The first time I met my mother-in-law, my bangs were broken and erratic. The ends of my short blonde bob were frayed and flying away, and I felt like my makeup-free face left a lot to be desired. So did my all-black dress. Because the first time I met her was at my father’s funeral, when I was just 12 years old. Though so many things have changed in the last 20 years — I traded the bangs and the blonde bob for pink hair, and my former middle-school boyfriend is now my husband — nothing has changed my relationship with my in-laws more than my baby. My beautiful, smart, and sassy little girl came into this world and shook up the whole earth.
My husband and I have a long history together. We were seventh grade dance partners, high school sweethearts, and best friends. Because of that, I got to know my husband’s family early on and that meant I never had to endure the awkward Meet The Parents meals. But even though I met his family at a young age, I always kept them at a safe distance because I was vulnerable, shy, and scared. The death of my dad at such a young age sent my life into a tail spin. I kept the people I loved at an arm's length because I was completely terrified of losing them. My then-boyfriend's family was no exception.
I reasoned that if I didn't love, I couldn't be hurt. And if I couldn't be hurt, I didn't ever have to experience that pain again. So in the days and years following my dad's death, I made a rule for myself. I decided I'd no longer let outsiders in. Because I couldn’t be hurt by the loss of family I didn’t have.
So I remained reserved and guarded, even after my husband and I were married. I loved my in-laws and welcomed them into my home and my life, but I kept our relationship at a safe distance. Even though I called them mom and dad — even after I married their son — emotionally, I just couldn't give in. In my heart, a void always remained. But when my daughter was born, that wall fell. In fact, it crumbled at my feet, and the family I'd tried so hard to keep away — the very individuals I tried to keep out of my heart — were infiltrating it. The family I tried to keep away was at my doorstep nearly every weekend. They offered to take my daughter so my husband and I could go on a date or so we could go away for the night. When I finally came clean about my struggles with postpartum depression — when I finally revealed I was struggling with generalized depression and suicidal thoughts — they asked how I was. They helped and supported me in every way they could. And they became my greatest cheerleaders. They showered me with love in a way I couldn’t ignore.
Children change you, and they change your marriage. But I never realized that having a child would impact my relationship with my in-laws so profoundly. And I never realized just how deeply I needed them.
And suddenly, I didn’t want to ignore it anymore. Because being loved like this felt good — amazing, even. My family grew from a handful of members to houseful of friends. So I embraced it as openly and genuinely as I could, and I fought like hell to keep the urge to crawl back into myself at bay.
When you're expecting a child, people warn you that your life will be different. They warn you your body will be different, your relationship with your partner will be different, and that you'll be different, too. They warn you because it's true. Children change you, and they change your marriage. But I never realized that having a child would impact my relationship with my in-laws so profoundly. And I never realized just how deeply I needed them.
My daughter's birth revealed just how much I needed this web of support. I couldn't do it on my own, just me, my husband, and my mom. I needed everyone, because I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she needs them, too. So now, when I need advice or when I feel like screaming or crying or simply need to b*tch to someone who understands because potty training is tough and toddler tantrums are the worst, I turn to mother and my mother-in-law. When I need help caring for my daughter, like the time I had the stomach flu and couldn't stand or when I need to go away on for meetings or work trips, I know who to call. When I need hugs, I now know whose arms to fall into.
And when I need support, I know I have a whole village to turn to. I have a family who loves me for me, even though I am not their blood.
Of course, it isn’t always easy. I often struggle to be present and honest and to keep myself from slipping back into my old ways. I struggle to keep myself open, to fight the urge not to shut up and close back into myself. I know what I have is a blessing, and I know how lucky I am to feel endlessly and wholly loved. And I want my daughter to feel the same: I want her to feel the love of her family — I want her to enjoy life — without the fear of tomorrow. Without the imminent fear of death.