My mother never really took to my wife, especially after developing an instant dislike to her parents the first time they met. She could not give a reason for this; it’s one of those “if you have to ask, you don’t understand” things. My mother is also very critical of just about everybody. My father, a’h, used to say that there are two ways of doing things: “the wrong way and her way.” And my mother doesn’t hesitate to tell people that they are not doing something her way. Needless to say, the relationship between my wife and my mother rarely progresses beyond frosty, especially after years of “you’re not raising my grandchildren properly” lectures.
Back in January, the week before a blizzard, my mother fell and broke her hip. After surgery and rehab, she was doing so well that she didn’t think she needed her cane, and she fell and broke another bone. During this whole time, my wife called my mother every day, and she schlepped into Manhattan on Sunday roughly every other week. My wife is employed full time and really needs Sundays for various things. The trips into Manhattan involve three trains and up to 30 local stops, depending on weekend track maintenance.
My mother finally got home two days before Purim. As my sister had been on vacation the week before and was busy catching up with things, my wife took the initiative for planning the Purim seudah. Some of the items were store-bought, but my wife was the only one who actually made anything herself. She also fielded a bunch of requests from my mother to hop over to the local supermarket to buy things that are cheaper than in the supermarket near my mother. And finally, multiple items had to be purchased for each member on that side of the family for mishloach manos, as we can’t use the regular items purchased in bulk for various reasons.
Rather than being grateful, my mother made a number of nasty comments to my wife after the seudah. She minimized the effort my wife expended, said that our side of the family never contributes to anything, and she didn’t want to reimburse my wife for some of the items acquired for the seudah.
My wife didn’t make a scene then, but she was furious when we got home. She said that she has no intention of talking to my mother any time in the near future. And to that end, she sent my mother an e-mail detailing the various things she was offended by, as well as some other personal stuff. I am 100% supportive of my wife regarding my mother’s lack of gratitude and how she expressed it (my mother has made similar comments to me as well), but I really wish my wife hadn’t sent the e-mail. We are all supposed to be going away for Pesach together in less than three weeks, and now I have to negotiate a peace treaty between two people who really don’t like each other. Help!
in the Middle
Dear Husband Caught in the Middle,
Your wife sounds like an angel! But even angels can be pushed to their limits. Very often, people overlook, overlook, and overlook until they finally reach a point where they feel they can’t endure any more abusive treatment. The best of us have found ourselves reaching that place. But it doesn’t sound as though you need any convincing regarding your wife’s reaction to your mother’s most recent assault. You seem to see your mother clearly, and certainly have had much more experience than your wife in dealing with her unrealistic expectations, lack of gratitude, and harsh reactions. In that regard, you and your wife are on the same team.
Had your wife not sent that e-mail, she would be busting at this point. She could have reacted to your mother in a much more aggressive way, and I give her credit for taking the gentler path of avoiding an all-out confrontation and possible shouting match, and instead using e-mail as a tool to vent her frustration and pain. Wishing she hadn’t done so is just ignoring what was inevitable. I think you may be reacting more to the timing than to the actual act, since Pesach is right around the corner and all of you are planning on spending it together.
It seems that our lives are based around our holidays. There always seems to be a yom tov on the horizon: a great opportunity to bring family together . . . or a dreaded time during which we suffer through, or at least tolerate, the family issues that come to the fore. The holidays have the potential to bring us together, but sometimes we’re stuck instead between a rock and a hard place–precisely where you find yourself now.
There are numerous victims within your story, but since you wrote in to me, I’ll address your concerns. I understand how hard it is feeling as though you have to be the peacemaker. I’m sure this is not the first time that you’ve found yourself in this role, and it never gets easy, especially when you are dealing with an individual who seems to behave very unreasonably. Consider letting your mother and wife decide what they want to do–and let the chips fall where they may.
Ask your wife if she would rather stay home and make Pesach herself (with your help, of course), or whether she’d rather expose herself yet again to your mother’s behavior. Give her the option. Though we all ultimately want the fairy-tale version of what a yom tov should look like–everyone getting along and enjoying a huge group hug–this idyllic scene is more the exception than reality. In order to bring the family together, people often choose to tolerate a lot of behaviors they’d rather avoid. But this has to be a choice, and since your wife has so often taken the brunt of your mother’s behavior, give her the choice. Maybe she could use the assistance of speaking to a professional who can give her some self-protecting tips that would enable her to let go of any positive expectations from your mother, and focus on the positive aspects of not having to make Pesach and all the other perks involved in going away. But let your wife decide what ultimately makes the most sense for her.
Additionally, if your wife decides that going away for Pesach is the best deal on the table, and that she will just once again grin and bear it–with realistic expectations that nothing positive will be extended her way by your mother–I think you should tell your mother that you expect her to behave herself. Will she listen to you? Probably not. But at least you know you are doing your best to protect your wife, which means a lot.
Bottom line, I think it’s time you relinquished your role as peacemaker. It doesn’t sound like a very satisfying job for you or even one that can be successfully achieved. So that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is to let your wife know that you understand her hurt and that you will let her decide what Pesach ought to look like. This approach will empower you and your wife and make you both feel more satisfied.
Will your mother be satisfied? Probably not. But you knew that from day one!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.