Leah Averick says she lost her equilibrium several years ago when she got the news she was to become a mother-in-law. “I didn’t know what to do or say. Why was I feeling this way? I should have been happy. Other people told me that my future daughter-in-law would be like a daughter to me, and I thought, ‘bullshit.’ I was ashamed to tell my husband how I felt.”

Averick, an author and clinical social worker, is speaking at a north-side synagogue to around 100 mostly elderly women from Hadassah, a group of Jewish women who raise funds for a hospital and other organizations in Israel. “I was undergoing a transition and needed help to get back into balance. Here it’s not like Japan, where they have newspaper advice columns devoted solely to in-law problems. All I could find to read on the subject of in-law relationships was an article in German from 1913 at the Institute for Psychoanalysis. It was about jealousy, and I really didn’t feel jealous.

“So I started interviewing people. Like crazy. On vacations, in taxis–everyone I knew or met. And I became humbled by interviewing people who knew how to handle becoming an in-law–because I didn’t. I eventually became an in-law expert due to their wisdom.”

Averick has now been a daughter-in-law, a mother-in-law three times, an ex-mother-in-law once, a sister-in-law to six, and an aunt-in-law to three. And she’s still researching the subject. In the last seven years she’s interviewed nearly 300 Poles, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Armenians, African Americans, Cubans, Canadians, Dutch, Russians, Greeks, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Israelis, Arabs, Bahamians, Swedes, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Catholics, Jews, and Lutherans–many of them from Chicago.

One man told her he chased his daughter-in-law around the room with a knife when she broached the subject of moving her family to another city. Another man insisted that the wedding pictures from his son’s first marriage stay on his own living-room walls because he liked the first wife. “She’ll always be my daughter-in-law,” he said. One woman said she told her son-in-law, “Just because you sleep with my daughter doesn’t mean I have to have anything to do with your parents.”

Last year she published her conclusions in a book titled How In-Laws Relate: It’s All Relative. That book got her on the lecture and talk-show circuit.

Averick discovered anxieties that cross cultures. She tells the Hadassah women about one Bahamian lifeguard who said his paternal grandmother told him she could never really be sure he was her grandson. In fact, Averick says, paternal grandmothers who don’t trust their daughters-in-law are common in many cultural and social groups.

Averick also says that given any two in-law families, one will always feel superior to the other. “They never feel equal. This creates problems. People need understanding and affirmation from their machetunim,” she says, using the Yiddish word for people connected as a result of marriage. “They want to be listened to and respected; they want to be treated nicely and politely. But in reality–whether people are rich, poor, educated or uneducated–the same kind of tensions prevail.”

“Do you know why the Messiah is supposed to come from the house of David?” Averick suddenly asks her audience. “Because he was the great-great-grandson of Ruth, who was nice to her mother-in-law.”

Soon after this, the women break for lunch, which consists of kosher box lunches. There is really only one subject of conversation.

“My father-in-law always thinks I’m spending too much for everything,” says a thin, black-haired woman of about 40 as she sets her box of sandwiches and salad on one of the tables. “But he was the one who wasn’t a good businessman and couldn’t afford things. My husband–his son–is a good money-maker and can.”

Another woman talks about her ex-sister-in-law. “We told my brother to commit her. She was helping him in his dental practice, and she threw away checks if she didn’t like the patients who wrote them. Do you believe it? He didn’t commit her, but he did divorce her. And now he’s married to someone else–a doctor. But we’re not too crazy about her either. She’s not down-to-earth enough. She’s a little snooty.”

A blond woman in her late 40s heads for the coffee urn. “I never had one minute of peace from my mother-in-law. Once she insisted we fly home in the middle of the night from a vacation in Mexico because she had a gallbladder attack. I was seven months pregnant, and she told me, ‘I don’t care if your baby dies, as long as I have my son. He can always marry someone else and have more children– but I can’t replace him.’ I was in bed for the rest of my pregnancy, she made me so sick. She’s the type of mother-in-law who always has to sit in the front seat with her son. But anyway, now she’s 87, and I don’t give a shit anymore.”

An elderly woman with a graying bob and a slight accent begins to moan about the hard life her daughter has living in another city near her mother-in-law. “Oy,” she says, rolling her eyes. “She wants my daughter, who has four children, to give her all her attention. The mother-in-law is a very successful person who belongs to everything, but she wants my daughter to call her every day and entertain her. Of course, I had wonderful in-laws, so I can’t complain. I could write a story about it. We never had one argument.”

Averick, who has overheard her, looks a little skeptical. She believes that in-law relationships are never completely smooth, never completely harmonious. They are complex and tangled. There are problems in every in-law relationship, she says, because in-laws’ lives are bound together–and most had nothing to say about it. Moreover, in-laws represent some of the genes grandchildren will inherit, some of the ideas and values that will be passed on to the next generation. In-laws also represent the future of your newly married child or brother or sister, and the past of your husband or wife. All of which can be very scary. Yet Averick also points out that in-laws can sometimes fill a hole in your life–become someone to cultivate, tolerate, satisfy your needs.

One woman shrugs off the idea that problems come with in-laws. “Maybe so–for some people. But my in-laws didn’t live long enough after I got married for me to have problems with. And my son–he doesn’t have enough sense to get married.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.