"Modern Love" Takes On The Mother In Law Cliché... And Shatters It

The "Modern Love" column, as we know all too well, can be an exercise in modern narcissism. But this week's essay, Diane Nottle's "Faithful to His Memory, and His Mother" is different: the story of a woman who, after the death of the love of her life, forms a lasting bond with his mother that ends up being a far longer relationship than that which she shared with the son. Sometimes, it's good to be reminded that women don't need to fight over a man they both love, and that when they do, it's not hilarious.

The author and her boyfriend's mom, Mary, originally have the slightly wary relationship typical of mothers and girlfriends, but John's death brings them together by necessity and inclination.

I’m not sure she even liked me until John collapsed and so did our worlds. But I was one of the two or three people she phoned before grabbing the mink, and because she had no other family who could arrive before the next day, I was the one who sat with her a few hours later as the neurologist told us that John had only a 1 to 2 percent chance of survival, never mind recovery.

The two maintain a friendship for the next twenty years; neither woman really finds another great love, but their relationship deepens.

At her 90th-birthday luncheon, she introduced me by saying, “And this is my daughter.” I was too stunned to react outwardly but inwardly rejoiced. And in some ways, I was a better daughter to her than I was to my own mother. But then, we had never hurt each other the way mothers and daughters inevitably do.

What is nice about this essay is not merely the pleasant contrast to the column's usual myopic bill of fare; rather, it's that it seems to arise from a point of real emotion rather than the smug complacency of an otherwise figured-out existence. It's also refreshing to see another take on the "possessive mother in law" cliché — especially as the noxious-looking reality show Mama's Boys (in which mothers apparently find potential mates lacking) gears up. The trope of women competing over the man in their lives is a tired and depressing one; one of the more poignant aspects of this essay is the implication that, had John lived, such a close bond between the two women might not have been possible. Even those of us who've enjoyed warm relationships with a significant other's mom are told by society that we're somehow lucky; the expectations are somehow stacked against closeness. Maybe this is inevitable, but it's nice for an essay like this to remind us of how much of that is construct, and to what extent loss strips these away.

Faithful To His Memory, And His Mother [New York Times]

Earlier: The In Laws: Other Women Are Supposedly Our Worst Enemies