Here’s What’s in the Letter I Never Sent
Back then I was too timid to speak up, fearful of getting hurt even more. I bottled up my feelings so my life could go on.
I thought once I fell in love and got married, it would be all bliss. My rose-colored views, I’m sure, came from watching fairytales as a child and reading Harlequin romances as a teenager. I quickly learned though, in adulthood, that life, love and especially marriage, were anything but a fairytale.
There have been growing pains and the unraveling of marital threads that had to be knitted back together for my husband and I. But there also has been profound love and commitment to help us weather our internal and external storms. One of the storms that has lanced our 40-plus-year marriage is my relationship with my mother-in-law.
When I first met his mother, I admired her right away. She was kind, sagacious and very family oriented. I had dreams of being a writer, and I loved sitting in her presence looking through family photo albums and listening to stories about her family history and her career.
After numerous weekend visits, I felt at home. I anticipated it would stay this way; that once my husband and I married, I’d have a close and loving relationship with my mother-in-law, not the oil and vinegar relationship some mothers- and daughters-in-law have. I anticipated widening the circle of love and family already around me.
Eventually my mother-in-law’s negativity reared up again. There were mean-spirited comments aimed at me, and comments about my husband’s ex-girlfriends. For instance, she introduced my daughter to an ex of my husband’s and told her the ex was supposed to be her mother.
My husband and I weren’t yet in our 20s when we married in the small church office of the church my family and I attended while I was growing up. My parents were supportive, as was my father-in-law, though they wished we had waited, knowing the uphill journey young couples faced. But my mother-in-law remained stone-faced throughout the ceremony and did not offer well wishes.
Two days after our wedding, my husband — who’d enlisted in the military upon finding out we were expecting a child — left for basic training. Once he was permanently stationed at a military base and had secured housing, we planned that I would join him.
My parents and in-laws lived in the same city, still in our childhood homes. I stayed with my parents while he was away. I didn’t visit my mother-in-law, nor she me, but I called frequently hoping to forge a bond before our child, her grandchild, was born. Those phone conversations were mostly one-sided, with me rambling on, trying to fill long gaps of silence. I often hung up teary-eyed. But the next week I’d call again, hoping she’d open up to me.
I thought the more I reached out to her with kindness and compassion, I’d hammer bit by bit at her shell until it broke. In hindsight, I should have expressed to her, during one of those phone calls, how hurt I felt and waited with an open heart to hear her response. Back then I was too timid to speak up, fearful of getting hurt even more. I bottled up my feelings so my life could go on.
After my husband finished basic training, he came home on military leave and stayed with me at my parent’s house. I was around six months pregnant. After a long-awaited reunion with his parents and siblings, he left to visit a few neighborhood friends. My mother-in-law and my husband’s aunt sat on the couch beside me with a photo album my husband had put together of his military buddies. His mother pointed to photos of female soldiers and started nudging his aunt and laughing, insinuating that my husband had been unfaithful. I got up and went into the bathroom, staying there until I heard my husband’s voice.
My husband eventually confronted his mother about her ill-treatment of me. One of the concerns she conveyed directly to him was whether he knew for certain he was the father of our child. After hearing other disparaging comments about me, he stopped speaking to her for weeks afterwards. It took my father-in-law to broker a family meeting of peace.
Three months later our child was born, a beautiful boy, and our relationship improved, so I thought. She was a loving, generous grandmother. My husband was stationed at a military base in a neighboring state, so he got a short leave to be home with me and his newborn son and would subsequently come for weekend visits when his leave was over. He secured housing when our son was six months old, and finally we moved to where he was stationed. We often went to visit both of our families.
After being in the military for six years, and having two more beautiful children, my husband decided not to reenlist, wanting to venture into a career outside of the military. We relocated back to my parents’ home to save money until we could get our own apartment.
Eventually my mother-in-law’s negativity reared up again. There were mean-spirited comments aimed at me, and comments about my husband’s ex-girlfriends. For instance, she introduced my daughter to an ex of my husband’s and told her the ex was supposed to be her mother. And she told the same thing to my son, yet denied it all.
Another time, at a family gathering, a friend commented about liking my newly started locs in front of my mother-in-law, and she frowned and said they looked like alfalfa sprouts and she didn’t like them. She complimented others in my presence, but I can remember the three times in over 40 years she complimented me. During the latter years of our marriage, I felt that my birthday was insignificant to her, because she would send a text sometimes a day later. This stung after my mother passed, as my mother had woken me every birthday morning with a phone call.
I had always hoped that she would be my bonus mother, especially after my mother’s death. I know now I expected more of her than she was willing to give me. I also had to forgive myself for allowing myself to be treated the way I was.
Still, in spite of it all, I offered her grace, as I was taught by my own family, and because she was my husband’s mother, my children’s grandmother and an elder in our village. Finally I accepted that I did not have her unconditional love or blessings for our marriage, and I felt the sweet release of not needing it anymore once I wrote her a letter, a letter I’d never send.
Dear Mom, I wanted to have a piece of your heart that was so full for everyone else. But that part of you was closed to me, deadbolted most times. You had a false narrative of who I was, imperfect, but a good person who loved your son. I would have been your daughter in love, your prayer warrior, your comedic uplifter, but you let me know it wasn’t wanted, so I’m choosing to release all expectations I had of you, of us. I’ll always wish you love and light, but today I wish even more of the same for myself.