It’s no secret that for most of the last two decades, I really didn’t get on very well with my late mother-in-law. I’ve been musing on explaining how we finally made peace for a while, and I think that maybe this is as good as time as any, because maybe it will help someone else out there to make peace with a ‘difficult’ family member, too.
Before we dive in, here are some emuna principles that are going to affect the whole way we see these challenging relationships in our lives.
1) God is doing everything, and is behind everyone’s nasty, hurtful behavior
2) Everything is ultimately for our good
3) There is a messaged encoded in absolutely everything, about what we ourselves need to change, work on or fix.
Here’s some more general emuna principles that we’ll need as we go along:
1) The whole world is a mirror - whatever ucky stuff you are seeing in someone else (that’s still really disturbing you, annoying you, or causing some sort of negative emotional reaction) - you’ve got some flavor, some aspect of that issue yourself that needs addressing.
2) Children (especially below the age of bar and bat mitzvah) are just the mirrors of their parents.
3) A husband and wife are two halves of the same soul. Whatever you experienced, the other half also experienced it, albeit in a different way, externally. Whatever good you have in you, they have it in them. Whatever strength, whatever weakness, the other person also has it, just probably in a more obvious or more hidden way.
4) The spouse has to be the #1 priority in the other spouse’s life, ahead of work, kids, friends, learning Torah and even, parents and siblings. This principle is enshrined in every single one of Rav Shalom Arush’s books on family life and shalom bayit.
With those basic emuna principles out the way, let’s begin.
I didn’t know this stuff when I got married at 23. I’d moved around a lot as a kid, had a very ‘chaotic’ sort of childhood and on some level, was looking for a stable, solid family to join and to try to be ‘normal’ for a change.
This is a very common aspect of why opposites so often attract, because you know what you had wasn’t so great, and you’re trying to go over to the other extreme to make it ‘different’ in your own family life. But extremes are never healthy or helpful, in the long-term.
So, God sent me my husband, and right from the start there were a number of issues between me and my husband’s very stable, very ‘normal’ family, and especially with his mother, that often took the form of us arguing about eating in their (not so kosher…) home.
After a year of marriage, we stopped going up to their house for Yom Tov, and as we gradually got more observant, we found it harder and harder to eat there.
At that time, I blamed my mother-in-law 100% for what was going on. Why couldn’t she be more accommodating of our need to eat properly kosher food?! Why couldn’t she be more flexible?! What was the big deal, really, to try to kosher her kitchen so we could eat there?!
It took me years and years to figure out that on her side of the equation, I was expecting things that reasonably, she just couldn’t give me. Keeping her house properly kosher would set her apart from her whole extended family, make it very awkward to shop and eat the things she wanted to eat, and there were probably other more hidden reasons too, why she just couldn’t do that.
In the meantime, cooking food for her children was one of the primary ways that my mother-in-law showed her love for my husband - and I’d just stopped her from doing that.
The food wasn't really the problem
If either of us had been a bit more informed at that point about the deeper reasons why we were increasingly getting on each other’s nerves, things would have been so different.
If someone could have sat me down and explained:
“Rivka, you are very scared that your husband is going to choose his family, and what they want and decide, over you. And that would be absolutely awful, because you grew up always thinking that no-one was on your side, and that you’d always have to fight to get what you needed.
"You have a deep, soul-level need to feel like your husband is 100% behind you and on your side.”
That would have been very helpful. But that wouldn’t have only been half the explanation required. That same ‘someone’ would also then have needed to explain:
“Your mother-in-law feels very challenged by you. She loves her son dearly, and she wants to still be a part of his life. She can feel that he’s slipping away, and she’s fighting that every step of the way, not because she’s nasty or hates you, but because underneath it all, she’s actually very insecure and scared of losing him.”
If my mother-in-law herself had been consciously aware of this, and if she’d have been able to tell me her fears, we’d have been able to work together, and understand and appreciate each other, in such a different way. As it was, that didn’t happen.
As it was, the more she could feel him slipping away, the more she started blaming me for all the distance and issues, which made me feel increasingly uncomfortable and ‘unwanted’ around her, which made me want to spend less and less time with my husband’s family, which made my mother-in-law feel her son was slipping further and further away.
And so the cycle continued and deepened.
We got locked in a huge power-struggle, each one convinced that the other one was trying to do everything in their power to hurt and upset and score points when really, it was our own unspoken insecurities and fears that were calling the shots.
This post could go on for months if I gave more of the gory details, so let’s sum up the really bad situation that we ultimately got to, and then how God helped me to turn it around.
Around 2 years ago, things with my mother-in-law were at an all-time low. We were barely speaking. Acrimony, insults and accusations attended every call and email. Things got so bad that my husband’s health was really starting to suffer from the stress of it all.
For my part, I’d effectively given up on trying to fix things, and just hoped that any interaction could be kept to a minimum, and not damage my family too much, it had just gotten so poisonous and toxic.
But then, a series of events occurred with one of my children that underscored a very, very important principle that I hadn’t realized before:
We are all connected.
Just as kids are the mirrors of their parents, grandkids can also reflect their grandparents in a number of ways. When one of my kids started really struggling emotionally, I went through a whole bunch of stuff it could be, until I was left with one thing on the table: she was reflecting my mother-in-law.
And the only way I could help my kid to resolve her issues, I increasingly came to see, was if I tried to help my mother-in-law resolve hers. Which meant reaching out. Which meant trying to speak to her civilly again. Which meant understanding that underneath all the nastiness that had gone on, my beloved wonderful daughter and my MIL were actually pretty similar characters, in some ways.
That stage was really, really tough for a number of reasons. For years, I’d been pretending that my MIL was all bad. I hadn’t been seeing the good in her, I hadn’t been acknowledging that she had a lot of fine qualities, because it’s so much easier to fight with people and to stay ‘justifiably’ angry when you paint them as being all-black and evil.
Again, without going into all the finer details, God sent me a number of clues that helped me to realize why my MIL had been reacting and acting the way she had, right from the beginning of our relationship, and that a lot of it had actually been beyond her ability to control.
All of us in 2018 are traumatized...
She’d been extremely traumatized as a child by a number of things, and those sub-conscious reactions had been calling most of the shots in our ‘war’, the same way my sub-conscious reaction had on my side of the equation.
But things had gone too far, and been too horrible for too long, for a frank conversation to be enough to fix the problem.
Once I realized that, I told my husband we had had to give Rav Berland a pidyon on behalf of his mother, without telling her what we were doing (as ‘religion’ was still a very sore subject), and hope that God would clean the klipot out of the way.
So that’s what we did. It was a fairly big amount of money, and for three months, I didn’t hear a word from my MIL, although my daughter’s issues thankfully completely cleared up immediately.
Everything changed around
Until that fateful day around 10 months’ ago, when she phoned my husband a completely changed woman. She invited us to come visit her in the UK - on her tab - and made a huge effort to reassure us that she’d do whatever it would take to make us feel comfortable.
We were both so shocked, so happily, incredibly shocked, by the turnaround. And I was also so impressed, that someone who had suffered what she had, and gone through what she did, had the inner fortitude and strength to really turn things around, from her end, and to make a huge effort to fix what had been broken.
We went, we had a really good time, I finally let my guard down with my kids enough to leave them alone with my MIL for hours on end, so they could just talk without me breathing down their neck, and it was so good, and so healing, for everyone involved.
I also had a big chat with my MIL that visit, and while there was still some distance between us, we tied up a whole bunch of loose ends, and I think we started to appreciate the good in the other person much more than we ever had before. When we returned to Israel I made a real effort to start including her in our life more. I sent her pictures, I encouraged the kids to write to her and call her and text her, and reminded my husband to call her every week.
We had six months to patch things up, and to fix things, and I’m so glad we did, because right after Rosh Hashana, my MIL unexpectedly passed away.
I had a feeling that was on the cards, so before Rosh Hashana I made a big effort that each of my kids, and my husband, should have a long, real chat with her. My husband called her before he flew out to Uman, and he told me he’d just had the nicest, most real chat he’d ever had with her, and felt really good about having his mum back in his life.
That was their last conversation.
At the funeral, the Rabbi explained just how much of a force for good my MIL had been in her local Jewish community, constantly helping out and doing a whole bunch of kindnesses for people, and my eyes filled with tears.
In 2018, the yetzer is working overtime to convince us all that our mother-in-laws, and daughter-in-laws, and husbands, and kids, and parents etc etc etc are all just all-bad ucky horrible ‘erev rav’ type people.
“Give up on them and walk away! The problem is 100% on their side! If you can cut them out of your life, everything will be fine!”
This is such utter baloney.
We’re all connected. Whatever is not fixed and rectified will just keep popping up in the kids and grandkids until someone finally stands up and says ‘the buck stops here!! No more blaming other people or passing this down the line to future generations. We have to deal with it and fix the problem!”
And how do we fix the problem?
By working on ourselves.
I had to do so much work on my own anger, vengeance, blame, fear and other bad middot until I could finally see what was actually happening and why, and before my compassion for my MIL could become the guiding force in our relationship.
For as long as I was blaming her for everything, we were stuck - and my kids and my husband were also stuck and everyone was suffering so badly. Once I took the step of choosing to see the good in her, and choosing to see my own ‘bad’ in creating the situation, things could start to move.
Still with so much prayer, and so much help from the Tzaddikim, but BH, I had all the things I needed to really deal with the problem at its root.
And I’m so pleased I did, for so many reasons.
I could write out a whole bunch of ‘guidelines’ on how to navigate these tricky relationships that we all seem to have today. But it really comes down to this:
Look for the message the situation contains about what you need to work on, instead of just hating and blaming the other person.
God is 100% just using the awkward people in our lives to achieve something. Don’t bite the ‘stick’, just go back to God and try to figure out what’s going on.
Because in every argument and difficulty we have, we are never 100% blameless, and there is always work to do. And if we don’t knuckle down and try to sort things out, then our kids will be left to deal with that mess instead.
And that’s the last thing that any of us really wants to happen.
For the ilui neshama of Sarah bat Hinda - S, you drove me so bonkers but by the end, I was actually really glad to have you as my MIL. Thanks to our joint effort to sort things out, your kids and grandchildren are really blossoming now. I’m looking after your son really well, don’t worry! BH, this post will help other MILs and DILs bury their differences, and work together to help their families mend and heal.