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Mothers-in-Law by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

An Extract From ~ Maids Wives and Bachelors

Mothers-in-Law are the mothers for whom there is no law, no justice, no sympathy, nor yet that share of fair play which an average American is willing to grant, even to an open adversary. Every petty punster, every silly witling, considers them as a ready-made joke; and the wonder and the pity of it is that abuse so unmerited and so long continued has called forth no champions from that sex which owes so much to woman, in every relation of life.

The condition of mother-in-law is one full of pathos and self-abnegation, and all the reproach attached to it comes from those whose selfishness and egotism ought to render their testimony of small value. A young man, for instance, falls in love with a girl who appears to him the sum of all perfections,—perfections, partly inherited from, and partly cultivated by, the mother at whose side she has lived for twenty years. She is the delight of her mother's heart, she fills all her hopes and dreams for the future; and the girl herself, believes that nothing can separate her from a mother so dear and so devoted.

While the man is wooing the daughter, this wondrous capability for an absorbing affection strikes him as a very pretty thing. In the first place, it keeps the mother on his side; in the second, he looks forward to supplying this capability with a strictly personal object. At this stage his future mother-in-law is a very pleasant person, for he is uncomfortably conscious of the Beloved One's father and brothers. He is then thankful for any encouragement she may give him. He gladly takes counsel with her; flatters her opinions, makes her presents, and so works upon her womanly instincts concerning love affairs that she stands by his side when he has to “speak to papa,” and through her favor and tact the rough places are made smooth, and the crooked places plain. Until the marriage is over, and the longed-for girl his wife, there is no one so important in the lover's eyes as the girl's mother.

Suddenly all is changed. When the young people return from the bridal trip there is a different tone and a different atmosphere. The young husband is now in his own house, and spreading himself like a peacock in full feather. He thinks “mamma” too interfering. He resents the familiarity with which she speaks to his wife. He feels as if her speculation about their future movements was an impertinence. He says without a blush that her visit was “a bore.” And the bride, being flattered by his desire for no company but her own, admits that “dear mamma is fussy and effusive.” Both have forgotten the days in which the young husband was a great deal of a bore to his mother-in-law,—when indeed it was very hard for her to tolerate his presence; and both have forgotten how she, to secure their happiness, sacrificed her own wishes and prejudices.

How often does this poor mother go to see her child before she realizes she is a bore? How many snubs and heart-aches does she bear ere she comprehends the position? She hopes against despair. She weeps, and wipes her tears away; she tries again, only to be again wounded. Her own husband frets a little with her, and then with a touch of anger at his ungrateful child, advises the mother “to let her alone.” But by and by there is a baby, and she can no longer keep away. She has a world of loving cares about the child and its mother. She is sure no one can take her place now. She is very much mistaken. The baby is a new kind of baby; there has never been one quite such a perfect pattern before; and the parents—exalted above measure at the perfection they alone are responsible for—regard her pride and delight as some infringement of their new honors and responsibilities. Happiness has only hardened them; and after a little, the mother and the mother-in-law understands her loss, and humbly refrains from interfering. Or, if she has an imprudent tongue, she speaks unadvisedly with it, and her words bite home, and the “mother” is forgotten, and the “in-law” remains, to barb every ill-natured word and account for every selfish unkindness.

Of course, in a relationship which admits of endless varieties, this description fits only a certain number. But it is a very large number; for there are few families who will not be able to recall some such case among their members or their acquaintances. Still, many daughters do more virtuously, and cherish a loyal affection for their old home. If they are wise and loving and specially unselfish, they will likely carry their matrimonial bark safely through those narrow shallows which separate the two households. But the trouble is that newly married people are both selfish and foolish. They feel themselves to be the only persons of consequence, and think that all things ought to be arranged for their pleasure. The solemn majesty of the young wife's housekeeping is not to be criticised, qualified, or inspected; the new-made householder does not believe that the “earth is the Lord's,” or even the children of men's; it is all his own. And their friends tacitly agree to smile at this egotism awhile, because all the world really does love a lover; and every one is willing to grant the bride and bridegroom some short respite from the dreary cares and every-day business of life.

Two points are remarkable in this persistent antagonism to the mother-in-law. The first is that the husband who is often specially vindictive against his wife's mother has very little to say against her male relatives. If the girl he marries is motherless, he does not quarrel with his father-in-law; though he may be quite as interfering as any mother-in-law could be. Yet if the girl, instead of being motherless, is fatherless, the husband at once begins to show his love for his wife by a systematic disrespect towards her mother. Yet perhaps a month previously he had considered her a very amiable lady, he had shown her many courtesies, he had asked her advice about all the details of his marriage. What makes him, a little later, accuse her of every domestic fault? How is it that she has suddenly become “so self-opinionated”? Never before had he discovered that she treats his wife like a child, and himself as an appendage. And how does he manage to make his bride also feel that “dear mamma is trying, and so unable to understand things.” It is a mystery that ends, however, in the mother-in-law being made to feel that her new relative totally disapproves of her. The truth is, the lover was afraid of the men of his wife's family before marriage. They might seriously have interfered with his intentions. After marriage he knows they will be civil to him for the sake of his wife. Then, the women of the family were useful to him before marriage, after it he can do without them. He has got the woman he was so eager to get by any means, and he wishes to have her entirely. A smile, or a word, or an act of kindness to any one else, is so much taken from his rights. He desires not only to usurp her present and her future, but also her past.

The other remarkable point is the unjust shifting of all the mother-in-law's shortcomings to the shoulders of the wife's mother; this is especially unjust, because not only the newspapers of the day, but also the private knowledge of every individual, furnishes abundant testimony that it is not the wife's mother, but the husband's mother, who is at the bottom of nine-tenths of the domestic misery arising from this source. The wife's mother with small encouragement will like, even love, the man who has chosen her daughter above all other women. The husband's mother never really likes her son's wife. And young wives are apt to forget how bitterly hard it is for a mother to give her son up, at once and forever, to a girl whom she does not like in any way. Perhaps hitherto the son and mother have been every one, and everything to each other, and it is only human that the latter should have to battle fiercely and constantly with an involuntary jealousy, and a cruel quicksightedness for small faults in his wife. It is only human that she should try to make trouble, and enjoy the fact that her son is less happy with his wife than he was with her, and that he comes to her for comfort in his disappointment. The love of a mother is often a very jealous love; and a jealous mother is just as unreasonable as a jealous wife; she can make life bitterly hard for her son's wife, and, to do her justice, she very often does so. Then if the wife—wounded and imprudent—goes to her own mother with her sorrows and wrongs, it is the natural attitude of the husband to shift the blame from his own mother to his wife's mother. There are indeed so many ways by which this misery can enter a household that it is impossible to define them; for there is just variety enough in every case to give an individuality of suffering to each.

What, then, is to be done? Let us admit at once that our relations do give us half the pain and sorrow we suffer in life; but each may do something to reduce the liability. We may remember that all such quarrels come from excess of love, and that a quarrel springing from love is more hopeful than one springing from hate. As mothers-in-law, we may tell ourselves that when our children are married we no longer have the first right in them. The young people must be left to make the best of their life, and we must never interfere, nor ever give advice until it is asked for. Another irritation, little suspected, is the palpable forcing forward of the new relationship. On both sides it is well to be in no hurry to claim it. A girl takes a man for better or for worse, but does not therefore take all his relations. Love for her husband does not include admiration for all within his kindred; nor will it, until the millennium makes all tempers perfect. And, again, a man does not like to be dragooned into a filial feeling for his wife's family. Many a man would like his new relatives better if they left him with a sense of perfect freedom in the matter.

The main point is that men should put a stop to a traditional abuse that affects every woman in every household. They can do it! Many an honest, manly fellow would burn with shame if he would only consider how often he has not only permitted, but also joined in, the silly, unjust laughter which miserable punsters and negro minstrels and disappointed lovers and other incapables fling at the women of his own household. For if a man is married, or ever hopes to be married, his own mother is, or must be, a mother-in-law. If he has sisters their destiny will likely put them in the same position. The fairest young bride has the prospect before her; the baby daughter in the cradle may live to think her own mother a bore, or to think some other mother one, if there is not a better understanding about a relationship which is far indeed from being a laughable one. On the contrary, the initiation to it is generally a sacrifice, made with infinite heart-ache and anxiety, and with many sorrowful tears.

In the theatres, in the little circles of which every man's home is the centre, in all places where thoughtless fools turn women and motherhood into ridicule, it is in the power of two or three good men to make the habit derogatory and unfashionable. They can cease to laugh at the wretched little jokes, and treat with contempt the vulgar spirit that repeats them. For the men who say bitter things about mothers-in-law are either selfish egotists, who have called trouble to themselves from this source, or they are moral imbeciles, repeating like parrots fatuous jests whose meaning and wickedness they do not even understand.

 
 
 

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