Philadelphia Metropolis


My Mother-In-Law's God

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By O.K. Pham

At a recent get-together, my friend Kate related to me the details of her fractured relationship with her in-laws. The troubles have escalated over the years; most stemming from the mother-in-law casually sidestepping the boundaries Kate and her husband have set. The examples she cited revealed a woman desperate to assert some influence on her grown son's life and the upbringing of her grandchildren.

I listened and sympathized, at times fully appreciating my friend's intense frustration. But the mother-in-law had been more meddlesome than malicious, and Kate's grievances in some instances were admittedly trivial. With three young kids, Kate and her husband occasionally rely on babysitting help from me and both of their families. But ever since the last altercation -- the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back -- Kate and her husband cut all communication with his parents. Their youngest son will soon have his first birthday party, but her in-laws haven't been notified of, let alone invited to, the event. Kate's family will certainly be present, along with the couple's few closest friends. I urged her to reconsider the decision to exclude the in-laws, insisting that they are still family. Her response to my suggestion was: "Some of us aren't as compromising as you, or as lucky to have such terrific in-laws."

Kate was right, especially about the second part. I was fortunate to marry into a family that accepted me from the beginning, despite our cultural differences (I am Vietnamese and my husband is Scottish/French). My mother-in-law at first worried that my soft-spoken manner would be overpowered by her not-so-quiet son, and she was always coming to my defense. Five years into our marriage, she finally stopped worrying about me when her son announced to his parents during a visit to their house after our biggest argument to date: "My wife has found her voice -- and it ain't a whisper!"

My own mother reserved a similar affection for my husband, who could rarely do any wrong in her eyes. Once she got past her first impression of him as a "loud and crazy Caucasian," she faithfully extolled his merits as a husband and a father. Naturally there were hurdles in our relationships, with the issue of religious faith being one that is impossible to clear.

My husband's family is devoutly Christian, and he was as well, until he turned 12. The Sunday sermons stopped making sense to him, so the questions in his head started to descend upon the beliefs in his heart, looking for answers. What he found was that faith required a kind of trust that wasn't posited on reason, and his inquisitive mind could no longer overlook the inconsistencies in these religious teachings. His rejection of Christianity extended to all the world religions that hail a divine being as the supreme creator of life. Both of us entered our marriage as atheists and agreed to raise our children following moral, not spiritual, precepts. Yet, at my in-laws' behest, our family has attended Mass at their church on several occasions. We've also experienced our fair share of baptisms, weddings and funeral services inside the church walls. I guess this is what Kate referred to as being "compromising."

My mother-in-law passed away in August. On her deathbed, she confided her worry about her grandkids growing up without God in their hearts, and the possibility of us not being able to reunite in heaven in the afterlife. My father-in-law recently brought over several books on Christianity that she had bought for our kids some time ago, and we graciously accepted them. We've always assured our children that we won't object to them embracing a certain faith -- but it has to be their choice, when they are old enough to choose. Despite the believers' eagerness to impose religious doctrines on young, impressionable minds, my husband and I see the good in waiting for the kids to determine for themselves what truly makes sense.

So, I advised my friend, don't nurture the small resentments. Let them go and remain civil, lest you steer your kids into thinking their grandparents don't care enough to be a part of their lives, all because the adults can't see eye to eye. My husband and I could have let this faith issue cause a rift in our relationship with his parents, especially when we felt they were silently disapproving the godless way in which we're raising our children. Although I couldn't promise my mother-in-law that we would all meet up someday, I had hoped she was comforted by her faith in those final moments of life. We've chosen to embrace each other in spite of our different beliefs, and in this choice the legacy of her love persists. Life remains too short, but we're still here, still lucky enough to be making memories.

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