Dodging the barbs

I knew my mother-in-law and I would get along. We had similar goals, we both worked, we both enjoyed learning and attending shiurim. She greeted me with a warm hug the first time we met. We even shared a similar aesthetic (little makeup, low maintenance), which I appreciated during the wedding planning. We even had similar coloring—light brown hair and blue eyes. The first year I was married she enjoyed showing me off at shul and events she took me to, telling her friends how lucky she felt to have me join their small family, like I was a second daughter. She’d rushed to help me at the hospital when I was in labor and my mother wasn’t in town yet. My mother-in-law visited the new baby and me weekly on her way home from work and offered to babysit whenever we needed. I’d gotten used to sharing little stories of my adjustment to motherhood and how much I missed my old job during her weekly visits to our house. While she was much more of a neatnik than I was and much more into health food, she’d rarely criticized my less organic meal choices. So I was surprised when our relationship began to change after the birth of our second child. On Sundays, we’d sometimes meet my in-laws for a stroll and bubbie-zeidie bonding time. One Sunday the weather was crisp, so to keep warm we had to keep walking. The men—my husband and father-in-law—had overtaken us and were at least 500 feet ahead and out of earshot.


It was the first nice day after a long winter; it felt like all of New York City had come out to get some fresh air. “When do you think you’re going back to work?” my mother-in law-asked me. I wasn’t worried about discussing this topic with her. We’d broached it before since she’d balanced a career with family for many years. “I’m still looking right now,” I admitted. “I’m not sure if I should go back into sales. The hours are so intense.” My palms were sweaty; I was nervous about an interview I had that week. “You’d be much thinner if you went back to work,” my motherin-law told me. The comment hit hard. I had never had any trouble staying thin and in shape and I had excelled at my job, until I had two kids in less than two years and lost momentum in my diet and my career. I hadn’t slid easily back into my work schedule the way we all expected. There was no humidity to blame when I dabbed my eyes with the corner of my trench coat. I didn’t know how to respond. “Yeah,” I conceded. “You’re right.” I bumbled down the path, our strides matching as we tried to catch up with the men in silence. When we got home, I was tense and grumpy. I didn’t want to disrupt the peace of my marriage, so I told my husband I had a headache and went to lie down after getting the babies to sleep. I remembered all the advice in the books I’d read, which said never complain to your spouse about his parents. I kept my mouth closed, but my mother-in-law’s jab hurt, and I became self-conscious about eating in front of her.

The next time we were together was at a restaurant to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday. When the men got up to wash and my sister-in-law was in the ladies’ room, my mother-in-law whispered to me, “The portions are big here—we should probably split something.” As a nursing mother who’d forgotten to eat lunch, I was hungry. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share what my mother-in-law was ordering. Yet I didn’t want to increase the cost of the party, so I agreed, and left for home two hours later starving. Neither she nor my sister-in-law ordered dessert, and I wasn’t going to indulge alone. “I’m hungry,” I said to my husband on the way home. My stomach grumbled on cue. “We just ate,” he replied, oblivious to the edge in my voice. “Nice place, right?” “Yeah, it was,” I admitted. “But… I don’t know…your mother wanted me to share her entrée.” “Oh,” he said, sounding far away. My shoulders were clenched for the rest of the ride. Again, I excused myself early, opting to read a book in bed to help contain my insecurity. I stepped on the scale the next morning to find I weighed more than I had when I was nine months pregnant. I felt depressed and decided to watch my diet. For my birthday, my mother-in-law brought me a beautifully wrapped gift from my favorite clothing store. “Try it on,” she urged me, taking the baby out of my arms. “I’m worried it might be small.” She’d chosen a muted ensemble in size XXL in the exact shade of gray I liked. I knew I’d gained, but I’d imagined I was shedding the baby weight.

The skirt was two inches too large, while the arms of the blouse extended past the tips of my fingers. “The color’s beautiful,” I called from my room into the hall where my mother-in-law was waiting with the baby. I put my regular stretchy black skirt, shell and cardigan back on, checking for stains in the mirror. “How did it fit?” my mother-in-law pushed, waiting for an answer as she stroked my daughter’s cheek with love and gentleness. “It was a little big,” I admitted, looking at the floor. “Thanks so much for thinking of me. It was so thoughtful of you to get something from my favorite store.” I took the baby back in my arms. We sat on the couch chatting about this and that until it was time for me to go pick up my other daughter from play group. I followed my mother-in-law out the door of my building, thumping the carriage down the steps. When my husband came home, he noticed I was down. I was sprawled on the couch while the kids dumped the toy baskets on the floor. “What’s wrong?” he asked, scooping up both kids in his strong arms, like a bear. “Your mother came today,” I told him. “She bought me a belated birthday gift.” “That’s nice,” he said, not picking up my negative energy, thankfully. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, sitting up and adjusting my snood. “She bought me a huge outfit. I hate to say this to you—I know I’m not supposed to say anything about your parents—but I get the impression that it was deliberate and that your mother is trying to tell me that I’m too fat.” “I’m sure she didn’t mean you’re fat,” my husband said. “She probably just didn’t want to get something too small.” My husband didn’t get it. I grimaced before reaching to pick up the baby.

The next blow happened the Shabbos we spent at my in-laws’ cozy apartment. The men at shul, the kids tucked in bed, my motherin-law started up again. “I told all the ladies about how hard it’s been for you lately, with the nursing and working and getting Malky adjusted to play group. Since I didn’t really have the same difficulties,” she continued, leaning back into the velvet couch, “Mrs. Fox had some ideas for you…” I wanted to disappear, slither between the soft cushions and hide my face so my mother-in-law wouldn’t see the horror I felt. It was too much of a shock for me to process whether she was genuinely trying to help me or not. I was mortified and definitely would not make an appearance at shul, even if she offered to watch the baby. “Thanks,” I managed to respond. “Interesting.” Over Shabbos I struggled to fill conversation gaps, feeling chagrined that my private battles had been aired in public—even if that public were the kind ladies at my in-laws’ small shul. I’d confided in my mother-in-law as if she were my own mother or aunt, expecting the same camaraderie and discretion I’d have exercised with my own family—especially since my mother lived in Chicago, where she was busy running a business and caring for my younger sisters. Instead of feeling cared for, I felt betrayed and exposed,thinking that all my insecurities at work and at home had become fuel for others’ conversations. I spent the rest of Shabbos on guard, tense and exhausted.

We got home, put the kids to bed and finally sat down to drink tea for melaveh malkah. My eyes hurt from not sleeping well; my brain hurt from dodging the sideways comments and trying to protect my secrets from my mother-in-law’s ears. “Eli,” I said, so upset I felt justified breaking the sacred rule not to make negative comments about a spouse’s parents. “Your mother says really not nice stuff about me to her friends.” “Nah,” he said in her defense. “She wouldn’t do that.” “She told them how I’ve struggled with work and the kids’ schedules, and she’s always commenting about my weight, like I told you before. I can’t go there anymore. I’m sorry.” “It’s a misunderstanding,” Eli continued, twisting the teacup in circles on the table. “It’s not,” I said, wondering how else I could explain how uneasy and insulted I felt by his mother’s comments. “You’re really making a big deal about nothing,” Eli insisted. “My parents love you.” There was no point extending the conversation. It was over. Eli couldn’t understand what he hadn’t witnessed. His disbelief made me doubt whether the conversations had transpired the way I remembered.

Maybe there was room for misinterpretation. All of these fuzzy possibilities were more comfortable than facing a mother-in-law who made competitive and degrading remarks in private. With the issue unresolved and quietly ignored, I reached out less and less to my mother-in-law. I also didn’t share any of her barbs with my husband. Three years passed this way. I then found out by accident that I hadn’t been invited to my mother-in-law’s seventieth birthday bash. “I thought you’d be too busy with the kids,” she’d told me over the phone, after mentioning how much fun she’d had with my sister-in-law and her friends. “I’m glad it was nice,” I told her, and I meant it. I let the initial shock of being left out wash over me. I breathed out and let it go. I didn’t tell Eli about this either. I’d learned over the years that sharing his mother’s snide comments left me feeling isolated. He couldn’t understand; his bond with his mother made it impossible for him to see her in this light. So I’d practiced ignoring her comments little by little, year by year, working to internalize the truth— that it wasn’t my fault, or my problem. It has paid off in many ways. Ignoring her barbs has enabled our family to celebrate milestones and simchos together, along with Pesach and the occasional Shabbos, in peace. When the kids beg me to visit her, it feels like a triumph. I have refused to let her misguided, insensitive and awkward input damage my relationship with Eli or with her.

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