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She's not my mother-in-law, so what's my role here?

Relationships

Washington – Steve and I were already in our 40s and divorced – him with two children – when in July 2006, he asked me to marry him. I was sure he was the man I wanted to be with forever, so I said, "Hell, yes!"

A month later, however, we found ourselves arguing one Saturday while shopping. Something trivial, like whether to buy azure or indigo bathroom towels. Afterward, over coffee, we each confessed to finding such chores as dull as a wet winter's day. And laughed at the possibility we'd been trying to squeeze ourselves into a mold of domestic bliss that didn't fit.

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Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda in the movie Monster-in-Law.

So we decided not to get married, but we've stayed together. And in that state of in-between commitment I've hung back from getting cosy with Steve's parents. I've played the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law before and had no wish to do it again.

Perhaps Steve's mother felt similarly about not wanting to put the effort into getting to know me. The first weekend I spent at his parents' home, his mother spoke incessantly about herself, her illnesses – of which there appeared to be many – and a recent trip she'd taken to New Zealand. She asked nothing about me. There were silver framed photographs of Steve, his boys and his ex-wife littered about the living room.

The unease I'd felt at our first meeting persisted through the years. It helped that Steve's parents traveled a lot and that Steve seemed happy to do most of the phoning and emailing with them, allowing me to keep myself and my concerns hidden. Which meant it was only when we spent any time together that I'd feel the familiar tension between me and his mother. I tried and failed to understand it. For sure, her ongoing relationship with her former daughter-in-law bugged me. And while part of me could rationalize it as her way of staying close to her grandchildren, I also yearned for her to accept me as a family member.

About a year ago, Steve's mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery went well; she came through it chatty and eager to plan another trip abroad. But this past fall she underwent five weeks of radiotherapy, after which she emerged bald, immobile and quiet.

Late one evening in January, Steve's mother was in the hospital with slim odds of pulling through. As Steve and I drove in silence to his parents' house, I wondered: Would his mother want me at the hospital? Wouldn't she rather his ex-wife were there? Self-doubt paralyzed me. I knew, if only for Steve's sake, that I needed to change my attitude. But how?

I went to the family home while Steve and his father went to his mother's side. The smiling happy family pictures mocked me.

"F – you," I said out loud to a picture of Steve's ex and their kids.

I was tempted then to ask myself what his ex-wife would do in this situation. But that felt wrong. Instead, I found myself musing about what I'd do if Steve's mother were a good friend or a member of my biological family. That's when the fog began to lift. Over the first few days of supporting Steve and his father in their round-the-clock vigil, I concentrated on practical concerns: shopping, cooking, cleaning. I did the kind of chores I'd once eschewed.

I also took my turn sitting by Steve's mother's side. I held her hand to let her know that she wasn't alone. In more wakeful moments, I helped her drink water through a straw, and talked to her, even though she couldn't respond.

Belatedly, I came to see I couldn't have it both ways: I couldn't expect to mean anything to her if she didn't mean anything to me.

No one expected her to rally, but she did. She began to smile when I went to see her; she gave me a thumb's up when I fetched her milky coffee; she stammered at me in an obvious attempt at conversation; she chuckled with me at funny things that happened in her ward; she waved me off with a twisted hand when I left. After 10 weeks of inpatient care, her consultant gave her the go-ahead to go home.

These days, instead of resenting Steve's mother, I'm grateful to be able to enjoy the time I have with her. When people ask what I'm doing over the weekend, they might hear me say, "I'm spending it with my mother-in-law."

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