Friday, April 03, 2009


When my younger brother was first engaged, his in-laws pushed right into my insular family's life and made themselves at home.

Almost literally. But actually figuratively.

After having my parents over to their house first, they called back and asked if they could come over to our house for brunch. Oh, and could my parents make sure that all of their children were there so that they could meet them, too?

We were all a little taken aback.

But by the time we got to the wedding, we felt so comfortable with them that the foreignness of a Hindu service felt incidental. We had been to several family events at that point and felt known. When I attended the sandeep on the night before the wedding, I knew the names of most of the people who told me how lovely I looked in my dress. How different from my experience with marriage!

My in-laws saw me as a threat from the very beginning. I was this bourgeoisie girl who didn't laugh at their racist jokes. Actually, I have no idea what they actually thought of me. They never spoke to me directly unless we were part of a group and I was only 21 years old and didn't know any better. I felt their disapproval and retreated into a victim mindset. I protected myself by not offered any parts of myself to be disapproved of. I was quiet at their house (I know! Me!) and didn't invite them to mine. When they would call and ask for Dennis without saying more than hello to me, I let them.

Whatever they thought of me, they behaved as if they were threatened by me. They were kind sometimes; I remember that my mother-in-law bought a case of Coca-Cola for me once she learned I didn't like Pepsi. But when I refused the second and third that she offered me on the same Sunday afternoon, she crossed her arms and walked away in a huff. Mostly, we tolerated each other. I later learned that my ex-husband reinforced this separation by telling each side what they wanted to hear. If we couldn't compare stories, neither side would discover his lies.

I remember feeling especially hurt by my in-laws' behavior as we were planning the wedding. I spent a week in Minnesota with them and pulled out several bridal magazines and books when we first got there. I put them on the coffee table and said to his mom, "I brought these so we could be girls while the guys fish and talk about dresses and stuff." She was noncommittal in response and we literally did not speak about the wedding until the last day when Dennis forced the issue. Once we got home, she would ambush him when he went home and ask him questions about what I was planning. Once, she asked, "Is she wearing a white dress?" What a question! Clearly, she had a stake in what happened at our wedding and clearly she thought that nothing would be what she expected.

Jacob's parents are wonderful. I told him they were 10% of why I was marrying him. Their relationship and the family that they have raised is probably a very good predictor of what will be possible for us. They live in Syracuse, NY and I've only spent time with them at Thanksgiving, which was extremely pleasant.

However, when Jacob told me that his mom had asked if Jesus would be mentioned at the wedding, I kind of lost it. I had a major melt-down that took me awhile to figure out.

These were the contributing factors to my anxiety.
-It had been a month since we announced our engagement and I had not heard directly from them. They had simply passed along good wishes through Jacob.
-Early in the relationship, Jacob's father shared his concerns with Jacob about marrying a non-Jew.
-It felt like a preposterous question. Along the lines of whether or not I would wear a white dress. Clearly these people had a stake in what happened at our wedding. I hate that kind of pressure. I never measure up.
-His mom was asking Jacob rather than asking me. Also, she had asked his sister-in-law whether or not Jacob went to church with me. Clearly, she thought I would respond to a direct question like a monster.
-As fondant on the wedding cake, I had really been struggling with the fact that the entire Jewish people would consider our marriage null and void as a contract since I wasn't Jewish. Lots of rejection. (I'm mostly over this sense of rejection now. I'll write about it in a separate post.)

I was having flashbacks to my unhappy marriage with my terrible in-laws.

But Jacob's parents are fantastic.

How to resolve this dissonance?

If I've learned anything in my life, it's that if the world doesn't make sense, it's probably because I'm wrong and could think about someone else for a change.

As I talked with various people about my feelings, I tried to imagine what it would be like to have sons getting married. Men so often allow their lives to be directed by their wives and wives generally prefer their own families. There must be some fear of loss and rejection on their part, especially considering that we have different cultures. This fear of rejection might cause them to be cautious about what they stick out to be judged.

Hm, sounds familiar.

But, I'm not 21 anymore. I'm 31 and don't have to wait for things to happen to me. I can take my relationships into my own hands.

So, rather than wait for them to act like Meena's parents, I decided to reach out to them. I wrote them a note:
Dear Michael and Wendy,

I want to thank you for the kind words of welcome that Jacob has passed along to me from you since the announcement of our engagement. After spending time with you and your family at Thanksgiving, I was able to fully relax into loving Jacob, knowing that he came from people of love, fun and substance. I predict that the life we will all create together will be good and worthwhile. I look forward to it.

If I were in your shoes, I suspect that I would feel a certain amount of trepidation regarding my faith and the spirituality that Jacob and I practice together. He and I have had months of intense conversations to become comfortable with the idea that our different faiths can coexist inside of one cohesive family. Without these hours of tears, reassurances, questions, dreaming, prayer and compromise, it's likely that you are not to our level of comfort yet. I'd love to sit down with you when you are here at Passover to discuss any questions or thoughts you may have.

I want my relationship with the two of you to ultimately be as wonderful as my relationship with my own parents. Jacob has such a good relationship with you and I want to make sure that he and our children will always have that. I want you to be as comfortable in our home as you made me in yours.

If there is ever anything that you would like to talk about, I would be happy to receive your phone calls or emails. I am excited to be a part of your lovely family.
What do you think? A little affirmation, a little boundary setting, a little hospitality. You can never go wrong with making people feel welcome.

Daniel has told me that the most important part of his interfaith marriage is communicating that he and Meena are fine with it and so everyone else just needs to get on board. They don't get a say about the relationship itself, only on whether or not they want to be a part of it.

The response has been fantastic. Wendy wrote me a lovely email in response and Michael, who did not speak more than two sentences together during the four days that I was at his house, left me a voice mail with four sentences and the phrase "lovely letter" used at least three times. When the come to town for Passover, Wendy and I have arranged to spend Wednesday (the day before the first night) together preparing the meal. She was sweet to assure me that she would only be helping, not directing.

This feels good.


Emily DeWan Photography said...

Wow! A lovely letter indeed! How awesome that you're building such a bond with your future in-laws.

Rachel said...

I want to start a tag on my blog with quotes and ideas from you. I'm not sure if I'm asking permission here or not. This is not to blow smoke up your you-know-what, it's honest appreciation and a desire to share the knowledge.

p.s. lovely letter


but seriously - you are approaching this with a lot of maturity and thoughtfulness.

PrincessMax said...

Permission granted, my dear.