The advantages of caring
A few years ago, my husband and I were having trouble with his mother. She’s your classic possessive mother-in-law, the kind who expects you to be where she wants you to be or else. There was never an acceptable reason for missing a party or impromptu game night, even though Gideon and I live an hour away from her.
In 2017, we were working our tails off to get Gideon through graduate school. He worked the night shift part time while completing his teaching internship during the day and I worked my regular Monday through Friday. We barely saw each other. For three consecutive years, we had one day off together per week. Gideon’s mother assumed that meant we’d visit her every Sunday. She didn’t even ask.
By the fall of 2017, we had enough. Gideon and I were exhausted, constantly working and then spending our one day off together with his mother and siblings. I rarely saw my family during this time. In hindsight, I’m not sure my in-laws even remembered that I have a family. The first year Gideon and I spent Christmas day with my family, his brother “jokingly” tried to put a stop to it.
“Can’t you just break up with her?” he asked Gideon. “So you can spend Christmas here with us.”
I laughed it off, the same way I laughed off so many jokes that weren’t really jokes at all. But I couldn’t do that anymore in October 2017. One of my best friends was sick and Gideon was overwhelmed by his master’s program. I had hoped to see her in the hospital before my mother-in-law’s annual Halloween party, but my friend wasn’t answering the phone.
Panic set in. Why wasn’t she answering? Could I really face everyone in Gideon’s family knowing my friend could be in trouble? Unfortunately, I felt like I had to. I had bent to my mother-in-law’s will for three years by then. It just felt normal to shove my emotions in the junk room in my mind and put on a happy face.
Except I couldn’t put on a happy face this time. I didn’t realize that until I stepped inside the house, and then it was too late. I had a panic attack in front of all those people who had made it clear I was unwelcome. I asked to leave halfway through the party and later received a hateful message from my mother-in-law accusing me of moping and seeking attention. My friend died three weeks later and my mother-in-law started hammering down on holiday plans just one week after that. She insisted that we stay for the entire duration of a 10-hour Christmas party. I could hardly think straight for months.
Eventually, I sought out Gideon’s oldest sister for advice. I didn’t expect anything profound — just a little guidance would have helped. But she didn’t give the type of guidance I was expecting. She told me the best way to deal with her mother is to stop caring. She said she was numb to emotion and she liked it that way.
In a roundabout way, her advice did give me guidance. It was the turning point where I realized that to stop caring would slowly chip away at my ability to empathize and support others. That wasn’t an option for me. Why would I choose to live life as a shell of myself just to fit in to an environment where I would never truly fit in?
The only way to move forward was to remove myself from the situation. My mother-in-law made it crystal clear that Gideon could come to family events alone, and I told him that’s what I would prefer. To my surprise, he chose to support me. It wasn’t easy to get here, but we are stronger than ever today. We understand each other in a way we never did.
Gideon recently told me that he spent his whole life, up until the last six years, not caring. He didn’t have any motivation for graduate school until we started working through these issues with his family. Today, he is a fantastic teacher at Eureka Springs Middle School. He tells me every day how grateful he is to care.
When someone hurts us, it’s easy to shut down and stop caring. I suspect many of us do it without even realizing — that’s how defense mechanisms work. But I implore you to fight against that impulse.
Never give up on yourself and others. Never stop caring, and I promise you will reap all kinds of rewards.