An Ode to In-laws

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Last week I had an awesome date with one of my sisters-in-law. We dined, we drank, we brought culture into our lives (we drank some more while we listened to a hilarious and sweary author share stories from her new book, so it was the perfect kind of culture). After I dropped her off and drove home, I found myself thinking about how awesome [most of] my in-laws are. (I have fourteen siblings-in-law, so it’s just plain odds that I don’t get along with all of them.) Pop culture and many of my friends’ stories tell me this is pretty rare, adoring your in-laws, so I put some real time and consideration into analyzing why it is so easy for me to love them.

They are not what I was used to

My immediate family was my mom, my dad, my sister, and me. My dad died when I was 15, bringing us down to three. The day I got married, I gained a mom, a dad, six brothers, six sisters, and thirteen niblings. The change in family dynamics and the simple addition of so many people into the category of “people I call family” was at first overwhelming and a little scary. As someone with anxiety and a constant inner-monologue of self-doubt, I found myself wondering if they liked me. If the things I did and said when I was with them were acceptable. It didn’t take long, though, for me to learn their ways. Uncertainty quickly unfolded into excitement. This new and challenging family offered deep, significant relationships, crazy and unpredictable holidays, and unending opportunities for family events and random Tuesday-night dates.

Four of my sisters-in-law and me at a fifth SIL’s wedding in Mexico. Pretty cool, huh?

They filled holes in my life

My first in-law was my sister’s husband, but that’s different. Nevertheless, he filled the first gap. I had a brother for the first time. He is funny and kind, helpful and handy. Everything you’d want in a brother. 

When I married, I also instantly became an aunt. My own sister doesn’t have kids (which I totally support; someone needs to control the population), so aunt-through-marriage was all I was going to get. Being an aunt is one of the best things ever. My niblings (yes, I am trying to help this gender-neutral term get traction in everyday vocabulary) were unique and awesome when I met them, and getting to be a part of their lives since is magical. Most of them are closer to me in age than their parents (I even have a niece who is a year older than me and I was a grand-aunt before I was a mom), and I love them tremendously. When one of my nieces texts me for advice, I melt. One of them moved just four blocks away from us recently, and I kind of want to bug her every day. For the record, I’m showing great restraint.

My babies (left) with 12 of their 13 adult cousins, lined up at our most recent reunion and numbered by entry into the family.

Finally, the obvious: my father-in-law. I lived without a dad for ten years by the time I got married. Acquiring a new one, a really amazing one, was almost as good as getting a spouse. My FIL was the first person to make me feel like family, even before my husband. He took time to speak to me, personally and intimately, every time I saw him, truly caring about each one of his many family members. He was also smart, funny, interesting, kind, and giving. Unfortunately, yes, I am speaking about him in the past tense. He died in 2014, seven years after I earned the privilege of being his daughter-in-law.

My spouse’s family doesn’t treat in-laws any differently

The part you’ve all been waiting for: the part in which I rave about my mother-in-law. Yes, rave. You thought maybe I’d just avoid her? Because the most common trope of in-laws is the annoying MIL. She is intrusive, catty, jealous, overbearing, etc. A number of my friends have this MIL. Mine is none of these things. Her even and steadfast love is marked by her ability to treat all members of her family equally.

She gives everyone the same gifts on their birthdays and Christmas; she freely communicates with her children’s spouses, and she has always held holiday celebrations either early or late to make sure everyone can come.  She doesn’t care if you are her daughter or her daughter-in-law: she will ask you to help, praise you, get mad at you, send you money, or send you to the store to buy milk. When we got married, she gave us many gifts and showed up at the wedding. When we had a baby, she gave us many gifts and did not show up at the hospital. Do you see the perfection? My kids were her fourteenth and fifteenth grandchildren and she still had heirloom baby blankets to give them. Still gets excited about their events and birthdays. She is a shining example of a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has all the love to give, no matter how big the family grows.

I feel like a part of something bigger

Being a Heinis is special. There are reunions and t-shirts and a website. A family farm with barns and a lake and gardens is our home base. Cousins all over the country know you by name. Feeling connected and appreciated within such a large family unit is precious and unique.

The best father-in-law ever

Not every family has the qualities my in-laws do, but taking the time to inventory and appreciate what yours offers will change your perspective, even if you have a “monster-in-law.” If you don’t go on dates with your sisters-in-law, give it a try. Foster the relationships without your spouse around. When my FIL was sick, I went out (several hours away) to the hospital to learn how to take care of him, even though my spouse couldn’t. Let them be your family completely, not just your spouse’s family. Even when it’s hard.

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Emily is a former communication teacher and speech coach. She earned her BST and MA in Communication Studies, both from MSU, Mankato. When her first child was born (Olivia, now 9), she took an extended maternity leave that turned resignation. When her second child (Nathan, 6) started kindergarten, she returned to work to teach Oula Dance Fitness at the Y and serve her church as their Congregational Services Coordinator. In her spare time, Emily enjoys drinking wine in the bathtub, painting and writing lovely things, and trying not to swear in front of her kids.