AS OUR PLANE touched down in the sweltering airport of San Pedro Sulas, Honduras, my mother-in-law glanced at me with a grin. "Are you ready for this?"
Inwardly, I wasn't too sure. After all, I would be spending the next two weeks with my in-laws, while my husband, Rob, remained in the States to work. We would be visiting Rob's sister, her Honduran husband, and their new baby.
My thoughts flew back to an evening in California just one and a half years earlier, after Rob had proposed and taken me home to meet his parents. Having come from an openly affectionate family, I was taken aback when his mom and dad didn't hug me during the introductions, or even act particularly enthusiastic to meet me. Rob had warned me the way his family expressed love was different from minebut his reminder did little to ward off my fears about their lukewarm reception.
Now here I was, left nearly alone with a woman whose opinion of me had the power to affect my marriage for better or for worse. Though we'd had many pleasant telephone conversations since Rob and I married, I wasn't quite sure where I stood with her.
Over the next two weeks, as we climbed ancient Mayan ruins, waded in the Caribbean, and laughed over the iguanas literally climbing through the house walls, I discovered more than just a new person to call "Mom." I found a new woman to call "friend."
Our ways of showing love were definitely different. But as we got to know each other, we discovered wonderful similarities. In a tiny mountainside shop we each were drawn to the same brightly colored material. We found ourselves ordering the same meals at restaurants, and discovered we had the same taste in music. Long talks in the evenings revealed we enjoyed many of the same hobbies. We even shared a similar sense of humor!
One afternoon I came across a list of hers labeled, "Things to do when I get back to the States." Underneath phrases like "check the mail" and "call Mike and Sharon," I carefully penciled in the words, "send Shawnee chocolate chip cookies," just to do something unexpected to make her laugh. She did laugh, and returned the favor with her own jokes over the next several days.
As I learned during my two weeks in Central America, throwing aside your culturally built-in fear of your mother-in-law is only as difficult as you make it. So how can you take the first step toward finding the friend in your mother-in-law?
Communication: It's key to any friendshipbut especially with the one woman in the world who loves your husband as much as you do. After investing 18 years or more of her life in this man, she's unprepared for him to "disappear" into the world you two create. So the simple act of keeping your mother-in-law informed on the happenings of your daily life with her son will draw her to you like nothing else.
Beginning the habit of communication with your mother-in-law can be as easy as responding to her efforts. "The best thing my mother-in-law did was start writing me letters as soon as she found out Chris and I were serious," says Becky McCullison, a youth minister's wife in Arkansas. "Her first letter was short, and I could tell she was nervous. When I wrote back, I had a lot to say because I'd been in Scotland that summer. Her next letter was more open and relaxed. We wrote each other weekly all summer, throughout the engagement, and during the first couple years Chris and I were married."
In addition to the telephone and "snail mail," e-mail makes inexpensive communication as simple as spending a few moments at the keyboard. "My mother-in-law and I e-mail each other nearly every day," says Rhonda, a school teacher. She adds with a grin, "If it weren't for that continual contact, I never would have discovered what a terrific sense of humor she has."
Give Peace a Chance
Laurie spent several hours one afternoon telling me how much her mother-in-law disliked her, and how much she wished they could get along. Speaking with the older woman a few days later, I heard almost the exact same story. "Laurie doesn't like me, and I don't think she ever will," Evelyn moaned as she stirred her coffee, "but I'd give anything if we could just be friends." The unrest between the two women has gone on for years, but neither's willing to take the risks involved in mending the relationship.
Wanting to be liked is a basic human instinctso instead of assuming the worst, think of your relationship with your mother-in-law as a friendship waiting to be built rather than a wall needing to be torn down.
Find Ties That Bind
Simple activities such as a shared hobby can pull two people together. "My mother-in-law, Judy, and I like to do the Jumble puzzle in the paper," says Shannon, a software engineer in Phoenix. "She calls me from work and says, 'Okay, I've got one for you s, t, r, e, m, a.' A second or two will go by, and then I'll say, 'Master!' It's something simple we can share. We also like to discuss movies. I value her opinion, though I don't always agree with it. But that's because we have slightly different tastes in movies."
Some relationships require a bit of "testing" before the right "feel" is found. "The hardest thing," relates Kathy Kahn, a 29-year-old real-estate agent, "was that our families expressed love in different ways. I can't count the times my mother-in-law sent me some little gift or card out of the blue, but she would never say 'I love you,' as my mother would do. I saw my mother-in-law's gifts both as poor stewardship and as an attempt to 'buy' my love."
After going through old diaries, Kathy realized her lower-income family had deliberately chosen to show love verbally rather than monetarily. Kathy talked it over with her mother-in-law, who revealed she'd grown up in a wealthy family where no one ever said the words "I love you" out loud.
"Our relationship improved 100 percent once we understood where the other was coming from," says Kathy. "I realize now we don't have to be alike to like each other. That's made our friendship more interesting."
Let God Be the Glue
"The basis of our friendship is our shared Christian faith," says Gayle Gresham, a writer in Colorado. "I start many of our conversations with, 'I have a theological question for you ' and we both know we're about to have an interesting, enlightening conversation."
By building their relationship on the One who never changes, both women have a solid meeting ground. As the younger Christian, Gayle has learned to lean on her mother-in-law for spiritual support. "Helene's been my mentor since the beginning of my marriage. She's answered my questions and helped me grow in my faith."
Not every woman's blessed with the gift of a Christian mother-in-law, however. If your mother-in-law isn't yet a Christian, pray for her and continue your efforts to share Christ's love with her.
ABOUT TWO WEEKS after the Honduran vacation, a large box arrived for me at our local post office. Glancing at the return address label, I wondered what I had left with Rob's parents at the airport. Inside the package were 10 different brand-name boxes of chocolate chip cookies. The only note from Mom? "You didn't specify what kind!"
SHAWNEE MCCARTY FLEENOR is a writer and speaker who lives with her husband in Missouri.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.