A Dad’s Point of View | In-laws, second marriages and baggage
I believe all clichés are generally true. How else could something become a cliché in the first place? Not surprisingly, then, all the clichés about second marriages are true. Indeed, comedy careers have been built around jokes about a second set of in-laws, second husbands or wives, and blended families. For good reason: in-law jokes, and family relationship humor can be hysterical – sometimes.
In a second marriage, couples want to believe that they’ve learned something from the first one and they’re going to take all that hard-earned experience and apply it, making the second marriage work beautifully. Hmmm, is that why there’s a higher incidence of divorce in second marriages and an even higher divorce rate in third and fourth marriages? It is sad, but true.
We live in California, while my new in-laws are in Vancouver, Canada. This means getting together, thus far, at most twice a year. The opportunities to get to know one another are crammed into these short trips where we’re all on our best behavior. Granted, it’s not as natural as the encounters we could have if we lived in the same city, but we’re all trying our best. My in-laws have had to adjust to not only a new husband for their only daughter, but her two stepsons. They’ve been absolutely terrific under these unusual and new circumstances. As we stay in my new in-law’s home, this just adds to the awkwardness of this new family dynamic.
My first marriage failed for many reasons and, truly, I can’t blame my former in-laws. I can try, but it wouldn’t be honest. With my first in-laws, I started off on the wrong foot and continued to chew it up till nothing but hanging toenails were left. My biggest and earliest mistake occurred just before we got married. I offered an opinion about the wedding gift my soon to be in-laws were giving us. As I was a showbiz veteran and they offered to get us a camcorder, I foolishly decided to weigh in on the good and bad features available, suggesting I’d go as far as to pay the difference to get a higher end one than they were initially considering. Well, that was obviously a bad move and, evidently, commenting at all was poor taste in their eyes, from which I was never forgiven.
This time around, I’m determined to handle things better. After all, my wife has to deal with just as much, actually more baggage, concerning me. She’s taken on the role of step-mom to my two boys, having not been a parent before. As we have my boys full-time, that is no easy task, especially when she met my older one as he was entering teen-dom.
It’s not easy under any circumstances, but my wife also has a large family. So large that they have a book about the family, just on my mother-in-law’s side, self-published that lays out the genealogy – in Chinese! I did mention my wife is Chinese, didn’t I, while I’m Caucasian? I can’t even begin to remember all the names of family members, not due to any ethnic linguistics, but simply due to my poor memory. They’ve been extraordinarily gracious to me and my boys, but the strain of remembering who is who is beyond my present mental capacity, and its diminishing limits.
I actually think it’s going quite well. We’ve spent Christmas there, and celebrated in various family mixes. It was fun, we brought presents for almost everyone, and my boys loved hanging with the other kids and doing the whole morning presents thing late on Christmas Eve. Our religious differences didn’t interfere at all, as we were all able to embrace this holiday with our new stepfamily. My wife has similarly embraced our Jewish heritage.
The truth is we actually all like each other. It’s just new; we don’t see each other often enough, and I want to make a good impression in spite of my natural instincts to be provocative. I’m on my best behavior but I still make the occasional slip like complain to my new mother-in-law (about her daughter) thinking, like a complete fool, that she might be on my side, as I’m obviously so “right.” Thankfully, she misunderstood and thought I was talking about one of my kids. I wisely kept my mouth shut at that point. Whew.
I know I’ve got great new in-laws. I’ve learned to be a better son-in-law by listening to my wife, accepting her advice regarding her family, praise their daughter incessantly (which is easy), and make sure my boys treat them with the respect they’re due. I actually think it’s working. We’re even talking about a family trip to Europe. That is not bad, for the second time around.
Please visit www.brucesalla.com to contact columnist Bruce Sallan and to enjoy the various features his new website offers, including contact info for advice and coaching, an archive of his columns, general contact info, links to his published work, photo galleries, and reader comments, plus much more. Bruce Sallan was an award-winning television executive and producer for 25 years. Google him if you really want to know more (e.g. his credits).