Four Truths Naomi Taught Me about Being a Mother-in-law

imagesNaomi’s interaction with Ruth, her daughter-in-law, illustrates the possibility of a healthy relationship between a woman and her son’s wife. We’ve all heard the disparaging mother-in-law jokes which represent the reality that exists between many mothers and their son’s wives. I didn’t want to be one of those m-i-l’s. So, four years ago when our son introduced his dad and me to his fiancé, I turned to the book of Ruth to glean what I could from Naomi’s relationship with Ruth.

I discovered four truths that have enabled me to start well and build strong.

First, I must lose him to gain her. Naomi’s husband and two sons die, leaving her a widow without an heir. Her son’s death forces Naomi to let him go. Death doesn’t have to happen, however, for this release to take place. As I reviewed the relationship between my son and me I realized that, although I had been releasing him incrementally, marriage would require a deeper release. In order to win her, I must release him.

The cutting of the umbilical—the life line—began that separation. Steven’s total dependance on me was severed immediately at birth, though he would depend upon me to feed and care for him. As he grew that dependency lessened: his first step, when he was weaned, when he was potty trained. When he started school that separation expanded until graduation. Marriage finalized that separation when I was escorted down the aisle as the mother of the groom. I was surprised by the depth of emotion that I felt (and sobbed loudly) in front of my church family. Steven was no longer my boy, but someone else’s husband.

I did two things that enabled me adjust to this cutting of the emotional umbilical cord:
I wrote Steven a letter of release. Here’s what I wrote to Steven:

As It Should Be
You were due around December 20th, but you showed up six weeks early, on November 11, 1988. It was a sweet day when I was introduced to five pounds of boy whom we named Steven Jeffrey May. Little did I understand, when the umbilical cord was cut, that it would be the beginning of many separations.
As it should be.
I thought that I would lose you when your weight dropped to just over four pounds and had to remain in the hospital. You finally regained the weight and joined the rest of the family.
You went from umbilical cord to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe within the first six months of your life.
And within months of arrival, double pneumonia, seizures and a coma took you to the precipice of death.
And back again to one of the safest places in Africa—between a nanny’s back and a blanket,
To drinking tea and eating kapenta with Masuku,
Then off to first grade.
A bigger separation.
As it should be.
How the years have flown.
You began middle school, then high school
Then driving.
Off to college.
A bigger separation.
As it should be.
Met a young lady named Anna and asked her to marry you.
And, then, today, August 11th, 2012: twenty-three years and nine months or 8,674 days after your birth. On the day of your wedding to Anna.
An even bigger separation.
A new beginning between you and your covenant partner, Anna, where the two of you become one flesh. Makes me happy-sad.
This happy-sad separation means many things, both for you and for me. God gave an instruction to Eve before she had sons to prepare her for eventual separation—for a time when her son would become another woman’s husband, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Thankfully, she had years to process that eventuality; even then, it probably didn’t make it any easier when the time finally arrived. To separate.
You will always be my youngest son. I am proud of you, but I let you go (as if I would or could stop you).
A new separation. The biggest separation yet. As it should be.

Women can genuinely release their sons to another woman when they realize that his marriage is simply another separation of the umbilical cord. It needs to be cut in order for him to grow and thrive.

I sat down with Steven and Anna and informed them that I would never interfere in their relationship—that I would not inject myself in their relationship in any way.
Both of them needed to hear me say those words as much as I need to hear myself say those words. Neither would ever wonder what I would say or do in response to any decision they make. They would be safe to work out their stuff among themselves. Most importantly, Anna would be safe from me.

Second, I must not pretend to be other than the woman that I am. Naomi grieves deeply over the loss of her husband and two sons. But, when she hears that the Lord has visited His people she determines to leave Moab and return to Bethlehem. Naomi urges both daughters-in-law to return to their families. Even though Naomi interprets her circumstances through her grief she possesses faith in the Living God. Naomi doesn’t stay where she is—far from home and from the God of Israel. He’s there and she returns to where He is. Even in the midst of Naomi’s pain Ruth sees her faith in God. Ruth simply wants what Naomi has, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). Grief doesn’t keep Naomi from seeking God. And, Ruth sees through Naomi’s grief and sees God. It’s through Naomi’s grief and return that God reveals Himself to Ruth. Even though Steven’s Anna follows Christ, she needs to see me be me—not a presentation of who I want to be, but who I really am. Authentic.

Third, I must accept her to win her. Anna needs me to accept her for who she is and for who she isn’t—she is not I! Anna enters into our relationship beloved by Steven and moving on her own path of growth in Christ. Her gifts differ from mine, her strengths differ from mine, and her walk doesn’t necessarily look like mine. We are different, like Naomi and Ruth.

Ruth is a Moabite. She descends from Lot’s drunken liaison with his deceptive oldest daughter. Talk about baggage! But Naomi has her own baggage. Naomi in her grief initially fails to see the value of her daughter-in-law (“I went out full, and the LORD has brought me back empty,” 1:21). She embraces bitterness as her portion before seeing God’s work.

I come from a deeply broken family while my husband grew up with parents who loved one another and provided a safe place for him and his siblings. I had a conversation a few years ago with a friend whose son was moving toward marriage with a woman from a past like mine. My friend struggled with accepting her son’s choice for a bride. I was stunned by my friend’s unwillingness to embrace this young lady for fear it would taint the family name and ruin her dreams for her son. Yet, through Ruth’s story, God works under the radar in the midst of Israel’s darkest days during the judges.

Naomi’s acceptance captivates more than Ruth’s heart; it also gains her a grandson whose grandson is Israel’s beloved king David. Naomi gains so much more than she lost.

Fourth, I must invite my daughter to join me on my own spiritual growth journey. Ruth brings Naomi home with her. “Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:19, 22).

Naomi doesn’t assume a position of superiority. She honors her daughter-in-law both by allowing her to go out for them and by counseling her concerning Boaz. Her story unfolds as she holds Ruth’s child on her lap while listening to her neighbors rejoice. Truly, God’s hand is for her and for His people.