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The One Word the English Language Is Missing

The relationship deserves it, don't you think?

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Open dictionary with missing entry
Chris O'Riley (Getty Images)
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The English language is missing a word. Why does no term exist to describe the relationship between fellow mothers-in-law? I’ve tripped over “my daughter’s mother-in-law,” my “son-in-law’s mother,” and the vague “extended family” or “in-laws.” None of these terms begin to capture the intimacy and shared interests between a couple’s respective mothers.

Living through a pandemic brought home the importance of these bonds to me. Both of my adult children and their spouses live across the country. My son, Paul, and his wife, Sara, are in the Bay Area in California. My daughter, Jeanie, and her husband, Andrew, live in Seattle. Because we live in New York and because of COVID-19, my husband and I didn’t see our kids for well over a year.           

I haven’t spent much time with Mehreen, my son’s mother-in-law. We met at the kids’ college graduation (Paul and Sara started dating freshman year) and not again until the bridal henna party for their marriage, which took place six years later. Paul and Sara’s wedding was a joyous affair. And even without planning, my blue mother-of-the-bride dress perfectly matched Mehreen’s blue sari. The silver and blue bangles she brought for both of us to wear sealed the symmetry.

Sara’s family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan when Sara was 7 years old. They keep South Asian traditions, which do not include roasting a turkey at Thanksgiving or celebrating Christmas.

That is until this past year.

No one in our family felt safe or responsible flying across the country during the pandemic. Clearly, we’d be apart for the holidays. But Paul and Sara live within driving distance of her parents and, after quarantining, spent Thanksgiving there. There, he dined on chicken biryani, alongside traditional American side dishes like mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and pie.

Mehreen and I mostly communicate by text. When I thanked her for taking such good care of Paul, she wrote, “Oh, honey. He misses you. I wanted him to feel at home.” And she ended with multiple heart emojis.

Then Christmas rolled around, which emotionally was even tougher. I mailed Jeanie, Andrew, Paul and Sara their Christmas stockings. Included in the package were matching pajamas. They humored me by wearing the pj’s during our Christmas Zoom chat. Again, Paul and Sara spent the holiday with her parents.

This time when they arrived at Mehreen’s, Paul was greeted by a Christmas tree— the first one that Sara’s family had ever displayed. They’d even bought lights and ornaments. Nestled under the branches were wrapped gifts for my son. Mehreen asked if there were any traditional dishes she could cook for Paul, and Sara replicated my Christmas cake.

Again, I was overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness. As difficult as the holidays were this year, Mehreen’s openheartedness not only eased Paul’s homesickness, but also my husband’s and my pain over the long separation. Her reply to my thanks was typical Mehreen: “Oh, honey. I love Paul like my own child. I can tell he misses his mom and dad very much. Hopefully, we can all be united soon.” And she ended the text, of course, with more heart emojis and also praying hands.

Tee, my other fellow mother-in-law, aka my son-in-law's mother (see how cumbersome this is?) was in the same boat I was. She hadn’t seen her kids in forever either. We were both gutted when Jeanie and Andrew canceled their scheduled big wedding with family and friends because of the coronavirus. When the two of them got married last summer in the backyard with no family members present — just the officiant and two witnesses — Tee and I texted each other every photo we got of the brief ceremony. Heaven forbid either of us missed one picture. 

Tee is a source of strength in important ways. An upbeat person and a person of faith, Tee sends me inspirational quotes about hope and gratitude. Sometimes I get photos of the ocean. Last fall, when I was feeling especially low, I asked Tee directly for her advice. Andrew had been in the military for a decade. Not only was he out of the country for extended periods of time but his deployments were sometimes dangerous as well.

How did she deal with his absence emotionally, I asked her? Of course, I knew the vanity of comparing pandemic restrictions to active military duty. My kids and their spouses were all safe in their respective homes, working remotely at their jobs. The distance and the worry were in no way comparable. Still, there was some parallel.

What I so appreciate about Tee is her honesty. She didn’t have simple answers. When Tee first heard about Andrew’s last deployment — a hazardous post, she told me — she cried. But Tee had faith in Andrew’s abilities to do his job well and come home safely. She used the same mindset for her other son, who works in a hospital that was overwhelmed by COVID-19. 

If Tee got through that, it seemed a small leap for me to have faith that the pandemic would end and I would see, hug and hold my family again. When that reunion finally took place, my fellow mothers-in-law shared in my happiness. Again, the texts and photos flew between us.

And now I have more joy to look forward to in this relationship. Tee and I will be sharing the title “grandma”! I suspect that our shared love for the little one coming this fall will only increase the bond between us.

Other languages do have a word for this relationship. In Spanish, your child’s mother-in-law is consuegra. In Punjabi, it’s kurmani. In Urdu, she is your samdhan. In Yiddish, your child’s in-laws are your machatunim. I’m not sure what it says about our culture that we don’t have an English version.

Because my relationship with both my daughter’s mother-in-law, otherwise known as my son-in-law's mother, and my son’s mother-in-law, otherwise known as my daughter-in-law's mother — aka Mehreen and Tee — is precious. And it deserves its own word.

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