She had four kids and a husband. How could she also manage her sweet but intrusive mother-in-law?
Posted in , Sep 26, 2016
Seven o’clock, Monday morning. My husband, Derek, and I were in the kitchen with our four kids, grabbing breakfast before we left for work and school. With no warning whatsoever, our back door flew open. No phone call or text to see if we were up. No knock. Nothing. Slippered feet padded across the floor.
It could only be one person. My mother-in-law, Nadja.
She’d been living in an apartment attached to our house for the last 15 years. How many times had I asked her to knock?
“Good morning!” she said, breezing into the kitchen holding a silver tray piled with freshly baked muffins. “I did your laundry while these were in the oven. Now what else can I make you all for breakfast?”
The kids looked at me for what to say to Oma, as they called her. We’d had this conversation with her many times. Our two oldest children—both in high school—were born with a rare disorder: arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which decreased the flexibility of the joints in their arms and shoulders. They’d had years of physical therapy to help them master basic skills and gain strength in their upper body.
“Remember, they need to learn to do things for themselves,” I said to Nadja. “Even cooking.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said.
But I do! I thought, my stomach tightening. It’s my house.
Yes, Nadja meant well. Yes, most people would be grateful to have such a helpful mother-in-law. But would she ever respect or even understand our boundaries? Did she think I wasn’t up to doing the laundry and the cooking myself? That I couldn’t take care of my own family?
Maybe it bothered me so much because, like so many women, I wanted to be that mom who did it all—juggling my job at the local high school with raising four kids and driving them to all of their activities while keeping the house perfectly clean and organized. Super mom.
I felt guilty bristling at Nadja. She had been nothing but warm and welcoming since Derek and I first started dating. The day he introduced me to his parents, Nadja pulled me into her arms and squeezed me tight, as if I were already part of the family.
After we married, Derek and I grew even closer to his parents. We’d meet them for dinner out or go to their house to play cards. Then, suddenly, my father-in- law left Nadja after 30 years of marriage. We were stunned.
Nadja was devastated. She’d devoted her life to raising Derek and his brother before pursuing a career of her own. Five years later a difficult economy resulted in her losing her job. It became apparent that she couldn’t afford to live on her own. With Derek’s brother about to leave for the mission field in Australia, Derek and I felt called by God to step in and help support his mom. Besides, it wasn’t as if we didn’t already get along great.
We listed both of our houses for sale, thinking we’d live in whichever one didn’t sell. Ours sold first, so we moved in with Nadja.
By then, Derek and I had started our family; we had a two-year-old and a newborn. What had been a perfect place for a couple in their retirement years turned out not to be kid-friendly at all. There were several flights of stairs, the back deck hung out over a huge drop-off and the house was on a corner lot at a busy intersection. I worried about our kids not having a safe place to play.
Having Nadja around made up for it. She was the opposite of a demanding, impossible-to-please mother-in-law. If anything she was too sweet and helpful. We’d hardly been moved in a week and she was cooking all our meals, doing our laundry, rushing to take care of things for the kids and baking them special treats. Of course they loved being spoiled by their grandmother.
I’d assumed that Derek and I would do our own thing when it came to parenting, that Nadja would respect any rules we had because she was always so agreeable.
After a few months of her constant doting, I got concerned. “Derek, should I say something to your mother?” I asked. “You know I love her and the kids adore her, but she needs to let us run our own family.”
“I think she needs to feel needed since my dad left,” he said. “She means well. But if you feel like she’s doing too much, just talk to her.”
One day our oldest had a nightmare and was fussing about going to sleep in his own room. He ran right to Oma. “Come here, sweetheart,” she said, swaddling him in a big hug. “Let’s get you a snack.”
“No snacks after bedtime,” I said, plucking him from her and walking him back to his room. “How else will he learn to soothe himself and sleep on his own?”
“Of course, Mary, you’re right,” Nadja said. “But once a mother, always a mother.”
“I really appreciate everything you’re doing for us,” I said. “But I’m happy to cook for the kids and do our laundry and, most of all, I want them to know that what Derek and I say goes. Not that what we say goes...until they talk to Oma.”
She laughed. “I didn’t realize how easily I can spoil them,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said, giving her a hug.
Two years later, when I was pregnant with our third child, we found a new house—a family-friendly ranch on an acre in the Sierra foothills where the kids could play outside and run around. It was close to schools and a huge park. We remodeled it to include a separate apartment for Nadja. While it was being built she lived in a trailer on the property.
“Can we go over to Oma’s?” the kids would ask.
It felt like a big deal to them to walk across the little sidewalk and tap on the door of the trailer, where Nadja would have a tea party waiting, complete with china cups and English biscuits.
When the apartment walls went up I made sure there was room for a separate washer and dryer. Maybe if we didn’t have to share the appliances anymore, Nadja would finally let me take care of my own laundry. Lord Jesus, I prayed, please let this be good for us all. Help Nadja understand what I need from her...more like what I don’t need.
“Oh, this is just fabulous!” Nadja exclaimed to me when her apartment was finished. “You thought of everything. I’m going to love living here.” I was excited for both of us to have a little more personal space.
It didn’t last long. Every morning, our back door opened and in strode Nadja with a tray loaded with muffins or fresh fruit. She’d set her tray down at the table, then go to the stove and get right to cooking. Not that she wasn’t a phenomenal cook. But did she have to take over my kitchen every single day? Even when the kids said they weren’t really hungry, she’d fill their plates with eggs, sausage and toast.
I tried to talk to Nadja about it. “Please don’t think I’m not grateful,” I said. “But you have your own apartment now, so I just appreciate you knocking before you come over. And you have your own laundry to do. Would you mind leaving my family’s laundry to me? It makes me feel good to do that for them.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s force of habit. I see the laundry and I do it. You know, once a mother, always a mother.”
Well, that was certainly true, because no matter how often I reminded Nadja, she never remembered to knock before coming in. She kept doing our laundry and making breakfast for us. I joked that she must have been afraid we would wither away without her delicious cooking.
Now here she was, making yet another huge breakfast for the kids. They looked at me and shrugged—That’s just Oma, their expressions all told me. I felt as though I was going to snap! I opened my mouth, ready to give her a piece of my mind.
Instead, something came over me and stilled my tongue. I sipped my coffee and watched my mother-in-law cooking eggs the way each of the kids liked them—scrambled, sunny-side up, over easy.
Lord, why hasn’t Nadja learned to respect my family boundaries, after all these years? Nadja was still doing what she’d always done and she was doing it out of the goodness of her heart, I had to believe. If she hadn’t changed, maybe it was because God didn’t want her to. He’d made her this way for a reason, and who was I to change what God had made? Maybe what needed changing was my perspective.
The next morning at breakfast time, Nadja breezed into the kitchen as usual. I didn’t remind her to knock. Instead, I had her sit down with me for a cup of coffee. And I mustered the nerve to ask the question that had been gnawing at me for more than 15 years.
“What’s the real reason you won’t let me do our laundry or teach the kids to make their own breakfast?” I asked. “Is it because you don’t think I can do a good enough job for your son and your grandchildren?”
“Of course not, Mary! You’re a wonderful wife and mother,” she said. “You’re so busy working and raising the kids, I feel that if I can do anything to make your life easier, then I should. I wish I’d had help with Derek and his brother when they were kids.”
I should have known Nadja was doing everything out of love. From Day One, she’d opened her arms—and her heart—to me. It doesn’t bother me anymore that loving her back means opening my door to her. These days I don’t even expect her to knock.
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