Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Marriage Matters: The In Laws

Today is my mom's birthday.  Let's all take a moment and wish her a happy birthday.  Happy Birthday, Mom!
So in case you were doing the math, my Mom's birthday is about a week after Mother's day.  So we spent both last Sunday and this Sunday giving my mom what she always says she wants the most: time with us.  Which is great.  Except it means that my poor husband has to do a lot of that dreaded task that husbands everywhere have to do: spend time with the in-laws.

This task is made even more dreaded by the fact that we're in the middle of a big spring-cleaning project at our house, and the sons-in-law get caught up in it.  They've mounted my parent's TV, built furniture, changed the lightbulbs, fixed computer problems, and done all sorts of other handy things in the last two weekends.  It is important to note that only half of the work they were asked to do was requested by my parents. My sister and I have buckled down to throw away things from our childhood we no longer need, and organize the rest of it all.  My parents are getting rid of the things that they don't want or need any more,

My parents are great, to be sure (also, my Dad reads the blog), but I feel like asking a spouse to spend two full Sundays in a row with their in-laws is asking a lot.  Especially when it involves something as daunting as spring cleaning.  I should point out that my parents did not ask us to come over and spring-clean; that was our gift to our Mom, and the person who asked my husband to come over and put himself to work was me.  And my Dad will surely take this the wrong way and write a long-winded comment about how when he asks my husband to change the lightbulbs, it's a compliment because my husband is much more graceful than my Dad, but the fact of the matter is, my parents like that I married a tall handy man almost as much as they like the fact that my sister married a computer scientist.  Who are both neat-freaks.  Between the two of them, our houses are all much better organized and we are making steps towards not being the type of family that shows up on one of those hoarders TV shows.  But the fact remains: when we come to my parents house, there is always some task that has been waiting for a strapping young man to show up to do it. Not because my parents couldn't do it, but it's so much easier for a son-in-law to do it.

Nonetheless, when we visit my in-laws house, the most work I ever have to do is doing the washing up or occasionally helping in the garden.  Mark sometimes gets asked to sort through his closet or the garage, and sometimes his Dad will give him strange power tools that he is getting rid of.  I do not get asked to change light bulbs or clear out the shed.  (In all fairness, I asked Mark to clear out the shed.)  I'm not sure whether this is because I am a less useful person to have married or if Mark's parents are simply more polite than mine.  (My father is going to comment and say he does not think that asking sons-in-law to do manual labor is impolite.  He thinks of them as part of the family and is extremely appreciative of the help.  Plus, this is totally how things worked with his parents - my mother regularly helped my grandparents with their computers and medical issues, so this is pretty much how people in my family recognize members of the family.  Also, we get paid in very nice lunches and all the spare change we can find.)

Does your spouse get put to work?  Do you?  Is it wrong that I sometimes get a little prickly when my mom or dad calls and says, "X is wrong at our house.  When are you and Mark coming over?" More importantly, if your spouse is asked to help your parents out with a task, does he/she ever feel like they can say no?  Because while I might snottily tell my Dad that I do not want to help him out, my husband is significantly more polite than I am, which I worry will lead to his being taken advantage of.

I've reread and rewritten this post several times to try to avoid offending my Dad, but I don't see a way around it.  So I feel the need to add the disclaimer that I frequently ask my husband to help my parents out; that my husband is always "free to say no"; and that my parents never ever would mean to upset or offend my husband.  Nonetheless, this makes the point even more clear: navigating relationships with family and in-laws is tricky in a marriage.   


  1. The Beagle gets asked to do a lot of work around his parents' house. It seems every time he goes there, there is a computer/tech issue that he needs to resolve.

    My parents are slowly starting to realize that the Beagle is free labor for their computer/tech issues too. The thing is that we live far away, so they've been a little shy asking him. I'm sure the longer we are married, the more comfortable they will get.

  2. Luckily, I can say that my parents did not do this to my husband (past tense, because they now live on the opposite coast). My Dad is very handy and always does things like that himself, unless he simply needs an extra. But he is also a "do it yourself" kind of guy.

    I do feel like I get roped into doing stuff at my in-laws though. Actually, it's more like my husband gets roped into doing stuff at his parents and because we're married and a team, I feel like I need to help. The real frustration lies in the fact that we're grown adults, living our own lives with our own chores, yet somehow my husband is expected to go home and help them with yard work, rake all their leaves each fall, help shovel driveways, clean the garage and the list goes on and on.

    It's not that we don't want to help. I think we all know our parents will need some help as they get older, but it's the expectation that we have to do it. They are perfectly healthy and able to do it, but the kids did everything for so many years and they still expect that in some ways. It irks me and reminds me of the saying "use it or lose it." It also makes me laugh when my in-laws talk about up & moving to Ohio after they retire. I want to laugh and say "Hahaha who will shovel your driveway? Do you expect us to drive out and do it?"

    But here I go, ranting about my in-laws (whom I do love *most* of the time).

  3. My husband (and my brother's wife, too, for that matter) is expected to help around the house when we visit. To a large degree I think for us it's a cultural expectation. I come from an Asian family and one is supposed to show respect and obedience to one's elders. In one way this means that you help out around the house, clean up, help cook, do chores and errands -- ie. you're not just a visitor. I think it stems from two things - 1) your parents spent many years taking care of you that,of course you would want to do the same for them when you are able, and 2) when you marry, your parents become your spouse's parents so they are owed the same respect. Sometimes my parents' expectations irk me. Having grown up in the States where there isn't this idea of filial piety, I'll feel as if my husband is just being used for labour. But then I have to remember to be grateful to my parents for providing us with so many things. It is difficult to remember to be respectful and gracious and to put the resentment aside. But then when I go visit my relatives in Taiwan, I see that there is a certain care and concern that people have for their elders that you don't see in the States. It's not just for parents, but also for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even those not related to you.
    My husband (who is not Asian) is always willing to help, but he does think the expectation of his help is strange. He feels that he is a guest in the house, but that doesn't mesh with the expectations my parents have of their son in-law. One time, I was talking with my mother about my brother and his wife coming to visit. I insisted that we should have coffee for my sister-in-law, because she would be our guest and we should make things comfortable for her. And my mother replied, "But she isn't a guest!" Later on, she thought about it and did go out and buy some coffee - so I guess my mother is learning the dynamics of American in-laws too.

  4. Daniel enjoys helping out with that kind of stuff. He gets a manly kick out of it. Then again, my parents are VERY polite to him and would never have him come over to do something like that. My parents are a little too polite if anything.

    Of course, the dynamic is really different for us because for the most part, we've lived far away from our families. Got to admit though, I'm glad we're 2,000 miles away from D's family for similar reasons.

  5. I am grateful that my family thinks that 40 miles is a great distance and therefore doesn't call us to get free manual labor out of my husband, who is not that handy but strong as an ox (they usually need things lifted and moved, not assembled or repaired). They have occasionally asked for this while we happen to be there, but always politely and with hesitation. Although he would never say no, it always seems like they think he could and that would be fine. (It's not that they're so easy-going; this is just not one of the many things they are neurotic about.)

  6. My Father in law was the most wonderfully helpful person with small children. His second wife took on the job of Grandmother. I made a fine deckhand for his boat. Helping should always go both ways

  7. That is a fair point and I will remind you of it when it's back-to-school night.

  8. I've been waiting for time to read this post! :)

    My mom saves jobs up for Carson, partly because we're always working constantly, and she figures if he has jobs he'll feel 'part of the family' and partly because he's way more tech-y than any of us.

    I end up working when I'm with Carson's parents too, but I put myself to work.