Recently I was asked to speak to a group about parenting, but from a bit of a different angle: how can we improve our relationships with our parents, and parents-in-law, now that we are adults?
I appreciated the shift in the conversation; not only looking at parenting when the kids are growing up, but also what the relationship is like after that. However, that raised a question in my mind: don’t we need to first think about what we desire that relationship to look like? We need to know what our aim is, before we can talk about improving that aim.
What does our parenting journey look like? What should it look like? What do we want the outcome to be, once our children are adults? What are your goals, as a parent—not just how you hope your kids will “turn out”, so to speak? And then—what will it be like to be not the mom, but the mother-in-law*? Mothers-in-law are rarely pictured as sympathetic, friendly, warm characters, but are instead portrayed in pop culture for laughs and for scorn. There may be a kernel of reality behind the caricatures—but do our real life relationships have to mirror that?
Why did we become parents? What are our goals? And what kind of relationships do we hope to have with our children, and with their spouses, should they marry?
Once we determine what our parenting goals are, and what we want our relationships with our adult children to be, we will better be able to figure out what obstacles that we face in trying to reach those goals, and what difficulties may arise in parent-child interactions once the children are adults themselves.
Why did you become a parent? Maybe it was because you wanted to share the love you had with your husband, with children. Maybe it was a desire to love, protect, and share life with children who needed you. Maybe it seemed like “the next thing” to do. Maybe it’s because babies are cute. Maybe it was because everyone else around you was having a baby, and you wanted one. Maybe it was accidental. Maybe you stumbled into parenting.
However you got there, once you became a parent (probably even before!), you started developing parenting goals, whether consciously or not. At first it’s pretty basic: keep them fed. Try to keep them in a clean diaper. Establish a rhythm for your family (whether loosely or more tightly structured). Keep the children alive.
Later goals include typical milestones, like potty training, or teaching them to ride a bike. Then we start to add in various measurements for “success”—academic, athletic, creative, artistic. We may measure our success as parents by the successes our kids attain, in reaching goals that either we or they have set. With each “goal” met, however, there often pops up the next goal for our kids. (And the next. And the next….)
Have we ever stopped to think: what should our goals be for our children? Are we working toward the goals that are important to God, and his kingdom goals, or are we striving toward establishing our own “family kingdom” here on earth?
Think about what you want for your kids. (And be brutally honest with yourself; don’t just think about what the “right”, “good”, “Christian”, or expected answer in this is.) When you are alone with your thoughts, if you could ensure anything for your kids, what would you ask for? What do you dream about for them? Into what are you pouring your time and efforts and resources, in order to achieve those goals?
We have an example for us in our parenting as Christians: our parenting journey should reflect our Heavenly Father’s journey with us, and his desires and goals for us. What are they?
God wants us to: a) love Him and b) reflect that love to the people around us. Those are the two greatest commandments, as Jesus says in Matthew 22:35-40: The great and first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Our goals as parents are to help guide our children, to not hinder them, in learning to love God, with all of their hearts, souls, and minds; and also to love the people around them—by being generous with they have and what they do, by having humility toward others, and by using their gifts and abilities in the service of others, and not only for themselves.
God identifies with you as a parent—he is our heavenly Father, after all. He also identifies with you as a mother figure. Isaiah 49:15 says that he has a closer relationship to us than that of a nursing mother to her child. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” And in Luke 13:34, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” God encompasses all of the loving, caring parental feelings and actions.
I remember once being fairly exasperated and worn out with mothering so many children (I have seven), and so many different ages and stages and personalities. I thought to myself, “Jesus was a single man who never married or had children. He has no idea what I am dealing with!”
And then Jesus’ day to day life with the disciples came to mind.
Think about those disciples. They were unruly, illiterate, fairly ignorant, and unappreciative. They didn’t “get” what was going on, or why Jesus was doing or saying what he was doing and saying, most of the time.
What does that sound like to you??
Sounds a lot like parenting to me! 🙂
Jesus had 12 “kids” to wrangle and teach, and our parenting journey should mirror his walk with the twelve: leading, guiding, teaching, discipling, shepherding. When it came to the end of his time with them, what did Christ call his disciples? John 15:15: No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
First, he taught them, led them, fed them, cared for them—he discipled them.
And then, he called them friends.
After that, he sent them out to make more disciples.
That’s our goal as parents—teach our children to love God and other people—to disciple them in God’s ways–and then to be good friends to them as they become adults, who are sent out to make more disciples. This model, set by God, should be our model of parenting. It should also be our model for caring for, on a parallel level, the children in your church, your community, and even the world. Michelle Higgins said in a recent Truth’s Table podcast on mothering, “Parenting itself is akin to looking to God the Father, and trying, as much as the Holy Spirit will guide you, to love ALL God’s children the way that He does.”
Parenting is an opportunity to give grace. It is an opportunity to love in the way that God loves you.
This lesson came through to me in a very clear way through my relationship with my daughter. She was the fourth child out of seven, and landed smack dab in the middle, with three brothers following her. At about the age of ten, she started what I sometimes call “The Longest Adolescence Known to Mankind”. Seven years of sassiness, eye-rolling, rejection of affection, arguing, lack of kindness—-like I said, it was adolescence with no remission, for seven years straight.
It wasn’t like I had not had experience. I had had three older children who had already gone through the “I know it all and you know nothing” phase. So I wasn’t a newbie. But this was different; it started earlier, and persisted longer. Instead of flashes of gunfire amidst truces, or a conflict that eventually flamed out and ended in a peaceful agreement, it was more like a siege. With trenches.
I remember at about year five of the battle, feeling like I was just sick and tired of it all. I found myself more and more often responding in a snotty manner when she was snotty to me; giving up on trying to hug her after so many cold shoulders, so many times of her pulling away from me or stiffening up. I could feel my heart hardening against her. And while I felt it happening, and felt justified in my response, I also felt frightened by it.
In the midst of it, I heard God say to me in my prayer time—“You need to stop that. Right now.” And I was kind of like, huh? (Even though I knew exactly what he was talking about.)
“You need to stop hardening your heart against her. You need to start loving her the way that I love you.”
“But God, have you seen the way she acts toward me? She’s so disrespectful! She’s so disobedient! She’s so ungrateful and unloving!”
“Yes. I see. And I also see that you need to love her the way that I love you, when you are disrespectful, and disobedient, and ungrateful.”
Uggggggggh. He was right.
I took for granted that God would continue to love me, even when I messed up and disobeyed or ignored him, even when I failed to be grateful and thank him for all he had done for me, and continued to do for me. I took for granted that he would forgive me and love me and help me and care for me–because I was his daughter.
I needed to repent of my hardheartedness, and love my daughter the way that God loved me.
I talked to my husband, and we agreed and confessed together: our lack of love for our daughter; our pride and feeling disrespected; our feeling like we had good reason for being mean-spirited back at her, when we felt she wasn’t treating us as we deserved. We decided from that time forward, that we would try our best to love her unconditionally and fully—not withholding kindness or gentleness based on her actions and attitudes, but instead loving her in a Christlike way, as one of our closest “neighbors”; loving her as we loved ourselves.
Perhaps it seems weird to you that a mom or a dad would have to remind themselves to love their child in this way. Maybe that is because you have a compliant child, or it’s because you haven’t hit adolescence yet with your kids (by which I don’t mean to demean teenagers—they are a delightful group, particularly when they get past 14 or so :)). Or, maybe you can totally identify! But I can tell you that something changed from then on. We felt a release and a freedom. We didn’t change the parameters of the rules or expectations—she still had to adhere to curfew and doing chores as outlined, etc.—but we could feel our hearts softening toward her. We persevered in actively loving her, instead of responding in defensiveness or spite (which did not come naturally, I must admit).
We continued to pray and ask God to help us through it—to help us persevere in loving her, even when it seemed like it wasn’t having any effect on her actions or attitudes. The good news is that, little by little, it was having an effect on our attitudes. Consequently, we were better able to leave the work of changing her attitude and heart up to the Holy Spirit. And eventually, it did have an effect on her attitude. We enjoy a close relationship with her today that at one point we thought would never be possible.
What are we doing when we love people like God loves us? We are becoming like HIM. We are developing a heart like HIS. It changes US. And then, he uses it to change the hearts of others.
Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic worker movement and lived a life devoted to and serving the poor and fighting for justice. In her book The Reckless Way of Love, she writes: “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love….to keep on loving and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children; and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. It is a hard, hard doctrine. I guess we get what we need in the way of discipline. God can change things in the twinkling of an eye. We have got to pray, to read the gospel, to get to frequent communion, and not judge, not do anything but love, love, love. A bitter lesson.”
I love how she doesn’t sugar coat it and say it will be easy to love in this way. It requires prayer, and perseverance.
What are the obstacles to developing these types of relationships with our children, and to loving them well? What are the obstacles that you may have encountered with your own parents, or with your in-laws?
Here are a few that I have noticed:
1) The desire to control. Your controls and restrictions should lessen as your children get older. Some parents have this backward; they start by being lenient with their two year old, and then as their child grows, they see their loss of control and try to ramp up and tighten the ties that bind, as their teenager pushes even more against the boundaries. Or, they may have a child who is growing and maturing just great, but then the parents realize that soon these children will be out on their own and outside of their control, to a great extent. And that causes fear, as they sense a loss of the control they feel they once had. (That “control” is an illusion, by the way….)
2) There may be an unwillingness to let go, particularly if your identity is largely formed around your role as a mother. Who am I now? What is my role, if I am no longer the mom who is directing all the things? If I am not the source of all comfort for my kids? If (gasp!) someone else takes precedence in their lives and considerations?
3) This is related to the last one–a reluctance to release to marriage. Genesis 2:24 speaks to the importance of recognizing the formation of a new family with each generation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Even if you are happy about your sons or daughters getting married, there may be mixed feelings. You as a mom are no longer the most important woman in your son’s life, after he gets married. Your daughter is going off and starting something new that doesn’t have you at the center of it. It may be a poignant reminder that you are getting older; it may bring up regrets about your own life. A mom may seek to keep an adult child in a submissive, obedient relationship as a way to try to “stop time”—even though that is impossible in reality.
There’s an interesting passage in Matthew 12:46-50: While he (Jesus) was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” What is Jesus saying here? He isn’t saying that our families aren’t important; he is saying that we need to recognize that the most important relationship we have is the one we have with him, and as a consequence, with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Scott Sauls talks about this issue in a chapter in his book Befriend.
“Fearing that they will lose their children’s affection, needy parents grasp for control…. This is what you call reversing the flow of the umbilical cord: parents demanding that their children function as their source of life; their emotional nourishment; their identity; their Jesus. This always ends in sorrow and alienation and loss. Just as in marriage, we must not place a burden on our children to provide for us the things only God can supply.”
Being a good friend to your adult children requires a transition. You should be transitioning, bit by bit, as your kids grow and mature. From the time they are little, we are constantly working on helping our kids become more and more independent, more able to do things on their own. Whether that is feeding themselves, taking care of their own toileting needs, doing chores, learning how to do their own laundry, how to manage money, making decisions for themselves—all of these things should be leading up to them being capable adults by the time they are ready to leave home. Tim Keller says, “Obviously, as much as we love our children, the greatest tragedy is when they can’t grow up, or they don’t grow up either mentally or emotionally.”
We love our children well when we prepare them to do things on their own, and can transition into being friends of a deep sort, ones with whom we can speak and share freely, bear each other’s burdens, and love fiercely.
What can we do to better our relationships with our mothers and our mothers-in-law?
1) Recognize and try to understand the motivations or feelings behind the things that bug you about her. For example, I have discussed the fears that a mom or a mother-in-law might have about being less significant in their children’s lives. Those fears might be driving a particular behavior, such as insisting on family holidays remaining the exact same way that they have when their kids were growing up—even though the kids are all grown up with children of their own now, and want to start establishing their own traditions. Or there may be anger that is masking hurt, which may be totally unrelated to you. There may be past abuse or woundedness, that has never been healed. There may be false beliefs, that then lead to negative behavior. When we try to look at things through another’s perspective, we often can better empathize and understand why they might be acting in the way they are.
2) Set appropriate boundaries. It does no one any good to let them trample over everyone else. That is not a loving thing to do. You can empathize with someone and understand their point of view, without letting them abuse you or take control that they do not have the right to have. In the book Boundaries, authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend say this: “A good test of a relationship is how a person responds to the word ‘no’. Love respects ‘no’; control does not.” Also—“Boundaries are basically about providing structure, and structure is essential in building anything that thrives.” It is not loving to let someone continue to manipulate or pout until they get their way. Appropriate boundaries will need to be set and enforced, if your parents or in-laws continually stray into areas that are not their domain. Decide what are things that are non-negotiable, and be prepared to explain why (even if they don’t end up understanding).
Having said that: pick your battles. You may need to realize and accept that your kids will not eat exactly as you desire, when they are visiting grandma and grandpa. Or they may get to stay up later than you want them to stay up. You will have to negotiate those things, and decide what things are really important, and what things you can let go. (Note: safety issues are always an appropriate boundary. Do not leave your kids alone with people who are unsafe in any way.)
Set appropriate boundaries–but also don’t use barbed wire when a picket fence will do :).
3) Be on the same page with your spouse. If you are massively aggravated about something and your husband doesn’t think it’s a big deal, you need to work it out, one way or the other; and then you can address it with the in-laws. You need to be unified, and supporting one another in areas of conflict, if at all possible.
4) Try to keep the lines of communication open, and when you need to confront or discuss, try to use “I feel like” phrases, instead of “you always” phrases. For example, “I feel like when the kids eat a lot of sugar, they come home and are super cranky and wound up. Would it be possible to limit them to only having one cookie after supper when they are at your house?” Instead of “It bugs the crap out of me that you always let the kids eat whatever they want, and then I have to deal with the fall out when they get home!” Think of how you would like to be approached. Also take into consideration the way your mom or mother-in-law generally accepts things (you may have a higher tolerance for conflict than she does, for example; adjust accordingly).
5) Look for ways to show appreciation for the mother who had a great deal to do with the man you fell in love with and married. Acknowledge the things that she taught him, or how he grew up in ways that you are grateful for now: he is a hard worker; he knows how to do his own laundry; he is kind; he is a man of God; she kept him fed and clothed. Even if it’s just “she showed him how not to parent”! She is a part of him. Become a student of what she appreciates, and try to accommodate that when appropriate.
I am not always that excited about getting a greeting card in the mail (especially if it doesn’t have a handwritten note with it–because I love letters!), but my mother-in-law loves cards. I know, because she sends them often! So I make an effort to remember special occasions by getting a card to her on time. Does your mom or mother-in-law like getting regular calls from her son? Does she like to spend time with the grandkids? Learn her love language, and try to speak it a little more fluently.
6) Pray for your mom. Pray for your mother in law. Pray for your own heart and any part you might have played in making the relationship difficult. Ask God to show you both your own failings, and how to love and respect and honor your mom or mother-in-law, even when it is hard.
7) As a daughter-in-law, you will need to recognize that he will always be her son. She will always remember times in his life when he was a child, when he wasn’t an adult with his own family—which is fine, as long as he is not still treated as such, or memories are constantly being brought up as a subtle/not-so-subtle way of undermining your place in his life, or his authority in his own family. Ask her questions about what he was like as a child; what particular memories stand out for her; maybe what characteristics she sees in her grandchildren that remind her of him when he was little.
As a mother-in-law, I need to recognize that the role with my son or daughter has shifted; there is a new family unit, with its own culture and different ways of doing things. And that is FINE. My way is not automatically “normal”; I need to listen and be open to new ways of looking at things or doing things. And I need to “love, love, love”, as Day put it above—both my sons and daughters, who are still growing and changing as adults (because we all continue to grow and change, hopefully!), and my new daughters and sons by marriage.
All of our relationships with our moms and our mothers in law are on a spectrum—they can range from great to good to downright awful. Maybe we have a relationship that we feel will never be reconciled. Or we may feel a deep inadequacy in our own motherhood, perhaps because we have a mom or mother-in-law who seems perfect. Dr. Christina Edmondson points out that we can do one of two things with inadequacy: we can feed it and make it our identity, or we can allow it to point us to the One who is fully sufficient.
I want to wrap up with some encouragement, for all of our relationships that fall short of what we wish they would be.
From Scott Sauls’ Befriend:
And yet, for those of us who have lived with family dysfunction or have caused dysfunction, there is greater grace that God extends to us. His mercies are new every day, and his offer to be our true Father, Brother, Husband, and Savior always stands. What’s more, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive, God helps us feel less alone with the wounds inflicted by those who fail us. Even if we parent with grace and love, our children may grow disrespectful and unresponsive or go completely astray. If this happens, we have a God who understands. He is the perfect Father of children who are chronically ungrateful and unreceptive of his love. If we have been scarred by Mom or Dad or both, God understands that, too. Jesus was the perfect Son who was misunderstood and was called a lunatic by his own mother. He was the perfect Son who was forsaken by his perfect Father—so that we, the prodigal sons and daughters who have been united with him by faith, would never be forsaken. And, when marriage lets us down—when we grieve from unfulfilled longings to be married, or when we face loneliness inside a cold marriage—Jesus is the man who lived single and who died alone. He is also the loving, longing, faithful, and perfect husband who will never forsake his chronically adulterous, entitled, distant, unmoved, and always beloved bride. In every family heartache, we have a Father, Brother, Husband, and Savior who is able to sympathize with our weakness because he has been tested in every way, yet is without sin or betrayal or infidelity or harshness or cold withdrawal or any other form of dysfunction.
God can make all things new: our relationships with our children, our relationships with our mothers, and yes—even our relationships with our mothers-in-law.
* much of this blogpost will relate to both parents, and also to adult children who do not have children themselves. For ease of writing, and because I am a mom and a mother-in-law, I will primarily be discussing it through the lens of moms and mothers-in-law.