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Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Extended Multicultural Families—For Better and Worse


We’re packing. Making lists, buying gifts, digging through boxes to find the summer clothes, putting together what will eventually look like a miniature pharmacy (what can I say, my kids are sick all the time). We’re checking passports, reserving the taxi; in short, it’s time to go visit my in-laws.

For Americans, visits are usually short. Maybe we can thank Ben Franklin and his quip about fish and visitors smelling after three days. Or maybe it’s just that since most people only get two weeks off per year, if that, long visits aren’t possible. But for my husband’s family, it’s not a real visit if it doesn’t last at least three weeks. So we’ve talked to Matt’s teacher, moved work obligations around and are heading off to spend three and a half weeks being spoiled by Teta and Jiddo. And I do mean all of us. The kids will enjoy the special treats that Teta will make, the ice cream and candy that Jiddo will bring back from his daily walks around the neighborhood. My husband and I will enjoy having babysitters whom we love and trust and getting to spend some quality time with his entire extended family.

I can hardly wait!

It didn’t used to be like this. The first few years my relationship with my in-laws was strained. My mother-in-law, like many Middle Eastern mothers-in-law, is part human, part force of nature. Like a tsunami, only less subtle. The first time she visited us, before we were married, she spent her days cleaning our apartment. One day I came home from work to find all my shelves and drawers had been carefully tidied— every piece of clothing (and I do mean every piece) had been taken out, refolded and replaced. What she intended as an act of love, I received as a criticism and an insult. Not to mention a humiliation— who wants their mother-in-law to be perfectly familiar with every pair of underwear in the drawer?

After Matt was born, things got even worse. I was the new mother who had read plenty of baby books but had never raised a child. She was the veteran of raising three kids and during a fifteen year civil war to boot. We battled over whether the baby was too hot or too cold, nursing enough or not, when he should start solids and what he could eat. To make matters worse, my in-laws had been evacuated from Lebanon that summer, in 2006, when Matt was three months old. They were stressed, scared and living from the small suitcases they had been allowed to bring—only 10 pounds of luggage each for a visit that ended up lasting more than six months. We lived in a 50 m2 apartment: four adults, a baby and a cat. We hit a low point in our relationship.

We moved back to the U.S. when Matt was about 18 months old. I was still defensive around my mother-in-law, but she had backed off a bit and I had gotten more confident as a mother. When we saw them again it was a whole new ballgame. Matt wasn’t a baby anymore and he could tell Teta himself that he was too hot with the sweater on. He loved playing with Jiddo and Teta, loved the amazing meals my mother-in-law cooked and their relationship was independent of me. They came to visit us when I was pregnant with Ramzi and thanks to their presence, I was able to travel to the U.S. to attend my grandmother’s memorial service, knowing that my husband and Matt would be just fine. Being able to depend on their kindness, love and generosity is such a blessing. And now that there’s Ramzi, too, life is too busy to argue about who needs a hat or whether the baby is nursing too often.

So I head off to vacation: older, wiser, more compassionate. Our relationship isn’t perfect, there are always ups and downs, but we’ve both grown and changed over the years and have finally reached a place of mutual understanding and respect.

Of course, having written that, my next post will be a rant about the cultural differences that are driving me batty!

© 2011, Mary Hackett. All rights reserved.

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Mary Hackett was born and raised on the Texas/Mexico border. She moved to France in 2000 after graduating from the University of Chicago, and aside from a year back in the US has lived there ever since with her Franco-Lebanese husband and their two sons. They are raising their kids trilingually in English, French and Arabic.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsImane   |  Thursday, 21 April 2011 at 4:58 pm

    I loved this article! partly because it touches me personally since I am an Eastern married girl enjoying the kindness of my in-law as well as suffering the dull habits of interference, and partly because it is written in a very fresh and simple way. Good luck : )

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