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'A Gift Card from the In-Laws? Really?'

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Q: Dear Kim,

For the past three years, my in-laws have treated me more as an intruder than as a family member. They splurge on gifts for their children, the grandkids (we have a 2-year-old), as well as their kids’ significant others. But when all of the mounds of gifts and wrapping paper have been cleared and brunch starts, I am handed a gift card with little value. (They have a very large bank account.)

It's not that I am jealous of the money they have spent, I just don't understand why no thought has been put into my gifts. I buy them something nice every year. But I get a gift card with no warm thoughts attached to it. I have tried to make my fiancé speak up about it, but he says they don't know what I like ... three years of this. Please give me some advice. Am I taking this too personally, or should I take up for myself?

In desperate need of advice,

In-Law Blues

Forgive me for sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, but those social constructs are in place for a reason.

A: Dear Blues,

My parents conceived me when they were very young and unmarried. Even though they wed before I was born, my mother remembers feeling that her mother-in-law harbored resentment against her for destroying what she thought my father’s future would have been.

Two more children, four grandchildren and 41 years later, my parents are still married. My mother calls her mother-in-law “Mum” and, as far as I can tell, considers her a surrogate mother since her own was lost, excruciatingly, to lung cancer many years ago, leaving her parentless at age 42.

You, Blues, seem to have a similar setup. Since you have a 2-year-old in a three-year relationship, there can’t have been much non-pregnant, kid-free time for you and your fiancé to have gotten to know each other, much less sufficient bonding time with his parents before you became the mother of their grandchild. Biology is a powerful thing, but it cannot defeat time in a battle of the heart.

Because you call him your fiancé, I’m going to assume that you’re not married. Therefore, you cannot call his parents your “in-laws.” You can say they are your “future in-laws,” and that is fine, but the whole point of the phrase “in-laws” is that when you get married, by custom you are considered part of the family. For now, you are simply the grandchild’s mother.

RELATED: Family First, Marriage Later

Forgive me for sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, but those social constructs are in place for a reason, Blues. Why do you think people who are not allowed to get married are so fervently fighting for the ability to do so? For some, perhaps your fiancé’s parents included, those are the rules, and such an egregious departure from the rules is enough to rock one’s entire world and make one do outlandish things, such as, say, handing over a gift card instead of a present.

When your fiancé’s parents hand you that cold gift card, I believe they are sending you a message, whether it’s a conscious move or not.

They are saying “Please get married.”

Since your fiancé is no help and you will always be tied to his parents as their grandchild’s mother, your task is not just to score more thoughtful gifts from them but also to solidify the family bond, which will only benefit everyone involved, most importantly your 2-year-old.

Here are your best options:

1. Get married now. There is no reason to wait, even if you are under financial duress. The best gift you can give your child is a solid relationship between a mother and father who commit completely. Your child will learn how to love and be loved from you. Your future in-laws may not even change their awkward gift-giving behavior toward you right away. However, you will be sending a clear message that you are in this family to stay, and that, plus time, will go a long way toward strengthening your bond.

2. Even if getting married does NOT work for you in the long run, you must indeed stand up for yourself since your fiancé seems loath to confront his parents. Start by not taking the gift card personally. If your future in-laws need you to have the label of "Wife" before they fully embrace you, then this isn’t about you at all, it’s about the institution.

As long as you are kind, gracious and true to yourself, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and the awkwardness is all on them.

3. Then again, if your fiancé is wonderful enough to marry, there is good in these people he calls his parents. Cut them some slack.

The most important person in this equation is your child, and if they are good to your child, that’s really the most you can ask for. Hold your head high, smile and say, “Thank you” if they continue to give you token gifts at holidays, and focus on the well-being of your kid.

No matter what happens, Blues, take those gift cards and put all those warm thoughts you deserve into choosing a gift for yourself. It doesn’t matter what dollar amount you have to spend—even if it’s a $10 coffee shop card, you can carve out a delicious hour of alone time in the corner of your favorite java joint or even in your car with the most decadent, self-indulgent treats that little slip of plastic will buy, and practice loving yourself.

You are a conscientious mother who is building a life and a family. You’ve earned it.

Do you have a dilemma that’s too big for your friends, but too small for a therapist? Send it to me at mommecs@bermanbraun.com, and I may choose to answer it in next week’s column. I’ve got your back.

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