how you feel, and I do hope you can hang in there and stay true to what you and GH need.

kim said...

Did we marry into the same family?

No answers here, just sending you lots of hugs and sympathy... and extra strength (or desserts) to get through dealings with the MIL.

Sam said...

In a less volatile situation, her actions would still bug the crap out of you. I'm amazed that you haven't snapped and thrown her out of your house. Not respecting your home is VERY hard to deal with in a MIL. VERY HARD. I had one of those. I wanted to strangle her. Oh, and she was a generic white mom born and raised in California but she pulled the same stuff. Ug. I feel for you.