By Esther Mann, LCSW
My husband’s family is from out of state, and we live here in the Five Towns, not too far from my parents. We got married close to a year ago. My husband is a very nice man who is good to me, and we get along very well. My in-laws are also very nice people. I get along with them very well, and when I talk to friends who seem to have some serious issues with their mothers-in-law, I feel very lucky to have a mother-in-law who is so sweet and easy to get along with.
My in-laws come to visit us for a weekend every now and then. I have no problem hosting them. They are easy to please and grateful for every little effort I expend. The four of us get along nicely, but I feel it would be a more interesting Shabbos if we invited friends over to join us for a Shabbos meal. So far I haven’t done so, and here’s why.
I don’t want to sound too shallow, but I am embarrassed of the way my mother-in-law dresses, puts on her makeup, and puts herself together in general. She wears clothing that is way too tight for her, dressing like someone young and thin. She is neither young nor thin. Her dresses and skirts are always too short; her makeup is from the ’80s, garish and so off-putting. Her hair is another disaster story. She just has no style and the overall look is embarrassing for me.
My friends are stylish and appropriate in the way they put themselves together. My fear is that when they take a look at my mother-in-law, they will be shocked or embarrassed, or they might even wonder if there is actually something wrong with her. I remember the first time I saw her, I did a double-take and wondered if she was a little “off.” Of course, once I got to know her, I saw that she is very normal and really terrific in a lot of ways. She just looks as though she hasn’t looked in a mirror in decades!
I’ve asked my husband what the deal is with his mother’s style and he didn’t really understand what I meant. I guess he’s just used to her appearance by now.
Up until now, when my in-laws came for weekends, I’ve made excuses to my husband about why I didn’t want to invite over any company. I said that I wanted to focus solely on his parents, which he liked very much, or that I was just too tired to take on a bigger crowd. But last weekend I came out with the truth and told my husband that I was just too ashamed of the way his mother looked and didn’t want any of our friends to see her.
I can’t say that my husband got angry at me for telling him the truth, but he got very sad, like he just didn’t get it and that maybe he was the one missing the boat. I also think he felt embarrassed for his mother that I felt that way about how she looked.
I asked him how he would feel about saying something to his mother. He said he could never do something like that. It would be too disrespectful for him to tell his mother that she looks awful. But I don’t feel like saying anything to her either. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I told my husband that if neither of us says anything to her, I don’t think I can let my friends be around her, as it would just be too uncomfortable for me.
I’d like to get your opinion regarding who should be responsible for saying something to my mother-in-law. If you think it’s my place to say something, then I’ll just bite the bullet and tell her it’s time for a makeover. If you feel it is my husband’s responsibility to say something, then I’ll show him this letter and hopefully he will respect your answer.
First, I must tell you that it is neither your job nor your husband’s job to tell your mother-in-law that she does not meet your standards regarding her appearance. I get the fact that she looks outdated, inappropriate, and perhaps even a little strange, and it sounds as though there is no doubt that she absolutely needs a makeover.
At the same time, you describe a woman who is sweet and kind and so grateful to you for every little thing you do for her. Frankly, you’ve lucked out in the mother-in-law department, as you well know from all the stories that your friends have shared with you.
For some reason, there are some men and women out there who just don’t get it when it comes to understanding what looks good and right. Whether they’ve never switched over from their favorite outfits of the ’80s and ’90s, or they are fashion-challenged, or they actually see an image in their mirrors that is very different from what the rest of the world takes in—some people wouldn’t recognize style if it hit them in the face. But that doesn’t make them bad people. And it doesn’t reflect on their other qualities. It just means that they have an arrested development when it comes to their appearance.
You mentioned that when you first set eyes on your mother-in-law you were taken aback by her appearance. But very quickly thereafter, you got to know her and realized that she is a fabulous woman packaged in the wrong wrappings. Why would you assume that your friends aren’t capable of the same series of reactions as you—initial surprise and, at worst, maybe even a bit of horror thrown in, but then, after getting to know her a little, recognizing that you are one lucky woman, blessed with such a kind mother-in-law? Surely you have befriended women who are not so totally superficial that they can’t see past a tight skirt. And if not, you may want to think about that. In the meantime, have a little faith in your friends. I’ll bet they are less judgmental than you fear.
The one thing you might want to consider doing, however, is to suggest going shopping with your mother-in-law during one of her trips here. Perhaps under the right circumstances, you might be able to gently suggest she try on clothing that you believe would be right for her. There is always the possibility that she’ll appreciate your suggestions and welcome your advice, at which point you could gradually become her fashion consultant! Hey, you never know.
But in the meantime, it sounds as though you have much to be grateful for. Your mother-in-law is cloaked in qualities that will serve you well and enable you to be proud of her for all the right reasons, now and in years to come.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.