My mother-in-law has never liked me, even though I helped her pampered son grow up for the past 35 years, and produced three reasonably presentable children for him (and grandchildren for her). Last month, Nanny-ma, as my kids call her, went to her eternal reward, no doubt still bitter about the trash that her Sonny decided to marry.
Though I feigned grief for as long as I could, after a couple of weeks, I had had enough. I told Sonny that the fraud had gone on long enough, and that, frankly, I was happy to be rid of the Old Bat. That was a dumb mistake, but as I said to Sonny, she is impervious to real or imagined insults these days, and we should move on with our life.
Sonny is now into a world-class sulk. How could I have soiled the memory of the finest, strongest woman since Queen Victoria, etc., etc… He has some quarter-baked theory that the tension with Nanny-ma was the glue that held our family together, and that maybe it’s time now for us to split.
June, I actually love this Mama’s Boy, but I see no sense in spending our Sunset Years creating memorials to a dreadful Mother-in-Law. He has to get over the Oedipal thing he has.
Should I just keep my mouth shut and hope Mom fades into the oblivion she so richly deserves? Or I continue to perpetuate the phony admiration for Nanny-ma that I espoused for the past three decades? June, I know you hate hypocrisy. . .but I assume you also hate people who rub salt into open wounds, and Sonny is a wounded puppy these days. Do you think Sonny can ever become Sunny again?
—Baffled in Baltimore
Oh, dear. You were both a bit hasty with the nuclear options. There must be some middle ground between “perpetuating phony admiration” and saying you’re glad “the old bat” is dead. And there must be some way your husband can respond short of suggesting that it “might be time to split.” I think you should seek out this middle ground, help him do the same, and then wait things out for a while.
I would start by apologizing to Sonny for your outburst. Tell him how sorry you are that you lost sight of his grief in the swirl of crazy conflicting emotions that so often follows a death. There is no need to say that in your case there wasn’t really much of a conflict. You can add that grief often makes people say things they don’t really mean—again, no need to point out that, as it happens, in your case you meant every word. The point is to stress how sorry you are that you spoke so hurtfully and did not honor his feelings.
If you try this, he may be clever (and unwise!) enough to call you out on your careful word choices, and on what you are leaving out—namely, anything good about the O. B. and any grief of your own at her death. If he does call you out, I would respond honestly…well, not honestly in the sense of actually telling the whole truth, which of course he already knows anyway, at this point; but honestly in the married sense, where you try to be kind, seek peace, show respect, and avoid the more crass and elaborate forms of lying. I would tell him that, yes, dealing with Nanny-ma was a struggle for you sometimes, but you know that the last 35 years were not always easy for him, either. Tell him that you know how terrible this time of fresh grief must be for him, because he was such a loving son, but that you hope he will take comfort in remembering how attentive he was to his mom and how happy he made her. When he says that there will never be another woman like Mom, you can agree that she was a true original and leave it at that.
If possible, go a bit further and try to dredge up some praise that you can utter with a straight face, and that he might be able to accept as sincere. It sounds as if she was a strong woman (if in the service of evil) and a loving mother (if a suffocating one). Perhaps she was brave during her last illness. Perhaps she had some talents or gifts: is there any needlepoint, work activity, social activism, or zither playing you can praise? Did you appreciate her Bundt cake, if not her soul?
During this time of adjustment to his loss, I would also encourage your husband to talk about neutral Mom-related topics—things like those great childhood vacations at Loon Lake, that obnoxious surgeon who removed her gall-bladder last year, and how much she loved the Andrews Sisters. There should be plenty of similar topics where you can prompt him to reminisce without triggering some Oedipal excess of praise, or at least without having to comment on it.
As the weeks pass, though, I would dial things down a bit and spend more time on one of the other options you mentioned: keeping your mouth shut. There’s a good chance that, over time, his expressions of grief and misplaced admiration, and perhaps the emotions themselves, will fade. I doubt if the words he uses will ever change, but his worship and his grief may become rote and attenuated—less frequent and more routine. In the meantime, criticizing him will surely make him unhappy, and might make him dig in.
You’ve been married for 35 years, 35 of which were marred by the O.B. Now you have a shot at many more years, this time free of her and, one hopes, eventually also her ghost. And you say that you love your Mama’s boy. I would definitely make a very serious effort to preserve the marriage, and I think that putting up with his excesses—for now—is likely to be the best way to do so. It has only been a few weeks, after all. I would follow the guideline that many psychologists, as well as the Jewish tradition, provide in this situation: think in terms of a year. Wait a year before you take any drastic steps, and give your husband that long to deal with his loss. The death of a parent is a major life trauma even for the most levelheaded among us. If you could put up with his extreme attachment and allegiance to Nanny-ma for 35 years, you should be able to do it for one more, especially now that he is in a situation where his responses are actually close to normal.
Of course, nobody can promise that your husband will get over his obsession, if that’s what it is. One thing that troubles me in the long term is his remark about how the “tension with Nanny-ma” was the “glue that held the family together.” Without knowing more, it’s impossible to be sure what he means by this. Does he think that her being so “strong” (which I take to mean oppositional) made life more exciting? Is he hinting that the rest of the family was united against the contrast, challenge, or threat posed by Nanny-Ma? Or is he saying that he thrived on the way you and his mother competed over him? If he seriously means the latter, and keeps meaning it, your marriage may be in deep trouble. But let’s hope that this tension-as-glue theory of his is only some incoherent flash-in-the-pan expression of loss, or that he was just lashing out at you for saying what you said.
It also concerns me that you say you “espoused phony admiration” for the O.B. for the entire 35 years of your marriage. For one thing, how does this square with the “tension” your husband says characterized those years? If you were participating in all that admiration, what was there to be tense about? Is somebody lying here, or does the “tension” he misses arise from your having felt forced to suppress your own feelings and worship with him at your mother-in-law’s shrine, and his actually knowing this about you, for all those years?
If your husband holds onto his tension-as-glue theory for much longer, and of course if he is seriously thinking about ending the marriage for that reason, it is definitely time for you to seek couples counseling, individual counseling, or a good lawyer, as you see fit.
On the other hand, it occurs to me that, if your husband really believed you during all those years of phony admiration, your recent outburst might have come as a serious shock. If you think he was genuinely surprised by what you said, I would be even more inclined to cut him some slack for a while.
Let me know how things turn out. I hope that, after raising three kids together and coping with your intense, though dramatically different, feelings for the O.B. for 35 straight years, you and your husband will get past obsession, grief, anger, and exasperation and thrive in a totally empty nest.
Is it my imagination, or are more and more people using “they” when they mean “he” or “she”? I never used to notice this before, since it’s perfectly normal to occasionally use “they” as a singular pronoun, and when someone does so, they don’t even realize it, but lately I’ve been hearing it used even when using “he” or “she” would be the obvious choice, and now I even hear that the singular “they” has been declared Word of the Year! What’s going on, June?
—Ambivalent in Amberville
No, it’s not just your ‘magination, running away with you. (Sorry. Earworm from the Temps.) “They” is here! (Oh, no, now it’s a meme from Poltergeist).
I think that what’s going on with “they” is both a commercial and a socio-politico-ethical phenomenon. These days there are often business reasons to use “they” even for a known individual. For example, some social media giants would rather not admit that they don’t know, don’t want to bother checking, or don’t want to risk misstating a person’s gender, as in: “It’s Melissa’s birthday today. Wish them a happy birthday!” Telling you to “Wish him or her a happy birthday,” or picking a gender but getting it wrong, makes it a lot harder to maintain any illusion that you, Melissa, and whoever programs Facebook’s birthday prompts are all real friends. Using “they” instead of “he” or “she” (as opposed to instead of “he or she”) for commercial reasons like this annoys me a little, because I sometimes get momentarily confused and scroll down the page or look over my shoulder for the other person or persons who have a birthday, got a promotion, or like glam metal. Other than that, though, the usage in commerce and social media seems unobjectionable. This is good, because by now it’s inevitable.
As I am sure you are aware, there are also sociopolitical, and sometimes deeply personal, reasons for using a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to a known individual. Some people do not want to reveal their own gender, or may believe that, in many or even all contexts, referring to a person’s gender is irrelevant and reductionist. Some people may be of a gender unknown to whoever is referring to them, and referring to a known person as “he or she” seems unnecessarily rude. Some people reject the gender binary entirely, on principle. And some people self-identify as “non-binary” or “gender-fluid,” and thus have no traditional singular pronoun that accurately denotes them.
So it’s hard to dispute the need for a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun in English, and “they” is the obvious choice given how many people already use it. Made-up choices strike me as just silly when we already have “they.” I remember once, during my misspent youth, reading an entire novel where the only singular personal pronoun the writer used was “na,” which was supposed to make us all rethink our own gender biases, and it annoyed me so much that I could barely keep my eyes on the page.
The only non-made-up alternative I can think of to “they” is “it,” which was used occasionally in past centuries to refer to a known child. But, here and now, “it” strongly connotes “not a person, but a thing” and is so potentially offensive that it would be wrong and stupid to promote its use. I would not even use “it” to describe my dog as they sleep on my feet while I write.
So it’s gotta be “they.” (Now it’s Sammy Davis, Jr.? Be still, my ears!) Indeed, many fine writers have resorted to this use of “they.” I just learned from the American Dialect Society’s site that even Jane Austen was known to indulge. That pretty much settles it for me.
But do we have to use the singular “they” for known individuals all the time? I would say no, or at least not yet. Like many writers, I usually prefer using pronouns the traditional way when referring to known individuals because doing so makes it easier to identify people without endless workarounds or repetitions of proper names. “After Karl and Tussy found each other, he asked her whether they should go to the station” is a much more fluid and easily-written sentence than it would be if “Karl,” “Tussy,” and “Karl and Tussy” all took “they.” But the forces of social change do drive language, and they seem to be driving it in the right direction when they tell us that automatically assigning a gender to every individual we discuss is just as troublesome as would be, say, always using a racial or religious category. Imagine being constrained by tradition or some style guide to write “Pat was glad that shebc made the train,” where “shebc” is a pronoun meaning “female African-American Catholic person.”
Thus, although I am not willing to cast off my old binary pronouns completely, I remain open to a gradual shift toward the known-person “they.” (We can experiment for a while, as the so-called moderate politicians say, and see how things play out in the states. For example, Southern stylists might compensate for the loss of a reliably plural personal pronoun by using “they’all” when referring to two or more people.) Even so—and I know this sounds pompous and pedantic—I must admit that it will be hard for me, the child of an English teacher and a newspaper editor, to go out there and knowingly misuse a basic part of speech. Perhaps, in such cases, documents could include disclaimers explaining that the writer is transcending, not ignoring, the rules we all grew up with.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.