I've Been Married For 5 Years and I Still Don't Know What to Call My Mother-In-Law

Screenshot: Black-ish (ABC)

Later this month, my wife and I will celebrate our five year anniversary. Which feels like an accomplishment. Not because getting and staying married makes you any specialer than those who ain’t either of those things, but because I think we know each other well enough now to make a pragmatic decision on whether to escape. And there’s been no escaping (yet)!

With this anniversary comes some pressure. Year Five is one of the years that’s recognized by the greeting card industry and shit, so you know it’s a big deal, as what we’re supposed to buy, what we’re supposed to do, which animal we’re supposed to sacrifice, etc., are less questions than commodifiable goods. According to the Internet, there’s a standard gift (wood), a modern gift (silver), a preferred flower (daisies), and a gemstone (turquoise). Which together sounds like we should just buy each other Infinity Gauntlets.

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I’m not too worried about that, though. We’ll figure it out, and like with the rest of our marriage, if all else fails, we’ll just eat some zinc pills. What really concerns me—and has concerned me for our entire relationship—is that I still haven’t quite figured out how to address my in-laws, and I feel like I probably should know that by now.

Now, my father-in-law doesn’t live in-state, and I only see him a few times a year, so this isn’t as pertinent with him. But my mother-in-law lives five minutes away. We see each other multiple times a week, and also occasionally correspond through text messages and phone calls. And when any of that happens, the following thing also happens:

***Mother-in-law comes over***

Her: Hello!

Me: Hi! How are you today?

Her: Great! How are you?

Me: I’m splendid!

***I need to call my mother-in-law to confirm what time she’s coming over to babysit***

Her: Hello!

Me: Hey ... I was just calling to confirm the time for tonight.

Her: Does 7 still work?

Me: Yes ma’am. It does. Thank you!

This—the excited greetings without a name or some sort of honorific accompanying them—doesn’t seem to bother her. I doubt she’s even noticed. But, while it doesn’t really bother me either—I’m fine with keeping things as they are—it just seems ... odd. Like this is something I should’ve figured out by now.

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As I see it, there are four possible options here:

1. I can call her by her first name, which seems too informal. (And by “too informal” I mean “like some white people shit.”)

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2. I can call her Ms. + her last name, which seems too formal.

3. I can call her Ms. + her first name, which feels performative and blaxploitationey.

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4. I can call her “Mom,” which, um, no. I just don’t feel comfortable with that.

(Interestingly enough, reason #4 is actually one of the tens of thousands of reasons I neglected to jump in during last month’s “Auntie” wars. I don’t call anyone “Auntie” or “Uncle” except my actual aunts and uncles. And as much as I appreciate and adore my mother-in-law, my mom is dead, and I just can’t call someone else that.)

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Now, I imagine many of you are reading this and thinking “Um ... why don’t you just ask her what she’d like to be called?” And yes, that’s the best answer. The smart answer. The adult answer. BUT IT’S BESIDE THE ENTIRE FREAKIN POINT BECAUSE THE SORT OF PERSON WHO HAS SOME MILD ANXIETY ABOUT HOW TO REFER TO A WOMAN HE’S KNOWN FOR SEVEN YEARS IS ALSO THE SAME SORT OF PERSON WHERE “EASY” ANSWERS LIKE “Just, you know, ask her” AIN’T EASY AT ALL! Also, an extensive four-person survey I did on Gchat and Slack 10 minutes before writing this proved that there are at least two other people not sure what to call their mothers-in-law, which officially makes this an epidemic. (For what it’s worth, both of the men I asked are in the same boat as me, while the women were both like “You’re running out of things to write about, aren’t you?” Maybe there’s a there-there.)

Again, though. We seem to have a good system now, so there might not even be a need to change. (And, now that I think about it, I don’t remember her ever calling me “Damon.” Maybe she’s writing a blog about it too.)

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About the author

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB and a columnist for GQ.com. His debut memoir in essays, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available for preorder.