A World Apart from my Mother-in-Law


It wasn’t until we adopted our daughter Willow that the full scale of the communication gulf between my husband’s parents and me became plain. Born in southern China, educated as engineers in Hong Kong, and having raised their two sons in suburbs of Boston and Houston, my parents-in-law had a range of life experiences I would never fully comprehend. I also felt however that, like my parents, who had raised my siblings and myself in a modern Jewish home, their values and instincts were basically consistent with my own. Then Willow showed up and they came to stay at our home for their first visit with their granddaughter and nothing would ever be the same.
We adopted Willow from China when she was a year old. She came to us traumatized by the separation from her foster parents, whom she had lived with and loved since the day after she was born. While Willow took to me almost immediately and grasped me hard and close to her in her grieving, she didn’t seem to feel at all safe with or inclined toward my husband for several months after we adopted her and wailed whenever he would come near. This surprised us both. We knew it was common for an adopted child initially to reject one parent, but we both assumed it would be me, since Gong is Chinese and I am not. I also noticed that, once we came back to the States, Willow would visibly shrink away from Asian people who approached her, especially if they spoke to her in one of the Chinese dialects. It was almost as though she had decided that she needed to replace her Chinese mother with me, this foreign-looking white thing, and any interference in that process was intolerable. Of course, this is mostly speculation, since I can’t really know what Willow was thinking or feeling at the time. I could only observe her behavior. And what it told me was that she definitely was not color blind.
My mother- and father-in-law announced that they would come to see us for a scant 24-hour visit about a month after we returned home from China. They might have come sooner, but we had been instructed by friends who had adopted children of their own, by our social worker, by our therapist and by many others who knew the terrain that we would need at least a month after we returned home to congeal as a family and that houseguests likely would further confuse our daughter, whose little head was already spinning. Because my father-in-law was in a particularly busy period at work, he and my mother-in-law could only come for a brief weekend visit.
I was at home with Willow, midday on a Saturday, when they pulled into the driveway from the airport, having prepared a simple lunch of dumplings and egg rolls for their arrival. Gong later told me that his parents had harangued him with questions the entire hour of their drive from the airport to our house about why we had chosen to live in Santa Fe when the main office of his company was in Chicago (never mind that he hated the company and didn’t plan to stay with it, never mind that his bosses had accepted his proposal to work remotely as long as he agreed to travel to Chicago once a month for meetings at their expense). Not at all an auspicious beginning to their visit.
They were polite to me upon arrival but Willow, of course, was the main event. They wanted to see her and touch her and hug her and kiss her and photograph her, none of which she was the least bit interested in. They spoke to her in Chinese which seemed to exacerbate her discomfort, and she would try to escape their aggressively loving clutches and run into my arms for safety. All of this irritated them since they had expected her to welcome them into her life with as much gusto as they were prepared to welcome her. Perhaps they had even supposed, as my husband and I had initially, that she would feel more comfortable with them than she did with me since they were Chinese and spoke a language more familiar to her than I did. As the hours progressed I noticed them become doubly and then triply irritated when they saw how little engagement Willow was interested in having with her father, their first-born son. I tried to explain to them that her reaction was normal, though admittedly emotionally difficult for all of us, especially for my husband, but that with some hard work and a lot of understanding it would work itself out.
They didn’t buy into my optimism and as their brief visit progressed they became increasingly angry about Willow’s rejection of them and their son. Gong tried to talk to them about it, but the truth is that he himself was sad and he probably could not be all that effective an ambassador of patience on behalf of our daughter. The way he chose to handle his complicated feelings upon our return with Willow from China was with the help of anti-depressants, which were a godsend to our emotionally fraught household for the brief time he needed them. The way his parents chose to deal with their confused emotions was through anger, the last thing our fragile little family needed at the time. Mostly oblivious to what was going on with Gong’s parents and focused instead on my daughter’s and husband’s needs, I tried to keep the visit upbeat and jolly, offering food and drink and explaining to Gong’s parents what I knew about helping a newly adopted child transition into a new home, none of which, I learned later, they thought was the least bit reasonable or rational.
“She picks her up too much!” “She should let her cry more without coddling her.” “Why is she always holding the baby?” “It is disgusting the way she and Willow rule the household while you stand on the sidelines and minister to them. Who do they think they are?” These were some of the comments my beleaguered husband had leveled at him by his parents every time Willow and I left the room. Their anger was legion and their willingness and ability to consider the complexity of our situation non-existent. Was this a culture gap, a gap in understanding about the attachment process or something else entirely? Whatever it was, the gulf between their assessment of our fledgling family dynamics and how I understood our situation could not have been wider.
< During the one dinner that we shared during that 24-hour visit (a delicious traditional Chinese meal that Gong and his mother prepared together), Gong's mother revealed how, when Gong was an infant, he had slept on the bare wooden platform of his crib rather than on a mattress because she had been told by friends and family that providing him with some cushioning would be tantamount to spoiling him. She told us about how she had beaten Gong so hard as a six-month-old (he had been crying and distracting her while she was on a telephone job interview) that she was surprised he didn't need hospitalization. I understood these stories and others she shared that night as evidence of sorrow and contrition that she didn't know any better when she was a new mother and was frankly horrified by them on behalf of my husband, who seemed to take the revelations in stride. How could I know that what she was actually trying to inform me was that she not only did not regret her parenting choices but believed them to be the proper way to parent and felt that her son had come out the better for them?
My mother-in-law, father-in-law, and myself have not seen each other since that visit a year and a half ago. In the days following their departure, my mother-in-law and I had a flurry of email interaction that was ugly on both sides. While I have still not seen them since that visit, my husband took Willow to see his parents about a year later and our daughter, I’m told, had a great time, which pleased me to hear. I’m not sure how cozy she got with her grandparents nor they with her during that visit, but I have seen photos of her holding her grandfather’s hand and of her drawing close by her grandmother and am happy to know that she is forging pleasant memories of them.
In recent months my mother-in-law and I, again through email, have decided to forgive one another for the mean things we said and move forward. I’m not sure what, if anything, she has reconsidered, but I did learn that while I can think I am hearing one thing, what someone may actually be saying often is quite different. I don’t think my mother-in-law and I will ever be close to one another (although I am willing to be surprised) and I don’t know that we will ever understand and respect one another’s parenting choices. Likewise, we probably will never really understand what the other is saying, even when we are using English as our common language. But while I used to think that I had to understand before I could forgive, I have had a change of heart on that front. Sometimes forgiveness must be offered prior to understanding. Sometimes we will never understand and yet must forgive nonetheless. For someone like myself who grew up in the wake of the Freudian revolution this line of reasoning is counter-intuitive. But I have come to think that it’s the only way to forge one’s way through the world and keep moving forward. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Understand later. Perhaps, even, never.


  1. Even though our backgrounds and stories are quiet different, I am really taken by this story and its message. I am German, met my Indian husband in NY, where we lived together for 8 years before we moved to India to be close to his family. To have at least one set of grand parents close to our now 2 and 4 year old kids. Before we had kids, we got along great, now I feel exactly like what Bonnie is saying: my mother-in-law and I do not understand each other at all, even though we both know and speak English with each other. On any topic from food, to sleeping habits, to spoiling your kids, from teaching them or spending time with them, we cannot find a common ground and I feel like the gap is widing on a daily basis. We do share the love for the kids and maybe we should forgive each other before we even fight over daily things…but it is really difficult!

  2. Julia,
    I feel your pain! I wish I had some sage words of advice. Parenting styles can be polarizing from generation to generation, culture to culture. I’m not sure if this will help you, but it makes me laugh every time. A few years ago I was at a Halloween party, sitting with a couple of other women around my age. One of the women had her parents living under her roof along with her husband and two sons. Her mother was constantly meddling in her parenting affairs. “I fight with her every single day!” she said, her voice breaking with frustration. Her good friend, sitting by her side, echoed her words: “I too fight with my mother every day,” she said. “And she has been dead for ten years!” Sometimes it’s helpful to know that others suffer the same pains as ours, and that it has been going on for generations!

  3. Here too, our parenting style is the opposite of my in-laws.
    And we are not an inter-cultural family…
    My in-laws do not put themselves in question and have difficulties tolerating
    customs that are not their own.
    The expectations were crushing our young family. Until we had a terrible argument.
    Now they keep their expectations a bit more to themselves, but the tension remains.

    I hope I will not be such a burden to my own kids when they start a family of their own…


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