What living with my mother-in-law has taught me about burnout

It was around this time of year seven years ago when I received a notification from match.com informing me that someone had sent me a message. I still had a match.com profile, but I had long since let my subscription lapse, so in order to actually see the message, I had to renew the subscription. I could see who the message was from, but not the actual message itself. The message was from this poet lady who lived in Virginia. I had actually heard of this poet lady and was familiar with her work.

I was at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim at the time, and my conference roomie, Emily, urged me to just do it. I simply had to grit my teeth, cough up my credit card number, and pay to renew my subscription to see the message, she said. The fact that this poet lady lived far away from me in Virginia was immaterial.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when your ALA conference roomie gives you very important life advice on very important lesbian business, you basically have to do exactly what she says. So I did. I read the message, responded to it, talked on the phone with the poet lady, met her in real life, and before you could even say “U-Haul,” she sold her house in Virginia and we made an offer on a condo in Louisville a mere six months after we had an official understanding.

It’s been six years since we finally closed on the condo, and today we are trying to unload it, because earlier this year we bought a house and moved my poet lady wife’s mother in with us. Yes, I live with my mother-in-law. On purpose. When I inform people of this fact, they get this rather alarmed expression on their face. And I understand why. People aren’t supposed to really like their mothers-in-law. And it took me years to get to a place where I felt okay with changing my domestic life so inalterably in this way. But even though we have incredibly different lives—she’s an 83-year-old African American Mormon with a 10th grade education who has lived her entire life in Arkansas until now—we get along splendidly.

First of all, it helps that my mother-in-law and I have similar tastes in television—Judge Judy, most of the Food Network lineup, General Hospital, and The Bachelor franchise. Also, she is deeply fond of our cats, referring to herself as Grandma when she talks to them. She likes to wash dishes and mop the floor. She is very funny. When I asked her how she got my 5’ 11” wife to grow so tall, her response was: “I put fertilizer in her shoes.” Yes, she is a Mormon, and she watches preachers of all varieties preach terrible, troubling things on television, but she loves me and accepts my relationship with her daughter as valid and real and legitimate and important. Overall, I like her, and her presence in my life has been an unexpected and enriching gift.

I knew that living with my mother-in-law was going to be an adjustment but probably ultimately rewarding, and it was, but not in any ways I anticipated. Because I have a tenured and economically secure job for life with a flexible schedule and a lot of independence, she is continually remarking: “Maria has a good job.” My mother-in-law no longer works, not because she chose to retire, but because the mom-and-pop drug store where she worked as the delivery clerk went out of business, and at age 78, she found herself out of work. She had worked there for 40 years but had no retirement savings, no pension, no 401k, just Social Security. I think that the impulse to compare yourself to others in order to improve your mindset or make you feel grateful is not always the most affirming mental move to make, but thinking about my life in terms of my mother-in-law’s life has certainly informed and enriched my perspective, because while I do feel marginalized in some areas of my life, I also exist on multiple axes of privilege.

I fear that this is devolving into something like: “Educated, Privileged White Lady Learns from Elderly Black Lady’s Humble, No-Nonsense Wisdom.” That’s not what I’m trying to express here. I think ultimately I’m trying to say that in a sense, feeling burned out on my professional life is a form of privilege. I am weirdly and paradoxically fortunate to experience burnout. I am fortunate enough to be in a profession that I care deeply enough about that frustration and dissatisfaction with it is an opportunity for personal growth and enrichment. I am fortunate enough that I can speak openly about my burnout with my real name and not worry that I’m going to get fired or experience some other form of retribution for speaking negatively about my professional life on the internet.

I didn’t know that my match.com subscription would yield this unexpected life with both a wife and mother-in-law, but I will always be grateful for the following: 1) my wife, for being as constant as her name, 2) Emily, for telling me to take the risk and respond to the message, and 3) this quirky little trio, this matriarchal tribe to which I now belong, which has changed my life for the better, and which has demonstrated to me the power of perspective and privilege.

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