When my husband and I first started dating (many, many moons ago) meeting his family was definitely the scariest thing ever. EVER. He was my first serious college boyfriend and it was the first time I ever had to actually meet the parents, because they weren’t people I had grown up knowing. That made it scary enough, but add to it the fact that we had to drive 4 hours to get there and then stay overnight (no escape if things get awkward!) and I was terrified!
My fears? Totally founded! It was every bit as terrifying and awkward as I had it hyped up to be.
(Please, Marilyn, I beg you– keep reading! It gets better!!!)
But it had nothing to do with them, and everything to do with me.
My in-laws are different from my immediate family in a lot of ways. Have you seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? You know the scene when Ian’s parents roll up outside Toula’s parents’ house wearing sweater sets and see the big Greek lawn party, complete with a lamb roasting on a spit in the front yard? Sort of like that. (And in the movie that is my life, I’m playing the role of Toula.)
My parents are omg-we’re-so-happy-to-meet-you-tell-me-your-life-story-and-I’ll-share-mine-let-me-take-your-coat-and-get-you-something-to-drink-please-do-sit-down-and-don’t-mind-the-dog kind of people. That’s what I was used to. My husband’s parents are also incredible people—they are kind and thoughtful and brilliant and generous and hard-working and truly 100% amazing, but they are reserved. And that freaked me out.
Because when other people are reserved, it leaves way too much room for me to be awkward.
Let me just illustrate with an example.
Seth met my parents for the first time the night before my cousin’s wedding in Marquette. We were at my aunt and uncle’s house for a yooper-style dinner,* complete with potato sausage, pastie pies (that’s past-ee, NOT paste-ee, fyi), and venison chili. As I was snubbing the chili (I do not like venison) my mom leaned over to Seth, my brand-new boyfriend, and said, “Rachel doesn’t eat any vegetables… we don’t know how she poops.”
In contrast, Seth’s parents didn’t make a single poop joke the first time I met them. (And in fact, they may not have made one yet in the eleven years I’ve known them. Interesting…)
As horrified as I was at the time, my mom’s use of bathroom humor upon first meeting certainly broke the ice right away. And what could Seth have possibly done that was more awkward than that? Whew. That was my comfort zone. The quiet at Seth’s parents’ just begs a person like me to make an awkward joke. Or an awkward comment. Or awkward gestures (omg, what do I do with my haaaands?!). Or all of the above.
This weekend, I had a lot of time in the car without any other humans (once there was a plant and once there was a dog). Lots of thinking time. I spent a lot of that time thinking about the family I’ve since become a part of, despite the initial awkwardness.
On Saturday, I was on my way home from a baby shower for Seth’s cousin. Seth’s grandma and mom were there along with lots of his aunts and cousins… and it didn’t feel awkward to me at all. I just felt like I was with family. And while I recognize that since Seth and I got that fancy piece of paper that says we’re married, they legally are my family, a lot of people don’t ever get to feel that way. (At least I assume that’s the case… because if they did, there would be very little material for sit-coms.)
On Sunday, I had to bring our pup to the emergency vet just past Mosinee and it was a rather trying ordeal. I stopped at my in-law’s house on the way back to Marshfield to get her some water so she’d stop panting, and again, no awkwardness. I stopped in the garage and said hi to my father-in-law (and my sister-in-law, who was wrapped in cardboard painted like an otoscope on the garage floor, but that’s another story for another day…), ran into the house, grabbed an ice cream bucket, filled it with water, and went on my way.
As I headed back toward Marshfield, out of Mosinee and through Halder (love small-town Wisconsin!), I wondered about when I had achieved this level of comfort… I still remember worrying all those years ago that I would never be accepted, that I would never fit in. When did things change? When did they start to like me? (Or at least get really good at pretending?)
Despite all that time I had to ponder, I still can’t really put my finger on on when exactly it happened. But what I did realize was that it wasn’t the situation that had changed and it wasn’t Seth’s relatives that changed either. It was me. I grew up. I grew into myself—into my awkwardness, my big hair and big feet, my sense of humor, and I got over a lot of my worries and decided to just be myself.
As myself, I got to know Seth’s family and I adore them, all of them—I love them even, because they are my family too. I have a second set of parents (complete with love and support– not to mention their rockin’ garden and incredibly handy skills at everything). A new set of grandparents that come with a farm— and an insane level of unfounded faith in me as they let me drive a tractor around it!! I have three little sisters, two of which I didn’t have before, and because they both have curly blond hair too, no one knows it’s not by blood! (Seriously, no one, a lot of confusion when Sister Doctor and I started working a the same place.) I’ve been blessed with more new aunts, uncles, and cousins, than I can count… and all of their spouses and kids and animals on top of that.
The night before my wedding, one of those brand new cousins sent me a message telling me how excited she was for our wedding, but that as far as she was concerned, I was already part of the family. It made me cry– I was so happy! (And Meg, you will always be my favorite for it! Always!) That may not have been the moment, but it was a pretty solid reminder of how this family had, over time, become my family too.
So, in-laws can be scary, but in-laws really can be family, too. For me, a little bit of time and a lot of attitude adjustment made all the difference. That, and awkward jokes.**
*Yooper is what you call a person from the Upper Peninsula, or UP, pronounced like the letter U then the letter P, not the word up… hence: yooper. The more you know.
**Because everybody loves my awkward jokes.