Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
I want to keep my wife sane this holiday season, but my family is making that really hard. I love my wife, she works really hard, and she’s a great mom. We switch off spending the holidays with her family and my family, both of which live far away. I’m the youngest and I moved away as soon as I could because I found my parents, especially my mom, to be smothering. I still have a decent relationship with my mom. This year we’re set to go to my parents’ for Christmas and my wife is already getting nervous. My mom is, honestly, really particular. She likes things a certain way and always mentions it if it isn’t the way she likes. This can be as small as how we wash a glass, or making a big stink if we ask her to turn up the thermostat. Two years ago, my mom criticized my wife for not wearing gloves to church and I thought it was just an insane point, but my wife cried anyway.
My wife wants to help out when we stay with my parents and be a good daughter-in-law, but no matter what she tries, it comes up short in my mom’s eyes. I know that my mom is like this and I’ve stopped worrying about whether she’s satisfied or not. She never will be, so why worry about it? But my wife gets so tense before every visit. I asked my mom to lay off once and it didn’t go well—tears, storming out of the kitchen, and a very tense breakfast the next morning. How can I keep my wife happy and get my mother to relax?
Dear Dutiful Son,
Right now, at this moment, I have three sprigs of parsley in my freezer. I have no plans on using this frozen parsley.
It’s in my freezer because my mother-in-law was over for Thanksgiving and saw me about to put this small, unused portion of parsley into the compost pile and she cried out “No! You can freeze that and use it later!” So I, dutiful daughter-in-law, put the three sprigs of parsley in a plastic bag and placed them in the freezer. And you know what I’m going to do as soon as I finish writing this response? Get up, go to my freezer, and throw that bag away.
My mother-in-law wasn’t a product of the Great Depression, but she may as well have been. There is a cultural divide in between us that I know I can never truly bridge. For instance, I think frugality is beneficial until it values money over time. Time is my most precious resource and I will gladly pay another $0.99 for a fresh bundle of parsley and the privilege of not having to maintain a freezer full of food scraps. Also, freezer burned parsley is trash.
I have to work to understand my mother-in-law. I have to work to assume positive intent. I know that she hates that we don’t go to church and that I work while my husband cares for our children. I know that she hates my “Nasty Woman” needlepoint that I proudly display in my kitchen. She’d find a lot more things to hate if she ever chose to Google me, but if she ever has she’s been polite enough to keep it to herself. I respect my mother-in-law and thus I make it my business to keep the lines of communication between us open. My kids do better when she’s around. Also, she always brings me the best Midwestern catalogs with the most ridiculous items in them, such as a pillow in the shape of a corgi’s butt.
Your wife is trying really hard, too. I’m so sorry that your mother can’t see a way to ease up on her hyper-specific standards long enough to realize, or care, that she’s hurting your wife’s feelings. And you’re right – to argue about church gloves is insane. Who wears gloves to church still? Are church gloves even a thing? Does Jesus hate fingerprints?
You have accepted that your mother is flawed and it seems that you are able to accept her for who she is. So, if your mother wants a glass to be washed a certain way in her home, then wash that glass that way. If she wants to keep the temperature at 61 degrees in her house, then bring an electric blanket. But there should also be a balance between respect and accountability. You can respect the way your mom sees the world even as you disagree with it, but you can also hold her accountable for the fact that she’s low-key terrorizing your wife. You mom can choose her actions, and you can choose yours.
I don’t see you being able to change your mom or your wife. Your wife is sensitive, she wants to be validated. You do validate your wife, which is great. Your mom is obtuse, she wants those church gloves. You make trips out to see your mom, and you try to hold her accountable for her actions with limited success.
Want this whole tense-holiday nonsense to stop? Want to save your wife’s sanity? Wait until the kids are in bed, lean over, and whisper in your wife’s ear, “This is the last year we’re going to my parents’ for Christmas.” Because, Dutiful Son, you’re a grown up and grown ups get to have the holidays in their own homes.
Will not visiting for the holidays anymore upset your mom? Yes, but apparently bare wrists upset your mom so I would continue to not worry too much about that. I would invite your family to join you in your home, provided you have the space to host. And then you can keep the thermostat at a normal temperature, you can wash the glasses how you see fit, and your wife can feel a little more secure since she’ll be on her own turf. When your mom complains, handle her the way you’ve always handled her — by drawing a strong boundary and waiting for her to find something else to get upset about.
The holidays are for everyone, so create a tradition that works for the majority of you. Have your holiday, your way, in your home.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.