Saying 'I do' to the family

When it comes to handling our relatives, my new husband and I tag-team it.

By Nancy Davidoff Kelton
July 17, 2011

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One evening in 2010, a few months into my new marriage, my husband, Jonathan, mentioned that we would need to change our wills. “Before, I left everything to my kids,” he said. “Now I am leaving you the kids.”

He was teasing. Sort of. My stepchildren, both in their early 20s, live on their own and have a mother. They would not need my caregiving. But we would continue to be in each other’s lives in the event of their dad’s death, as we are now. It is an unwritten part of our vows.

Although Jonathan and I don’t partake in every get-together and conversation with the other’s children, we share our family’s joys, challenges, milestones, crises, and struggles. They are ours. And they are not. Which helps. I offer my stepson unsolicited advice about work and his love life. I offer my husband advice about his kids. I have a perspective. There is a remove. There is also tons of love.

Saying “I do” meant we took on the entire clan. That can translate to “I will spare and save and protect you.” I no longer get a headache from my family’s pompous bore. My husband picked up the mantle. He sits beside him in restaurants and in the front seat with him in the car, and he’s taken over nodding and uh-huh-ing.

A card-carrying hypochondriac and complainer in Jonathan’s family used to drive him up a wall with her pity parties, but now I’m the listener-in-residence. Without a shared gene pool or history, she’s less inclined to lay guilt trips, and when she starts to kvetch, I don’t get upset. I can chuckle. I’m detached.

Like friends with benefits, when we marry into a family, we get goodies we did not get before. Before marrying, I was nobody’s aunt. Now I have three nieces and two nephews. I have small hands to hold for jumping waves at the beach and lap-sitters to read to. Also as a wife with benefits, I don’t accompany my husband on every visit to my in-laws nor am I privy to all that transpires when he is there. But I am his sounding board before he leaves and when he returns. For urgent matters, major celebrations, and every third visit, I am at his side. We marry into a family that is both similar and different from ours. The members are lovable, wonderful, complex, and annoying. They enrich our lives. They make demands. Embracing them, for me, has been the way to go, as long as I stay true to myself.

Last summer, we vacationed with my in-laws and their friends. Group activities and dining with many others is not “me.” I prefer vacationing on our own. But my sister-in-law and I took long, soul-baring beach walks – just the two of us – and at night she joined hands with me to sing taps, becoming my first taker since I was 9 years old and went to Camp Tamakwa. Moments like those are making me consider another group vacation filled with volleyball and chitchatting in pajamas at the breakfast table with a bunch of people I hardly know before I’ve sipped my coffee or brushed my teeth.

Along with additional responsibilities, obligations, and messes with each other’s families, Jonathan and I have more surprises and fun. When I asked my stepson if he would want more from me than Dad’s brisket recipe and cash if I were to outlive his father, he said he’d have to think about it (he was kidding). He quickly added that if that happened, he hoped we’d have dinner together every few weeks and I would continue to offer unsolicited advice. I told him I’d watch out for him if he’d watch out for me.

Saying “I do” to one person means saying “I do” to the clan. For us, it’s a win-win game. My mother-in-law’s cocktail table and Oriental rug fit into our living room. Our children fit in better. My daughter and son-in-law talk sports with my husband, something they cannot do with me. My stepdaughter and I, the family’s discount shoppers, discuss our bargains at length. We all have one another’s backs in sickness and in health. And with everything in between.

Nancy Davidoff Kelton is the author of six books and is at work on a memoir. Send comments to

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  • July 17, 2011 cover
  • July 17, 2011 cover
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