Monday, May 5, 2014

My Mother-in-Law and My Kitchen Sink

“If it were me, I’d be at the hospital with my child every second,” Wendy, my mother-in-law, said.

A litany of angry word possibilities jostled forward in hopes of being chosen to come out of my mouth. I was good at self-restraint though, so I kept my mouth shut and let the silence fill the space on the phone line.  I’d just been released from the hospital, but Novan was still in the NICU, in Fontana, California, having been born a month early. I’d just filled Wendy in on his condition and she took the opportunity to tell me I was shaping up to be a crappy mom if I didn’t visit Novan more often than I had been. Or at least that's what I heard.

Finally, I said, “The hospital is 30 minutes to an hour away depending on traffic. And the visiting hours are limited. If I go to both shifts, there is no time in between them for me to get anything done after driving home and back again. And if I go later for the afternoon shift, I don’t have much time to spend with him.”

“No reason you can’t stay there. You don’t have to come home.”

Hot, angry tears were backing up. This time, I opted for silence because what do I say to that? And even if I did think of something to say, I wasn’t sure I could get it out without sobbing.

Wendy started talking about her plans to fly over from Arizona the next day, which was where she was currently doing a travelling nurse assignment. Eventually the phone ended up in Brad’s hands to coordinate her pick-up. Meanwhile, a whirlwind of red put my thoughts in disarray. ‘How dare she!’ came to mind a few times, along with a lot of other choice words that would forever stay locked in my head.

I looked around my messy apartment that was entirely unprepared for a baby. We didn’t even have a crib yet. There were towels spread all over our living room floor, now stiff and dry from the night I went into labor. Brad said the fish tank had overflowed. AGAIN. My fridge needed a good clean out, but an overfull and messy fridge was a habit I picked up from my mom. And the laundry definitely needed doing.

And then there was my belly, much trimmer now, sans baby. But there was no baby in my arms to explain it. Something about that realization, despite my baby being alive and well at the hospital, no matter how many times it hit me, could put me into an emotional upheaval. That woman needed to learn some damn restraint, but I’d never learned how to put her in her place.

Wendy did indeed show up the following day. After visiting Novan in the NICU, we all came back to the apartment and she started attacking my stainless steel sink with a scrubby pad and as if that wasn't message enough, she then declared out loud how disgusting it was.

Oh yes. I wanted to smack her. And send her packing. And tell her to get the #*%& out of my apartment; I’d gladly live in filth rather than put up with her presence in a clean apartment. Didn’t I have enough to deal with?

Later that day I grabbed a leftover sandwich from my fridge to eat. Someone from church had brought it over the day before from Wolfe’s Market (they have AWESOME sandwiches) and I had never finished it.

Wendy got the most abhorrent look on her face. “I can’t believe you’re eating that.”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, eyeing the sandwich like maybe I’d missed a gross part.

“It’s eaten off of.”

“Yeah. By me.”

She shook her head in a tsk-tsk fashion. “I don’t eat leftovers that have been eaten from.”

We had some brief conversation after that in which I was offended by her disgust, and awed by her snobbery. By the end of her visit, my nerves were in utter chaos, and not just because my child was under constant nurse care and my body had just expelled a human being.

I remember telling Brad how I felt, and he told his mother she was being insensitive to me. Her reply?  “I shouldn’t have to tip-toe around her. I can say whatever I want.”

My gosh, I have never wanted to get her on a plane so badly.

Looking back, though, it’s a shame that we remember the bad things much more easily than the good. It’s a shame that when we’re in the pits of anguish we take everything in the worst possible way and make the tiniest slights into the biggest deal.

True, my MIL probably should have taken my unstable hormonal state under advisement,  but I don’t think she was born with such filters. And ironically, it’s the thing I have come to love about her the most.

Now, when I look back on those early days of our relationship, I shake my head at myself. We could have had a fun time with that, she and I. I could have told her I couldn’t wait for her visit so she could come clean my apartment and outfit it for a baby while I spent all day in Fontana loitering outside the NICU. When she scrubbed my sink, I could have pointed out the cleaning supplies and told her that the fridge was next and I expected it to be done by the end of the day. I could have pointed out the laundry, too. She would have rolled her eyes at me, made some comment about my sauciness, but she would have done it.

See, the thing about my MIL is that she’s quite a brat when she feels she can’t say what she wants or that YOU aren’t saying what you want. She pokes and prods and says snotty things until she gets a reaction (Anyone wonder where Brad got his shock-and-awe tendencies from?). It took me a lot of years to get this about her and to learn how to take advantage of the close relationship that kind of oddity could foster.

I missed that all those years of poking at me about dumb little things was her way of trying to connect with me, to get me to react with my real self rather than the self-conscious silliness most everyone experienced from me. It’s a shame that it took me so long to look back on that time that Novan was born and remember how she literally jumped on a plane within DAYS to come be with us and offer help (even if it wasn’t the kind of help I wanted, but why I expected her to read my mind is beyond me).  It’s a shame that I forgot that when she left, my laundry WAS done,  my floors were vacuumed, and that I DID get to visit Novan more often while she was with us.

It’s a shame that I forgot how she TOOK that nursing job in Arizona not only to help out Brad’s brother, Adam, but also because she wanted to be closer when the baby came. It’s a shame that I forgot that Brad’s mom was the first person Brad called the day we brought Novan home finally. He was literally overwhelmed with the task of being a parent, having been pooped and vomited up on in the space of five minutes. She calmed him down when I couldn’t. She has always had the ability to ground him when I can’t. I think it’s because those two have always spoken the same language, and though I did learn it eventually, it is still not my native tongue.

It’s a shame that I forgot that my sink was clean when she went back to Arizona.

In the years that have passed since those days, I learned how to look for the clean sinks. And I found them everywhere.

My MIL has been the first to show up after the births of every single one of my kids. She kind of sucks at knowing what to do with herself while there, but she doesn’t apologize for it, and I don’t expect her to. She’s there. Which is the best kind of support there is.

When our home flooded in Winston-Salem, my in-laws showed up the next day to take our kids. And they kept them for an entire week while we worked living arrangements out.

She is ALWAYS the first to call me up and ask me if I need anything when she learns I’m going through something. She and David, my father-in-law, have always had our backs when it counted. And they have never once made us feel guilty about needing help. Wendy has always looked out for me emotionally, and is always on the lookout for signs that I’m struggling. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I know that Wendy has never judged me, despite the fact that she will spout her thoughts from the mouth without restraint. But I have also observed her capacity to accept ANYONE, without equivocation, despite those observations that most would consider callous.

I can recall the day when I really began to get her. Many years ago a bouquet of yellow daffodils showed up at my house somewhat randomly. Wendy had bought them for me along with a bunch of Trader Joe's treats to fill my freezer and had given them to Brad when he was in Raleigh that day to deliver to me. She didn’t know it, but I’d been having a particularly hard week, and it was the perfect gesture at the perfect time and I cried because I was touched so deeply. It was then that I finally saw what I was to her. I was her family. The for real kind. The kind you don't tiptoe around, that you fight with and forgive without thought. And she had been treating me like that since day 1 only I never saw it.


Does she insult me anymore? Maybe by other people’s standards. I don’t think she has changed the way she speaks to me.  I’m just not capable of hearing  her words with the same defensiveness anymore. I now hear them as separate from her opinion of me as a person.

Once I stopped being hung up on the words that bothered me, and imagining that they blanketed some deep-seated judgment, I started hearing the OTHER words she said. Words that were just as clear and unhidden and had always been there.

Like, “Those kids are so lucky to have you for a mom.”

“My son is lucky he found you.”

“You fit in our family perfectly.”

“I tell my friends how awesome our relationship is and they just can’t believe it!”

“You tell me if you ever need anything. I’ll make it happen.”

“You are not my daughter-in-law. You’re my daughter.”

“I love you,” said over my shoulder as she hugs me. When that brash woman puts her arms around you, she puts her whole self into it. Her hugs are some of the most expressive and heartfelt I’ve ever had. And then look out for that hard kiss on your cheek at the end. It always takes me by surprise in the nicest way.

I now read every word on the cards she sends me for birthdays and mother’s day because I know she combed the card section looking for the one that said EXACTLY what she means. She takes sending cards seriously. They aren't just conventions to her.

She speaks with purposeful honesty. It can smart if you are living life on the defense. Which most people are. Which I was for several years after I married Brad. Now, if I hear, “This sink is disgusting,” I know that rather than mince words or wage silent warfare on me and my dirty house, she’s just going to get the ugliness out there so I don’t have to wonder what she really thinks. Plus, my sink is definitely disgusting if she's cleaning it. But what she thinks of my sink and what she thinks of me are mutually exclusive. My sink is not some veiled reference to my character as a person. She may be talking about my housekeeping as a whole, but I really do suck at that. I own it. So we’ll just banter about her anal-cleaning needs and my lack thereof, and at the end we feel closer than ever. 

I love that woman. I love making fun of her watching Hallmark movies. I love sharing private jokes with her like the miracle of holey Afghans. I love the extra drama she infuses in her voice when she tells a story. I love how if you want someone to express excitement over something with you, she always delivers. I love how loyal she is to her family. I love how she hangs up on Brad but calls him back the next day like nothing ever happened. I love how she texts like a teenager. I love how she raised the most amazing man I have ever known and gave him all her best qualities.
I love that she's hip enough to take selfies, and when she does they look like this:

There are very few people alive that get me like she does and who let me be absolutely myself (lover of snarky conversations and constant ribbing), and whose motives I don’t have to question.

Yes, my mother-in-law is better than yours. Neener-neener-neener!

*As a side note, I will definitely be cleaning my house before she gets here in a week. And it will probably stay pretty dang clean while she’s here because sometimes you have to accommodate clean-freaks. :-P

But the sink is yours, Mom!