I should say right off the bat that I have a really amazing mother-in-law.

I don’t have any of the horror stories some women do. My husband’s family and my own have very similar lifestyles and expectations, which has made navigating the union of two families pretty easy. We go on vacation together. We have many of the same family traditions. Even our holiday celebrations have many similarities. And after five years of marriage, we’ve had enough time to work out all the kinks.

But there is still a distance between us. She has not known me my entire life. She did not give birth to me. We have only known each other for about seven years, and that has all been on a long-distance basis. She has come for the births of both of my children and has celebrated all of their birthdays with us. We have celebrated Easter with her nearly every year since our oldest child was born. She FaceTimes with the kids pretty regularly (even more since the beginning of COVID), and we get together in person about every other month (less since the beginning of COVID).

But there is still distance. She is my husband’s mother, not mine, after all.

Now that I have a son of my own, that distance means more to me. Because one day I will experience that distance myself, with my own daughter-in-law. She won’t be my own child. I won’t have given birth to her. I won’t have carried her in my arms as she slept, or kissed her scraped knee, or knelt beside her bed as we said our prayers at night.

She will come flying into my son’s life and will carry him away with her. I have been given a whole new appreciation for the idea that a man will leave his parents and cling to his wife. I always thought of that line in Scripture as a pretty romanticism. I never considered that it might be a warning.

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He will also cling to his wife’s family, simply because she will not leave her parents. When my son and his wife get engaged, his future mother-in-law will probably be the one who gets to visit venues, sample the menu, and help pick the floral arrangements. When they have their first child, she will probably get to see our grandchild before I do. When that baby keeps my son and his wife awake at night, she will be the one who will be called for advice and support.

I will love my daughter-in-law, and hopefully, she will love me, but there will always be a distance between us.

It will be hard to watch my sweet boy, my baby boy, leave my husband and me and then cling to his wife.

It will be hard to let him go. But I know I will do it if he gets married. I will let him leave me, and I will proudly watch him go. I will be proud of the man my son has become, and I will hopefully settle into my role as mother-in-law with the same grace that my own mother-in-law did.

I will let my future daughter-in-law plan her wedding the way that she wants, even though that day will be as much about her as it will be about my son. I will let her pick the colors, and the centerpieces, and the floral arrangements, but I will happily offer my opinion if she asks for it. But I will help my son pick the song we will dance to together at the wedding reception, and by help, I mean I will give him three songs from which to choose.

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I will happily learn of the existence of my first grandchild whenever my son and his wife choose to tell me, whether that be the day they get that first positive pregnancy test or after their 8-week ultrasound or after she has officially left the first trimester behind her. I will congratulate them on their news, and then hope she will offer regular updates on the growth and development of my grandchild. I will not dwell on the fact that I was only the fourth, or the fifth, or even the tenth person to learn about the pregnancy. I will remember how it felt to hold that secret between just my husband and myself, and how excited I was to share the news with my own mother. But I will shower that child with gifts as is my prerogative as a grandmother.

I will let my future daughter-in-law set the pace for my interactions with my grandchildren even if her plans do not match my dreams.

I will let her decide when I’ll be able to see my grandchildren, and where, and in what capacity. I will remember the stress of planning around naps and meals, and the anxiety that inevitably came with breaks from our routine. I will remember that as much as my daughter-in-law might love that her children have dedicated grandparents, she will also be stressed and anxious as she tries to keep everyone happy and healthy and mostly sane.

I didn’t really appreciate the struggles unique to mothers-in-law until after the birth of my son. Now, when I think about his future, I can already feel the weight that will follow when he leaves us and clings to his wife. Our arms will be light, but our hearts will be heavy. Raising children requires that we slowly and steadily let them go, but letting go of our sons is so much harder. Because they will leave in a way our daughters will not. They will not cling to us like our daughters might.

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I hope to be able to let go of my son with the same grace I have witnessed in my mother-in-law. She has been a wellspring of advice and support in the years we have been together, and I respect her immensely. I am only now realizing how difficult it is to raise a son, knowing that one day I will not be the main woman in his life. But I will love my daughter-in-law because I know the heart of my son, and if she has won it, she is certainly worthy of my love, affection, and respect.

I will love her as my mother-in-law has taught me, and I will rejoice knowing the heaviness in my heart will only prepare the way for the fullness of love that comes with this expansion of family, the wonderful gift of grandchildren, and the joy of a full life well-lived.

Shannon Whitmore

Shannon Whitmore currently lives in northwestern Virginia with her husband, Andrew, and their two children, John and Felicity. When she is not caring for her children, Shannon enjoys writing for her blog, Love in the Little Things, reading fiction, and freelance writing on topics such as marriage, family life, faith, and health. She has experience serving in the areas of youth ministry, religious education, sacramental preparation, and marriage enrichment.