When I read I Heart My In-Laws by Dina Koutas Poch, I was a little worried that my mother-in-law would see the book lying around and think I had some unspoken issues with her. I’ve heard stories about other people’s in-laws that range from horrible to downright nightmarish, so I didn’t want to do anything to suggest there are any lurking problems. Even in a healthy relationship, it’s not good to rock the boat.
But I needn’t have worried. Poch’s book has as much for those who like their in-laws as those who don’t. After all, any time two families mesh, there’s bound to be some friction, even if it’s just when getting to know each other. Written like a satirical Miss Manners book, I Heart My In-Laws is a guide to common challenges regarding in-laws, including how to deal with holidays, family vacations, the wedding, and having a baby.
Most of the tips are clearly meant to be—and are—funny. Poch takes the position most people encounter when they first get married, i.e. you’re not good enough for our baby, and runs with it:
It’s like a showdown in the Old West, and they’re the sheriff, and you’re the bad guy with the black hat with apparently way too much lipstick and eye shadow.
Most of the suggestions carry on this vein of humor: Stuck sitting by a boorish brother-in-law on a long flight? “Dramamine. Dramamine. Dramamine. In-flight movie. Dramamine.” Worried when the relatives start arguing politics? Bring up that time your partner dressed like a pickle for Halloween. “Everyone smiles when they think about a pickle.”
Problem is, I Heart My In-Laws isn’t quite sure if it’s a humor book or a self-help book. It’s confusing when the advice seems to move from the satirical to sincerely trying to assist the reader. Compare the snappy tidbits above to these nuggets of real advice: Don’t have your first meeting with the in-laws at family restaurants like Applebee’s, Poch writes, because they are for noisy already-formed families and tourists, not new-family introductions. If your mother-in-law is the passive-aggressive martyr type, kill her with kindness: “Compliment her profusely. Shower her with attention. Shine your spotlight on this wallflower ... She’ll be indebted, and it might give her long-suffering husband a break.” Since I Heart My In-Laws doesn’t get into the darker side of family relationships—there are no tips on what to do if your mother-in-law wants to move in with you, for example—it’s hard to believe anyone would be helped here.
The book is better when Poch sticks to the humor, much of which feels dead-on accurate. In one chapter, she explains how in-laws from different regions of the US differ from each other, all of which rings true (in a stereotypical kind of way). The Southern relatives are “either refined city folk or simple country folk and they’ll want you to know the difference.” The Midwesterners are so friendly that “if a giant, two-headed reptilian monster was heading toward your in-laws subdivision, they would smile and wave.” With the New Englander in-laws, “if you or anyone you’re related to went to a fancy school, now’s the time to mention it.”
Similarly, the book is also full of funny asides, charts, and tables. One table explains what it means when in-laws give you a present: A “knitted cap” means “we didn’t know you were coming and found this upstairs,” she writes. Another chart tells you how to describe your career to the grandmother: Psychiatrists should tell her “doctor,” a sports writer should be a “lawyer,” and a PhD candidate in gender studies should say she is in medical school, Poch advises.
I Heart My In-Laws gets bogged down toward the end when Poch devotes a chapter to vacation scenarios that go on too long and aren’t so well-observed. From here, the book seems to lose steam and by the time Poch gets to the chapter on babies, she seems vaguely irritated. When refuting the advice that you shouldn’t pick up a baby, she says: “You know what? Spoil them! ... Babies aren’t manipulative.” At another point, she advises the reader to be firm if she wants relatives out of the room when she gives birth. “If you don’t want anyone in the room, lock the door.”
The tone shift here is slight, but distinct. However, it may be just the sort of thing a reader of this book may want. Because all too often with in-laws, the thing that is amusing in the abstract is much more irritating when experienced first hand.