Humor + Communication = Appreciation

Just below this post, I shared a link to a list of "Lessons" for newly diagnosed cancer patients. It's a very serious list of helpful tips. I only read through it once and I don't think having a sense of humor was on the list (for obvious reasons; it's not that kind of list). However, the value of maintaining a sense of humor along with open, honest communication has been on my mind a lot lately. More specifically, the ability to laugh AT MYSELF has been one of the most helpful survival tools in my life regardless of my circumstances. I have found that laughter is one of the best ways to break stress and tension. But the key, in my estimation, is being able to laugh at myself.

John and I have always communicated well and we both try not to take ourselves too seriously. I remember early on in our relationship how much he appreciated my ability to laugh at myself when he teased me. I will never forget the first time he gently poked fun at me and I cracked up. He looked at me with astonished eyes and said, "I just can't believe that I can say things like that to you and you LAUGH!" What he probably didn't realize was that his teasing was the most loving that I had ever experienced. He never belittles me or puts me down with a joke. I amuse him and I don't mind. He sometimes calls me his little cartoon character (because I'm so animated). But I think a little cartoon character (who doesn't mind being one) was exactly what John needed in a wife. And I'm happy I can be that. I don't need to be taken seriously all the time. I would much rather laugh.

I am incredibly blessed with good, healthy relationships. That doesn't mean there are never bumps in the road. My son and I are very close. But we've had to work through issues just like any parent and adult child. I think we've done it well and with a sense of humor about ourselves. And we listen to each other. Whether I agree or disagree with his point of view, I try to make sure he knows that I'm really hearing him and I'm not invalidating him or his feelings. But I realize that I haven't always done it perfectly because not so long ago he shared something with me and instead of trying to present alternative ways to look at the situation, I just said, "I understand how you feel." He told me later that it was the first time I had responded that way to that particular frustration -- and how much he had appreciated it. It made such an impression on me. I don't think he meant that he didn't ever want me to offer feedback or advice. Just not every time. There is something so helpful in simply offering empathy and understanding.

I can't mention every relationship I'm thankful for in one blog post, but two other significant relationships I am thankful for are with my daughter-in-law and my mother-in-law. I am well aware of how many mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law struggle to get along and fail to appreciate each other. I've known extremely difficult (controlling and manipulative) mothers-in-law who made a healthy relationship impossible for their sons' wives and I've observed equally difficult daughters-in-law who resent even the most well-meaning mothers-in-law.

I did not have an easy relationship with my first mother-in-law. As a very young wife, I naively believed I could win her over and make her love me. But it seemed as if the harder I tried to please her, the more critical of me she was. (One of the life lessons I think I have finally learned is that you cannot make anyone love or understand you.) Before she died, the relationship had improved somewhat.  But the potential was not there for the kind of healthy relationship I enjoy today with Marian.

I learned a lot from my first experience as a daughter-in-law. As a result of the pain and frustration I experienced, I determined in my heart -- long before Danny ever met his future bride -- that I would not cause stress in his marriage by being a difficult or intrusive mother-in-law. I would love his wife unconditionally (even if she was difficult) and I would make no demands. I would not try to control or give unsolicited advice, and I would not impose myself on her. I would let her decide how close we would be and let the relationship grow naturally over time. With a great deal of satisfaction, I believe I can say that I have been successful in those goals. But I also must say that I have one heck of a special, amazing woman for a daughter-in-law. And she is very easy to love. Our relationship is not challenging or stressful. Rebecca and I are true friends. And I am very grateful for her (and my son's good taste)!

I am blessed to enjoy such a wonderful, uncomplicated relationship with both my daughter-in-law and my mother-in-law. But we are all human beings with personalities and our own unique traits. It's not that there is never the potential for conflict or misunderstanding. I think the real key is that I can communicate openly and honestly with both of them. I know they care about my feelings as much as I care about theirs. And all three of us have the ability to laugh at ourselves. When you can laugh at yourself, you give others permission to laugh with you. It is SUCH a gift!

Marian and I recently had a moment of minor tension, which quickly became a joke between us and ultimately resulted in many laughs. Sometimes Marian will let me know what she would do or prefer with a suggestion or a question. Whether it's "Aren't you going to set the table?" (which I never do) or "Don't you want to take the tablecloth off to show the pretty wood?" (which I never do) or "What you need on your dining room table is a low floral..." (which I don't really care about); she gently lets me know her preferences. Don't misunderstand. She is not controlling and does not have a manipulative bone in her body. But she is a mother and, as a daughter-in-law, sometimes those motherly suggestions sound like, "You're not doing things right." And I am very resistant to those kind of "motherly" suggestions.

A few nights ago I was putting a Thanksgiving runner on my dining room table and Marian wanted to help me (euphemism for supervise). First she didn't think I had it straight. (I hadn't asked for help. This is a task one person can easily manage. LOL.) And then she started talking about my centerpiece again. I was already well aware she doesn't like my centerpiece. There have been previous comments. (It's a crystal vase with marbles and a large candle in it. I put it together myself and I like it. Although I realize it probably isn't the "proper" centerpiece for my particular dining room, I just don't care.) But on this occasion, Marian had enjoyed an extra glass of wine with dinner and it made her just a little bit bolder than she would be normally. So she told me more assertively, "I don't like that centerpiece. You need to get..." I tried to ignore the comment. But then she pointed out that it didn't go with the Thanksgiving runner. I then pointed to the blue in the runner. However, when I didn't comply, she tried to pick it up and remove it (I guess she thought I would just let her). All of this is hysterically funny to both of us now. We've laughed about it several times. But in that moment, I will admit that I was a little irritated. I politely but firmly informed her that I liked my centerpiece even if she didn't and it was staying on the table with the Thanksgiving runner. At that point, she said, "Well, it's your house and your dining room. So if you like it..." And there was a little awkward chuckle.

I was never mad at her. If you've met Marian, you know that it would be nearly impossible to get mad at someone so sweet. But nevertheless it WAS a "mother-in-law moment." Some daughters-in-law might have harbored resentment over a moment like that. And some mothers-in-law might have resented their daughter-in-law for rejecting their well-intentioned decorating advice. But neither of us did that. Instead, the next day, we laughed at ourselves and each other ... TOGETHER! That is one of the things I really appreciate about our relationship.

Some of the teasing that has come out of our brief moment of tension include:
Shari: "We finally had a mother-in-law moment! You tried to remove my centerpiece against my will!"
Marian: "I'll never try to tell YOU what to do again."
Shari: "So you really hate my centerpiece that much, huh?"

Honestly, for a couple of days, I would walk by my dining room, look at my table and think, "Is it really that bad? I think it's pretty." This is why I think that unsolicited advice from mothers and mothers-in-law offered to grown daughters and daughters-in-law (many times over things that just don't really matter) lead to a breakdown in relationships. Mothers often don't realize the power they have to make a grown woman feel inadequate and inferior. (I can't fathom how a mother could enjoy making a daughter or daughter-in-law feel this way or do it intentionally.) None of us wants to feel that we aren't "doing things right" (especially in the eyes of someone whose approval we desire).

Everyone will have these moments no matter how beautifully they get along. But nearly every situation has the potential either to escalate and be blown out of proportion over time OR the potential to turn into a funny story that can be enjoyed for the rest of our lives. Our flaws and quirks can be the best comedy if we'll allow it. And these moments can also create a unique bond. Since we are ALL flawed in some way, our flaws can bring us together as well as separate us. It's our choice.

Not only did our "moment" result in many laughs, but it opened up some very meaningful conversation about emotional triggers. I shared with Marian the reasons why I believe I am so resistant to motherly "helpful suggestions" that imply disapproval. My mother had strong preferences for how things should be done and how people should handle their problems. She was very private and I'm not. I knew my tendency to openly cry or spill my guts (about my own failures) embarrassed her. I knew I didn't handle money the way she thought I should. I knew she was embarrassed when I gained weight. I knew she thought I was not ladylike. I knew these things because of her constant suggestions.

"Why can't you be a good little actress like so and so?"
"If you gain any more weight, I won't be able to sew for you."
"I wouldn't fix my house up until after I had it paid for."
"I wish you would say dollars instead of bucks. Bucks sounds unladylike."

I felt that I could never measure up or be the daughter my mother wanted me to be. Many friends have told me that my mom was very proud of me and often boasted to them about my accomplishments and achievements. But she didn't say those things to me. I felt like a loser as a daughter. Marian, on the other hand, has always made me feel like a prize daughter-in-law. So I don't consciously ever feel that she disapproves of me in any way. But those little suggestions still trigger something inside me. And I believe it's connected to the past.

I'm not sharing this to disparage my mother. She was a good mom. She did love me. We were just different and we were both flawed. She probably didn't even think of me as a disappointment the way I thought she did. But we could not communicate and we never could laugh about our differences. And she never did stop trying to give me advice until she got sick. But when she got sick, I think she finally saw the real me (the deeper me underneath the surface traits she had never been able to fully accept). I know that my mom knew how much I loved her at the end of her life. And I will be forever grateful for that silver lining in the premature loss of my mother.

When my mom got sick, we just began to love and appreciate each other. She stopped giving me advice and I stopped needing to resist being controlled. I don't know if that would have happened any other way. I have no idea what our relationship would look like now if she were still here. I have a hard time imagining her approving of all my choices. I am inclined to think our relationship would still be complicated. But I am so thankful for the memories I have of our relationship blossoming in those last seven months. It was healing. It brought closure. And I don't have the slightest residue of resentment connected to my mom or her memory. Although it was not a perfect relationship, I had a great mother in many, many ways. And I learned some powerful life lessons from watching the way she responded to life. With my dad, it's some of the things he said to me over and over that have become tools in my life. But with my mom, it really wasn't what she said as much as what she did. I admire many of her traits. And I think I was blessed to inherit a few of them, even though our temperaments and coping styles were so different.

In the days following our minor moment of tension, Marian and I have not only had many laughs, I've noticed that I have an even greater appreciation for her as a mother-in-law. Nobody can take the place of your mom. But sometimes God does bless us with an unexpected surrogate. And mine is the best.


Shari said…
I asked Marian to read this post just to make sure she didn't mind me sharing the details. She told me she really liked it. And then she walked over to the dining room table, picked up the centerpiece and said:

"Where do you want me to put this? And don't tell me to put it where the sun don't shine!" LOL.

I just love her.