Meditations of a Mother-in-Law
THERE was once a rumor that the florists of this country, well pleased with their success in establishing the carnation as the emblem for Mother’s Day, were planning to appoint a day for mothers-in-law. The florists, it was said, were open to suggestions as to an appropriate flower.
A group of ladies, most of us mothersin-law ourselves, were discussing this false alarm at an afternoon tea.
‘Well,’ asked someone, ‘what would be an appropriate flower?’
‘Oh!' exclaimed the only young newly married lady among us, with a sudden burst of inspiration — ‘the snapdragon.’
Then, remembering who and what we were, she withdrew the nomination hastily, assuring us that such a flower would never apply to us nor to her own mother-in-law. Jack’s mother was a darling and had just given her a fur coat. She had had in mind only the abstract traditional mother-in-law, whom we did not resemble in any way.
This was comforting to hear. But I think that nearly every mother of married children is haunted now and then by the traditional mother-in-law spectre. Does she, unknown to herself, resemble that goblin? Everyone knows that the mother-in-law has been much maligned, but a caricature so popular and persistent must touch the truth somewhere.
One would prefer not to be playing that hackneyed character-part.
Under the sway of that fear, when my oldest daughter was married, I took the bridegroom aside for a moment after the ceremony and said to him earnestly, “ I shall try to be a good mother-in-law to you, Alexander.’ I said it in the full seriousness of a vow, affixing my promise as a sort of rider to my daughter’s marriage contract. That same vow I have mentally renewed as each of my children married and went away. I have been ambitious that my sons-in-law and my daughters-in-law should think of me as one who never tries to manage or to meddle; one whose advice is to be had only when applied for; one who, in an emergency, is always ready and able to step promptly into the breach. The perfect mother-in-law, I have come to believe, is a combination of hostess, news correspondent, consulting-bureau, valued friend, and first-aid kit.
To be considered expert in those lines has been my aim. But in my efforts to work up this reputation, I have discovered in my own spirit certain tendencies that are, I think, the eternal roots of the old tradition about the meddlesome mother-in-law. The profound philosopher who could probe those roots would come upon an underground meshwork more intricate and astonishing than the roots of any banyan grove. For the roots of our farfamed ‘meddlesomeness’ are the very roots from which grew our most essential crop of motherly virtues when our children were small— the virtues of faithfulness to endless trivial detail, attention to a host of exacting small duties, persistence in our ideals, foresight in warding off danger and in making dreams come true.
The central root of all these virtues was our peculiarly apprehensive maternal sense of responsibility. Skillful mothers are so anxious that everything shall be right! Even after our children are safely married, we are still responsible. It is not that we distrust our children-in-law. Our watchfulness is not a new trait inspired by them. It is a hang-over from long experience, and it takes them in only because we now look at them and at our own children in the same glance. We know our own children a little too well to be perfectly easy in our minds. A mother rarely feels that she has had quite time to put the finishing touches on her products; yet whatever modification she tries to make now in her own children must involve the interests of their partners. Therefore, if she wants to avoid the appearance of trying to superintend the new couple, she does well to get in her chief master-strokes before the wedding day.
With this in mind, when my son Tyler became engaged to be married, I had a long talk with him about his faults. I told him that his lovely little fiancée was very different from me and from his sisters. ‘Tyler,’ said I, ‘if you ever roared at her in an argument the way you do at us, her heart would be absolutely broken. She ‘d never get over it.’
‘Mother,’ suggested Tyler suddenly, ‘I wish you ‘d ask Priscilla down here some time when I am away, and tell her all about me. I’d like to have her warned beforehand. Tell her all my faults.’
I laughed, but Tyler persisted, and soon arranged a definite appointment.
Therefore, one snowy December afternoon when I was alone in the house, Priscilla came to call. Together she and I sat down before the fire, with our feet on the same footstool, and for two hours, while a white New England blizzard whirled through the rosebushes outside the window, I recounted Tyler’s faults. I covered the ground quite thoroughly, because I wanted Priscilla to have the reassurance, in case he ever displayed his ferocious moods to her, of knowing that he had often done even so to us. I suppose I also wanted her to know that his faults were not habits that I endorsed.
But as I look back upon it now, I think that I might have saved my breath. For Tyler as a householder is transformed, and I sometimes fear that Priscilla thinks I never quite appreciated my own son. She has never seen him in the rôle of bold bad man, so ably advertised by me. When I first saw Ins angelic manners under her régime I held my breath, because in the old days Tyler in a beatific state of mind meant Tyler getting ready to break out in a new place. But as time goes on and the serenity remains unbroken, I repeat to myself that perfect line from the Just So Stories — ‘Not always was the Kangaroo as now we do behold him’ — a text that I recommend to all mothers who have seen their brisk sons neatly trained by well-selected wives.
Indeed, the longer I live the more ready I am to believe that a young man’s wife may be better acquainted with his actual current present-day self than his mother can possibly be. My daughter-in-law sees in her husband a forceful man of affairs on whose judgment she implicitly relies. I respect his judgment too, in a way, but I cannot help knowing that he is the same Tyler who, at the age of four, howled himself into a high fever one day because I would not let, him lead a bloodhound in the parade when Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to town. Mothers view their sons with what psychologists might call an ‘associative fringe.’ We are handicapped by assorted memories. We cannot estimate our sons exactly as their wives estimate them. They came upon us at a different stage.
Similarly, I cannot avoid taking a bird’s-eye view of my children-in-law. To me, each of them was in the first place only one in a series of possible choices for the boys or suitors for the girls. I scanned them critically as they came along, just as I had scanned others before them in the same light. I had no way of knowing that they were to be the one and only inevitable choice. Then when they were suddenly jumped to the position of members of the family, I saw them in a new light, reflected from the love of my own children. The affection that I gave them then was cordial and real, not affection ex officio at all. But the relation, like all true ones, remains complex. I remember so clearly all the early stages of the game, and exactly how they impressed the family while the children were falling in love.
With this historical background of special knowledge, how shall we manage to dismiss an abiding sense of responsibility when our boys and girls are starting families of their own? We cannot resign from being their parents or get an honorable discharge. My daughter Louisa tried to resign from her position of authority over her fiveyear-old son one day in last summer’s vacation. In sudden exasperation she announced, ‘Roger Macdonald, I wash my hands of you. Do exactly as you please.’ Fifteen minutes later, Louisa glanced out through the window of their summer cottage to see the neighbors running anxiously along the beach, all looking at something in the ocean. And there, far out in the forbidden channel beyond the big dock, swam the blissful head of young Roger, supported with water wings. Churning along on his outbound voyage, he looked like a seagoing cherub’s head with wings. The life-saving crew down the beach was rushing out a boat to catch him before he struck the swifter current just beyond.
Some outbreak in this general manner an experienced mother fears if she relaxes her vigilance. Things have happened so many times. We look enviously at our husbands and try to emulate their large oblivion to detail. But detail has been our province these thirty-odd years of family life. Time was when attention to detail was an effort to us. I recall one lovely April afternoon many years ago when it seems to me that one more childish question to answer would drive me wild. One more torn muddy little stocking to change, one more stiffened little shoestring to tie, and the taut thread of my sanity would snap. At this point, Louisa (aged seven) tried to give Anthony (aged two) a drink of water from the garden hose turned on full force. I rushed to the rescue and changed Anthony’s things; whereupon, six minutes later, Louisa soaked him with the hose again in the same way. ‘It wasn’t my fault. Mother,’ explained Louisa virtuously, as I flew about assembling a second oufit of dry clothes. ‘Tony did n’t drink quite fast enough.’
The training in infinite detail and eternal repetition that our children gave us when we were young and they were small is not easily unlearned. Under their unflagging zeal we became proficient. Our attention to detail became automatic. It is automatic still.
When an expert mother tries to withdraw her attention from the minor details of her grown children’s lives, she feels as a trained woodsman or scout might feel if he tried to go through an unexplored forest without noticing anything, deliberately oblivious to significant detail. No longer an official guide, if in spite of himself he sees all the signs of a great, hurricane coming up, shall he not warn the gay young explorers in their canoe on the river that he snuffs a storm?
This is the vital problem for conscientious mothers, who wish ardently to avoid the rôle of carping mother-inlaw. Shall we withhold our warnings and advice for fear of seeming officious? We hate to nag. Yet what if a word from us might save the day? ‘When I give advice,’ said one emphatic mother of grown sons, ‘ I don’t mean that the boys and their wives have to follow it. I only want them to have had that opportunity.'
Even before my children were married, I was never certain when I ought to favor them with my advice and w hen I ought to let them learn by experience. Years ago, the girls came home one afternoon full of enthusiasm over a welfare scheme for the Children’s Hospital. A campaign was in progress, and Louisa was chairman of the Junior League. They were discussing plans that I knew would involve floods of circulars and address-cards and recordslips, which would soon spread into every corner of the house. Therefore, in a lull in the conversation, I said, ‘Now Louisa, first you ought to get a box.’ My suggestion did not seem to make a very palpable hit, and I, therefore, at twenty-minute intervals, repeated my practical bit of advice. The girls never forgot it. The remark became a byword, and even to-day if I venture a suggestion that they consider too obvious, they have only to murmur ' Get a box,’and I am supposed to subside at once. The trouble is, when I have an inspiration that I think will be useful to them, I never can tell beforehand whether I am going to be thanked and blessed for saving the situation, or whether I am going to be told to get a box. After all this training from my own daughters, is it to be wondered at that I go softly with my in-laws?
This sounds as if my children were disrespectful. I suppose sometimes they were. Anthony coined a useful word to describe his sensation when he felt both impetuous and impertinent: the word was ‘ impertuous.’ The ‘impertuousness’ of the modern young person is explained partly by the up-todate briskness of modern parents and partly by modern costume. Give me a frail lace cap, and a mull kerchief, and a soft long gown, and mitts, together with an appearance of decrepitude, and nobody would ever tell me to get a box, no matter what I chose to say. Our generation is too energetic to inspire the oldtime reverent formalities so properly adopted by the young to the aged a hundred years ago. We of the middle generation have the experience of our years without the panoply of age. This fact was impressed upon me recently, when one of my busiest friends took her tiny grandchild to the Church Kindergarten one day, and stayed to visit while the young instructor taught the lesson cn ‘Helpfulness.’ In the lesson leaflet was a picture of an exceedingly old lady sitting by the window, while a little girl threaded a needle for her. The poem beneath began: —
Grandmother’s steps are slow.
The young Kindergartner, looking up and catching the appreciative glance of the visiting grandmother upon her, remarked hastily, ‘ This, boys and girls, is the picture of a great grandmother.’
Still, in spite of the fact that we have discarded tho picturesque uniform of old age, it is true (critics of our wild young people notwithstanding) that frequently the mothers of our generation are actually requested for advice. The more we keep our ideas to ourselves, the oftener we find our opinions solicited. Intellectual mystery is a famous lure. So is our reputation for versatility in thinking up expedients.
I do not know how it is with others, but with mo, when my advice has been formally requested and I have given my opinion as wisely as I can, there comes a temptation to carry on a follow-up campaign. My interest is all agog. I shall feel partly to blame if the plans fail. I have been accustomed for such a long time to pushing on the reins for certain of my children and acting as a balance wheel for others, that I am prompted to take the lead.
Yet I am convinced that this is the point where we may easily run afoul of our children-in-law. We soon learn that all prodding and badgering and advice urgently given to our own children is promptly handed on to their married partners: if Romeo had lived to marry Juliet, he would soon have been quoting to her the infallible opinions of Mother Montague. It is human nature for the most independent sons and daughters to quote as authority certain parental sayings that the parents themselves thought went in at one ear and came out at the other.
This leads us very close to the chief foundation of the old mother-in-law slander. Very few mothers-in-law go directly to their sons-in-law and offer to manage their affairs. The dealings are largely indirect. The mother-in-law problem is essentially the problem of the mother of grown children: the procedure has only been Complicated a little by the fact that another personality, allied but not related, is now involved. Our advice, when we give it, seems to the children-in-law all the more official because it comes to them at one remove.
Even our supposed ideas are sometimes quoted to our sons-in-law with effect. Alexander and Louisa were having a discussion at their breakfast table one morning. They were talking freely, for their children were too little to understand. The debate was at its height, when Louisa remarked with finality, ‘Anyway, I don’t believe that my mother would think much of the idea.’ Alexander, halted in the full swing of his argument, paused respectfully to consider this trump card; whereupon little Roger, eating cereal, glanced across at his baby sister in her high-chair and observed instructively, ‘Now Ma’s beated Pa.’
We mothers-in-law, In spite of the funny-papers, do hold a subtle power. Our problem is where to draw the line. I have not found a ready-made solution for that problem, but there is one paragraph in literature that I pin beside my mirror and look at now and then. It is the passage from The Cloister and the Hearth describing Catherine’s visit to her daughter-in-law. I know the lines by heart, but it bolsters up my good resolutions to see them in black and white: —
‘A Catherine is not an unmixed good In a strange house. The governing power is strong in her. It knows no discrimination. It sets everything to rights, and everybody. Now, many things are the better for being set to rights, but everything is not. Everything is the one thing that won’t stand being set to rights. . . . Catherine altered the position of every chair and table in Margaret’s house, and perhaps for the better. But she must go farther and upset the live furniture.’
In justice to the ultra-executive mother-in-law, we remember that later in the story Catherine saves the life of Margaret’s baby by her prompt and determined advice. This is what we are cut out for, we mothers of grown sons. We are competent for the emergency measure, for the times of whirlwinds and conflagration and the noise of waterspouts. We struggle to keep our executive ability in check until it is needed, but a force so tremendous is likely to get in a little practice every day, just, as a professional fireman slides down the brass pole in the engine house even when there is no fire.
Shortly after my youngest son Anthony was married, I invited all the branches of the family to come home for a reunion. The gay house party was at its height, when it occurred to Anthony that this would be a capital time for me to hunt up all his old textbooks and notes and reference works, so that he might send them by express to his new home. Spurred on by his tactful reminders, I rummaged through the bookshelves and storage-nooks all over the house and attic in the intervals of festivity that week. Finally Anthony and I convened in his room to pack the collection in a large wooden box that I had found. As usual, Anthony and I held definite and divergent views about how the packing should be done. My views were obviously superior, based, as I reminded him, on extensive experience largely antedating his birth. Besides, I had hunted up the books. Besides, it was my box. On equal terms the battle raged. Anthony forgot that I was his reverend dear mother. I forgot that Anthony was a householder, a husband, and a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. To me, he was acting very much like my impertuous youngest son in his worst mood well known of old. Meanwhile, Anthony’s graceful young wife sat attentively near us on the window seat, preserving that admirable silence so becoming to daughters-in-law. Tyler sat beside her holding the hammer and nails, and Alexander stood helpfully near, ready with markingpens and ink. They wisely gave Anthony and me a clear field. At last my exasperation with my unruly son arose to a pitch. ‘Anthony Winship!’ I exclaimed with fervor. ‘If you children were all at home all the time, I d just have to give up the struggle.’
Anthony stepped to the doorway and shouted to his sisters, ‘Oh girls, Mother says that if we were all at home all the time she’d give up the struggle.’
With cheers and war whoops and rounds of applause, the rest of the family, including my husband, came trooping up the stairs. Seldom has an innocent remark created such a stir.
‘I can imagine a good many things, mused Anthony when the appreciation had quieted down a little, ‘ but I can’t imagine Mother giving up the struggle.’
No, I shall not give it up. The results are well worth my efforts, and I hope that I am becoming adjusted to the new focus of my life. I am trying to fit my mental vision with a pair of spiritual bifocals, as it were, that I may observe all things in their right proportions, both great and small. I have received noble compliments from my daughters on my marvelous self-control: and Alexander once told Louisa that there ought to be a special way of spelling the term ‘mother-in-law’ when applied to pleasant ones like me — perhaps with a capital ‘L’ on the law, or better still, he said, with the Greek lambda. He said I was a lambda. One cherishes such compliments as these, and I am growing more accustomed to my bifocals every day.
But sometimes, in the middle of a winter night, I half wake up and dreamily realize that the wind is whistling around the house, and that the prophesied cold snap is coming on. Still dazed with sleep, my conscience tells me that I must get up and put extra blankets over the sleeping children in the adjoining rooms. I struggle out of my drowsiness and start to rise — and then I remember that all the children’s rooms are empty now. I need not stir. In a way it is a relief not to have to get up. I settle down and try to go to sleep again, and then I start to think. Perhaps Louisa is prowling around on her sleeping-porch in northern Illinois, seeing that her own children are snug and warm. I wonder if Alexander remembered to get the weatherstrips for the windows of the dressing-room on the side of the house nearest the lake. I wonder if Tyler decided to install that new furnace in his house at this crazy time of year. I wonder if Rosamond ever found the fur that she lost. I wonder if Anthony was able to get his full supply of coal, and if he took out fire insurance on his new furniture right away. I wonder if Priscilla decided to let little Tyler enroll for the scouts’ winter camp.
At this point my less personal self asks scripturally, ‘What is that to thee?’
Oh well, of course it is everything to me. One may as well face the facts. Common sense teaches me to fill my days with new projects, letting my children live their own lives. This is exactly what I do. I have built up an entirely new scheme of existence, filled with activities quite aside from my interest in my children. I am not a flickering old lady living in the past. I am a busy busy person hurrying to and fro in the earth and going up and down upon it, and I have any number of irons in the fire. But activity, however useful and absorbing, has no bearing whatever upon the primitive preoccupations of the soul.
That is why our problem is never solved. That is why our situation is not a comedy, and not a tragedy, but a paradox. That is why the most discreet mother-in-law is never quite sure whether her children-in-law consider her too influential in their family life or not. I should really like to know what they think of me, those highspirited lovers of my children, after the ups and downs of these important opening years. Is Alexander as happy as he seems when he stops over at our house on one of his New England trips, and I let him have his Sunday morning breakfast very late at the little table by the fireplace, as I used to on his visits to us the year when he and Louisa were engaged? Are Rosamond and Priscilla as contented as they seem when they visit at our seashore cottage, and we sew and talk together while their little children build houses near us in the sand ? Of course one can never be absolutely sure. But certainly I have devoted a good deal of attention to winning their confidence and esteem. Persons so important to my sons and daughters are important also to me.
And so, I think, on the evening of Mother-in-Law’s Day, I shall be inclined to count over my beautiful snapdragons rather quizzically, as a young girl counts the petals of a daisy:
‘ They love me — they love me not — they love me.’ But I have seen too many daisy petals counted in my day to depend very much on signs, except on those unmistakable human signs of affection and congeniality and understanding which lead me to believe that the true answer (in spite of the motherin-law tradition, and in spite of what a snapdragon might accidentally say) is probably: ‘They love me.’