This week has been all about my in-laws. There was a parting shot of ridiculousness that infuriated me on the way out the door, but that will be reserved for another post. Today, we talk about criticism.
My husband has a brother who is a 4 years behind him. That brother has a wife who is equal in age. My brother-in-law is a bit of an asshole–again, a post for another time. I have found his wife to be charming and lovely, if not a bit young and at times, naive. As their marriage has grown (three years, now), their family has grown. They have a 1-year old and another bundle on the way. Bottom line, my sister-in-law is about to be 25 with two under the age of two.
That’s a lot for a young woman. Yes, she is married, yes she is college educated, but she is already quite overwhelmed by motherhood for one. It was hard, all week, to watch her struggle to manage the one that she has. I keep on trying to tell her that it only gets harder from here. Motherhood is difficult. It gets harder with each passing day. Some things get easier, a lot of other things get harder, but if you are strong, confident, and capable, you keep it moving. If you aren’t…you end up falling short. Somewhere, or another.
But hope comes in the form of support. Support comes from family, friends, strangers. Even a warm smile by passer-by, to your baby or to you, can be just right amount of wind beneath the wings to get a mother through a bad moment, or day, or week. Support shores up the inadequacies. And all of us have inadequacies. Notice I added the plural to that. We suck at multiple things at once (on the flip-side, we excel at an equal or even greater number of things).
It is support that I am thinking about tonight. Because my poor sister-in-law doesn’t have a lot of it. Her husband sees her as a man from the 1800’s may see his wife: She is a thing for screwing, cleaning, cooking and caring for the children that he is too busy working/boozing/acting a fool to be involved with. Over multiple occasions during the past week, he simply instructed her to do things, dismissing her contribution to conversation, dismissing her humanity in general, and reducing her, literally, to the “little woman.” It was disgusting.
Now, what makes this worse is that my brother-in-law did this in front of other people, including his parents who seemed not to give a damn about the behavior. Now look, I know that it is taboo to get involved in the relationships of others, so I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut. But I committed my own acts of resistance on her behalf: I refused to be party to any ridiculousness. I tried to lead by example when it came to have I spoke with (or allowed myself to be spoken to by) my husband. I made faces at blatant disrespect and gave her my best Oprah look (that, “you better get it together”) look. I jokingly criticized (him) whenever I saw an opportunity. I offered to do or simply did many tasks for her to help alleviate her stresses and anticipate her needs. I did what I could, because I feel like she is worthy of being elevated beyond her reduced station (and the only person who put her there is her husband). I believe that people deserve an ally, and my help came in many forms this week. It was quite exhausting.
But when she self-deprecated in the face of seeing my boys, who were (relatively) well behaved all week (my eldest is a few months older than her son), I didn’t pile on. I didn’t completely repudiate her, however, because she was right. My sons were well behaved. Her son has a lot of needs and issues. A lot of the problems that her 1-year-old is having is because of her (and her husband’s) impatience, lack of sticking with a routine, complete disregard for establishing a system that involves that two of them, and most importantly, their lack of changing the way they live in order to provide a stable, warm, and effective environment for their son to grow in. Listen, I know that every parent says that they aren’t going to change their life for their baby. I think that the most rational of us end up making some changes. I am not a radically different person from who I was when I gave birth to Ursa Major, but I am certainly a better person for it. I had to become faster, smarter, more efficient, more organized, a better eater, a better cook. When Ursa Minor was born, I had to do that, but only better. My life, my home have changed. All for the better. My world is different because my sons are in it. For my brother- and sister-in-law, that change has not occurred. And they all seem to suffer for it.
But I didn’t tell her any of that. Telling her that wouldn’t have been helpful. It would have just done more harm. I tried, instead, to lead by example, explaining when asked, questioning when opportune.
Back to support, and this is what made me angry: First, I don’t appreciate that, at multiple occasions, my in-laws took the time to tell me how “organized” I am, and how polite my children are. Compliments are nice, but I saw them purely as a backhanded way to criticize my sister-in-law and I refused to be part of it. Second, and most importantly, I don’t appreciate (and I have never appreciated) that my in-laws have watched my brother-in-law systematically destroy my sister-in-law’s self-esteem. They watch him talk to her and treat her poorly and they do nothing about it. My father-in-law is stuck in the mindset of his 1950’s mid-western childhood, but my mother-in-law knows better. If my sons treated their wives (or husbands, for that matter) the way that my brother-in-law treats his wife, I’d be furious. I wouldn’t allow his emotional/intellectual abuse in my home, and I’d do anything I could, overt and covert, to thwart it. I wouldn’t overstep and require divorces. I wouldn’t make a big scene. I would just resist. I believe in resistance. I think that it is healthy and necessary.
That also being said, I wish my sister-in-law would practice some resistance, too. I don’t know if she does at home, and just doesn’t when she is with the rest of us because she doesn’t want to look like a bad guy. I don’t know what happens at home. All I know is what I see and it makes me uncomfortable, as an educated woman, as a mother of sons, as a feminist. And in the end, it harms my relationship with my in-laws because I cannot respect people who would raise a son capable of doing such nonsense, and who are so cowardly as to not say something when clearly their son is acting horrifically.
And you know who gets hurt in the end (by his actions, her inaction, and the inaction of his grandparents and me and my husband as well)? My nephew. Who learns everything about how he will deal with his future partner from the way that his parents relate. How utterly, utterly frustrating.