Navigating the Overwhelming Force That Is My In-laws

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As a 38-year-old mom of two toddlers, I’ve successfully walked through a number of life experiences — the ones that fine-tune every aspect of your being. I’ve encountered academic obstacles and career highs and lows. I’ve danced around disordered eating, and I’ve overcome alcohol addiction. I’ve gained weight, I’ve lost weight, and then I’ve gained weight again. I’ve given birth to two children — one without an epidural. Somehow, even after successfully navigating the laundry list of life, I find myself completely overwhelmed by the force that is my in-laws.

In-law relationships are no joke, especially to an anxious people-pleaser like yours truly with a strong desire to belong. Whether it be with my mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law and/or her husband, there is real pressure to make these relationships work. There is actual research suggesting that in-law relationships can predict the odds of marital success.

Using American cultural standards as the barometer, my aforementioned in-laws are enmeshed. They aren’t just family — they are best friends and next-door neighbors who share a yard, meals, responsibilities, outings, and a love of the same hobbies. What’s challenging, however, is that my boundaries and family norms are absolutely and completely different from theirs.

While my family of origin is slowly gravitating toward closer bonds, we operate on a relatively surface level. We are not highly involved in one another’s lives despite living 30 minutes from one another. When I was a child, we didn’t have out-of-town guests staying with us, and we didn’t throw big soirees or host dinner parties. To this day, we do a few holiday get-togethers each year. Outside of that, we typically don’t ask for or expect much from one another. I can’t imagine that this would have been much different had my (divorced) parents stayed together. Both my mom and my dad are fairly private people. They don’t expect a lot of gifts or recognition. Nothing in our family, relationships included, can be considered extravagant.

My in-laws, on the other hand, live several states and one time zone away. Now that we have kids, we see them at least five times per year — probably more like seven, if I’m being honest. This is my first set of in-laws and my first set of kiddos, so I truly don’t know whether or not this level of in-law visitation is excessive. It just feels a little suffocating to me. Don’t get me wrong, I was overjoyed when they each initiated a social media connection with me and equally thrilled when they looped me into group texts and emails. The inclusivity was affirming at first. But it didn’t take long for me to recognize some of the drawbacks to all this connectedness.

When one of them decides to come for a visit, they often all jump on board. And they all want to stay in the same place — with us in our relatively small city abode. As does any human creature, they have wants, needs, opinions, and preferences. They take on a unified front and I can feel it when I’ve upset one of them by a sudden omission of contact or a change in overall tone.

Here’s the thing: My husband and I have two kids under the age of 3, a reactive dog and an elder cat. We hold jobs, maintain friendships, have additional family members with whom to keep up, and a handful of interactive neighbors. I ain’t got time for this in-law dance. Once we started seeing their upward slope of involvement, my husband and I agreed to limit the ever-increasing visits from his family. Guilt trips (from them) and malleable boundaries (raises hand) make this an ongoing challenge. Likewise, communication efforts have been sidestepped and avoided. During my mother-in-law’s most recent visit (one of three in a four-month time span), I attempted to have a heart-to-heart. I planned out what I was going to say and got the official green light from my husband. Without thought and without hesitation, my MIL dismissively responded to my outpouring by promptly assuring me that things (with us) are “great.”

I believe in exercising fairness and using empathy in my relationships. I understand and feel grateful for in-laws who want to build connections with their grandchildren. I want my husband and my kids to have the opportunity to experience these relationships and I also recognize that we are lucky to have healthy family members with a willingness and the ability to come to us. But when is enough, enough? As important are my husband and kids, so is my sanity. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my ability to be present as a mom and a wife hinges on a certain level of the stuff. I’ve spent 38 years building up my reserve, and I realize that I may just need it. I don’t know what is normal with regard to in-law visits, but I know that I’m on a different end of the spectrum when it comes to wants and needs.

Is it possible to find a happy medium so that, in the long term, everyone’s needs and wants are being honored?

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