Receiving my in-laws from God
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” – Ruth 1:16-17
Andrew is the only son born to his parents in midlife. His parents were born and raised in China. His only sibling is a sister, thirteen years older than him. In the traditional Chinese culture, a son is important to carry on the family name. A daughter given away in marriage belongs to another family. 传子传媳不传女. One bequeaths family trade secrets to the son and the daughter-in-law but not the daughter. It is important to know the background as you read this chapter of my story.
The Bible teaches “That is why a man leaves his father and mother …” (Gen. 2:24). “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother…” (Matt. 19:5, Mk. 10:7, Eph. 5:31). As I read these verses again, I searched for the reason a man leave his father and mother? Is it about leaving them physically? Is it not against the Chinese culture God has put me in? How come Andrew and I live with them?
Since the day I decided to marry Andrew, I believe that Andrew being the only son has the sole duty and responsibility to take care of his parents. It means his parents live with him wherever he goes. And I being his wife, accept this reality – no choice.
In 30 years of marriage, I went through many tests being a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law. I failed miserably many times if it were not for God’s grace and mercy, I don’t know what would become of our marriage amidst these challenges.
Perhaps in my mother-in-law’s mind, my most important failure was not giving her a grandson. Whereas Hannah endured the ridicule of Penninah not having children of her own, I often had to ignore ‘expectations’ (uttered or not, subtle or not) to ‘produce’ a son. I gave birth to Michelle, my youngest when I was already forty years old. Even when Mimi was already in grade school, my mother-in-law would still tell her in my hearing: “Jio sioti-ah.” (Bring along a younger brother). This is a very Chinese (Fookienese) phrase: to invite a younger brother – as if calling out for a younger brother – will make the dream come true! It made me sad (and mad) when I hear her praising another lady for having many children even though she also had caesarian sections. It was as if bearing children (many) were the ‘valued’ skill of a daughter-in-law.
When I first got married, my mother-in-law complained to my godmother how I could not cook because I could not even hold the cooking utensils properly. My father-in-law once said to me: “Cooking is the most important task (for a lady of the house).” Before I got married, except for cooking classes in high school, I had never cooked a meal in my life. For many years, I was grateful that my mother-in-law cooked our meals and dinner was ready when I came home from work with Andrew. As the years passed, I learned many dishes from her. While many people believe cooking de-stress them, for me cooking is stressful. Through the years, I learned to appreciate the task of cooking with joy for my family. I learned this from my mother-in-law. It was never too late in the night for her to cook for Andrew. Today, Andrew and I often have our family bonding with the children – cooking hotpot right in our bedroom.
Having in-laws living with us has its ups and downs. Even as there were unavoidable conflicts and differences in opinions, I should always remember how my in-laws helped me take care of my children especially Hannah, my eldest. When she was young, we did not even have a helper at home. I went to work with Andrew in the office. I was quite assured that Hannah was in good hands all through the day. I can recall when Hannah was just a few weeks old, my father-in-law went around the house, singing and rocking her to sleep then gently putting her in the crib. I cannot forget that even in his late 80’s, he picked up Mimi from school. I doubt if there were any other child who had a grandpa bringing them home from school. How blessed Mimi was!
When my mother-in-law was ninety-four, she had vascular dementia. Each day as I saw her eating three meals a day, taking snacks in between, I thanked God for giving her appetite and ability to eat by herself. When she napped on the sofa, or the couch in her bedroom, I thanked God for the privilege of taking care of her in her old age. It is easier said than done. There were difficult times when she was moody and violent. Anger and violent behaviors would come anytime without provocation. We had to seek medical help. God is good. He led us to a psychiatrist who prescribed a medication that helped resolve this symptom of vascular dementia.
It was during these challenging episodes that I relate most to what Jesus said: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Indeed, for the words she said to me and the things she did to me when she was sick, I had to look beyond the past, past the hurts and wounds, external and internal. I learned to forgive but not forget. I should not forget how God forgave me. I should remember the good things she did for our family. I must not forget how she took care of me and my children. In her own way, she loves me. She loves my children very much even though they are not ‘sons.’
So let me return to my question – for what reason does a man leave his father and his mother? The reason is found in Genesis 2:23 – “The man said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”” A man leaves his parents to be one with his wife – the woman taken out of him. What does it mean to leave his father and his mother? Let me say what it does not mean. Leaving his father and his mother does not mean living away from them. It does not mean that he leaves them to take care of themselves. It does not even mean leaving them with his sister to take care of them. It means that leaving his parents, Andrew becomes united with me. He becomes one flesh with me. I become one flesh with him. Together, we take care of his parents.
I am not better than Ruth. I could not say to my mother-in-law the things Ruth said to Naomi. Unlike Ruth, people would not say to my mother-in-law that I am better to her than seven sons (Ruth 4:15). She would not believe it. I would not either. I am not Ruth. I am more blessed than Ruth. I have a husband who loves me. I have a husband who loves his parents. I have a husband who loves my children. I have a husband who loves my parents. Andrew loves me. For this reason, he leaves his father and his mother and is united to me and we become one flesh. For this reason, I receive my in-laws with thanksgiving and praise for my God of grace and mercy.
Thank you, Lord for giving Andrew a father and a mother who loved him very much. Thank you for your gift of in-laws in my life. I praise you for their lives and the many lessons I learned as a daughter-in-law. Amen.