Last night I got home after visiting my mother-in-law for 13 days. It started out bumpy; Ed forgot to call her to tell her that I'd caught my flight, which caused her to panic; while I was en route she left me a voicemail in which he was practically in tears - an e-mail, too - worried that something terrible had happened to one or both of us. Once I landed and got her messages, I was able to call her to relieve her, but she was again nearly in tears, worrying. She calmed down once she realized it was nothing more than a lapse, that no one was hurt. (One of Ed's employment benefits is such that I fly for free; the downside is that I don't always get a seat on my preferred flight, or I learn moments before the door closes that I'll have a seat on the flight I want. I'd asked Ed to call her to let her know I'd boarded simply because I couldn't be sure I'd have enough time to let her know myself.)
The visit was an eye-opener in ways I hadn't foreseen. I'd only met Ed's mother three times previously, and only briefly; this was the first chance I've had to spend time with her for any length of time - and was the first real opportunity I've had to see what traits Ed inherited from or was taught by his mother. Ed has already had that chance to get a better sense of me; he's spent more time with my parents, who have been more proactive in getting to know him.
Ed's parents began the process of divorcing not long after we married; they're currently separated, living about 20 miles apart. I agreed to help her with household tasks she did not feel she could manage or had not learned to do. These weren't particularly strenuous tasks, but she has a bad back, so I pulled weeds and helped rearrange patio furniture, fixed a plumbing issue until a professional could be called, etc. She also had a medical procedure scheduled, one that required her to have someone drive her; unfortunately it did not go well, so I was able to drive her around until the issue was resolved (and fortunately it turned out to have a fairly good resolution, despite a few days of worry).
What I saw was that she was extremely frightened and feeling intensely vulnerable, very unsure of herself and uncertain how to live, afraid of being in the house alone, or doing anything; she has no self-confidence in her ability to do anything. Any one thing, big or small, caused her to spiral quickly downwards. I felt badly for her, but did not allow myself to be drawn into hopelessness or pessimism, or be put in the middle of their divorce or take part in disrespect. (To be fair, she and Ed's father have been very careful to not put either Ed or myself in the middle; Ed's mother said one or two things but either she caught herself, or I cut such comments off at the pass.)
The upshot of this visit was that I got to know my mother-in-law more, have a better sense of her, got to see childhood pictures of Ed, and we did have some good conversations. But more importantly, I saw how Ed himself has been taught to handle stressors, which, odd as it may sound, is actually invaluable to me because now I have a better idea how to respond.
I've been wondering how much drama is self-inflicted, the result of low self-confidence or immaturity, or not being taught to be self-sufficient. And I realized for the first time this incredible gift my parents gave me in teaching me how not to be afraid and to be self-reliant and pragmatic.