I, as perhaps you, have always hoped that each of my three children will, as adults, find positive, supportive partners with whom to share their lives. But holy heck, I still fell off my chair when my eldest son, at the tender age of 22, called me to announce his engagement. Seconds after offering him my congratulations and best wishes, I group-texted my three besties, none of whom yet have married children, either.
If they weren’t yet awake that morning, my text sure woke ‘em up.
“Oldest son engaged!” I wrote.
“No way!” wrote Meghan. “Awesome! Wonderful news!”
“Are you kidding?” asked Jessica. “Woo-hoo!”
“Congratulations!” wrote Yuliya. “Wow! Wait. How old is he now?”
“Twenty-two,” I wrote, gnawing on a thumbnail.
“Well, congrats!” Jessica wrote. “What’re you going to do?”
“Do?” I asked.
“Right!” Meghan picked up. “This is your chance to get it right. You must reach out to the bride-to-be.”
“Directly,” Jessica added. “When I got engaged, my mother-in-law sent me a big goofy bouquet of roses. I felt like a Princess Bride.”
Hmmm. The Princess Bride was funny, but I didn’t remember any flowers in that.
“She doesn’t get roses from that farm boy, does she?” I asked.
“In the Princess Bride. Why is sending roses like the Princess Bride?” I typed.
“A princess-bride. Not THE Princess Bride.” Jessica replied.
“Just send the flowers,” Meghan advised.
“Got it,” I wrote. “Flowers.”
“Right to the daughter-in-law,” Yuliya said. “Not to her AND your son.”
“And make sure they’re delivered today, so it doesn’t look like an afterthought!”
“Ooooh good call!”
Okay, I liked this approach. Extravagant flowers just for her. They’re living together, so I knew my son would: a) Know about the flowers, and b) Get the implicit message, that I was giving her a big fat hug because I like her, and not simply because she’s marrying him.
“What about the in-laws?” Yuliya wrote. “Have you met them?”
A few seconds of silence followed, my screen showing multiple series of three dots, indicating some busy thumbs simultaneously texting from D.C., Maryland and New York. None of us had yet become mothers-in-law, but we had all been married, so I guess we were each casting back to our own experiences. The consensus was quick and complete:
“Reach out to them too. You’re laying the groundwork for the future.”
“Send them something. Make sure they know you love their daughter right from the start. Send something.”
Who am I to ignore a trifecta? “Okay. Got it. I’ll reach out to the parents. But flowers? I just sent them to the bride. I don’t want to look like a one-trick pony.”
“Smaller arrangement to them.”
“Not roses! She gets the roses! With a big fat pink bow!”
“And have them delivered in a day or two. She’ll hear about it from them. But let her feel special, first. Because she is.”
I reread the exchange and then nodded, satisfied.
“On it! Thanks.” I signed off and went to place the orders.
Does this whole exchange sound mercenary to you? I hope not. I wasn’t trying to game the engagement. I was trying to find my way in a new role for which I wasn’t prepared. I mean, I never sat back and dreamed wistfully, “One day, maybe I’ll be a mother-in-law,” you know? I’ve read plenty of articles about how to be a good mom, but I’d never read one on how to be a good mother-in-law.
It’s a big change, being the mother of an adult child. After all those years of supervising and guiding, it’s hard to respect their sovereignty, especially when you still suspect they don’t dress warmly enough for the weather. (But as my young-adult daughter pointed out to me recently, “Mom, I’ve got this whole weather thing down, okay?”)
You’ve got to step back, but still be present. Support, but not opine. Observe, sure, but trust.
I think that forging a new kind of relationship with your adult child, one that isn’t simply an unwelcome extension of your time as homework-checker or snack-maker, takes conscious effort and deliberate thought. And in this new phase of my life, I’m glad to have good counsel at my thumbs, because I don’t yet know how to do this with grace, or really at all.