Right around the time I became an aunt for the first time, when my nephew was born a few months ago, it occurred to me that once Brian and I are married I will officially become an aunt to eight other children as well. And not only that! I will become the sister-in-law to six people and the daughter-in-law to two people. This in addition to taking the official title of stepmother and partner/wife/significant-other once those papers get signed. Not that I really believe it takes an official exchange of vows to make these things so, I am already these things to my partner’s various family members, but there’s nothing like an official ceremony to really cement the fact these relationships exist.
Alongside the realization of my impending aunthood was the secondary epiphany that until now I have never thought much about these family ties vis a vis my partners. Although I have had long-term relationships and even married another, I have never before put any energy into the responsibility and enormity of additional family ties in my life. My approach has always been one of courteous non-engagement – I’m polite and willing to spend time with my in-laws but beyond that I always expected my partners to do the thinking about their families so that I didn’t much have to. This wasn’t conscious, it wasn’t a decision or an active dislike by a longshot. Some of my previous in-laws have been quite decent. But they also weren’t “mine” to deal with in the way my own family is.
Part of that, of course, stemmed from my partners’ own responses to their families and if I’m honest I can see that for the most part I’ve dated men neglectful of their parents and siblings. I suspect that has something more to do with youth and I hope they have all grown into family responsibilities since we’ve gone off in different ways. Part of it though, I think, was based on the types of families I’ve often encountered – a bit reserved with each other, withholding of emotion (in the case of my ex-husband’s parents), perhaps religious in an othering way. The kind of people for whom you always feel a bit outside of things with because you don’t really *want* to be inside the strained conversations and quiet (unspoken) disapproval about this or that thing.
Now that I’m in an altogether different type of in-law family I find myself in an ever-increasing complex of relationships and opinions about a group of people I would otherwise probably never encounter. Like real family as opposed to however I regarded in-laws before now. For it seems that I have met someone who is so good a match that even his family feels familiar to me, perhaps a bit like my own in their lack of tact with each other, their willingness to share gripes outloud, their disavowal of any formalities. Their openness. I suppose that’s essentially what allowed me to feel comfortable from even the first time of meeting B’s folks, and then later his brothers, is that none of them seem to feel that anything is off-topic for commenting on, or gently teasing each other about, and so I’ve never felt the need to “watch what I say” beyond the normal curtailing the F-word in mixed company.
And just that simple fact of their open interactions with each other (not necessarily frequent, and when the brothers get together they somehow revert to a boyish geekiness none of them ever quite shed), has allowed me to feel from the very beginning as though now I was a part of the family too. No tests to pass, no standing on ceremony. Marriage or not I’ve simply been regarded by them all as a fait d’accompli since I walked through the door and am thus welcomed into family histories and discussions and even standing arguments without having to do any particular thing – which I am grateful for.
I’m writing about this today because my father-in-law had a minor heart attack yesterday and ended up in the hospital in Victoria for an angioplasty. He’s going to be fine after all, but it gave Brian and his brothers a bit of a scare while they phoned across the country trying to figure out what was needed (did they need to go to Victoria or did Mom have it under control?) and in the meantime we found out that Brian’s youngest brother and sister-in-law have announced their impending marriage for this summer (after ten years of being together), and we offered to host the rehearsal dinner, and I guessed right away that they are going to try and have kids and B’s oldest brother confirmed that he’s coming to our tiny tiny wedding in the fall and it was all like that. A little bit of admonishing Dad to each other for his poor diet and exercise habits and we’re off to the next thing and how everyone will be together this summer. And I see how much they love each other for a bunch of brothers who only talk on the phone twice a year, maybe see each other once.
The funny thing is, I find myself caring about these people a lot. Not because they are people I would choose to be friends with, but because they truly feel like family in a way none of my former in-laws have. Perhaps that reflects my own age and the weight that I give family these days, or perhaps the depth of commitment to my partner. In large part, however, I think it’s about these particular people and their automatic (unspoken) acceptance of another member in the family so that even when I’m not particularly enamoured with it all, it feels (like with my bio-family) as though I’ve got to accept it because we’re all in it together.
Because I frequently read advice columns I am aware there are many, many people out there who greatly dislike their in-laws and write in asking if there is any way to have nothing to do with them or exclude them from weddings and other family events. Of course, with increasingly diminished family ties in our society this seems like a natural response: don’t like them? don’t have anything to do with them. But really, barring your partner’s estrangement from his own family, in-laws are their own kind of responsibility and I’ve discovered that a good relationship with the in-laws makes for a closer relationship to the significant other. Not only do I care about something like yesterday’s event for my partner’s sake, but because I genuinely like his Dad and hope that he’s around for another decade or two at least! And I worry about his Mom raising two foster-girls on her own…. And I can’t imagine how hard B’s older brother would take it if his father passed away. Etc. And from this example alone it is obvious that I am drawn into their complex of relationships and can share some of the emotional weight of it all with B.
Not that we are ever as close to our in-laws as our bio-families, but I’m starting to be convinced that it can be almost as close. Particularly as our parents get older, our siblings have children and want to visit more often… the families of our partners belong to us as well and I can’t believe it took me thirty-six years to figure that one out. I suppose it was never modeled for me growing up (my father had no family), so I wasn’t aware that this is just how it is supposed to be – like the in-laws or not. Lucky for me I don’t mind B’s family, and it’s not at all difficult to care about them as I care about those who I am related to by blood.