And here it is:
Let's call my middle-aged friend "Rena."
Rena had a lot going for her.
She possessed a strong sense of tzedek (justice), generosity, energy, and fearlessness, combined with a strong sense of compassion—all of which enabled her to be a particularly giving person, including doing chessed others found too difficult.
She was completely loyal and would do absolutely anything for her friends, children, and husband.
She also had a very short and explosive fuse.
As her much younger friend, I found her fiery passion more amusing than threatening, usually because it wasn't directed at me personally and because she rarely seemed angry, but more letting off steam.
She calmed down as just quickly as she exploded. And her temper came in short bursts, not long fearsome tirades.
For example, we sat talking one day as her husband attempted to fix a broken alarm clock.
Naturally, the alarm clock kept going off as he fiddled with it.
At one point, with no warning, Rena jerked around & shouted, 'MOISHY, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, STOP IT WITH THE STUPID ALARM CLOCK!!!"
Moishy looked up startled, mumbled something good-naturedly and went to another room.
Rena, completely relaxed now, turned back to me, smiled, laughed, and rolled her eyes good-naturedly, then continued with the conversation.
I didn't think much of it, partly because Moishy seemed used to her outbursts & didn't take them personally, and partly because I'd seen enough marriages to know that many men accidently-on-purpose engaged in behaviors they well knew annoyed their wives because they take pleasure in seeing her lose control.
They either find it amusing or it makes them feel superior.
However, I did not think her outbursts were okay according to Torah.
On the other hand, she did so much good and her outbursts were so not intended as personal attacks, but just a sudden build-up of tension leading to a seemingly uncontrollable release of steam.
Her sons also seemed quite habituated to her personality, especially since, in addition to her explosiveness, she was openly affectionate with them and would do anything for them.
Then her two oldest boys got married.
Introducing the Daughters-in-Law
One son stood out as an excellent student in yeshivah, with great middot and yirat Shamayim too.
He merited a charedi girl from a very frum & particularly refined family. She also exhibited excellent middot and, initially, she seemed quite fond of her mother-in-law and related to her with a lot of consideration and warmth.
The second son married a girl who'd lived with Rena & Moishy's family as a foster daughter since her mid teens.
This girl's mother suffered from mental illness and when Rena found out the children did not receive proper care in their home, she took them into her home. (They all lived in the same neighborhood.)
If I remember correctly, Rena and Moishy did this unofficially, so it's not like they even got foster care payments from the system.
(Like I said, she did chessed without fanfare that others found too difficult.)
While the girl's siblings turned out well, the girl herself developed a less healthy response to her upbringing (a response which reminded me of borderline personality disorder).
And because this girl and Rena's son started spending so much time together (living in the same home together), they became attracted to each other and got married.
No one (except the couple) seemed happy about this because the girl obviously had emotional problems.
But Rena's son seemed set on this choice and that was that.
And then grandchildren started coming into the world.
Trouble with DIL #2
I noticed with concern that this young woman did not seem to be bonding with her baby.
Then I discovered that during a fast day, she left her 8-month-old in the care of Rena's youngest son—a particularly immature and rough 12-year-old boy.
This 12-year-old loved his baby nephew, but it's like leaving your baby with a well-intentioned oaf.
He simply lacks the emotional maturity, discretion, and sensitivity to deal with such a young child unsupervised for such a long amount of time...
...which is why I felt sick when I heard he'd taken the baby to a local park for 4 hours.
There's no way this kid could properly keep this baby out of the sun, hydrated and fed properly, and play safely on the slides, swings, and carousel.
Expectedly, the baby fell off the carousel onto his head.
(As all of us know, a baby should not be on a carousel. And certainly not by himself without being held properly.)
Many of us, upon hearing the story, felt surprised injury hadn't happened much earlier, but only after 4 hours.
Rena told me that her daughters-in-law blamed her for the incident.
It's true Rena should not have allowed her son take on this responsibility.
But ultimately, it was the daughter-in-law who—stupidly & irresponsibly, in my not-so-humble opinion—actively placed her baby in this boy's custody. And Rena wasn't even there, so why would she be at fault?
And in a pained voice, Rena said her daughter-in-law refused to allow her or the boy any more contact with the baby.
Rena felt stabbed in the heart. She liked children and loved her grandchildren. This was one of the worst things her daughter-in-law could do to her.
What Really Happened to Cause the Rift?
However, having personally known this daughter-in-law married to son #2 and knowing people like her, I know these types resist ever taking responsibility for their choices & behavior.
So of course, she needed to blame anyone but herself.
And what else wasn't said, but can be inferred?
I can't imagine Rena handled this calmly.
Yes, she would take perfect and loving care of her injured grandson. Yes, she realized her 12-year-old did not do this on purpose.
But she NEVER responded to crisis situations with calm!
I can only imagine there was yelling on Rena's part, including at her daughter-in-law.
Remember: Her daughter-in-law lived with her as a foster child. They were comfortable with each other and the daughter-in-law was quite familiar with Rena's explosive personality.
So as this scenario played out, one can imagine the back-and-forth between the two women.
My assumption is that when the daughter-in-law initially blamed the 12-year-old, Rena exploded, and the daughter-in-law (who cannot handle feeling flawed in the best of circumstances) protected her own feelings of toxic shame by going no-contact.
Or maybe it didn't play out exactly like that, but some version similar to it.
Problems with DIL #1
DIL #1 had several children at that point.
Rena claimed DIL #1 simply could no longer tolerate being around Rena and didn't want the children around Rena either.
"My son said she feels physically ill around me," Rena claimed in obvious pain.
Now whether her son said it exactly like that—and it's questionable whether he should have said it like that IF he really did—that's how Rena heard it.
Her shoulders sagging, Rena said, "I really wish I had daughters too. I wish for every mother of boys to also have daughters because dealing with daughters-in-law is really hard. It's just not working out."
Rena's pain and distress were evident. She was heartbroken over being denied access to any grandchildren at this point.
And my own heart went out to her.
But at the same time, I knew DIL #1 and her family, and I had a sense of what went wrong (when it all started out so right...).
As mentioned above, DIL #1 grew up in a very refined family.
I once met her 10 sisters and they made me realize, "THIS is what a bat Melech looks like!"
They're not clones of each other, but they all share the characteristics of warmth, lovely manners, genuine thoughtfulness & consideration of others, graciousness, etc.
I loved being around them (they make sure you feel good and accepted around them) and was thrilled to see real bnot Melech in action.
I can only imagine, despite her good-willed start, how stressful this DIL #1 eventually found the constant explosive outbursts after having been raised in such a refined environment, with the DIL herself possessing a more sensitive nature.
Not to mention, she clearly felt concern for her children regarding Rena's explosive temper around them.
And despite my compassion for Rena's deep pain, it was equally clear there were 2 sides to this story.
2 Big Lessons
I'm not going to address the issue of whether the daughters-in-law were correct to deny their children's paternal grandmother access to her grandchildren.
To me, it's pretty clear that DIL #2 acted out of spite and toxic shame.
But DIL #1 clearly experienced ongoing stress from her mother-in-law's explosive personality, though she tried to focus on her virtues at the beginning. She is the type of person to ask a rav before taking such a step, but I don't know whether she actually did.
So that aside, what are the big lessons here?
- #1 A Parent-in-Law May Have to Just Bite the Bullet for the Sake of the Relationships Involved
Rav Avigdor Miller addressed this a lot.
Some children-in-law have poor middos, hypersensitivity, mental issues, lack of tact, and so on.
Some may be wonderful, but lack certain emphases on areas you find important.
For example, a fastidiously neat & clean mother-in-law often struggles with a daughter-in-law who prioritizes everything else over orderliness & cleanliness.
There's nothing wrong with the daughter-in-law; it's just that she'll prioritize everything else first (take a nap, cook, care for the children, do a chessed, spend quality time with the children, work, etc.) before she'll invest time & energy in clean-up—which are different priorities than the mother-in-law's.
And that's normal.
But either way, in-laws may have to use superhuman strength not to say, hint, nothing in order to preserve the relationships.
In Rena's case with DIL #2, anyone would struggle with such a daughter-in-law.
It's terribly painful to see your son and your grandchildren treated this way.
Nonetheless, Rena didn't have much choice once the knot was tied.
- #2 What You Need to Do to Keep the Peace Might be What Hashem Wants You to Do to Break Your Middot—and It's Worth It
Did Rena possess many wonderful qualities?
Are you allowed to constantly explode throughout the day?
All mussar speaks against expressions of anger, including when you don't consider it anger, but just letting off steam or if you think "That's just how I am/That's just how we are in our family."
Most people I know who get angry a lot either don't consider it anger:
- "Just blowing off steam..."
- "It was just a momentary burst of emotion."
- "We're yellers in our family; that's just how we are, we don't really mean any harm by it."
- "This is just how I am."
Or they consider it unavoidable—even righteous:
- "I had every right..."
- "Well, how else was I supposed to respond to...?!"
- "It was just so infuriating..."
- "It's because I care so much, I cannot just stand there and do nothing."
- "There was no other way to handle it."
- "I didn't have a choice; no one would ___ until I started shouting."
- "They deserved to be yelled at. At least now they'll know."
The thing is, we're really not allowed to act like this.
We're not supposed to indulge explosive bursts all throughout the day or go on regular tirades.
And even when something goes very wrong, we aren't so supposed to lose our cool.
Rare exceptions exist when anger is the best response.
But they're rare.
In Rena's situation, all she needed to do to avoid the no-contact result was...stop shouting.
Stop getting angry.
Yes, it's a big challenge for someone like her, especially after a lifetime of this behavior, and especially because she is so good in other ways.
But DIL #1 lacked the emotional fortitude to deal with it. She's a refined, sensitive soul and these explosions of negative intensity affected her harshly, despite her best efforts to stand strong.
Furthermore, she understandably did not want her children around this behavior.
DIL #2 is easily offended & refuses to take responsibility for her behavior even in the best of times.
All the more so, when she actually made an obviously irresponsible & unintelligent decision, which DID injure her baby, and she's dealing with all that stress.
She's not going to respond well to being shouted at or even Rena shouting about the baby's injuring without attacking the mother for it.
But Rena never considered herself as doing something so bad.
A lot of these people consider their frequent outbursts as quirk or innate nature, similar to how some people hyper, some are messy, some are shy, etc.
They don't stop to consider how severely the Torah frowns this particular behavior.
Shyness, messiness, hyperactivity, etc. don't receive nearly the censure that expressions of anger receive.
Using the In-Law Relationship as Hashem Intended
Sometimes a problem results from both of them.
Sometimes, it's just the daughter-in-law.
But when I see mothers-in-law who don't get what they want from their daughter-in-law and I see it's because the mother-in-law has bad middot in some way, whether she's angry, slanders her children and children-in-law to others, causes machloket between them, or a host of other issues, it would be much better for them to take the hint from Hashem and stop that forbidden behavior.
One thing brought out by an in-law relationship is can force a person to work on a middah they never needed to work on before.
A daughter-in-law might be the one person who cannot tolerate a certain middah tolerated by everyone else in the mother-in-law's circle.
Like Rena above, whose friends, family, co-workers, employers, neighbors, etc. tolerated her frequent outbursts, but only her daughters-in-law could not.
So as I go on this new leg of life's journey, I'm trying to keep the above in mind.
The follow-up post is here:
Part II: When Honesty Stops Being a Virtue (Please scroll down to get to the parts on in-laws.)