My Mother, Mother-In-Law, And Me: A Love Triangle

I always thought any problems between my mom and me were my fault. Then my mother-in-law helped me through a rough time, and everything changed.

Looking back eight years later, I can see that something was wrong just moments after my daughter, Hope, was placed, pink and new, on my chest. Instead of love or joy, I felt panicked, worried we were already nursing failures two minutes in. Yet because my lead-up to motherhood had been nearly picture-perfect — a happy marriage, a wanted pregnancy, a birth so smooth my OB had said I should have a whole football team of kids — it took me several weeks to understand that while Hope was healthy, I was not. Eventually I could name it — postpartum depression — and begin to recover, but for a while it just felt like all the good parts of me had slipped away the day I gave birth.

My husband, Rich, returned to his long lawyer hours and two-hour daily commute a few days after Hope was born. My mother flew from Kansas City to my home in Los Angeles to help for three weeks, a period in which we both imagined I’d be getting better at this mothering gig, not worse. Mom was doing her part — changing Hope’s diapers and dressing her in gingham and florals with frilly socks and matching soft leather shoes. I, meanwhile, sat around a lot in my nursing gown and robe, crying or about to cry.

“I’m worried about you,” Mom said sharply one morning after she’d placed Hope in a bouncy chair festooned with teddy bears.

“I’m fine,” I responded quickly. “Lots of moms have the baby blues.”

Mom had steadfastly cared for my dad, my brother, and me since her early twenties. She rarely complained, but I thought I detected the toll this sacrifice took in the way she seemed happiest not with us, but at church or petting the dog or watching PBS. I tried to make things easier by hiding my troubles from her and sometimes even myself, but this time I was too weak to pretend.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have had kids,” Mom said on another one of those endless mornings after Hope was born, standing at my sink in her red capri pants and white Talbots short-sleeve button-down. She was mixing oatmeal for me, the spoon clinking accusingly against the ceramic bowl, her short dark hair falling just so.

Mom’s comment stung, but more than anything it told me two things: She was very worried, and she wasn’t going to be able to help me. Rich was concerned, but with him, as everyone, I didn’t know what was wrong or what to ask for. And I knew he needed to work, so I tried not to let on to him how bad I was feeling. I held out a glimmer of hope though that his mother, Teri, might somehow help return me to myself.

The same day Mom left, Teri arrived. At 53, just 20 years my senior, everything about my tall, dyed-blonde mother-in-law was soft — her body, her voice, her way of being in the world. The regular stuff of my life, from working at a magazine to the bright Gerbera daisy centerpieces at my baby shower, made her suck in her breath as if witnessing a mini-miracle. I found this both refreshing and naive.

That evening, Teri made soft clucking noises as she followed me around the house and in and out our sliding glass door to the backyard as I tried to nurse and settle Hope with little success. The next morning, I woke at 5 a.m., stumbled toward the nursery, and assessed from the doorway that Hope was still asleep. I walked a few feet farther to the small guest room. The crumpled white sheets next to Teri felt like an invitation, and even though I knew it was an odd thing to do, climbing into bed with one’s sleeping mother-in-law, it felt like it was either that or walk down the stairs and out the front door and never come back.

Teri opened her eyes, her thin hair strewn across the pillow, and smiled sleepily. “Well, hi, honey.”

“I don’t know what is going on,” I said quietly, running my fingers along the edge of the sheet, my eyes filling. “I don’t know if this is normal anymore.”

“It does seem pretty bad to me,” she said thoughtfully.

I was surprised both by what she said and how she said it. She was acknowledging a problem, a big one, but it didn’t feel like an indictment or even all that terrible, like it might with Mom. It was just the truth.

“I was depressed once,” she went on. “Before I decided to leave Rich’s dad. I would drive sometimes and think it would be a good idea to drive my car off Huntington Beach Pier.”

We were quiet for a moment.

“I think about being in the hospital,” I whispered to the ceiling. “I think how great it would be to break both my legs because then someone else would have to care for Hope and no one would blame me.” I held my breath, waiting for the earth to engulf me for exposing this terrible secret.

Instead, Teri turned to me. “You’re going to get better, kiddo,” she promised softly, our blue eyes inches apart, as she rubbed my arm. “I’m not going to leave you until you’re better.”

I cried, this time out of relief, my tears soaking the sleeve of her white cotton nightgown with bitty blue flowers.

A few days later, my longtime doctor prescribed antidepressants and sleep, telling me that eventually I’d be OK but never the same because now I knew what it was like to be sick. Hope’s weight had dropped, so I switched to formula, which she happily gobbled up. Teri took the night shifts and she stayed awake all day, too, helping Hope and I find our way.

“Your mother is amazing,” I told Rich one night as we fell into bed at 8:30 p.m., giddy at the thought of several hours of uninterrupted rest. “When I married you, I never knew what a package deal I was getting.”

My mom was anxious for updates, and we spoke every day about Hope’s weight gain and our activities. Before she’d left, I’d asked Mom if she could return once Teri’s week was up. “I guess I can,” she’d responded wearily. But Teri told her boss she needed to stay another week, and that evening, I told Mom: “Teri can stay, so you don’t need to come.” Instantly, I regretted my words and the suggestion that I had Teri so I didn’t need her. “I mean, Teri’s OK,” I said lamely.

“Oh, I know,” Mom said matter-of-factly. “I know she’s nurturing like that.”

A year later, Mom’s breast cancer from decades past returned and I was pregnant again; it seemed that my Midwest roots and our moms were calling us home. My husband found work in Kansas City and we bought a house that was a 10-minute drive from Mom and Teri, our three homes forming an imperfect triangle on the map. Mom quietly began chemo treatments, and the grandmas traded off watching Hope and our new son, Gabriel, while I worked part-time as a freelance magazine and web editor.

I told myself a thousand times not to compare Mom and Teri, and then did it anyway. At 5 p.m., I’d drive up to Teri and her husband’s yellow house in the heart of a cul-de-sac and discover her and the kids in the backyard, dumping sand in a turtle-shaped sandbox. “We played cars and then were doing crafts at Renee’s and I looked up and it was 1:30!” Teri would exclaim, smiling at the memory of playing through lunch. “How was your day, honey?”

Mom, meanwhile, preferred to watch the kids at my house, and when I arrived home I felt myself tensing up. Something usually had gone wrong — the neighbor’s dogs barked during naps or Hope refused to wear socks or we’d run out of bread again.

I knew Mom was battling cancer and that was very hard even though she didn’t like to talk about it with me. And I knew things like sandwiches and socks were important to her. Part of me wished what I’d always wished when Mom was disappointed — that I could be a better daughter. But with Teri constantly offering up an alternate view in which me and my family were kind of like rock stars, I had what seemed a heretical thought: Could it be that the tension between Mom and me wasn’t entirely my fault?

I thought about talking about all this with Mom, how I loved Teri but I really wanted to love her better, too. But I didn’t know how, especially when we learned Mom’s cancer was terminal. I vowed to be more understanding toward Mom, to swallow my feelings for Teri because we had decades, after all, and Mom and I didn’t. Then, one early June day when Hope was 4 and Gabriel was 3, Teri turned yellow. The CT scan showed a mass in her pancreas and her doctor asked if he could pray with her and just like that, the fragile love triangle that existed between Mom, Teri, and I blew up. With both moms failing and up against the clock, I felt like I had to choose.

I told myself and others that I was so immersed in Teri’s care because no one else could understand Teri’s medical issues and advocate for her. Mom was a nurse, meanwhile, and had my dad, a radiologist, my brother, also a radiologist, and my aunt, a nurse, for support. But the truth was that I wanted to help and be with Teri more, and she wanted me with her, so I was. Whenever I thought about this, I felt equal parts warrior and betrayer.

Mom and I talked on the phone almost every day, and I saw her at least once a week, plus I talked or emailed frequently with family about her. But in the evenings, after the kids were in bed and the dishwasher hummed, my car drove mostly one direction: south to Teri’s. I’d show up in her doorway with McDonald’s shakes and we’d sit together on her bed, slurping and watching Big Brother or speculating about her oncologist’s personal life or laughing at the way Hope said “prentzel.” For a while, I thought I needed to save Teri — to find the right doctor, the right combination of chemotherapy — to prove that I really was the dream daughter she’d taken me for. But the more time we spent together, the more I realized that our kind of love was something you don’t have to earn.

I never knew who was going to die first, but in less than a year, Teri was gone. Two days after the funeral I felt exhausted and empty and ready, at last, to go to Mom. My family had been mostly understanding about my dedication to Teri, but occasional comments from my brother — “you only have one Mom, you know” — and my aunt — “You’re coming, right? Because I don’t think I can get her to the doctor myself” — made me feel that my loyalty was in question.

Mom smiled faintly as I entered her bedroom, her bald head wrapped in a pink terry-cloth cap.

“Can I sit with you?” I asked, and she weakly patted the spot next to her on the bed.

Over the next month, I moved in and out of Mom’s bedroom easily, helping her shift positions or lifting a can of Dr. Pepper from the nightstand and offering it to her, steadying the straw with my fingers. We flipped through Mini Boden and Garnet Hill children’s clothing catalogs, trying to surmise which tops the designers meant to go with which bottoms. “That’d look real cute on Hope,” she’d say thickly, and I’d dog-ear the page. Sometimes we held hands in silence, watching the shadows change on the wall.

I can’t say exactly why things were so different that last month before she died. I think at the end of her life and knowing I no longer needed to care for Teri, Mom was able to relinquish her role as “strong mother” and just be herself, a dying woman who wanted her daughter’s help. And I was able to respond, in part because Teri’s love had finally quieted that little part of me that always wondered whether I was enough. So I was able to simply love Mom instead of demanding more than she could give.

One afternoon I was checking email in my parents’ office, my laptop on the smooth brown desk that used to be my brother’s. I glanced up and my eyes focused on my junior yearbook photo that was pinned to a bulletin board. It was me with long brown ringlets, fuchsia shortalls, too much blush. It struck me that Teri never knew that girl at all, nor the many other versions of me that Mom had been there for. I thought about how Mom had always only wanted for me what I desired, whether it was her gold hoop earrings I wore almost every day my junior year or the unabashed, uncomplicated love of another mother. Sitting there among the old greeting cards and bills and my photo I suddenly knew: It wasn’t a coincidence Mom stopped chemo right after Teri died. She hadn’t wanted me and Teri to separate any sooner than necessary, so she’d pushed on, making sure it was Teri who let go first.

That night, after gathering my things like usual, I dropped my bag and walked back down the hall to Mom’s bedside.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me my whole life,” I said, looking down at her, placing my hand over hers.

“I wish I could have done more,” she said, tears in her eyes. It was not what I was expecting.

“You did everything,” I said, my throat catching. “And now I’m so happy.”

Driving home under the canopy of trees in my parents’ neighborhood, I turned Mom’s words over in my mind. Maybe some of those times I’d wished to be a better daughter, Mom had been making her own silent wishes, too.

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