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“Dear In-laws, Never tell me how to raise my children, I’m living with one of yours and there is a lot of room for improvement.”
All joking aside, dealing with your in-laws under regular circumstances can be difficult enough, never mind trying to navigate this dynamic as a global family.
Drawing on the voices of my clients and expat connections over the years, I have crafted a letter that you may only dream of sending to your in-laws, a letter that you may also secretly wish your spouse would read.
Listen to today’s podcast for five steps on how to find your voice and and stand in a more empowered place in a bi-national or globally mobile family.
What You’ll Discover in this Episode:
- The assumption most of us hold that actually damages our relationship.
- Where to start when you’re struggling.
- How to drop defensiveness.
- 3 questions to ask if you are feeling angry and defensive.
- And more.
I have seen my clients relationships be transformed by practicing what I share with you in this episode. Even when it feels difficult, there are ways to create closeness and understanding. Essentially it boils down to allowing more space for understanding, even when you want to have your defenses high. It’s about giving permission for vulnerability and humanity – on all sides. Creatively addressing our differences and finding commonality can make all the difference in generating a whole new dynamic within an intercultural family.
Listen to the Full Episode:
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Featured on the Show:
- Gary Chapman’s five love languages
- Dr. Christine Northrup and her book on women’s health mentioned here: Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing.
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean fromwww.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
“Dear mother-in-law never tell me how to handle my children, I’m living with one of yours and he needs a lot of improvement.”
So this was a quote I stumbled upon in preparation of this podcast on in-laws. It’s a bit of a cliche isn’t it, like that the in-laws and how much trouble we have with them, but it’s important to talk about. So today’s focus of global families is dealing with our in-laws and I have to have a big caveat up front before I dive in. Personally I’m among those who have a wonderful relationship with their in-laws and I would venture to say that my partner has the same with my side of the family. Yes we have our quirks, no we’re not perfect, but personally speaking I am so grateful to say that I’m able to experience how it is to do binational family of ours when we get along, when the in-laws are someone we welcome into our home on both sides. And I say that because well one I just want my in-laws to know that this episode is not about them, but two because I know how good it can be when things work.
And through over 10 years of coaching families in binational relationships and expats around the world, I realize how much a thorn in your paw your in-laws can be when things don’t work out. And you know me I’m all about straight talk about expat life and one of the things I don’t think we talked about enough is the role of our In-laws in our global family, in our nuclear family that we are trying to raise around the world and in our family experience when we’re flying across the world and visiting the other side. I say this all of what I’m sharing today is based on a decade of coaching with people who have brought topics up to me over and over and I also know, based on some Facebook groups I am in with expats, the people are almost competitive to tell their stories of who has the worst in-laws. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
So here’s my contribution today. What I’ve done thanks to the voices of some of my clients and the compilation of things I’ve heard over the years. I’ve created a letter, a letter that some of you wish that you could write to your family, a letter that you wish that some of your in-laws would read. And just as a caveat the letter that you’ll read is in my voice, so I positioned it as a woman, but it could very well be from a man or it could be from a same-sex couple, it could be with kids without kids. Regardless of it, the focus is on making space; for difference, for individuality for identity, for your cultural practices. And this gets particularly interesting when our kids are at stake. My husband and I always joke about “Who would you pick me or the kids?” and it’s like “Kids.” It’s like we as parents want to fiercely protect our children, they often feel like the center of our lives. So if we feel like we’re doing that job and something isn’t working because of our binational family or because of the way things are done from the in-laws things can get super sticky and I know there are some of you who are listening who have had fights with your partner because your partner is actually taking their mothers side and not your side and you’re like, “Excuse me, I am your wife or I am your partner, what is happening here?” It gets sticky. We get competitive, we get wrapped up in this “Whose side are you going to be on?” I hope that today you walk away with clarity that we don’t need to pick sides. What we need to pick are good strategies and love and clarity.
So let me let me begin this conversation by reading you the letter and then I’ll give you a few tips on what you can do if you are the one who’s struggling with your in-laws or if you happen to be an in-law and you’re listening to this podcast.
I’m writing you a letter I know I’ll never send. I’m writing it because something has been building up inside and I just need to get it out. But I don’t ever want you to hear it because I love you, because I don’t want to hurt you and what I’m about to write is honestly something I wish I could just scream out at the dinner table from the top of my lungs so that it would enter your heart and your consciousness.
So right now I’m writing you this message and I know it will fall into the abyss and it seems senseless, but I just need to release what’s inside.
So here it goes.
Number one: I wish you understood how hard it is to live abroad. I wish you understood what it was like to raise your kids outside of your home country. I mean, I’m the minority here, it is a constant battle to teach my kids my language, my values my rituals. I am battling with the people I’m closest to, to pass on part of me. And then tell you what, your son doesn’t have this problem his kids learn his language at school, his kids speak his language in the community. Your son has his family around, he can share all of the things that he did as a kid but I can’t. Do you get that my kids don’t get to experience what I did as a child and if I want them to I have to orchestrate, it I have to battle for it.
Can you just see for a moment how we experience parenting differently, even though we’re in the same house? And if I’m really honest with you, there are times when I look at what I’m trying to achieve in my family, and I wonder if I’m sacrificing too much. There are times when I just want to pack my bags and move back home.
I wish you’d understand how sad it makes me feel when you ignore my small requests that I ask when you’re taking care of the kids. I know it seems so silly to you right? I’m not asking you to cook an extravagant meal. I just want you to, I don’t know, do what I did when I was a kid and sit down at the dinner table. I want you to help my kids learn what we learn in my country and that doesn’t involve blue ice cream with Bubblegum.
These things seems so frivolous, I know they seem unimportant and I know you love being grandparent, but I don’t think you get that they mean everything to me. My food is my culture and when I make a request for that moment, that one afternoon where you could help me pass that along and you don’t, I feel like that tiny piece of what could exist in my culture falls to the wayside.
You know what? I wish you’d ask, even just once, how you can support me? I know you don’t think you can because you don’t speak my native language, but you can. It’s just the little things, but I just want you to ask how, because when you don’t I kind of feel like it hasn’t even occurred to you to support me.
I know it’s not fair, but I’m just being honest. And if I’m really like baring it all in this letter to you that I’m never going to write here’s what else I want to tell you. Your jokes about how I married your child for their passport or for their money or to get out of my country they’re not funny, they are not funny. Do you know how much that hurts me when you say that? I know you’re joking, I know it’s a cliche, I know there are stereotypes about this really happening but I married your child because I love them and I made a sacrifice to do it. I gave up my home country, I gave up my native language, I gave up the cultural permission all over to do the things the way I want to do them to be with your child. So no the jokes are not funny.
And while I’m at it, yeah we’re doing okay financially, but you know what I had to stop working years ago so that your son could take the job that gives us that security. I had to give up on everything I had studied for and had worked for and now I’m doing it because I want to be there for the kids. Yes, I work part-time but I hustle to be there at every pick-up and drop-off and any of that extra money that we’re making, do you understand what the costs are of one single trip to my country for a family of our size, so that I can have a moment of face-to-face time with my parents? It is the equivalent of a year of daycare. So the money that we’re making actually is just to keep up with seeing my loved ones once a year. We say no to all kinds of other things so we can say yes to a little bit of contact with my friends and family. And in the process we say yes to jetlag, we say yes to kids that are grumpy because they’ve been on a plane for 16 hours. And I say yes to not seeing my family for 11 and a half other months. Okay, so that’s why those jokes aren’t funny.
And I wish that you’d understand without feeling threatened that I’m not really motivated to pass on all of your cultural values to my kids. Listen, I love your country as much as you do, but there are things I just don’t want to pass on because I want to pass on my things. Maybe I don’t even agree with some of the things like, I don’t know your approach to food or the way you handled time because it doesn’t always fit my values and again, I’m just holding on to a small piece as the minority in your family. And please understand, sometimes I need to draw the line, I need to set boundaries whether you like it or not. I need you to respect that because I’m just trying to keep a tiny slice of my culture alive in this wonderful family. I don’t want to drown, I don’t want to be invisible, I don’t want to disappear. And please hear me, there are so many things about your culture that I cherish, If I didn’t I wouldn’t be married to your son. That is indisputable but like it or not your grandkids are also partly my culture and that matters, it matters to me. Knowing that, that I get to keep that tiny slice it helps me stay resilient when I’m living in prod and feel like the minority here after year.
And now I want you to look at me and listen when I say this. I wish you knew that despite everything I’ve just said I feel so lucky to have you in my life, the relationship you have with my kids makes my heart explode. The kids love you more than you’ll ever know and I never ever worry when they’re with you. We are so lucky, our entire family is so lucky to have you in our lives and this love does not erase the love that I have for my family and the yearning I have for my children to see the other side of their family more. So since they can’t because we live so far away and we can only fly there once a year I would love your support in helping me bring that small slice of my culture into our family life, our family life, my family with your family together. And acknowledging and even celebrating what feels like home on my side with this family.
And finally, I wish you knew how hard I’m working to balance it all; My own cultural adaptation, my role as a spouse, as a parent in this binational family, my reinvention as a professional as I gave up everything to start a new life in your child’s home country. And you know what? I don’t blame you if you’re surprised by any of this, I know that whenever we’re together I’m happy because I love the life we’re creating and I get it that I don’t let you in to the extent of the struggle that I feel on the other side of the curtain.
So thank you for listening, thank you for seeing me and all of me. As I show up to be your daughter-in-law, to be the mother of these gorgeous children, to be the spouse of your son. Please don’t take anything I’ve said personally just take it in.
I love you with my whole heart.
Okay there you have it, some of you are listening and are thinking “Holy, how did she know?” I know because I’ve heard you, I’ve heard your stories, I’ve listened for years to the themes coming out over and over. This is the letter you’d love to write but don’t dare. And maybe you shouldn’t or maybe you should, that’s not for me to judge or maybe your letter would have something else on it but what’s here is your experience.
Maybe this is a kind of letter that actually your spouse should read because they have no idea what you’re going through and you wish that they got it. Or maybe part of you secretly wishes that your in-laws would stumble over it anonymously and actually listen.
I wrote this for you, all of those of you who are listening right now to expat happy hour. I did it because one, I want you to know you’re not alone, that if you’re feeling this you’re one of many who struggles with finding your voice and your place in a bi-national or globally mobile family. Maybe you’re even listening to this and you have nothing to do with an international family and you still identify with it, right? And maybe some of you think it’s a message that needs to be shared with others, but what’s most important is that if this is inside you and it’s built been building up, what can you do to release it? What can you do to take charge of the things that are on your head and heart. Whatever is going on, I see you I know you are all in when it comes to family, I know that you’re all in on your marriage and I know you’re all in on raising your kids well, no matter where you are. So here I am in your corner cheering you on. And so you can walk away with a few tips whether you are the one fighting to keep that slice of culture alive in the family or if you happen to be an in-law who’s stumbling across this podcast or transcript and you’re asking yourself. “Well, what can I do about it?”
Here are five things that I can suggest:
Number one; I want you to accept lack of understanding as your default. Okay, so come to the relationship with the default idea that you don’t understand. Of course you don’t right? So if you are the one who’s moved abroad and married into a new family with a different culture, we really need to create space for lack of understanding from our in-laws. They’ve never done this, they don’t know, they haven’t experienced it just like you didn’t know before you didn’t know what you’re getting into. So coming to the relationship with the default of “They don’t already have to understand,” can create a space of understanding and love so you can share, so you can give them space to be more of what they are. And if you’re the in-law and you’re thinking “Holy cow I had no idea this might be on my daughter-in-law or son-in-law’s radar?” All you have to do is say “Tell me more, help me understand?” And then listen. Maybe you’ll ask questions like “What’s the hardest part about being abroad” or “What do you love about it? What do you wish was different?” and then you know what? Ask again in six months, ask again in one year because what I’ve learned over 20 years of being abroad and serving clients who’ve been abroad for anywhere from a decade or two is that what you struggle with changes and sorry to say but some things get harder not easier with time.
So my invitation to you regardless of whether you’re the one bringing the new culture to the family or the in-laws. How do you see the relationship differently if you accept that lack of understanding is a default?
Okay, take a few moments and think about that, what would you do differently, What would you ask differently if you accepted that lack of understanding is actually the default in this relationship? Because I know even my own relationship, I couldn’t know what my partner was going through until I went through it myself. We owe it to our family to just entertain that question for a moment and see what happens.
Accept lack of understanding is default, that’s number one.
Number two is; Focus on meeting needs, and here you need to be really specific. So if you’re the one who feels like the minority in your family bringing in your culture and trying to keep some of it alive then it’s really important that you get clear on what are your needs. Because people can’t help meet your needs if you don’t know what they are. So you can say “What do I really need right now?” Maybe you need an escape, maybe you need understanding, maybe you need celebration of your culture, maybe you need more space for your thing.
Right name it and then you can get creative about how can you get that need met. So if you’re clear on what you need, one of my clients needs support from her family to create, how should I say it, an eating culture in her family that feels comfortable for her. Not an erratic, you know, one time this one time that but consistency and how they do meals. That’s something simple that’s important to her. So she has named that need and now the next step is to get clear on asking for that need to get met and then being specific and also saying why that would be important because again, if you go back to number one, if they don’t understand. They can’t know.
So if you’re an in-law and you’re going to focus on meeting needs you can assume that your darling in-law daughter or son that’s new to the family who brings in a new culture has unique needs that are probably not met just by default of being in this situation abroad. So what you can do is ask say “Hey, what’s what’s really on your mind right now that I can support with?” or “What’s troubling you that you haven’t figured out yet that I can help make happen?” and then you ask “Why is that so important to you?” Because focusing on meeting needs is our responsibility, it is also one way to show that you love.
So focus on your needs is number two, make sure that you’re specific and explicit.
Number three; Can we all just agree that in intercultural families one plus one is three, that when we come together, it’s not just two parts, but it’s something even more amazing, it’s not a question of like let’s do it this way or that way, but can we just agree that we’re going to do new things in our family and enable our kids to be more culturally agile in the world and that that is even better than just one way. Can we drop our defenses of losing something and encouraging an environment where we want these little ones to take the best from the world’s they are exposed to and create a family where we’re more than the sum of its parts. It’s this invitation to allow us to do family in this way or that way and even better this way and that way so we’ve got little kids who can code switch and not lose anything, but see it as a game.
So my tip number three is to look at your family as an intercultural family and how it is more than the sum of its parts. Really focus on that, how is your family more than the sum of its parts and that helps you drop defensiveness when you feel like there’s loss.
Tip four; Not going to be a surprise to you, but I always go back to love the crap out of your people. How can you love your people? So if you’re the one who feels like you’re in a minority, I see you. I know you want validation from your in-laws, I know you want to be seen, I know you want to be understood, I get that and you know what, it might not be flowing back at you and that sucks. Just to be really frank – I get that and I’m going to ask you what can you do to graciously love them? How can you look for ways to love them? How can you look for ways that they love you?
I know that my father-in-law is wonderful at the, if you look at the five love languages from Gary Chapman, my father-in-law is an acts of service person. That man will drive two and a half hours out of his way to come pick me up at the airport at 7:00 in the morning. He loves me by being there. He does so much for our family and I know that’s his love language. He might not say it out loud, but he loves loudly in his acts of service. So maybe in my family, my family is like “Goodnight love you see you the morning, sweet dreams, goodnight love you I love you sweet dreams.” That’s my family, we say it. But man, you might be missing out the way people are loving you.
So go ahead and check it out, how can you love your people in ways that they can take it in? How are they loving you in ways that you can see it? And if you want to check out Gary Chapman’s five love languages that will help you love the crap out of your people. And this goes for the same if you’re in-laws and you’ve got this newbie in your family – someone who’s not from your culture and does things differently. Get curious. How did they love their kids? How do they love your son or daughter? How are they loving you? Don’t miss it. Maybe their language is gifts and you don’t even see that’s how they’re showing your love, right? So start paying attention to the way that you love the crap out of your people and how they’re doing the same for you.
Now I know what you’re thinking, there are some of you who are listening who are saying. “All right Sundae, that is all great advice, but there is so much resentment and frustration built up in my family. We have no chance, we are struggling.”
I get it not everybody lives in a rosy world, right?
So that brings me to number 5.
“How can I let go of the resentment and anger from the past and move forward?”
Okay, so if you’re in a family situation with your in-laws that has been tough where you totally start off on the wrong foot or things have gotten yucky over the years, this is for you.
I know you know this, but I’m going to repeat it. If you’re holding resentment the tough thing is that the one that’s suffering most is you, you know the saying “Holding resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Oh man, it’s so easy to go there I get it, but it doesn’t serve you at all. So if you are feeling resentment and frustration with your in-laws, here’s the first thing I’m going to invite you to do, especially if you are in an intercultural family.
Ask yourself these questions; Now be honest, “Is my anger built on a belief that others should act in a way that I want them to?” Is your anger built on beliefs of how people should act? This sounds so banal but one of them would be grandparents should babysit. If you believe that they should, which I totally agree by the way, but if you believe they should and they are not doing it you’re going to feel resentful. It feels painful and I get that believe me, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel empathy for you. My point is is that when we’re in the intercultural family we have cultures that are very different and you have family cultures that are very different and maybe the same rules don’t apply. So is your anger and resentment built on beliefs of how your in-laws should or shouldn’t act? Maybe according to most people’s values they would agree with you, that’s fine, but what we’re doing is making sure that you are focused because your expectations are often tied to cultural expectations of how people should act in a family and if we’re in intercultural family that just does not apply. I mean, I know when I first got into my family, my in-laws, I was surprised by the level of formality in relationship to my informal family. So if you’re feeling anger, resent get curious, is it based on a belief that they should act in a certain way and if it is what is that behavior? I’m not saying their behavior is right or wrong for my Intercultural perspective. We should look at it neutrally, at least to start.
Next thing you want to do is ask yourself, “Am I tying my emotions to their behavior” because you know how that goes. If they behave badly, how do you feel? Like when we tie our emotions to other people’s behaviors we are just asking for trouble.
Okay, and I know it’s easier said than done but I’m inviting you to think, are your emotions how you feel inside about yourself about your family ,is it tied to their behavior?
So if your answer is yes to either one of these questions where you are angry based on a belief that they should act in a certain way or that you’re tying your emotions to their behavior, the hard truth is that for you to feel better you need to work on letting go of that anger and resentment, to stop drinking that poison and waiting for the other person to die. So here’s a few things you can do to get started.
One, get clear on the family or cultural origins of the behaviors that are triggering you. What is going on in their culture context and their family context? How is that different from your family culture or your National culture? Okay do your best Intercultural work to look at it neutrally, just get curious. What’s going on? What are the cultural or family origins of it? You might not agree with it but what are the origins of it?
Second thing is, you can work on your strategies on how you can let go of your emotions so they don’t hold you hostage. So the predictable things are deep breathing and making sure you get enough sleep, exercising, maybe having strategies for when you notice your emotions get high, for you to take a timeout, whatever works for you, but work on your strategies to let go of those emotions and maybe the first one is “I’m pissed, I’m angry” and then you go run to a ACDC, like acknowledge that you’re angry and let that emotion go through you.
Dr. Christine Northrup who is sort of the guru on women’s health, talks about how women need to process their emotions to know what we think. So, you know do let those emotions run through you in a safe context so that you can move forward.
The third thing you can do, and this is probably not a surprise based on what I always say, is you teach people how to treat you ,so you and maybe together with your partner you can look at how can you set healthier boundaries? So you feel like you’re being treated in the way that is you’re okay with and you’re also treating your in-laws and the way that you feel okay with, because when I’m angry and resentful, I’m probably more likely to treat people in ways i’m not proud of.I mean I fully admit that when we go to that place it just creates behaviors in yourself that you’re not proud of.
Okay, and there are some really amazing things that can happen when you get a handle on this one of my clients, she set boundaries with her mother-in-law on how long she could stay in their home and what she expected while she was watching her child, and even though the conversation was hard it made a massive positive impact on their relationship.
Alright. So those are the things that you can do.
Number five is work to let go of the resentment and anger that you’re feeling, you can do that by looking whether you’re tying your emotions to their behavior. If it is a result of a belief on how they should be acting and then you can get curious around the family origin or the cultural origin of the behaviors work on your own strategies to manage your emotions and then set healthier boundaries.
Okay, I’m not naive to think that this will solve it all but it’s a pretty good start.
So tip 5 is do the work to let go of resentment and anger.
So there you have it, those are the five things you can start focusing on if you feel like you’re looking for more understanding and connection with your in-laws, whether it be your daughter-in-law, your son-in-law, mother-in-law, your father-in-law, I don’t care, your sister and brother-in-law, your extended family, or maybe you’re not even legally married and in-law isn’t applicable but you’re still connected for life as family. These are five ways that you can create closeness and understanding. And I mean you see it, this is all about allowing more space for understanding even though you want to have your defenses high. It’s about allowing more space for vulnerability, allowing more space for humanity. This is the thing especially if you’ve been the one crossing cultures for years, don’t forget your intercultural competencies are probably pretty high you’ve had years of practice. It may be your in-laws don’t or maybe they’re from a culture that is super rigid and protected because of religion or history and are not as flexible as where you’re coming from.
This is testing your Intercultural competencies, this is testing your ability to connect across cultures, did I say any of this is easy? No, but is it important? Yes. The ultimate test is being willing to stay open when we want to close, to learn when we feel like we know it, to love when it feels hard, to listen when we just want to scream at the dinner table. And you have got to start somewhere.
So this is one step forward, get clear on what your needs are, meet them where you can, ask them to be met when you can’t, keep an open mind about what you’re gaining in this intercultural family and work hard to love the crap out of your people. That’s all we can do.
So that is my love letter for you, for all of you who’ve shared with me the challenges you’ve had with your in-laws. My hope Is that you’ll walk away with one piece. Maybe it’s simply just feeling understood and if that’s the case, it means the world to me.
You’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour with Sunday Schneider Bean. Our entire focus right now is on the global family. We started looking at the global family as a system and today we brought in how the in-laws are part of the system that make an impact on our total happiness and contentment when we’re raising our kids abroad or just living life. We talked about how If we’re over indulging our kids we might be doing them a disservice, which is also connected to grandma’s and grandpa’s right because we know the cliche about grandma’s and grandpa’s wanting to overindulge our family.
Today is an invitation to focus in on that one part of your family that you might have married into or joined through another relationship.? How can we focus on this aspect to help you thrive in your global family.
This and more coming up in Expat Happy Hour in the coming weeks.
If you missed it, I have a three video series on stopping the guilt for raising your kids abroad. If that feels relevant go to the show notes and get that free video series. We also have a challenge coming up on how you can be a better parent to your global kids in a five day challenge.
All of this is about amplifying how you show up in your global family and it is my absolute pleasure to be by your side along the way.
Again, you’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour, thank you for listening.
I’m going to leave you with the words of Grace Hopper a computer scientist and United States Navy rear Admiral. She says “The most dangerous phrase in the language is; we’ve always done it this way.”
So come on families, let’s get creative on the way we are doing things around here.