Being a local Texas girl, I've never had to travel far to see my family — and the only time my family or friends have spent the night together in the same house with me was for holidays or a long weekend. So my experience is that when you have guests, it's for a short time and you spend all your time with them visiting and entertaining them.
So imagine my culture shock when it came time to plan for my Iranian in-laws to visit for an “unspecified length of time”. Unspecified length of time? What does that mean? It made me nervous because I don't speak Persian and my mother-in-law doesn't speak English. And my husband and I both work full-time. Plus, I didn't feel I could be a good hostess and entertain anyone for an extended period of time.
While extended visits work for some, I have also seen situations where “unspecified length of time” translates into many months on end and makes for unhappy people on both sides. While I appreciate the cost of a trip from Iran, I also understand that any visit impacts two families — the one here as well as the one they leave back home.
To make a long story short, my mother-in-law and teenage sister-in-law came and stayed for seven weeks in the summer. It was the right amount of time, and we all knew this when it came to plan their departure.
Looking back, I still think my nervousness was appropriate — after all, this was my mother-in-law! Regardless of language skills, every daughter-in-law wants her mother-in-law to see how well she is taking care of the precious son! But I also realize that if I'd known a bit more, I wouldn't have worried as much.
In case you're planning a visit, here are some things to think about.
— Talk to your husband in advance — be excited (and it's okay to be nervous too) about the family coming but set any ground rules that are needed such as what regularly scheduled external activities such as his Thursday night poker game or your Monday evenings with the girls will be put on hold while his mother is here.
— Set aside a specific signal that will identify when a topic should be discussed in private between the two of you. Your mother-in-law knows you argue (all healthy couples do!) but you want it to be clear that it's not about her and sometimes the language can get in the way.
— Remember your husband (or wife) was, and in many ways, still is, your in-laws' “baby”. He may be more than willing to surrender his adulthood when his mom is there. Be patient and, as long as it doesn't get out of hand (the two of you are still responsible for house and child-rearing decisions), let him enjoy it for the brief time she's around. It also gives you a break from spoiling him!
At one point during the visit, my husband got ill and both my mother-in-law and I went into “caretaker” mode. I wanted to bring him juice, wipe his forehead and tuck him in. So did she. We arranged to share the work and my husband truly benefited.
— Make a list of the types of things you'll want to do with your family and then prioritize the list. We were amazed at everything we wanted to do and the list helped accomplish most of them. Think about sightseeing: would your mother-in-law really enjoy the 6th Floor Museum downtown or the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth? This depends on her interest and language skills. We did things like walk around the mustangs at Las Colinas, toured local malls, and visited family and friends.
Since my mother-in-law didn't like to eat out in restaurants (and we liked her cooking!), we spent many evenings at home either visiting with, or being visited by, family and friends. When we did go out to eat, we tried for different American experiences — not Persian food, but places like McDonald's and CiCi's pizza.
— If you can, schedule a maid to come in the day before your guests arrive. The last thing I needed was for my mother-in-law to think I was a bad housekeeper (even though I may be). I think she and I both realized that this was uncharted territory for us — she had never been to her son's married home and I had never had a mother-in-law before.
— Unless she makes it clear that she is truly “on vacation”, plan to let your mother-in-law help with your house. Think about it. She has probably taken care of your husband longer than you have (depending on his age). It's probably weird for her to be living with her son again and not be cooking and cleaning for him. This doesn't mean she becomes your maid but it does provide a nice break to share the work!
I was lucky. My mother-in-law considered taking care of our house and cooking our meals almost like a vacation since our family is smaller than the one she takes care of back home. Although it was uncomfortable at first, I gradually accepted that her desire to cook and clean were not her way of saying that she thought I couldn't do it.
While I kept wanting her to relax and enjoy her visit, she told me, through my husband, that she enjoyed it more when she was helping out. I'm still reaping the benefits from her rearranging my linen closet!
— Remember these family members are here to visit you, that means both you and your husband need to modify your lives so that you are spending time with them. Don't assume that just being here in the United States living in your house is what they want — they want to visit with you.
Put yourself in their shoes — they don't have their usual routine like you do — no family or friends to visit, no hobbies unless they could pack them in the suitcase, possibly no reading or television if language is a problem. Get over your selfishness quick — you invited them to visit and they were gracious enough to accept.
I was relieved to learn that our family didn't expect us to entertain them. On the contrary, they wanted to just blend in and be part of our Texas family. Once I realized this, I understood — they just wanted to spend time with us. We had many relaxing evenings where we simply ate dinner together and watched TV.
— Depending on your family's language skills, you might want to get a special Iranian radio (available in Persian stores) or invest in satellite TV with access to Iranian TV shows. At least consider renting or borrowing some Persian videos, especially if you're at work for long periods of time.
— Consider other Persians who might have relatives visiting at the same time and see if you can arrange an afternoon visit (drop them off on your way back to work after lunch). One time my mother-in-law (before she was my mother-in-law) was here at the same time as her sister-in-law.
We brought his aunt over for a visit when my boyfriend (now husband) and I wanted a few hours alone. They were so cute — giggling together before we were even out the door.
— Take a break if you need to — talk with your husband about what you need to do to stay sane. If that's an evening where you don't go with the family to a relative's house or where you have dinner alone with your own family or friends, then do it.
— Recognize the signs when your visitors are bored, homesick, etc. and let them go home. No one will give you an award for keeping your family here for six months. While it's expensive to fly the family here, it's also expensive to keep them here in more ways than one – -instead of a six-month visit every five years, consider a shorter visit more frequently.
Sadly enough, we have visited with other Persian families that have come to visit the U.S. and felt trapped. The parents felt it was wrong of them to ask to go home (since the son or daughter had paid their way here) and the children thought it was a sign of disrespect to suggest it was time for the parents to return to their lives in Iran.
My husband and I agreed that we wouldn't let this happen, that we would need to be honest with ourselves and our family as to the right time for them to leave. We wanted to make sure our family had a good experience here, and didn't go home dreading our next invitation.
It was relatively easy — we paid attention and noticed where there were more and more calls home, when some of them were more teary than others and when we were all getting a little crazy. While we knew that we all had enjoyed their visit, we also realized there were people back in Iran that missed them too.
— Above all, be patient with yourself, your husband and the family. With your first visit, you'll all be determining your roles and how to play them. I know that when my Iranian family comes to see us again (hopefully soon), it will be much easier to pick up where we left off.but I'll still save up for the maid to come in before they get here!.