We’ve all heard that “it takes a village” to raise a family, but where does that village come from? I suppose in the “good ol’ days,” it was a combination of neighbors, family, and friends. Together, this village would sustain you as you try to be the mother your child deserves while balancing life’s many responsibilities. In 2022, many of us have a very minimal “village” and some of us have none at all. The pandemic has exacerbated this reality with traveling to see family and made it a much more complicated affair than it once was. As a result, we have had to get creative on how to “see” family safely and at a distance.
When you have children, the relationship your kids have with their grandparents can be so heartwarming. Grandparents doting on their grandkids and the little ones wanting to sleep over at their grandparents’ house is special and priceless. Even when you live far from your in-laws or your parents, you may try to maintain a close relationship for the sake of the kids (and perhaps for yourself!). I am lucky in that I live relatively close to my parents. My boys have an extremely close relationship with their abuelitos (grandparents) and I love every minute of it. They are the best grandparents we could ever ask for. They help with some childcare and they enjoy having my boys for sleepovers, AKA mommy and daddy break time!
Unfortunately, I have never met my mother-in-law.
My husband’s mother sadly passed away years before I met my husband. All I know about her is her name and stories about her from my husband and his family. I stare at her pictures on our dresser in that beautiful yellow dress with her dirty blonde hair pulled back in a bun like that of Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo. My mind wanders, imagining what the sound of her voice was like. I can picture us sitting on a porch getting to know each other prior to us having kids. I sometimes wish I could call her and just talk to her about my marriage, raising my kids, or really just to listen to her thoughts and perspective. It’s amazing how you can miss someone you’ve never met—someone who has created a void in your life (and that of your children) due to her absence.
It’s amazing how you can miss someone you’ve never met—someone who has created a void in your life (and that of your children) due to her absence.
I admit I may be fantasizing a bit. After all, family relationships are never simple, especially those between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. I am very aware of the anxiety-inducing relationships some people have with their mother-in-laws. I have heard them all and it is heartbreaking because ultimately it affects the kids, too. On the flip side, I have also heard my mom friends gush about how sweet their mother-in-laws are and how they help them with childcare, especially during these pandemic times.
But whether it’s a good relationship or not, I just wish I had a mother-in-law to have those issues with and develop closeness between her and me and my boys. There is a gap in my heart because, ultimately, my boys are only growing up with one blood-related grandma, and I wish I could give them the relationship with the other grandma who I know they would love. I know my boys would have adored my husband’s mom if they had met her. Our Christmases would have had two grandmas at the dinner table telling us all about their family traditions while cooking their favorite meals in the kitchen.
Alas, below are questions I wish I could ask the mother-in-law I never met. These questions I’ve collected in my head and also imagined the conversations we would have had with her answering them. If you have a great relationship with your mother-in-law, you and your family are truly blessed. I dedicate this post to Donna Shushtari, the mother-in-law I never met but who lives on in our hearts. She raised a great son I eventually married. Her son, my husband, adores his mom eternally.
Was my husband an easy baby as an infant?
Those early years—when you’re deep in sleep deprivation and newborn snuggles—are so hard yet so beautiful at the same time. When my first son was born, I felt so lost in that fourth trimester. One of the first thoughts I had when both my babies were born was, “Does he look like my husband when he was born?” If my mother-in-law had still been alive, I would have asked her this. I also would have wanted to know if certain baby behaviors remind her of my husband. These are just fun anecdotes that can make the early years sweeter when you know your child resembles either you or your partner.
Do you see characteristics in my kids that remind you of my husband?
Our kids are the most fascinating human beings we will ever meet. It’s exactly like Bill Murray told Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation: “The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born. Your life, as you know it… is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.”
I can’t help but wonder: Which personality traits and physical characteristics of my kids resemble my husband’s and which ones are mine? Does the way my son laughs sound just like my husband’s when he was younger? Is my second son’s straight brown hair just like my husband’s at his toddler age? It may seem inconsequential, but details about the past like these inform our present and future. They provide that anecdotal information that we reminisce about throughout generations.
Are there characteristics you witnessed in my husband as a child that continued in his adult life?
Married life is quite the adventure and I am fascinated by the behaviors we bring from our past relationships and childhoods into our marriage. I read somewhere that in a marriage, we are trying to heal our childhood’s unmet needs. I would love to ask my mother-in-law if she notices certain behaviors that my husband does now that remind her of him as a child. This would help inform me on expectations I may have of him and whether or not I should lower them based on childhood experiences. I know for me, I have always been strong-willed and my mother can attest to that—and now my husband can, too!
What was my husband’s favorite food that you would cook for him when he was younger?
The power of feeling nostalgic about one’s childhood is a special gift. It reminds us of the loving moments we had when we were younger. Nothing can bring back those memories better than food from our childhood. Merely the smell of certain Mexican food floods my mind with memories of happy times spent with family. Tamales remind me of all the times my family gathered around my abuelita (grandma)’s table in that tight breakfast nook, putting the “masa” on each corn husk while laughing and telling stories for all to enjoy. Now that I make them with my family and my parents, I can recall all those moments every time we make tamales for Nochebuena (Christmas Eve).
I would love to ask my mother-in-law what foods were my husband’s favorites that she used to make him. What was that secret recipe for that chile soup he always wants? How did you make the perfect sunny-side-up egg for him each time? I can’t quite seem to master it. If I could discover all these “juicy” recipes, I would’ve loved to have surprised my husband with them on his birthday or any day just because. I know he misses his mother, so any way I could try to bring her memory back, I would, and I’d love to have that knowledge on how to do so.
Are there any genetic medical conditions I should be aware of?
Because I had my first child later in my 30s, I received genetic testing along with my husband. I got the whole DNA recap of potential generic risks, and that whole ordeal was terrifying. Luckily, we were in the clear and our boys are both healthy. Nonetheless, I would love to ask my mother-in-law if there are any diseases that her family is genetically predisposed to.
I am asking for the health and well-being of my boys. I can’t help but worry about them daily, and when I stop to think about how I will not be around for their whole lives, it saddens me beyond words. Having information that could potentially save their lives is empowering and I wish I could discuss her family tree to determine if there are any genetic risks. I would ask, “Did anyone ever die of a rare genetic disease?” and “Is there a history of cancer in your family?” I know I could ask other family members and my husband, but there is nothing like asking the “mama” source.
Can you spend time with my kids (and take care of them)?
Probably the question that haunts me the most is this one. My boys don’t have another grandma and they will never have those memories to look back on when they are older. Their only reality is one abuelita who is very active in their lives and takes the place of two grandmas. But I still would love to have pictures of my boys sitting on my mother-in-law’s lap. I would love to have had her at all their birthday parties—to have my boys hear her sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Had she been alive, I would’ve invited her to stay with us over a long period of time because family is very important to me. I would’ve invited her on our family vacations without any hesitation. And I would’ve had her at my side when I went wedding dress shopping.
Although my parents do help with some child care, it’s not enough. They have their own lives and are busy caring for my nieces. We desperately need more help. The pandemic has impacted our ability to have consistent child care, and both my husband and I are currently working-from-home parents. I would’ve asked her to take care of my kids for a visit just to alleviate some of the stress we are facing as pandemic parents. I hear of my coworkers whose kids have both grandparents active in their lives and I cannot help but feel a slight tinge of jealousy. Having a doting mother-in-law care for my boys is far better than any stranger.
Are there any keepsakes you can pass down to my kids?
In case you haven’t already noticed the purpose of this article, I am a very sentimental person. I am the type of mama to keep certain clothing from each of my kids’ developmental stages even though my husband tells me to get rid of it. I have the strands of hair from my boys’ first hair cuts and the first teeth they lost. What is missing is having those special keepsakes from my husband’s side that we can pass down to our kids. These may seem like meaningless trinkets, but they hold so much meaning and value. I would have loved to ask her to give my boys some items that have a deep meaning to her so that when she would pass (in my alternate reality), they can look at those items and recall the grandma who loved them so.
Death is a part of living. The absence of a family member directly impacts so many generations, which is why we should cherish those loved ones who are alive now. I know life is fleeting and I am grateful that my boys have my parents nearby and have a close bond with them. My mother-in-law may never physically be with us, but I, along with my husband, will make sure we keep her memory alive for the sake of my boys.