I’LL ADMIT IT, 10 NIGHTS COOPED UP IN A CABIN THE SIZE OF A SMALL CAR, gliding through the Mediterranean with my mother-in-law, wasn’t exactly how I imagined my summer panning out – but, while it might seem surprising to you, it was actually a complete blast.
The thing is, I am rather unconventional. I absolutely adore my mother-in-law, Melanie, and count her as a second mother. I don’t have tales of mother-in-law woes full of bust-ups, cold shoulders and fights. We famously just, well, get along.
I met Melanie’s son, Matthew, when we were both sweet-cheeked first-year students at university. Fast-forward 11 years and we are now married and own a little flat together in Wimbledon.
I know my friends witness the intimacy of my bond with Melanie with absolute surprise – this, after all, is a relationship renowned for being ridiculously tricky, potentially venomous and spiteful. One study revealed that a staggering 60% of married women describe their relationship with their husband’s mother as bad.
When people say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky’, I feel the urge to snap back, ‘Well, we worked really bloody hard at it.’ And it’s true, we did. Having met at 19, Matthew and I dated for an entire decade before tying the knot – and in that time, Melanie and I made a serious effort to get to know each other. I knew that she’d always be the other woman: the one who loves Matthew just as much as I do, who gave him life and who, in a primal sense, will always be his first loyalty. For Matthew and I to work, his mother and I needed to understand each other. So, we went about becoming friends.
It was by no means a breeze to begin with. I remember soon after Matthew and I became a couple, Melanie suggested she and I go shopping together. I was hounded by niggling nerves – what the hell would I talk to her about in the car? Without her son there to steer the conversation into common ground, would the day just crumble into awkward silences? It turned out that, much like me, she was a bit of a naughty shopper, buying things she never needed but always wanted, and had an innate knack for digging out treasures in antique stores. Useful, I thought.
Other dates with my then-boyfriend’s mother followed. Lunches, afternoon teas, spa days – these were times when we were simply alone, without Matthew or his stepfather, and when we’d properly open up to each other; talking about everything —
When I was asked to go on a last-minute 10-day cruise and report back as part of my job working for a monthly glossy magazine, my own mother had work commitments, as did my husband, who was working abroad. My friends couldn’t just take half of their annual leave at the drop of a sun hat, either. So, why not ask my recently retired mother-in-law to join me?
She was hesitant at first: ‘Are you sure you want me to go with you? I don’t want to deprive someone else of the opportunity.’ While she was worried that I’d have rather gone with someone else, I was fearful that our bond would somehow be unravelled over the course of the trip. We’d never been in such close proximity for that length of time – what if we had a disagreement? Also, what if she saw me NAKED? We’d be stuck, longing to go home and everything we’d worked so hard for would be broken.
Before either of us had much time to dwell on things, the trip was underway. Our cabin was smaller than we’d expected, with two narrow beds within touching distance of each other and a bathroom you had to fold yourself to get into.
Miraculously, though, we managed.
We worked out a little sequence of getting ready, to maintain our modesty, and planned day trips (this meant compromising on things that pleased us both: half a day looking around a cathedral for her, followed by a beach visit for me). Then, after a day exploring, we’d toddle back to the boat and do our own thing to give each other space.
COULD YOU SHARE A SPACE THIS SIZE WITH YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW?!
Everyone onboard the ship assumed that we were mother and daughter – and sometimes we just played along with it. There was one waiter whose flirting with me caused a little embarrassment, given the circumstances. But Melanie took it all in jest, giving me the all-clear when he’d left the room and coming up with an escape route for us to leave dinner one evening without him seeing.
In fact, dining together every night gave us greater opportunities to talk. I confided that my husband’s constant the country to start a family, wondering whether she thought it was a good idea.
I seek her advice purely because she doesn’t preach. Melanie is one of those women who are warm, great listeners, honest, thoughtful and never dish out life advice unless you ask for it. There’s no emotional manipulation, ever. The success of our relationship is partly due to the fact that neither of us has ever tried to compete with the other. Rather, we’ve embraced every chance we’ve had. Now that Matthew and I are married, Melanie understands that he has divided loyalties.
My husband, too, is immensely grateful. He’s watched it all evolve, and I know it makes him happy that his mother and I actively enjoy being in each other’s company. If anything, it’s proved to be an important part of our emotional well-being and we’ve become tighter as a result.
There were certain moments during our trip when Melanie and I were both moved to tears (sometimes it was just the sight of a twinkling harbour, shrouded in the glow of a sunset, that caused it); completely at ease, the two of us, brought together because of a mutual love for one person.
She has Matthew’s past and I have his future. Why should that mean we can’t get along today?