Love is a lot to ask. Tolerance will do for now.
In this age of self-manifestation and radical independence, where most people leave home and meet in big cities, “family” can become an abstract concept. Family is also frequently posited as a choice, a mixture of your friend group and whichever biological connections pass through the lens of your social values.
But there’s a more basic version of family, one I tend to romanticize as a I get older. (And I’m aware that I share this from a place of privilege, in that my notion of family, while imperfect, is not so violent, abusive, or dysfunctional as to warrant cutting off.) This version of family is the one that’s there for you unconditionally. Through thick and thin—success and failure, distance and proximity—they show up to provide acts of service, asking nothing more than the healthy perpetuation of shared genes.
For most of us, this is the family we’ll be seeing over the course of the next week, either our own, or our partner’s.
Growing up third-culture with immigrant parents, I got used to my family spending lots of money and huge amounts of time just to get together for the holidays. Now that my husband and I are contemplating starting our own family, we are searching for ways to avoid the hardship that comes with living so far from your potential kidney-donors—I mean, loved ones. One factor in our decision to move to Los Angeles was proximity to his parents. And part of getting married means joining a new family, right?
One thing that’s become obvious to me over the past few years is that my husband’s parents do not love me.
They like me when I dress well, ask after their health, and listen politely to their stories. They are grateful to me for bringing their son back to their hometown. They are excited and hopeful for the prospect of my bearing them a grandchild. They show their appreciation with small favors, such as cooking gluten-free side dishes and giving me lemons from their tree.
On the other hand, they tolerate my political beliefs, ones they are in denial about their son also holding. They actively dislike my profession as a writer and the content I create: After seeing my most recent web series, my mother-in-law accused me of being a prostitute. They mock my liberal values, fear my anti-authoritarian tendencies, and—up until meeting my extended family at our wedding—actively questioned whether I was good enough for their son. In fact, the purity and verity of my love is thrown into question every time I visit: “Does she cook for you?” “Is she nice to you?” “I hope you do not say such things to my son!”
In short, their love is fully conditional. There was a time when this got me very upset. Now, I see that they are simply human beings trying their best. After all, it’s a tall order to love someone just because the person you love most in the world—who represents your greatest joy and hope, and for whom you have sky-high expectations for lasting success and happiness—happened to chose them as a spouse.
Because turnabout is fair play, I should add that I don’t love my in-laws either. I like them when they show an interest in my writing projects and ask after my family. I am grateful when they make gluten-free pecan pie and when they skirt conversations about politics. I show respect by making plans at their preferred restaurants, or showing up with groceries to cook for them. I actively dislike the way they speak to my husband like he’s a child, flooding him with grievances that he can only avoid voicing by escaping into his phone. I mock his mother’s insecurity, which is probably why she sees me as a threat. I hold disdain for his father’s rigid discomfort with the unconventional and his staunch, entitled political opinions.
In a meditation class a few years ago, I learned the mantra that happiness is reality minus expectations. The secret to happiness, therefore, is to keep your expectations lower than reality. In this case, maybe it’s not necessary to love my in-laws or need them to love me. Maybe all we need do is agree to be polite, show appreciation for exchanged kindnesses and tolerance for different perspectives.
Now that I think about it, those good old romanticized holidays I remember were probably never much fun for my parents. In fact, that’s likely why we alternated years between Christmases with my father’s family and Chanukahs with my mother’s clan. Maybe that’s all the holiday spirit ever was, merriment as fake as Santa Claus, conjured by adults for the sake of oblivious children.
The closest I’ve come to genuine ease with my in-laws was this past summer. We were staying the night, which meant we could say yes to an extra glass of wine. After dinner, my in-laws launched into the frequently told story of their failed board game company. Instead of the conversation’s usual trajectory—towards the company’s sad demise, attributed to the failures of the Obama administration to support small businesses—we diverted into discussing the rules of the game. I suggested it might be fun to play, and before my husband could make his usual excuse, my father-in-law disappeared into the garage. We opened the box, removed the newly minted, factory-fresh smelling pieces, and played. With the roll of a dice, all efforts to impress, suss out, correct, or antagonize one another evaporated. We stopped seeing each other’s shared history and grievances, and focused on the task at hand. It may have even helped us channel that antagonism into a healthier, more neutral outlet.
How do I not only get along with my husband’s family, but start seeing them as mine? I have no idea. But I’ll be showing up for Christmas lunch with a lot of board games.
Lucy Kalin is an Anglo-American playwright, screenwriter, and creator of the cult hit series UNICORNLAND. Lucy’s plays have been produced in NYC and LA. She is an alum of the Obie-award winning Youngblood Playwrights Group, and has held residencies at Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and MacDowell Colony. She wrote this under a pseudonym so her in-laws would never read it.