Under normal circumstances, a stopped toilet is a major inconvenience. However, the situation at my mother-in-law’s home made a normal disruption a near catastrophe. Her home resembled a hotel with all of the family living there temporarily: two nephews, two daughters-in-law, a son, three grandchildren, and her husband, who deserved great pity for letting so many people stay in his home. As I watched my husband’s futile attempts to dislodge the toys, I thought about the generosity of my in-laws.
My husband, Mark, and I moved in for the two months it would take to complete a home we were building, adding even more chaos to an already bustling and bursting home. Yet when we asked my in-laws if we could move in, they didn’t bat an eyelash.
“We could stand on our heads for two months if we had to,” was my mother in law’s reply when I expressed concerns about burdening them further. I have no doubt she would stand on her head if one of her family members asked her to.
Living in such circumstances, surrounded by family, I learned many important lessons as well as some practical advice for those in a similar situation.
The greatest service opportunities happen in the home. For example, while we were living with my in-laws, almost every family member got sick. Just as one person would recover, another would start showing the same symptoms. There were endless opportunities to help sick people, watch kids, cook dinners, clean, counsel, console, advise, and encourage. The more we served each other, the happier the home became. Look for ways to serve your family members. Make it personal to their needs, and they will likely serve in return.
One particularly stressful night I came home to a bouquet of flowers from my sister-in-law, along with an uplifting note. Every time I looked at the flowers, I felt better. It was a simple act, but it made me feel closer to my sister-in-law. When we were actively looking for chances to lighten one another’s burdens, a spirit of love permeated the home. On the other hand, if we let our selfish desires surface, disharmony resulted.
When family members argue, no one wins. In a home with so many people there was bound to be occasional contention. There were at least ten different opinions on everything from disciplining children to what to make for dinner, and how to load the dishwasher. What I discovered was that very few things are actually worth getting upset over. Honest communication is the solution to misunderstandings. “Contention builds up walls and puts up barriers,” says Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Council of the Twelve (Ensign, May 1978). “Love opens doors.” Communicating in a spirit of love resolves differences.
I learned from my sister-in-law that beating around the bush is not as effective as being forthright in our feelings. Also, rather than taking offense at minor disturbances or annoyances, peace is more easily achieved with acceptance and forgiveness. Additionally, a focus on the positive aspects of each family member is much more productive to happiness than dwelling on negative or difficult characteristics.
One of the antidotes to contention, as well as another key to family harmony, is showing sincere gratitude. For some reason it is easy to take our families for granted. We come to expect members of the family to perform certain tasks, and in the process, often forget to thank them for what they do. President Thomas S. Monson says of gratitude, “If ingratitude be numbered among the serious sins, then gratitude takes its place among the noblest of virtues” (Ensign, February 200, 2).
The laundry doesn’t magically get done each week, meals don’t just appear on the table and little elves aren’t responsible for mowing the lawn; these tasks require work and appreciation should be expressed. Gratitude can be shown through a simple thank you, a note or a favor.
When I cooked for my in-laws I tried to make good meals, and I would often worry that it wasn’t good enough. When my family expressed their thanks for the meal, I felt appreciated instead of worried, and it made cooking meals a more pleasant experience. Kids, especially, need to be told they are appreciated. When I thanked my four-year-old niece for helping around the house, she would get a big smile on her face and work even harder.
Kids often emulate the example of their parents in expressing gratitude. When family members begin saying thank you for simple things, it is contagious to the rest of the family. Sometimes, saying thank you doesn’t seem to express the full measure of our gratitude. A simple thank you doesn’t seem to suffice the appreciation I feel for my in-laws for letting me stay with them for two months. However, there is power in those simple words.
Learn from others
The fourth lesson I learned was that we can learn from our family member’s strengths and experiences. I learned a lot from my mother-in-law, especially about taking care of my four-month-old son. I enjoyed hearing about her experiences in raising her sons, and learned valuable lessons from her. It would be a shame to be surrounded by so many different people, and not gain from their experiences.
I learned from traits in each of my family members and tried to emulate them. Also, we can increase love in our families when we express the strengths we see in one another. Take time to learn about your extended family member’s lives. Everyone has stories in their lives that they learned from and can share.
Enjoy time together
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that we should enjoy the time we spend with our families. We had a unique opportunity to get to know our family better while we lived together. It had been more than a year since I’d seen my niece and nephew, so they were shy when we first moved in. My nephew could barely look me in the eyes and say hello in the beginning, but by the end of our stay he would willingly give me hugs and ask me to play with him. I will always feel closer to them because of the experience of living together.
Families can enjoy the time they spend together by doing activities such as playing games, talking and having family home evening. The strength that comes from family engaged in shared activities cannot be matched. We will go away from this experience with many memories of the time we spent together. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” says, “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ensign, November 1995, 102).
Every investment of time and energy we put into our family relationships is rewarded tenfold. For example, my relationship with my niece has been greatly strengthened through playing with her and spending time with her. I knew she felt the same way when she told her mom one afternoon, “There are two things I can’t live without. One is Aunty Gretchen, and the other is root beer.”
The experience I had of living with my in-laws has made me appreciative my family even more. It has increased my desire to serve my family and to know them better. No other relationships that are more important than those we form with our family members. They can help us through the joys, the disappointments, and even the near-fatal toilet flushings of life.