Friday, August 7, 2015

In Praise of My Father-In-Law


I write in praise of Jim Vellenga, my father-in-law.

I entered into a long-term relationship with Jim more than two decades ago when I decided to marry his daughter.

As far as I know, there is no real guide to forging a good relationship with your father-in-law. Despite the presence of the word “father,” your relationship with the man who raised you isn’t really analogous. The dynamic with a father-in-law is simpler and less fraught – there is no need to distinguish yourself from your father-in-law.  Nor do you feel implicated, at least not directly, by the behavior of your father-in-law.

Nonetheless, it can still be a tricky relationship to navigate.  As I started to get to know Jim, I thought a lot about my relationships with other male authority figures – coaches, teachers, bosses.  I began to sketch what I thought were the essential ingredients of a good father-in-law.  I came up with three:

1. Acceptance – First and foremost, it is important to be welcomed into the family with enthusiasm.
2. Difference – I was looking for a different perspective from my family of origin...but not too different. That is, I was hoping my father-in-law would broaden my thinking about the world but that his underlying values would be compatible with those of my parents.
3. Reliability – Finally, I wanted a reliable narrator, someone who could be trusted to look after my children, to offer meaningful advice, and to step up in times of crisis.

From day one, Jim has exceeded my fondest hopes in all of these areas and more besides.

What, you may be asking, are the essential elements of being a good son-in-law?  What was Jim looking for from me?  I have given less thought to this question.  Perhaps this is because I know the answer might not be flattering.

Jim has a natural head for numbers and business.  I avoid math wherever possible and have spent my entire professional life in the non-profit sector.  Brought up in South Dakota, Jim is an outdoorsman who loves to hunt and hike.  I am a city boy who refused to participate in target practice at summer camp because I didn’t want to touch a rifle.  Trained as an engineer, Jim can fix anything.  I only have one move when something breaks in my house – to pay someone to repair it for me.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Suffice to say that if Jim chose to look at me through a critical lens, he could find no shortage of faults.  But instead of judging me with a critical eye, Jim has always embraced me with a warm, open heart.  And for that, I will always be grateful.  I can’t imagine a better father-in-law.

I write all of this now because Jim has fallen ill and, despite my fervent wishes to the contrary, there is very little I can do to help him.  So I write this just to express my love and regard.