Friday, April 15, 2011

Not Knowing What to Call Your Mother-in-Law

[If anyone tells my mother-in-law about this post, I promise, I have bought my last Girl Scout cookie!] 

[Yes, I just used a Girl Scout as a human shield]

I  have a confession: I have been married 22 years and I still don't know what to call my mother-in-law.  When my cousin Ruthy married her high school sweetheart, Rick, her future mother-in-law pulled her aside at their wedding rehearsal and they had "the talk."  They discussed what everyone would call everyone else.  It was rather awkward and Ruthy and I giggled about it at the time, but looking back, I now see the practicality of such a talk (and I plan to have them with any daughters-in-law in my future).

I'm not much of a chatty phone-type person, so it doesn't happen very often, but when I occasionally have to call my mother-in-law (MIL),  there's always this moment of panic as the phone rings and I realize I don't know what to call her.  Do I say, "Hi Mom!" or "Hello, Carolyn!"  Of course not. So I punt.  "Hi! This is Paula!"  Does it sound as weird on her end as it feels to me?  

I think it's because I am always a little obsessive about behaving properly.  Since she never invited me to do so,  it would seem incredibly presumptuous to call my husband's mother 'Mom.'   However, 'Carolyn'  doesn't seem right either.  I was raised to address my elders more formally.  Mr. or Mrs. was required for all but a few very close friends of the family, and aunts and uncles were addressed as Aunt Bette and Uncle Bill. Though I'm now a grown woman, I still often find myself addressing my elders with Mr. or Mrs. until I know them quite well.

So now, 22 years later, I'm still having these awkward moments.  If we're at a family gathering and I want to say something to my MIL from across the room, I have a few options.  I can wait for her to look my way, catch her eye and hope she knows I'm talking to her. All too often this ends up with me talking to myself or trying to cover by acting like I'm talking to the dog.  I can also start talking loudly so that everyone in the room turns to look at me, including my MIL. Sort of awkward if I'm trying to alert her that she has dribbled BBQ sauce down her chin.  This causes everyone in the vicinity to immediately reach for a napkin.  My other option is to walk across the room,  get in her face,  and just start talking.  None of these are as easy as saying, "Mom, would you pass the salt?"  or "Carolyn, your shoe is on fire!"

This also comes up when talking about my MIL to my husband's siblings.  "Your mom said we should throw the turkey in the garbage."  Every once in a while I'll boldly throw a "mom" or "Carolyn" into the sentence, but I usually mumble it and construct my sentence in a way that assures they can figure out who I'm talking about from the context,  because saying, "Mom thinks your kid is a brat." is just a bridge too far.  It usually comes out as, "Carommm wants to eat another brat." 

The funny thing is, I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about this,  but I have a feeling that it has rarely if ever crossed my mother-in-law's mind.  I'm blessed to have in-laws who are very accepting and non-judgmental.   Really, I could call her Mom or Carolyn and she probably wouldn't notice or mind, either way.  This is all my neurosis - I'm owning it.   But I know I'm not alone.  I've talked to lots of women who have the exact same issue.  For that matter,  Gary doesn't know what to call my parents either!

I've also found myself in this same dilemma with school personnel. After a dozen years of homeschooling, I have a child in public school for the first time.  While other parents whose kids have grown up in "the system" have grown accustomed to calling the teachers and administrative staff "Mr. Smith" and "Mrs. Jones," I've found it awkward because most of them are younger than I am. 

It's been a really long time since I was in school, so clearly, I'm not up to speed, but I have to wonder if there's an "official" rule about this.  I am the proud owner of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, and I don't remember seeing that addressed anywhere. 

For now, I sit in the bleachers at baseball games listening, eavesdropping, trying to soak in all the rules and protocol - I clearly have a lot of catching up to do!  Rule #1: When talking about teachers and administrators, refer to them as Mr. or Mrs.  Rule #2: When addressing them directly....I have no idea.  

So when I had to call Kyle's guidance counselor yesterday, I had that moment of panic as the phone rang.  Do I call him Cordell?  Mr. Smith?  WHAT?  "Hi! This is Paula!"  Sigh....another person in my life who shall remain nameless. 

We have three more games this week and five more next week, so maybe by then I'll have this figured out.  The school personnel, not the mother-in-law.  It's a little late in the game to be making such radial changes in the relationship. 

Do you have this same issue?  I'd love to hear your story.  Please leave a comment!


Helen Waters said...

Well I can honestly say I've never seen anyone address this but ALWAYS had the same problem! And I still do! Even though I've been divorced for 13 years, "Jean" or "Mrs. Waters" (???) still considers me family and thus, I face the issue all the time. Both seem akward to me as I too was always taught to call my elders by "Mr" or "Mrs." Complicating it further, I don't think I ever heard my own parents call my grandparents by their names! Oh the things we hand down! Ultimately, my only "solution" has been your own. I call up, when I have to as I hate the telephone, and I say, "Hi, it's Helen" and so it begins again.....

Paula said...


I never thought about it until you mentioned it, but looking back I realize that it was the same with my parents. We've apparently been passing this on for generations, haha! We'll have to vow that we will break this "tradition" with our own sons : )

ChrisM said...

Yes, both my wife and I have this problem! In fact, Rosie has studied it in some of her linguistics classes. They've named the practice of "Hi! It's Chris" as "no-naming." People most commonly address their in-laws this way because of the tension.

My MIL actually told me what to call her, which I appreciated, but it still feels awkward to me. My parents gave my wife permission to do whatever she wanted, which really wasn't helpful in alleviating the tension of addressing those who were once elders, but aren't now, but still kind of are.

We are all for starting a movement of naming for in-laws! What should it be? Title + first name, eg: Dad-Tim? Ideas?

P.D. Nelson said...

Surprisingly I've never had this problem, while she was still living my MIL (btw I like that may I use it?) was always addressed by her first name by all her son-in-laws. As my own mother had been deceased for seven years by the time of my marriage my wife also never had this issue. Also my wife addressed my father as Chris so again no problems with proper address. (I called him by his first name Sir).

Paula said...

I wonder if it's easier in the South because you can just go with "Ma'am"?

burning desire said...

Though I hate to call her, I have to call her MA, as we stay under one roof. I hate to share the most caring, lovely word with this woman, but I don't have any choice.