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Thursday, November 18, 2010

What do you call your in-laws?

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Today I'm really hoping to hear your stories and opinions on the issue of what to call your mother-in-law and father-in-law. (Mom & Dad? John & Jane? Mr. & Mrs. XYZ?)

After four years of calling mine by their first names (at their request), it's difficult to imagine myself calling them Mom and Dad now that I am married to their son. I mean, I already have a Mom & Dad. And maybe it's just because I've only been married for about 4 months now, but the difference between my biological, life-long caretakers vs. those of my husband is still a rather significant one. Brian's parents feel like in-laws; they don't feel like my parents. And I say that with the utmost respect; they are incredible parents to Brian and have always felt like a "good fit" for me in terms of family.

But the thing is, I *want to want* to refer to my in-laws as Mom & Dad, if that makes sense. Because that's how it's done in my family and in my culture. Plus, I really like the idea of fully embracing Brian's parents as a new addition to my own, so why not do it in a symbolic way, such as via their names?  Now, is calling your in-laws Mom & Dad the only way to "be family" with them? Not necessarily. But because of the reasons listed above, I *want* to feel comfortable enough to call them by such affectionate and intimate names.

I've asked Brian's parents what they'd like for me to call them. His mom, as expected, said it's up to me. His Dad (half jokingly?) said I could call him "Abba" which I found to be problematic because:

1. When I think of "Abba" the 1976 disco hit "Dancing Queen" plays in my head.
2. God is often referred to as "Abba" in the Bible and in Christian music I've heard throughout my life. And although Brian's dad is a Methodist minister with a rather large presence (both physically and in terms of personality), he ain't my Abba.

Needless to say, I'm still undecided.

I'm also beginning to think I've got this all backwards. I can't expect for my marriage with Brian to instantly make me feel differently about his family (even though I instantly felt differently about Brian and his family once we got engaged). And I can't expect a name change to facilitate a deeper emotional connection with his parents, either. Perhaps a name should reflect how I'm feeling now instead of how I want to feel (and probably will feel, eventually) in the future.

So maybe all of this just takes time. Maybe I don't have to make a decision this very second. Maybe I can grow into loving them even more than I do now, the same way that they will inevitably grow into becoming more parental to me as the years go by. Maybe after more Thanksgivings at Brian's aunt's house, and summer vacations with his parents, and weekends with his cousins, all of this will get easier. Maybe there's a way for this dilemma of mine to organically resolve on its own.

Then again, there is something to be said about the deliberate use of the terms Mom & Dad as an intention - the intention to be their new daughter, the intention to care for them in old age as I will my biological parents. I really dig this perspective, too.

Ack! I'm going in circles. Thoughts, anyone?

11 comments:

  1. I really think this happens naturally...I called Isaiah's mom Mrs. ABC for a while, but naturally transitioned to calling her by her first name...I'm not sure that I'll wind up calling her "mom" or not, but if I do, it'll happen naturally for sure.

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  2. This entry amused me cause I went through something similar. In some ways it was easier cause most of the time I was dating Ben I referred to his parents as Mama Kay and Daddy Tim. But it still felt weird at first to switch to "mom and dad." In my case, a certain childhood friend of mine started dating a certain brother of Bens and started referring to her future in-laws as mom and dad, so I started doing it too and it made the transition a little easier.

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  3. I wanted to use "Mr. and Mrs." but that got shut down the first time I met them. So I use first names, and I'm going to do that until we have children and I can start calling them by the names my kids use. I just can't handle using the names "mom" and "dad" again after losing my parents. My in-laws are very respectful of that.

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  4. The mister's last name is Bennett, so my almost-mother-in-law is Mom Bennett. My mom's still Mom.

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  5. Before the wedding they were "John and Jane", now, we haven't seen each other since the wedding but I'd be OK with "Mom and Dad".

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  6. For now, I call them by their first names, though I think my MIL would LOVE it if I called her "Mom," (I don't think my FIL would notice, TBH!). I'm not comfortable with that step yet, either ... particularly since I am keenly aware of how hard my mother took me calling them by their first names! (Which is silly, because she insists everyone call her by her first name, even when I was a kid, much to the discomfort of other parents, but my mother rarely makes sense!)

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  7. (Reposting, sorry if this comes up twice) I theoretically call my in-laws by their first names. If I were closer to them, I could see them having an aunt/uncle status. Like HitchDied, my parents are gone, and calling in-laws mom and dad would be too sad for me. I had only one mom and dad, I could have many aunt/uncle/elders.

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  8. Ooh great topic! I do find major cultural differences on this one. Greek and Italian boyfriends have come from a background where first names are really bad for the in laws (that is, really disrespectful) but expect that once you get married they become Mum and Dad.

    In my stock, it's generally first name terms, for aunts, uncles and cousins. And stays that way once people get married.

    Weirdly enough, my father calls my maternal grandmother 'Grandma'. I keep meaning to find out if he's been calling her that since 1979. Or whenever.

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  9. Hmm...so very, very interesting, everyone. For some reason I thought that most people called their in-laws Mom & Dad. But you all bring up some good points; factors like emotional closeness to your in-laws, your relationship with your own parents (who may be living or not, which can make a huge difference, according to a few of you), and cultural norms all come into play.

    I plan to talk to my in-laws about it one more time to get a better sense of what they want (Abba half-jokes aside), and possibly also to share some thoughts behind my ambivalence.

    Thanks for the input, y'all.

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  10. I am reading this blog late after the post as I am seeking perspective on this issue as a father-in-law of a bride that refuses to address my wife and I as Mom and Dad. After an internet search, I read through some of these entries and I am surprised at how common this issue is among newly weds and how little perspective is being applied. As an in-law, I can say confidently that I recognize I am not her biological father nor do I expect her to now obligate herself to a diminutive social position. I only wish the acknowledgement and courtesy of her addressing me as someone a little more endearing than the common man on the street or less formal than the school principal. Currently, she still calls me Mr. "ABC" and inside, I am about to erupt in a flood of negative emotion. It is interesting that so many posts have admitted to avoiding calling the in-laws anything. For the most part, this is her tactic as well but it is inevitable that she must address us at times and when she does, it is always formal. I am trying to be understanding about how new our family is to her and for her to integrate and adapt to the family dynamics. But my interpretation of her refusal to address us in any manner and most specifically as Mom or Dad is that she is refusing to integrate and assimilate into our family culture. I know that she has formed her own family with my son and it is important for her to nurture her own culture. However, any student of anthropology would know there are different levels of familial relationships and it would not be much a mental challenge to recognize that within one circle one set of rules apply and within another a different set of rules apply. For those in-laws that do not ask to be called Mom and Dad, then fine...if they are happy then I am happy. But for those that have asked to be called Mom and Dad but got something else or even a negative retort, then I feel badly for them. They had given this much thought over the course of raising their child and watching him/her grow up and enter a relationship that they knew would begin the eventual and natural cycle of their child and spouse maturing in relationship that inevitably marginalizes the older parents. The best job I ever had was being a Dad and I would like some acknowledgement from my new daughter-in-law that she recognizes this. I think my cultural perspective is very old. I am not a bible thumper but I respect the wisdom of the Old Testament...in Genesis it quotes that, For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and become one. To me, that means that both newlyweds assume the social position and obligations of the other.
    I am sure that some of the readers will view my rant as the words of a needy empty-nester. But that would be inaccurate. I wish to grow my relationship with my son and his wife (whom I consider my new daughter)in an adult but familial manner. I am sure that for some, closeness with the in-laws is not dependent upon a title or name. But for those that do derive comfort and satisfaction in the courtesy of extending parental honor and respect to in-laws, is it really so tough to bend a little and honor your spouse's parents with a name/title/address they find complimentary and pleasing?
    I was told by my new father in law to call him and his wife, Mom and Dad. I never questioned it. Even though over time I felt betrayed by his words or actions, I always called him Dad. It was not a mental leap for me to understand that he was not my biological father nor did I equate his actions with my father. I called him Dad to show my respect for my wife and to some degree...him. Why would a new son or daughter in law not honor their new spouse by addressing his/her parents by the address that they wish?
    I am disappointed that so many see little incentive to honor their in laws. I find it ironic that we can even describe the parents as father-in-law or mother-in-law but fail to connect those legal relationships with familial titles such as Mom or Dad.

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  11. @ Anonymous - Thank you so much for your contribution to the conversation. It's great to hear a parent-in-law's perspective on this topic.

    I can see how important it is that your request to be called "Dad" is honored. Like you said, you consider your son's wife to be your daughter, and her unwillingness to call you by a name that reflects this kind of closeness and care can be discouraging, or maybe even hurtful.

    I'm wondering if there has been any open conversation between you and your daughter-in-law about this topic (aside from your initial request that she call you Dad)? It is possible that she is underestimating how important it is to you that she honor your request. It is also possible that your interpretation of her calling you "Mr. ABC" is much different from what her intentions are. There's only one way to find out. ;)

    I believe that families like yours can get through these kinds of awkward and sometimes painful transitions, but only if they are willing (and brave enough) to do the hard work of talking, negotiating, and listening.

    Please report back, if you so desire. And best of luck to you!

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