May 7, 2010
When most people hear the words "mother-in-law" they have a dreadful image pop into their heads of an overbearing and meddling woman who makes life miserable for the new son or, in my case, daughter-in-law.
It's rare to hear about the unsung mothers-in-law who actually bring joy into the new family unit. And even less do we sing the praises for mothers-in-law in interfaith relationships.
My mother-in-law, Jeannie, is far from the stereotypical "monster-in-law" and has been a blessing to our interfaith family in many ways. It is her love of her family and commitment to faith--any faith--that sets her apart from the stereotype.
I'm going on close to 12 years knowing my mother-in-law. I was introduced to her just before my now husband, Bryan, and I began dating. Bryan and I are an interfaith family. I am Jewish and he grew up in the Catholic faith. But those religious differences never made a dent in Jeannie's impressions of me or Bryan and me as a couple. She is a kind person and has welcomed me into her family with open arms since day one.
Jeannie is truly interested in learning about my Jewish culture, knowing that same heritage is also part of her son's life. She remembers the holidays, inquires about the different foods and never said one negative word when Bryan and I announced we'd be having a Jewish wedding ceremony.
There was one defining moment in my relationship with my mother-in-law when I realized that religious differences would not be an issue between us. It was December--the infamous dilemma month--when the conflicts between Christmas and Hanukkah tend to rear their ugly heads. This was the first December Bryan and I were together as a serious couple.
Jeannie called me one evening and said she had an important question for me. She had asked her therapist's opinion as to whether to get a personalized Christmas stocking for me that would hang in her house during the holidays. Her therapist told her it would be inappropriate and might make me feel uncomfortable. Jeannie, who tends to take words of therapists and those types of "authority" figures quite seriously, was uneasy with this answer because it meant excluding me from her family's Christmas celebration. When she telephoned that night, she asked if I would be offended if she bought me personalized stocking to hang in her house. I remember saying to her, "Jeannie, I'd be offended if you didn't!"
The point of this is that Jeannie has not only embraced my Jewishness, but has always been inclusive of welcoming me into her family and customs. I feel truly blessed that my mother-in-law doesn't distinguish me from someone else just as important in her family.
Over the years, Jeannie has embraced my Jewishness in many ways that have made me quite proud. She was very supportive when I told her that Bryan and I were attending weekly Pathways to Judaism classes for interfaith couples. In fact, she asked in all seriousness if Bryan was going to convert to Judaism. She was also genuinely happy when I told her that Sophie, our daughter and her only granddaughter, would be raised in the Jewish faith.
Jeannie always sends us a card for Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Hanukkah, which is more than I can say for my own mother. She subscribes to a daily Jewish e-newsletter. And she was thrilled to hear that she'll be invited to attend Grandparent's Shabbat at Sophie's Jewish preschool this fall.
I suspect one of the reasons Jeannie has always embraced me and Judaism is because of her own self coming to terms with religious differences when she got married. Jeannie grew up in a Lutheran family, while her husband (Bryan's father) was Catholic. Although Protestant-Catholic intermarriage is in some ways not as complicated as a Judeo-Christian partnership because both are sects of Christianity, there are still doctrinal differences and a fraught history. Realizing that love, marriage and a general commitment to one faith is the best approach to a sustainable relationship, Jeannie herself converted to Catholicism in order to marry her beshert.
What sets Jeannie apart is that she believes it's important for a family to have faith of some kind, whether it is Judaism or Catholicism. Yet at the same time, she recognizes the importance of being inclusive and sharing religious experiences. We look forward to celebrating Christmas at her house each year. We hang our personalized stockings with the same joy we have when lighting the menorah candles every night of Hanukkah.
I know this type of mother-in-law relationship is not an easy feat and may not be the norm for interfaith families. I'm lucky I have a mother-in-law who believes the family will be stronger if we all embrace each other and our faiths. Amen and Toda to that!