A Good Old-Fashioned Family Drama Blow-up For the Holidays
I thought we had a good relationship with my husband’s brother and his family. And then everything went wrong.
I am a longtime reader of your column, and love your advice! I’m hoping you can help me with some awful family-drama. I am at a loss of what to do. My husband’s family has always been wonderful to us. I love his parents dearly and they are everything you could hope for in-laws. My husband also has one older brother who was kind of a bully to my husband growing up (physically), but as adults they have always gotten along fine, and enjoy each others’ company. The brother is a little intense, but we love him. His wife, super sweet lady. My two kids love this aunt, she is always patient, knows fun songs to sing, ready to dance or play, and give big hugs. While we don’t sit around talking about our feelings all the time, I thought we had a good relationship.
My husband and I needed babysitters for a holiday function this past weekend, and about two months ago I asked the wife if she would be interested in swapping babysitting – if they watched our 2 kids for this function, we would watch their 2 kids on a different night for them. She agreed. We planned to take our kids to their house for their convenience and then would pick them up after our event and bring them home. It would be late but our kids don’t have trouble transitioning sleeping locations in general. leading up to the night, she mentioned a few times that her daughter was excited, they were planning to bake cookies with our kids. The day before the babysitting, the weather forecast looked bad, and my husband and I worried about getting the kids in the car and driving late night with icy roads and other potentially bad drivers, so I called and asked the wife if we could bring a blowup mattress over and crash there after our event and just drive home in the morning to be safe. She said that was no problem at all and we had chit-chatted pleasantly for another 10 minutes.
A few hours later, the brother called my husband screaming at him how dare we change our plans. His wife had been screaming at him for hours about how awful we are, and we just take advantage of them, and we really need to consider what we are asking. My husband said never mind, we won’t bring the kids over at all and we found another babysitter pronto. After several texts and voicemails from the brother saying he wanted to apologize, my husband called him back. Brother asked why my husband was upset. Husband replied that his wife should have just said no if it was a problem to begin with and brother shouldn’t have called attacking and being so rude. Brother then went on a rant. We are mooches, they don’t owe us anything, they aren’t our parents here to serve us, and they certainly don’t have to be at our beck and call and bow to our whims. Why would we ever ask them to babysit. They are too busy to help us. We are selfish, we shouldn’t just expect we can rely on them to be there for us. My husband at that point kind of lost it, screamed “what the @&$/ is wrong with you, you are a $&@/!!! we are supposed to be family, and we were trying to plan some fun for everyone.” Brother hung up on him.
So I’ve been over analyzing this for a few days now. I feel so terrible that I caused this somehow, and this is family! (Family that I thought was really wonderful). The brother/wife have babysat for us exactly once before. We were trading babysitting services this time. We don’t ask them for money, for items, for anything really, so I’m kind of at a loss how we are taking advantage of them or being mooches.
So I guess a few advice items. Did I unknowingly break some code of rules by asking to swap babysitting nights, or was the proposed sleepover out-of-line? (In my mind the kids were already sleeping by the time we got back, so it didn’t add any extra effort on their part really). More importantly, how do I make this right? Obviously I want them to come to us and apologize for not communicating their true feelings at all and then exploding at my husband. That seems unlikely…. I don’t really want to say I’m sorry for taking advantage of them? Because I don’t feel like I did and me apologizing would validate their feelings that WE did something wrong, not them. And how do I ever trust that the wife is not silently furious with me for some unknown reason, as she pleasantly chats and smiles to my face!?!? I feel like this family is irretrievably broken right now…. Those two people are completely fake and have some crazy issues and are self-absorbed. Tell me we can fix it somehow? For the sake of husband’s parents, and for all the children, who really get along wonderfully. Wow, sorry so long-winded!
Please help our family before the holidays
Ugh, I’m sorry this happened. I’m guessing many, many people have been in similar situations (with family and/or “friends”) — everything seems just fine and dandy and then BLAMMO. Backstabbing. Explosions. That feeling like somebody (you? them? everybody?) is taking crazy pills because where did this come from?
From my armchair over here (or more accurately, a wobbly office chair from Target), I am going to diagnose this situation as Probably Not Really About You. Or the babysitting. Or the air mattress. No, you absolutely DID NOT cross a single blessed line with the proposed babysitting arrangement. And asking to crash with family after a night out in inclement weather isn’t a big deal either — that’s actually something most rational people will just up and OFFER. And your husband was right: If your sister-in-law was unhappy with any of it, she should have just said no.
The force of your brother-in-law’s reaction and his description of his wife “screaming” at him for “hours” are so far out of proportion for this situation that I’m honestly worried about them (and their kids). That’s a lot of rage to suddenly unleash. And then to beg for the chance to apologize only to double-down with the sweeping (yet incomprehensible) proclamations that a single babysitting trade offer is some kind of straw that broke the camel’s back after years and years of indentured servitude that does not actually seem to exist in reality? Is someone off their meds? Are there undiagnosed mental issues going on here? Are they on drugs? Drinking themselves into boozy hysterics? Having severe financial troubles and thus more likely to view even the smallest “favor” through a lens of jealousy and resentment? (“They can afford to pay a babysitter! Why are they asking us? We can’t even afford a night out anyway, etc.”)
These are actually legitimate questions to consider here, although there’s also Occam’s Razor: Your in-laws are unhappy assholes who get off on creating drama.
As to how to “fix” this, I’m sadly not really sure. Obviously, you have NOTHING to apologize for, so if you did reach out to her in an attempt to smooth things over you would need to be SUPER CAREFUL with your wording to avoid the classic markers of a non-apology (“I’m sorry YOU felt like blah blah blah.”). I’d also avoid getting either of these lunatics on the phone ever again, since it sounds like she’ll be nothing but fake and he’ll use it as another opportunity to escalate everything and verbally abuse you guys some more.
If you still feel compelled to do SOMETHING before the holidays, I guess I would try a very-carefully worded, very-short email, sent just to your SIL. Lots of “I” and “me” and keep it true. You are horrified that your suggestion resulted in so much ugliness and anger. (True!) You had no idea you were coming across as moochy or demanding. (Also true!) You would also still be happy to babysit your nieces/nephews for them, no strings attached or reciprocation expected. (Possibly more than these people “deserve,” but I’m concerned about what those poor kids are witnessing on a regular basis. Time away from their rage-y, bitter parents would be a good thing, I think.) And that’s it. No getting defensive or reiterating the “but we were TRADING!” aspect of the babysitting deal. A restaurant or movie gift card might be a nice tie-in for Christmas, if you want to fully go with the kill them with kindness route.
Her response will probably be telling. She might not respond at all. She might respond super-fake and you’ll know that she just wants to pretend this never happened…and also know that this couple cannot really be trusted and you should minimize your interaction with them and keep it way superficial. Interact in public/group settings only.
She might just be professionally fake at this point, however, to cover the fact that her husband has anger/rage issues and is the one who blew this out of proportion. This is a possibility that’s weighing heavier on my mind, the more I re-read your description of this couple and the events of that night. Did your husband hear her voicing agreement with your BIL over the phone or was the conversation clearly just with him? Does he seem controlling of your SIL in general? Is it possible the whole blow-up was actually him getting angry at HER for not checking with him first before agreeing to let you guys stay over? And thus he humiliated and sabotaged her relationship with you, deprived his kids of a fun night they were excited about, and got to relive the glory days of bullying his little brother, all in one fell swoop.
I’m leaping to all kinds of assumptions here, of course — you could email her and she might very well open up her own bucket of crazy and go off on you again with an imagined list of slights and insults and mooching. At which point you BACK AWAY. QUICKLY. Do not engage further, but let your husband decide how to proceed, since it is technically “his” family.
Whatever comes of this, I am SUPER proud of your husband for standing up for you and not letting his childhood bully restart the cycle. Good for @&$/ing him, honestly.