Dividing the man from his mother

Once, I chafed at any hour my husband spent with his mother, somehow viewing it as time stolen from me. Now I realize it's not a competition.

Published January 9, 2006 11:16AM (EST)

When my son Zeke was in preschool he came home every day and headed straight for the couch. He pulled me down next to him and cleaved his plump body to my own less adorably rotund one. He pressed his soft lips to my neck, nuzzling under my chin, breathing deep as if he wanted to inhale every molecule of the fragrance he had missed in the four hours of our separation. He placed his palms on my cheeks and kissed me on the lips, languidly yet gravely, like a very small, round-cheeked lover.

I can't say that while he was gone I missed him as much as he missed me; after all, I did not prove my devotion by spending our time apart dripping tears onto the sand table and rocking in misery on the cushions of the book nook. I was too busy reveling in my time alone, getting my work done, going for solitary walks, reintroducing myself to my husband. But when Zeke returned I leapt onto the couch with as much eagerness as he did. Holding his fleshy, silky body was the most satisfying tactile experience I have ever had in my life. The flawlessness of an infant's skin is a trite metaphor, but his baby skin was even more buttery than most. And I'm not a child-aggrandizing mother blinded by love. I have four children, and this boy's skin was different. It felt like the freshest heavy cream tastes: smooth and round, fat and thick on the tongue. His body, too, was different. It's a wonder how what can inspire such disgust on an adult can be so delectable on an infant. Zeke is 7 years old now, as thin and wiry as a half-starved whippet, but when I close my eyes, I can still feel the give of his plump baby flesh under my fingers.

Once, a few years ago, while we were driving over the hill leading to our house, we passed the bright purple house that had always been his older sister's favorite.

"That's where we'll live when I grow up," Zeke said.

"Who? You and the person you marry?" Note that I didn't say "wife." Those of us who raise our families in Berkeley would never make assumptions about our children's sexual orientation.

"No. You and me."

"Aren't you going to get married and have children?" I asked, hearing to my horror a hint of the whine of my foremothers. You can take the babushka off the Jewish mother and dress her up in a pair of Seven jeans and Marc Jacobs sling-backs, but she's still going to expect a passel of grandkids.

"My wife will sleep on the first floor with daddy. You and I will live on the top floor. Together."

It's possible that a psychologically sound mother, a mother whose role model isn't the floating maternal head in Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks, would not have been quite so pleased. Certainly a better mother would not have congratulated her son on such a fine plan and offered to cover half the mortgage.

Even now, although Zeke's pride does not allow him to linger in my arms for much longer than a minute or so, he still calls for me to lie with him at night, he still gives me "movie kisses"  kisses that last for a little longer than usual and involve a lot of twisting of the head and moaning. He still cuddles up to me, pressing his needle chin and knobby knees into me before spinning off to pick up his skateboard or go to the computer. And he still plans to exile his wife to the far reaches of the lower floors of the purple house.

I do not envy this phantom daughter-in-law of mine. I pity the young woman who will attempt to insinuate herself between my mama's boy and me. I sympathize with the monumental nature of her task. It will take a crowbar, two bulldozers and half a dozen Molotov cocktails to pry my Oedipus and me loose from one another. She'd be better off turning her attention to decorating that downstairs in-law unit.

I sympathize with how much work she faces, but not with her. In fact, the very thought of this person, imaginary though she is, sends me into paroxysms of a kind of envy that is uncomfortable to admit. I make jokes about how I hope Zeke is gay so that he will bring home a lovely young man, rather than a nubile young girl who will cast a disparaging and dismissive eye on my crow's feet and thick waist. This young man would be my friend. My ally even. In the more likely but far less appealing scenario, Zeke and his wife will screen their calls and roll their eyes as I leave increasingly frantic voice-mail messages. She will perfect an impression of me, complete with nasal whine and pinched lips, while he winces at the droll accuracy and drags her off to the bedroom while my forlorn voice begs to the empty air, "Please, darling, give your mother a call, just so that I know you're all right."

You'd think this obsessive love my son and I share would give me sympathy for my own mother-in-law. My mother-in-law and I are, in many ways, perfectly matched. Like me, she is an attorney. Like her, I am an eclectic and voracious reader. Both my mother-in-law and I are far too attracted to stories of personal and medical misfortune, and we enjoy recounting them with exquisite detail. We share the rather unattractive qualities of being both nosy and snoopy. These are not identical traits -- the first indicates that we're interested in other people's doings and the second that we are not above making inquiries, subtle or not. A nosy person listens closely to a friend's confidences about her husband's sexual dysfunction, and maybe asks a prying question or two. A snoopy person combs through a friend's medicine cabinet looking for Viagra.

We should have gotten along famously, from the very first moment. And in a sense, we did. We could kill an hour with relative ease. My husband's eyes would glaze over early on in the conversation, but I was always willing to egg her on.

"Was it more like an orange or a grapefruit? Did they get it all?"

"Can't he get his wages garnished for that?"

"How did she even know to get herself tested for chlamydia?"

We share these similarities and I should have had empathy for her. After all, she had experienced what I knew I would eventually: being the first love of your son and then watching helplessly as that devotion shifts.

But I found myself without compassion for her. On the contrary, I couldn't help feeling that my job was to step between her and her son. I cannot trace my attitude to any flaw in my mother-in-law. She is not domineering or overbearing, nor does she treat my husband as a prince around whom she flutters in constant and obsequious attendance. She is a calm and pleasant woman, unassuming and benign. Our first meeting augured well. We spent an entire weekend, in a small hotel suite. My husband, then my boyfriend, brought me to Washington, D.C., where his mother was spending a month working, so that I could meet her. We slept on a pullout sofa, separated from her by the tissue-paper thin walls of the suite-hotel. We had not been together very long, my husband and I, only a couple of months, and we were in the throes of that first hysteria of sexual infatuation where your body is attuned to your lover's every breath, and passing a night without proving that to each other is impossible to imagine.

My mother-in-law gamely ignored us. At meals, she kept her eyes on her menu while we snuggled on the other side of the table. She accompanied us on our visits to friends, walks through the city, nostalgic forays to the neighborhood where she had raised her son, the man I knew even then that I would marry, and never once behaved as I would have, if it had been Zeke canoodling with his girlfriend in the back seat of the car while I tried to point out how big the trees had grown in the yard of our old house. My mother-in-law not only tolerated what can only have been highly irritating behavior, but she actually seemed to enjoy our company.

Despite her fondness for gossip, my husband's mother is a reserved, quiet woman, the polar opposite of me in this regard. If, as my husband is fond of saying, my autobiography would be titled "Me and My Big Mouth," hers would be called "Quiet, I'm Reading." She is as restrained physically as she is verbally.

The next time we saw each other, at her house, she put her hand on my shoulder while placing a bowl of broccoli on the table. That instant of contact had my husband waxing rhapsodic for hours.

"She's never just spontaneously embraced one of my girlfriends like that," he said, his voice hushed with awe.

"Embraced?" I replied, genuinely confused. "When did she embrace me?"

"At the table. She hugged you at the table."

"You mean that time she sort of bumped into me?"

She's a little looser nowadays, and we hug and kiss easily when we meet after an absence, but she is by no means physically effusive. I have never seen her bump into someone she does not know very well. What felt to me like cool friendliness at the time was warmth to her; what felt to me like an accidental brush of her arm was to her a sign of something special.

None of which explains why, not long after that meal, when my then fianci and I moved to within half an hour's drive of my mother-in-law, I began to feel an intense sense of competition. The idea to move to San Francisco was mine; I had a new job that took us there, but something about the proximity made me anxious. It brought forth a jealousy that might otherwise have simmered barely noticed, under the surface. I fear that I generated this, entirely within my own head. My mother-in-law had, after all, been through this once before; I am my husband's second wife, and the last in a long line of girlfriends. She must have been resigned to her fate as perennially second in his heart.

From early on, I felt deeply territorial about my husband and approached our relationship with a kind of ravenous intensity. When we first met, my husband and I told each other about our previous relationships. We traded details, laughed over them, shared inside jokes with one another. I think I felt that only if I could insert myself into his history, consume it, if you will, could I assert the primacy of our relationship over all those prior ones. If I knew as much as he did about those women, especially his ex-wife, I could be secure.

My husband also told me about his childhood, as much as he remembered. I think much of my jealousy of my mother-in-law sprang from my belief that there were long years of his life that belonged exclusively to her, that lived only in her own memory. Those were years, I imagined, when she was the sun around which his little boy self revolved. I could never own those years the way I tried to own the other epochs and loves in his history.

In thinking about my husband's relationship with his mother, I wonder if the very thing that should have given me the most peace of mind was what caused me the most consternation. There was none of the Sturm und Drang I was used to from my own family. They seemed genuinely to enjoy each other's company, but not to be overly involved with one another. There was no bickering, no unrealistic demands, no slammed phones, no waves of passion and rage. They were easy with one another -- mild even. They were the very opposite of Woody Allen and his mother's floating head. I was confused by it. It was so unlike anything I understood a maternal-child bond to be. I, who called my mother three times a day, just didn't get that my husband and his mother could love each other without being overly entangled.

At the same time, I failed to be comforted by the fact that he made a deliberate choice to be with a woman whose temperament, unlike his mother's placidity, runs to extremes of passion and mood. You'd think these very differences would have made me more confident in my primary place in my husband's heart. You'd be wrong.

This tug of war between a mother and daughter-in-law over a man is an age-old phenomenon, the stuff of sitcom jokes and Greek tragedy. Two women, decades apart, vying for the favors of a man who most often doesn't even know a battle is being fought. It's easy to imagine why women who define themselves through the status of the men in their lives and the attention those men pay to them would end up in competition. But neither my mother-in-law nor I are women like that. We are both women who pride ourselves on our independence, our careers. Even in the absence of an overbearing and territorial counterpart, I slipped into the combative role easily, as if it was an inevitable part of being a woman marrying a man. It was as though the need to be the one, the only, in his life overcame even the most common of sense.

My campaign was subtle, and at the time I didn't even realize I was waging war. I insinuated myself between them delicately but decisively. I began complaining to my husband about my mother-in-law, and my primary target was her reserve. "How can you stand such diffidence?" I kept asking. "Doesn't it drive you crazy?" Through cues as understated as holding his hand when we were with her, I tried to make my primacy known. My husband and I were planning and paying for our own wedding, and we limited the guest list to our families and our own friends, effectively making my mother-in-law -- and, by necessity of fairness, my own parents -- mere invited guests at their own children's wedding.

When my husband and I spent time with my mother-in-law, I found myself using the first-person plural, an exclusionary tense if ever there was on. "We loved that movie," I would say. Or, "That's our very favorite restaurant; we'll take you next time we go." All this by way of showing her that he and I were a unit, a couple. The couple.

I even resented the weekly lunch date my husband and his mother shared. I had the grace to be ashamed of this resentment and tried to hide it, but I must have failed dismally, because over the course of our first few months together those lunches gradually ceased. Then I thought she barely noticed that they no longer lunched together, or didn't care, but in retrospect I think she just kept her feelings to herself.

My mother-in-law's style is much more subtle than my own. Because of her natural reserve she would never have mentioned our rivalry, and it's even possible that she didn't feel it. Or at least wouldn't acknowledge the feeling. But it was there, lurking under the surface of even our most positive of interactions.

My husband, like husbands in so many of this most stereotypical of domestic dramas, did his best to keep everyone happy, but I think the primary emotion he experienced was confusion. After all, it was clear to him I was his beloved. She was his mother. Two relationships entirely different from each other.

I think he probably wished I'd just give it a rest.

And so this undercurrent of tension remained, with me grudging the time we spent with my mother-in-law, suggesting, for example, that he and I have a private Thanksgiving dinner in a beautiful lodge in the mountains, instead of with his family.

Then we had children, and something began to change. It was a gradual shift, one that took me a while to notice. But when I became the mother I began, almost imperceptibly at first, to relax. Suddenly there could be no question that we, my children and I, were the primary family unit in my husband's life. It was as if once it became obvious that the competition was over, I could take my mother-in-law into my heart with all the grace of a good winner. Somehow, effortlessly, all the antagonism of our relationship began to evaporate. Once I was absolutely sure of my ascension and her usurpation, I could give in and become her friend.

A couple of years ago I invited my mother-in-law on our yearly family vacation. The invitation was a selfish one. With four children, the hotel would not allow us to cram into a single bungalow, and if we didn't bring a third adult, my husband and I would be forced to spend our vacation in separate rooms. I invited her as a glorified nanny. Within hours it became clear that she was much more than a third pair of hands.

Travel with four small children had always been gratifying in its way, but so too it had been a special kind of misery, with anxiety, squabbling and lots of vomit. This time, while one child threw up in my lap, another ran down the airplane aisle to the bathroom, and two more catapulted out of their seats in a shrieking wrestling match, my mother-in-law kept her cool. She always keeps her cool. That's who she is. She can sometimes be stern, but she never loses control. What was miraculous was that when she was there, neither did I.

I went from resenting my mother-in-law to accepting her, finally to appreciating her. What appeared to be her diffidence when I was first married, I now value as serenity. The capacity for extravagant emotion that my husband finds so attractive in me can be exhausting, especially to a child. My moods are mercurial, and this can be terrifying. I know, because I was a daughter of a mother with a changeable temperament. My mother-in-law's mood is always consistent. She is the opposite of capricious. She is the most reliably steady person I have ever known.

Once, I chafed at any hour my husband spent with his mother, somehow viewing it as time stolen from me. Now they take our oldest daughter to musicals, an entertainment I find tedious in the extreme, or my husband takes all four of the kids to his mother's house for dinner when I am out of town. But my mother-in-law and I are far more likely to go out just the two of us. We go shopping, we go to the movies. I enjoy spending time with her. She's a good companion, part friend, part mother. When my husband is out of town, she comes over for dinner, and having her in the house eases all of us.

Last February, in Hawaii, we sat side by side under a tree on matching lounge chairs. My husband was in the water with the older children and the babies were playing in the sand next to us. We had each just finished the novel we were reading and had swapped, something I can rarely do with my husband, because he is a slow and methodical reader and because he is most often immersed in something like a 1,300-page annotated volume of Sherlock Holmes short stories or Gnome Press' "The Porcelain Magician" by Frank Owen. My mother-in-law can be relied upon to have the new Philip Roth or Lorrie Moore. I remember looking out at my husband diving smoothly under the waves, and at the sun-kissed faces of my two youngest towheads as they dumped sand on their grandmother's feet. In the moment of quiet before the baby walloped his older sister on the head with his shovel and she kicked him over in the sand, I thought to myself, "This is nice." Then pandemonium broke out, and there were tears to dry and egos to soothe.

After we had finally managed to calm things down, my mother-in-law held my young daughter on her lap, and I held my infant son. He snuggled against me, his velvet cheek rubbing my chest. He smelled deliciously of coconut sunscreen and the strawberries he'd eaten for breakfast. He was just under a year old and had only two words reliably in his vocabulary, but one of them was "mama." When he said my name I kissed him, rubbing my lips against his soft, rubbery mouth and tickling his sun-warmed belly. I looked over at my mother-in-law. She returned my gaze with a complicated one of her own. I could tell that the sight of her baby grandson lolling on his mother's lap under a palm tree in the dappled Hawaiian shade pleased her. I wonder, though, if something else wasn't giving her just the tiniest bit of satisfaction. The prospect that one day I was going to do battle with this boy's wife, just as I had done battle with her. And I was going to lose.

From the anthology "I Married My Mother-in-Law: And Other Tales of In-Laws We Can't Live With -- and Can't Live Without," edited by Ilena Silverman and published this month by Riverhead Books.

By Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.

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