Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What to Call the In-Laws

When you're a kid, you don't know what adults call their in-laws.  After all, parents usually refer to their in-laws as "Grandma" and "Grandpa" around the munchkins. 

So when you get all grown-up and acquire yourself some in-laws, you have to figure out what to call them.  It feels funny to start calling someone "Dad" who used to be "Mr Lastname."  But hey, what may feel funny at first is something you get used to eventually.  The problem comes when there are objections.

Maybe the bride's mom doesn't want her daughter calling another woman "Mom."  Maybe she thinks, "That's my spot!"  Maybe the groom feels like it would be betraying his father to call somebody else "Dad."  Maybe you don't feel comfortable enough around the spouse's family to use such close & endearing names.  Maybe [gasp] there's some dislike. 

When Gary and I got married, we didn't know what to do, and nobody told us.  When I asked about calling my mother-in-law "Mom," I was told no, but that I could call her "Mother."  (Unfortunately, to me, "Mother" is a term of exasperation, rather like when a parent uses a child's full name; kids usually know that they're in trouble when they're summoned with the middle name and last name in addition to the first name.  That's how "Mother" feels coming out of my mouth.  Because "Mother" sounded disrespectful to me, I didn't want to use it for my mother-in-law.  Maybe I should have anyway.) 

When two of my girls got married, we didn't know what to tell them.  We did tell them that we thought "Mom" and "Dad" would be good, but that it was up to them because we recognized that it might make the husbands uncomfortable or make the guys' parents uncomfortable. 

In hindsight, I think we botched it. 

There is a change of relationship, a change of family, new connections being created, at a wedding.  The bride has to get used to introducing herself with a new name.  She has to get used to a new signature.  The couple has to get used to living together instead of separately in their parents' homes.  Calling the in-laws "Mom" and "Dad" is just one of those changes. 

So I'm saying it for all you yet-unmarried youngsters who are my kids' friends.  There's a theological reality here.  When you refer to your spouse's parents with words/nicknames for parents, you are teaching yourself something about who these people are and what your relationship is.  If they object to being called "Mom" and "Dad," maybe they need to learn something about this new family-relationship.  Neither should your parents object to your in-laws being called "Mom" and "Dad."  You've probably got decades together, through kids and grandkids, through illnesses and moves and job changes and fights and reconciliations and school plays and Little League games and deaths and sorrows and joys.  Y'know, "for better or for worse, ..." and all that. 

And through it all, it would be good to know that this person who raised your husband (or wife)  IS "Mom" or "Dad."  Not just to your spouse, but to you too.  And using the words helps you to believe it.

So say it.  Squirm if you must.  If you can't help it and turn red in the face, so be it.  But say "Mom" and "Dad" anyway.  In 40 years, you'll be glad you did.


  1. Not really related to the issue, but Nat and Sarah call her parents "Mom" and "Dad," and our parent "Mutti" and "Vati," and I've started picking it up; I already used "Mutti" and "Vati" most of the time, but now I sometimes accidentally say "Mom" when referring to Dr. Sarah'sMom.

    Oh, and on a slightly different note, I found the weirdest part of Sita being born was learning to refer to my own sister as "Mommy" for the sake of her daughter, but I got used to that and I think it helped me get used to the idea as a whole.

  2. I call my in-laws "Mom" and "Dad," unless I'm talking about them to someone else. Then I usually clarify by calling them Mary and Rick or Matt's Mom and Dad, depending on if the person I'm talking to know them or not.

    Of course, I have awesome in-laws, so it works beautifully for me. :D

  3. My brothers and I call our parents "Mom" and "Dad", obviously. Alex always called my mom "Mrs. V." before we got married. The first time I heard him call my mom "Mom", it struck me almost like he was my brother. I know that's really strange, and it shouldn't have even occurred to me, but it did.

    I call my in-laws by their first name. I have a mom and a dad, and my in-laws are not those people, so why would I call them by those titles? I think you're right, though, that it does keep some space between the in-law relationship, like you're all not *really* family. Plus, when you get married, "the two shall become one". What's his is mine, and what's mine is his. Therefore, his parents are now my parents, right? But they're not. But they are...

  4. I have felt rather stuck with this one as there was much anamosity towards me so I tend to put the love in action and not in name. I don't think they wanted another daughter in me. Now they live with me and I will cry when they are gone but still struggle with the names. Sylvia and Charles are the most solid. I noticed she actually called me by name recently and she never used to. Hmmm......will file away for my own kids. We have not modeled well. Complicated.

  5. I do what Rachel describes. I think I went right from "Mr. and Mrs." before marriage to "Mom and Dad" after. Both my in-laws and my own parents were fine with it. Interestingly, my husband sometimes calls my mom "Mom" and sometimes calls her by her first name. I think he also called my dad by his first name, probably because my dad encouraged it. My dad's stepchildren also always called him by his first name so he was "Roy" to a lot of people. But I really like your thoughts here and it's what I will encourage our children to do some day.

  6. Rachel, I originally had included a line in this about my delight when you were telling me once about an event with Matt's family, and you mentioned "Mom and I went to town and ..." You called her "Mom." And it was natural and easy. And that made me so happy that you are welcomed and part of their family. (I almost said "assimilated" but that has too many Borgish connections -- LOL.)

    Meghan, yes, there can be a bit of "space" there. It wouldn't have to be. And I'm not saying that people who call their in-laws by their first names can't be close and have a superb relationship. But it seems that (in other areas) what we say helps us get our thoughts and feelings and commitments in line, so it should in the in-law relationships too.

    Karin, we have not modeled it for our kids the way I think now that we should have. But I doubt we'll change what we call the in-laws after this many decades. We have kids, though, who don't have in-laws yet and hopefully will, so (like Cheryl says) maybe they'll choose "Mom" and "Dad" (or "Mutti und Vati") from the very start.

  7. I feel like I've been Weasley'd in. :D

  8. Perfect!

    (I wish we could do the same for our kids-in-law.)

  9. I'm sorry, I don't. And there's no lack of honor or respect in the fact that I don't.

    I call my MIL by her first name. With her blessing. And not because my own Mom was bothered by it, but mostly because, yes, it felt very odd to call a woman whom I respected and loved but whom I'd only met three times by the time of the wedding, "Mom."

    It *IS* a different relationship. My MIL is very, very dear to me, but she is not my "real mom." I am friends with her in a beautiful way; I am blessed to consider her a mentor to me, but it is a different dynamic than that relationship I have with my own mom.

  10. I was the same, it was hard to give my parent's names to others, but I persevered, and now calling these sweet people, "Mom and Dad," seems like the most natural thing in the world. Great post.