Instead of falling into the negative stereotype, Tania West has a unique take on her role as mother-in-law as she looks to the words of John the Baptist for guidance.

mother in law

Source: Viacheslav Iakobchuk / Alamy Stock Photo

As a society we love to deal in stereotypes and exaggerated cultural stories of what others are like. They make for great sound bites and stand up comedy and the mother-in-law is one such social projection. The butt of endless humour. The epitome of relational dysfunction.

So, what’s the truth? Is the amorphous mother-in-law really as overbearing and controlling as the stories lead us to believe?

I distinctly remember when I congratulated my first daughter-in-law on the announcement of their engagement. I unashamedly borrowed and re-contextualised the words of John the Baptist and I told her “you must become greater and I must become less”.  What did I mean?

It was time for me to ‘shift tracks’ in this new relational dynamic. To, as it were, exit stage left and play my part in the wonderful play of life in a new way.

I recognised that the covenant of marriage reflects a profound truth, that a new ‘order’ is being created in which relationships are re-defined and re-ordered and that, now, my son and his wife’s  first priority under God would be one to another as husband and wife. It was time for me to ’shift tracks’ in this new relational dynamic. To, as it were, exit stage left and play my part in the wonderful play of life in a new way.

This wasn’t easy.

I knew my part well in this production. I knew my lines (I’d written most of them) I’d coached my son through the scenes of his own play thus far. I knew the audience well.  I’d had a hand in recruiting the other actors and stage hands and I’d hired the make up artist and costume makers. I’d co-funded the play. I was personally invested in its success.

With my exit as ’producer’ came huge loss.  A loss that I needed to properly acknowledge and grieve and work my way through to acceptance and then celebration.  It was a process, with different Acts. 

Here are three that seemed significant:

With my exit as ‘producer’ came huge loss.  A loss that I needed to properly acknowledge and grieve

Act One: The recognition afresh that all our children are in fact ’entrustments’ loaned to us for a season.  They are not ours.  They never were. They came into this world with their own genetic and personality blueprint. They have their own gifts and passions and my role has been to shine the light as ‘producer’ on all that made them come alive and create an environment in which they could thrive and also fail. Re-engaging with this fundamental truth helped me to regain perspective on my own felt “loss”.

Act Two: Embracing the ‘ubuntu’ principle. The South African philosophy that we are who we are because of others. I gave myself permission to congratulate myself on a job well done. That this well-adjusted, beautiful human being that I was proud to call my son was partly the awesome person that he was because of me (my late husband of course also had a hand in this!). Taking the time to allow myself to marinade in this truth enabled me to take appropriate ownership of my contribution. This was important because as I learned the hard way (when I forced my second son to share his batman outfit at age three - another story) we cannot share or give away that which we have not first had the opportunity to own.

Act Three: Believing that the best is yet to come.  I am blessed with a natural optimism and have an active and passionate faith in God. This means that I live my life expectant and hopeful for the future. Although there have been many times when I have succumbed to fear and doubt and have struggled with myself and with God, I always emerge confident in the God that I have  come to know and trust my life to.  I knew that my son and his new wife were heading into their own unique destiny as producers themselves, and that my role was to be their advocate and cheerleader as they took centre stage in the next act of their play.

The grand finale: And what I have done once, (even three times as I have three married sons) I know I can do again as I ready myself to welcome a son-in-law into our family this summer.  When my daughter stands before her family and friends and enters her own covenant of marriage, I will hear the divine beckoning to step aside, to take my final bow. To accept with gratitude and deep love that this play is over and that theirs is just beginning.

So, overbearing and controlling?  I don’t think so.  Although it is true that I have fumbled my way through new plays, forgotten my lines, not been as well rehearsed as I might like and have sometimes forgotten that I am the support act and not the main player or producer, I know that there is always the opportunity to learn and grow, to adapt and flex, and to learn that these powerful plays will continue and I am blessed to be able to play my part.