Help! My In-Laws Hate Me!

It’s no secret that there are plenty of people out there who hate the government. Some
are angry at a particular agency over a local issue (think Alaska and logging). Some are frustrated with the administration or Congress at any particular time. Some are anti-government in general. As if combating the negative stereotype of a “government worker” weren’t bad enough, we have to fight attitudes like these. We’ve all developed a certain armor against general ire, but what do you do when the “enemy” is a relative?

I met Mr. Right eleven years ago. We were a perfect match from the start. I don’t recall now how much I knew of his father before meeting him, but I did know I’d have quite a gauntlet to run. Being an intellectual, book-learnin’ type wasn’t a great start, but working for the Forest Service was a recipe for disaster.

To set the stage: In general, Alaskans deal with more than their fair share of government, as 98% of the land base is public (State or Federal). Add to that the other State regulatory agencies such as Fish & Game, and, well, it’s no wonder the state is a hotbed of anti-government sentiment. Now imagine having your little piece of land completely surrounded by the Government. Finally, imagine you are the type of person who just needs an Enemy, someone on which to vent all the ills of the world. That’s Mr. Right’s Dad.

I scored early points for my willingness to club a salmon to death. Even so, I was forced over the next few years to answer for the various “crimes” of the agency. I eventually realized that my only hope was to say, “You know, I work for District X. If you want to know about the actions of District Y, you’ll have to ask them.” That tactic worked, and we developed a truce.

Until, that is, I converted his son to the Dark Side. Mr. Right was a lawyer and hated it. He decided that working for the Forest Service would be more rewarding. Then the Big Day came: time to tell Papa. We went out to dinner, and as long as I live I will never forget the moment time stood still, barely perceptibly, when we told him. He did not acknowledge the announcement for several minutes, during which he continued to eat. Within a few months he seemed to have accepted it pretty well.

It wasn’t until several years later (and after we were officially in-laws) that the truth surfaced. Let’s just call it The Fight and say it was bad. The stuff family feuds are made of. The stuff you can’t take back, no matter how much you try. And let’s just leave it at that.

Four years later, the rift still hasn’t fully mended. Papa and his wife prefer to pretend it never happened. My husband and I are taking the high road and trying to move forward, although we agree that something has been broken.

How does it feel to know my in-laws don’t respect me or my career? For me, it’s pretty easy to blow off. I have never been one to really care much what other people think. The hard part is knowing that they harbored such feelings in secret for so long. I’d believed we’d reached a mutual understanding, an agreement to disagree – but that was not the case. Mostly I just feel sorry for them, for harboring so much bile in their souls.

The bottom line is this: I don’t always believe in what my agency does (and I’ll be the first to say so in an appropriate setting), but I am proud of my career and what I have done with my life. Pushing paper around isn’t the most glamorous job, but the purpose of it is to protect a public resource. I know that I am preceded by plenty of bureaucrats who did not act with public service in mind, and the ire bred by that behavior is fair. To exhibit the same level of anger in return would only stoke the fire. I chose instead to combat it by showing the public that I am not like that, that there are government workers like myself who believe in public service, who have ethics, and who do their best every day.

We’re out here. We know who we are. Let’s hope our in-laws figure it out.

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Tom Vannoy

Hey there,
Great post and I suspect one that resonates for many of us in one way or another. What has helped me to deal with this kind of fissure, no matter if it’s a family member or stranger I’ve met walking in the woods, is to rely on a lesson I learned when I had the pleasure of hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1998.

The more I talked to people before I left to start the hike the more I got the question – “Why are you doing this?” So I would give them my earnest heartfelt pitch as to why I was doing it until finally I realized that my reasons were not important at all. Those that asked me that question were not going to understand why I was doing it no matter what I said. The ones that did understand, “got it” if you will, were the people that asked “How are you doing this?” and they typically had a glint in their eyes that I read as jealousy and a ‘how can I do it’ kind of energy.

So typically, when I get that “why be a bureacrat question” I do a quick mental survey of their earnestness and give either my short or long answer based on my mental calculation. Now, that isn’t always fair or right to those that are asking me the question because I don’t always have the right perception but it works for me and that’s what I do.