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The Ties That Bug

December 30, 2013

I just sent my former mother-in-law a birthday present, over a month late. I don’t know how I forgot her birthday this year, but I did, and though I know she won’t hold it against me (and, in fact, I seem to remember she forgot my birthday last year and sent me a book late, with profuse apologies which I waved off when I thanked her), I still feel a bit guilty.

My mother-in-law and I got along decently for the eighteen years her son and I lived together. Which was good, since we went to graduate school practically in her back yard, and saw rather a lot of each other. Does anyone besides me consider the whole in-law juggernaut deeply, fundamentally bizarre? Consider: you tie the knot, and you’re immediately plopped into the cozy bosom of a bunch of people you hardly even know. The biggest thing you have in common is the person they begat and you fell in love with. You think you know him better than they do; they think you’ve come late to the game, and couldn’t possibly know him. During the holidays you’re honor-bound to spend together, you cast upon each other a slightly jaundiced eye.

Time marches on, and you go on vacations together. You do time in each others’ weddings and baby showers, and you make each other grandparents and uncles and aunts. Your relatives have a connection to your spouse’s relatives, your siblings and your spouse’s siblings are co-aunts and uncles, your parents and his share grandparent duty. Everyone’s connected. You’re the grafting points for whole new limbs on each others’ family trees, until the day you split up. Then you’re snapped off neatly, like twigs.

Since my divorce, I’ve been astonished to discover how fragile the in-law bond turns out to be. Even if you like your in-laws enough to still exchange birthday presents five years later, it’s amazing how quickly the we’re-all-family pretense gets unceremoniously dropped. And somehow, neither party seems to mind. All breakups should be this simple! Still, it leaves a strange aftertaste. Is it really possible that all those polite interactions–years and years of polite interactions!–could add up to so little in the long run?

Of course, the alternative is worse.

I’ve written before about my mother’s supremely irritating habit of sucking up to my ex-husband. (Actually, it’s not the sucking up that infuriates me. I couldn’t care less if the two of them ride off into the everlasting sunset together. What bugs me–what really, really bugs me– is the way she apparently feels compelled to report back, all proud and defensive, every damned time he crosses her mind.) “I miss him,” she told me tearfully one day last fall. For the love of fuck, I thought. “Well, you shouldn’t,” I snapped. “He’s right here. You can see him or talk to him any time you want. In fact, I wish you would! He needs more people in his life.”

(I thought that was a nice touch. He certainly does need more people in his life, though I’m willing to bet my mom is not going to go too far out of her way to be one.) “Invite him and the kids to your house!” I said, going for broke. “He always did love South Carolina.”

My mother cut me a sideways look–she is, after all, the very person who taught me how to call someone’s bluff–and muttered something indistinct. We let the topic pass. But I stayed mad for a while, because I’m petty and have nothing better to do. It struck me that my mom was a very bad person, going out of her way to stir things up just when I’d finally stopped thinking so much about the divorce. Then it struck me that I was a jerk for getting upset. Then my dad, who lives halfway across the country and had no idea any of this was on my mind, called. “I sent the boys’ father a birthday card,” he announced. “I hope he gets it.”

God damn it. “Great, great, you should have him come visit you or something, he’s right here, and he needs more people in his life,” I spluttered. “In fact, why limit it to birthdays? Why not write him a heartfelt letter every fucking week?”  After a startled silence, my dad burst out laughing. “You’re a little touchy about this, aren’t you?” he said. I admitted I was. “You know, I stayed in touch with your mom’s mom,” he reminded me. “Your mom and I were only married for a couple of years, but I wrote and visited your grandmother right up to the day she died.”

This is true. He even came to her funeral, last spring. I’m an ass.

When my grandmother died, my ex-husband called my mother especially to tell her how sorry he was. This shocked and surprised me–I had underestimated him–and it made me happy, even after the fiftieth or sixtieth time my mother brought it up within my earshot. His mother called me, too. She even called my mom.

There’s no way to spin this as anything other than kindness. Still, I bet it bugs my ex-husband that his mother keeps in touch with me. I bet she rubs his nose in our semi-friendship without meaning to, out of some vague feeling of guilt crossed with loyalty. I bet he grits his teeth and curses below his breath whenever his mother brings me up. I bet he wishes she would never talk about me, just as I wish my parents would never talk about him, and I bet all of them, on both sides, always will.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2013 11:54 pm

    Too funny! I just laughed out loud! I love family drama, specially ones that are comedies of errors! Thanks for sharing. Truly, it is so good, that ex-in-laws still keep in touch! Cheers for a fun and happy and fulfilling new year!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:46 pm

      Thank you! hope you are doing well. And you’re right–it is good that the in laws are kinder than I am. the children appreciate it, at least.

  2. John Podhoretz permalink
    December 30, 2013 11:59 pm

    This is brilliant. Good story fodder

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Celeste permalink
    December 31, 2013 10:19 am

    That is funny!

  4. December 31, 2013 10:21 am

    I think at heart our instincts remain very tribal. As much as it sounds nice to be open to any and all of humanity we may be wired to draw lines, and the most basic place to do so is around family, however that pans out. We want it to be simple, and nothing at all about family is simple.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:41 pm

      It’s just the “panning out” that’s difficult. One person’s pan is another person’s fire…

  5. Christa permalink
    December 31, 2013 2:15 pm

    If I never see my ex mother in law again, it will be too soon! She was always smarmy to my face, but bitchy about me behind my back. Witch!
    Anyway, I enjoyed your rant. Happy New Year!

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:41 pm

      Happy new year to you!

  6. December 31, 2013 8:36 pm

    Happy new year, lovely one. Thank you for another year of wonderful, insightful, hilarious writing. Xxx

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:40 pm

      As we say in America, right back at you.

  7. December 31, 2013 8:43 pm

    Since my divorce, I’ve been astonished to discover how fragile the in-law bond turns out to be. Even if you like your in-laws enough to still exchange birthday presents five years later, it’s amazing how quickly the we’re-all-family pretense gets unceremoniously dropped. And somehow, neither party seems to mind. All breakups should be this simple!

    Nearly ten years ago now, my husband had an affair. That’s all pretty much water under the bridge now. Pretty much… except that my feelings about his family (mother and sisters) has never been the same since.
    They seemed to accept me into the family fold with so much love and affection. Then this thing happened, and when it came out, they sent him a letter. The letter basically said: This is all a bit unfortunate, but YOLO and we will support you in anything you do and we hope you do what is best for YOU. Unsurprising I know, but what cut me to the heart was that there was no mention of me or the two children in it. No acknowledgement that the other partner might be hurt or grieving. Not a whiff of acknowledgement that there were two children whose lives might be affected. It was as if we were already written out.
    Our relationship is healed now and the relationship with the in laws, who live some way away, is cordial again, but I don’t hold them in my heart as true family or any of that shit, now.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:44 pm

      Oh god, I wouldn’t either. They’d be written right out in my book, no question about it.

  8. MumMum permalink
    January 1, 2014 12:34 pm

    Too funny and too true! Sometimes i want to go out to my ex husband and tell him “Stop calling her Mom! Call Wife Version 2.0’s mother Mom” But that would only reveal how petty and bitter I feel…as one of your old posts said, it would not do to reveal that I am not as self actualized as i should be… Ure posts were missed. A happy and prosperous new year to you and your family.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:42 pm

      I will never be as self-actualized as I should be, but whatever. Thank you, and happy new year to you and yours as well….

  9. January 1, 2014 3:34 pm

    A few years ago I visited my bio dad, whom I hadn’t seen since I was two, at his sister’s house. I’d met his sister, my aunt, when I was a teenager but we hadn’t kept in touch, so it was almost as much a reunion with her as with him. She and her husband had a beautiful house on an island and lots of pictures of family lining the stairwell, though, as she sheepishly pointed out, there were none of me. I didn’t feel badly about it, but I felt badly that she felt bad. Families are so terribly bound by expectation and we’re always falling short, or exceeding to an embarrassing extent, or missing our ques, or mistaking our tones. There is no chance it will ever be an easy thing.

    Lovely to hear from you again. Happy New Year.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:44 pm

      Very very true, and I try to think that people mostly mean well. It is mostly true, that they mostly mean well. I think. I hope.
      Happy New Year and thank you for your blog, which I adore. xxx

  10. Anne permalink
    January 3, 2014 9:01 pm

    I think most people who have been married for a long time (especially when there are kids involved) are never really able to get divorced, only “divarried.”

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:40 pm

      Dreadful thought, but you are probably right.

  11. January 3, 2014 11:06 pm

    i was closer to my mother in law, now dead, than i am to my own mother, still living. this was our first thanksgiving and christmas as a divorcing couple. my ex’s aunt & uncle came down for TG, stayed with me, had dinner here at my house; the ex showed up (fresh from his mistress’ bed), stayed too long, and slunk off like the worthless bastard he is. for christmas, i stayed with his aunt & uncle; the children and i (and my mom) had our christmas day with them, and the rest of my ex’s family, while he drove through the night to wake up with the slut on christmas morning. this is bizarre, right? no one in my ex’s family can understand how the hell we wound up in this state, or what has become of the person they thought they knew.

    i don’t know how long this arrangement will last. it’s excruciating to think that two or five or ten years down the line these christmases with his family will be a memory; that the mistress might become the permanent woman in his life and therefore a part of their family as well. they will have to accept her, because they love him, and then what will become of me? even if he doesn’t stay with her, what will become of me? the children will forever remain connected to that family, but will i? they say yes, but what does that really mean? and yet i am at least marginally inclined to believe them. i have a bond with his sister, aunts, and cousin that he no longer does. i wish so much, sometimes, that his mother was still here; i want so badly to know what she would say about it all. but then i also believe that if she were still alive, none of this might have happened.

    it’s all such a ghastly thing, divorce. i sat up with my 8 year old on christmas eve as he cried about the only thing he wanted from santa, the thing he knew he wouldn’t get: his parents back together. if my ex had been standing in front of me (and not driving back to his mistress), i think i would have put a bullet in him.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:39 pm

      Oh man, I’m so sorry. Your whole situation is dreadful, painful, horrible. Listen, don’t worry about your ex. Just keep in touch with your ex-in-laws whom you love for as long as you can, as long as you both want to, which sounds like forever. I’m so sorry your ex is behaving so horribly. He should be more considerate–he really should. I dont’ care what his new life is, he should be more tactful, more classy, more thoughtful, less selfish. But listen: the fact that he is not means that things are more clear for you. You are well rid of him. Be happy. You will be fine. Better than fine. You are better off without him. And you will keep his family. No bullets necessary.

  12. Susan permalink
    January 10, 2014 5:45 pm

    My mother keeps going on and on and on about my sister’s ex-husband – wondering how he is and saying she’d like to get in touch with him (she has tried his mobile and home phones and the numbers have changed) and let him know ‘we’ haven’t forgotten about him. ‘We’ have actually, he was a boring git and I have no idea what my sister saw in him; it’s only my mother who is remotely bothered. Apparently she feels my sister treated him badly – which seems a bit disloyal to me. She has gone on and on about it for months now, despite my pointing out he is still living in the same house so she could write to him if she was that interested in his welfare. It’s got to the point where I am avoiding ringing her because I don’t want to listen to another round of her moithering about him. In the end my sister got so fed up with it she gave her his current mobile number. I am sure he will be stunned if she does ring him, and hopefully she’ll shut up about him then too.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 10, 2014 10:33 pm

      Isn’t that so fucking weird, though? I mean, don’t you want to really understand what the impulse is? I know I do.

  13. Marshgirl permalink
    January 11, 2014 7:03 pm

    You think that is bad. My delightful mother not only felt sorry for my ex (who cheated on me) but 7 Years after our divorcer wanted to leave her worldly goods to him and his daughter (from wife no 3…I was wife no 1!) I know because she left all the old wills to my son so he could read them all . What can you say? She only changed her mind when I had children when everything went to them instead. I have never forgiven her for that and she’s been dead 8 years now.

  14. Marshgirl permalink
    January 11, 2014 7:08 pm

    Forgot to mention that she had never met the daughter, nor that the ex thought she was completely out of order for not supporting me during the divorce.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 11, 2014 8:47 pm

      Good grief. That’s unbelievable. And that even your ex thought she was bonkers…wow.

  15. Jul permalink
    January 15, 2014 5:15 pm

    Haven’t looked here in a while, but just read about the family property stuff. We boxed everything up (you could pay packers to do this and label it). Then we had an appraiser come out and appraise everything. Then the siblings flipped a coin to see who would choose first, and everyone got one turn choosing something until everything that was worth choosing was gone. (including things that didn’t have cash value, just sentimental value). Then the siblings traded items they had gotten for other items. Then, months later,guilt set in and two of the siblings ended up gifting each other items they both really wanted.

    We had an estate liquidator sell off everything else. One family said they’d rather make the money than the liquidator, but when we estimated the time it would take for them to do it, and the money they would make for it, they changed their mind. (Paying them the same as the liquidator would get).

    The house was sold. I’m thankful there didn’t need to be any discussion over renting or selling it. But if it had come up, the equation is to see how much profit you would make off of renting, and compare that to how much you could get by investing the money. If the profit from renting is 5% and the profit from investing is 4%, you probably should take the money because a 1% change in income is not worth the family headache of managing it. Or you should pay a management company to manage it and put aside part of the profits for maintenance and upkeep.

  16. February 5, 2014 11:37 am

    Love the post. I’m constantly perplexed at how people who welcomed me into their family so graciously are able to barely give me the time of day….after TWENTY years. We keep in touch through holiday cards etc….but damn…..I birthed their grandchildren and attempted to turn their son into some semblance of a respectable human being. smh….

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