How do we manage the transition from child to spouse? In the marriage ceremony, we are instructed to leave our mother and father and “cleave to each other” leaving childhood behind, yet sometimes parents have trouble thinking of their children as adults.
Getting Along with our Inlaws
Together, Crossing the Bridge by Paula Huston
We arrived home from Hawaii, happy and relaxed—a splurge in honor of our first anniversary—but as soon as we unlocked the door of our tiny apartment, my antenna went up. Something Was Not Right. The two red sofa pillows had been rearranged. Someone had moved an area rug. And our potted ficus gazed accusingly at us from its new home near the wall heater. What was going on here? Then I found the note, a card with a bouquet of violets on the front: “I did a little cleaning when you were gone,” it said. “Hope you don’t mind. I mopped the kitchen floor (FYI, ammonia in hot water really cuts the grease), got that ring out of the bathtub, and scrubbed the top of the refrigerator for you (looks like you hadn’t had time to check up there for awhile!). I know you’re probably beat from the long flight, so I brought you some dinner; it’s in the fridge.”
Sure enough, when I opened the refrigerator door, I found a lasagna, covered in foil (my mother–in–law’s specialty), a green salad, and a jar of her homemade creamy garlic dressing. We were tired, and it was nice to sit down to a delicious, already–prepared dinner, but every time I glanced into the living room, I felt a tremor of . . . what? Not anger, exactly, but possibly a smidgeon of embarrassed irritation. This was our apartment, after all, and even if we were only 19 and 21, it should be up to us how we cleaned and arranged it.
Yet, I loved my mother–in–law almost as much as I loved her son. And it was nice of her to clean and cook for us. So what was my problem?
Looking back, I’m almost sure it had to do with being mothered at the very time I needed to prove something important to myself: that I was old enough and mature enough to make a go of marriage. That I was ready to be a wife, and even, in time, a mother myself. That I was No Longer A Child.
Marriage represents a major rite of passage into adulthood. The marital partnership, publicly acknowledged and seconded by the guests at the wedding, signals an intention to shoulder adult responsibility and carry it for the rest of life, no matter what. Once we’ve committed ourselves to making that passage, there’s no looking back.
The secret, however, is that we’re hardly ever fully formed adults when we marry. Instead, marriage is a kind of crucible; we get shaped into who we will someday be through the painful re–adjustment that lifetime intimacy requires. When we find we’re not yet ready to make that shift, it’s our spouse who will take the brunt of our frustration, disappointment, or regret. The Bible refers to marital partners as “helpmates” because we are meant to, among other things, help each other leave behind the comforts and securities of childhood in order to grow.
My beloved mother–in–law was unintentionally interfering with this necessary process. Without meaning to, she was signaling to both of us that we weren’t yet qualified to handle our own lives. Becoming an adult is scary enough; when the grown–ups around us inadvertently keep us tied to our childhood identities, development slows and even stops.
Yet God calls us into being so that we can someday become real persons, loving people with dependable consciences who put “response–ability” at the top of the priority list. When we stand before the altar, the priest, and a congregation filled with those who care about us—including the teary–eyed parents who can remember exactly how innocent and beautiful we were as infants, toddlers, and little children—what we are affirming is our intention to help one another through this difficult passage into personhood.
Does this mean we should resist help and advice from those who are older than us? Must we go it alone, learning by trial and error how to be married? Certainly not; but the help we ask for should always be in service of furthering this uncomfortable maturation process rather than as a safe refuge from the struggle. As spouses, we are meant to cross the bridge from childhood into adulthood together, and if we sometimes get scared thinking about the difficult challenges that await us on the other side, all we have to do is pray the ancient monk’s prayer for help (O God, come to our assistance, O Lord, make haste to help us!), then reach out and find our partner’s hand.
Questions for Discussion
- Was Paula too critical of her mother in law? Wasn’t she trying to show her love by cleaning and cooking?
- Is there something my family does that my spouse is uncomfortable with?
- How can we gently encourage family members to let us be adults?
Paula Huston’s latest book is Father Forgive: Following Jesus Into Radical Loving (Paraclete). She is a wife, mother, grandmother, writer, and Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate.