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When Your Parenting Dealbreakers Are Different

Mar09

by

Hi Amy,

I’m a huge fan of your column and all of your blogs! I have a question and I KNOW that you’ve covered a million variations of this question but I need some help. Or at least, some validation. Or some thoughts. SOMETHING.

I have a 21 month old son. When he was nine months old, my husband (then fiance) and I went to a wedding in Costa Rica for four days. It was really tough, but one of my husband’s very best friends, so we decided to go. We arranged to have the baby stay with my parents at their house because my parents live further away, see him less, and frankly, I was really nervous about leaving my small baby and really wanted him to be with my family who are much calmer, and well, more MY style than my in-laws. It went great! Huge success.

Now, my husband and I got married when our son was 12 months old. We never went on a honeymoon but planned to go to Italy the following year for one week.  The tentative plan was to have my parents stay at the house for half of the week and his parents for half of the week. Okay. But then!

Shortly after my wedding, my father-in-law (whom my husband has always acknowledged to have some form of mental illness, but he thought it was…not that big of a deal, I guess) had a psychotic episode. He was hallucinating, thought the FBI was chasing him, wrote a suicide note…scary stuff. He had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for close to a week. Since then, he has refused to go to therapy and and/or take his prescribed medication.

Knowing all this, I have absolutely forbidden any and all overnights with my father-in-law – we still stay there although I gotta say, I don’t love it! We see them a lot – at least once a month, sometimes twice, always with us there for supervision, but it’s not like they don’t see the kid. My FIL seems…okay, I guess, but I know that without treatment a psychotic episode is very likely to happen again.

I don’t want my son in his house when it does. My husband agrees that my father-in-law should not take care of our son when we are away, but thinks he can persuade his mom to come stay at our house by herself for half of the week. My mother-in-law is in denial about his illness and is not quite sane herself. For instance, in order to make the whole “no staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s house alone” a little better my husband and I invited her to stay overnight with our son, by herself, in our house, while we stayed at hotel one night. During that time, she took him to the grocery store and allowed him not to sit in a carseat (AT 18 MONTHS OLD) because he cried. SHE DROVE WITH HIM ON HER LAP. Every time I think about this, I want to kill someone. I do not trust this woman at all to follow my directions with my son or make good decisions for him.

SO. My preference for the Italy trip is for my son to stay with my parents the whole week, at their house. It’s easier for them than coming to our house for a week (my dad still works). I cannot see how I can really trust my MIL in this situation. I worry that my FIL will have a crisis and she will want to be with him. I worry she’ll lie and have my FIL there anyway because she thinks he’s “fine.” I worry she’ll allow my son to do other unsafe things. I’m just not comfortable with it! I feel like their family situation is too volatile at the moment, and I don’t want to be an ocean away from my son if there’s an emergency. I don’t think there’s any way I can be comfortable on this trip leaving my son with her.

I brought this up to my husband and he’s so sensitive about it. He says his mom raised three kids and she can totally take care of our son by herself. He says that I just want my family because it’s what makes me feel safe (uh, yeah) and that this decision will alienate his family. If I point out incidents like the driving thing, he’ll just accuse me of hating his mom. I’m leaning towards just not going at all but that will start a whole other conversation about how I never want to leave my son (although I have, multiple times, left him overnight as evidenced above!) and he will be hurt that I don’t want to go on this honeymoon with him. And I DO want to go. But I cannot leave my child in a situation that I feel is potentially unsafe!

So, I mean, I think the decision is obvious. But how can I get HIM to see that? I know admitting your parents are crazy is hard, but it’s our son’s safety at stake here. How can I have this conversation without making him feel like it’s a personal attack on his family? And can you tell me that I’m not in the wrong for feeling this way? Because he sometimes makes me feel like I’M being the unreasonable one here.

A very worried mama

NEUTRAL THIRD PARTY TIME, NEUTRAL THIRD PARTY TIME!

I mean, other than myself, since I’m guessing your husband might not necessarily be too impressed by my Internet Advice Columnist Who Is Good At Google credentials. Though, for the record, if I were a licensed family therapist or counselor, I would totally be on your side and would probably struggle to refrain from throwing a notebook at your husband’s head, because DUDE. Dude.

Aaaaand that’s why I am absolutely nowhere close to being a licensed family therapist or counselor. Which is what you guys need. Yes, your in-laws are both, collectively, completely untrustworthy caretakers for your child. No, there is no way in HELL I would let them care of him unsupervised, for all the reasons you mentioned — the illness, the refusal to seek treatment, the driving (!!!!!!), the endless list of what-ifs even the most reasonable person on the planet could come up with, now that your mother-in-law’s judgment has been glaringly called into question. Especially while you will be OUT OF THE COUNTRY, OVERSEAS, GAAAAHHHHH.

All that said: Your communication skills as a couple…suck. In every instance you mentioned in your letter, you say you try to outline your argument while your husband immediately goes on the defensive and appears to hear words you did not say, and accuses you of having ulterior motives that you claim not to have. He’s not fighting fair, even though he might not really be aware of what he’s doing. Growing up with a mentally ill father and an enabling mother (since she clearly is okay with being her husband’s babysitter rather than making him fully own up to the problem and seek treatment/medication) has probably made denial and defensiveness his default, go-to reflexes. The stress of his father’s most recent breakdown has probably exacerbated his denial and need for things to “be like they were before,” when his parents could be trusted as caretakers, when you two were free to travel and see the world as much as you liked without the heavy responsibility of a child.

So rather than go at him with the obvious ultimatum (I will not go on this trip if you insist on your mom caring solo for our son), I would tell him that you aren’t discussing this alone with him again, and that you want to have the conversation in front of qualified, neutral third party. If you were married by a religious officiant like a pastor or priest, many couples find that to be a less daunting/scary option. (Though since the pastor who married my husband and I would probably tell me to respect my elders and submit myself 100% to my husband’s opinion, it’s not the option I personally would take. Make sure you know them and their counseling philosophy before you go.)

Couples counseling is not just for couples on the verge of separation or divorce, and I really can’t stress it enough that you guys sound like you need it. His family and their collective issues will always be there (though one could argue that his father might actually benefit from someone finally showing him some tough love re: his decision to not treat his clearly very serious illness), and even if you guys finally come to a grudging agreement/compromise this time (your son goes to your parents, or your parents stay the whole week in your house and give your in-laws supervised time with him)…the pattern of poor communication will continue. And it will rear its ugly head again and again until you two figure out how to TALK about the unpleasant realities without ultimatums and tears and accusations and “YOU DON’T LIKE MY MOTHER AND WANT TO ALIENATE MY FAMILY AND YOU’RE SAYING I’M NOT A GOOD DAD AND YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING FUN I’M GOING TO MY ROOM.”

And by saying you’re tempted to just “not go” because that would be “easier” than having a tough-but-rational discussion with your own husband about your own child, well…that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that future disagreements will be dealt with any better. Talk to someone so you can both figure out how to talk to each other.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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26 Responses to “When Your Parenting Dealbreakers Are Different”

  1. Olivia Mar 09 at 11:51 am Reply Reply

    I completely agree with Amy. Good, clear communication is so key to keeping a relationship going. 

    This part is just me thinking out loud: I don’t understand the “My parents raised X number of kids, so of course they can take care of grandkids” argument. Some grandparents can, sure, but it seems like there is a tendency for us to not acknowledge the fact that since our parents are 20, 30, 40 years older now can put limitations on their capabilities to care for young children. 

  2. SarahB Mar 09 at 12:56 pm Reply Reply

    Anyone, ANYONE, who drives with a child on their lap automatically, without question, disqualifies themselves from babysitting ever again.  Ever.   

    And that’s without any of the mental health issues.  Someone with a serious mental health issue and any recent history of not treating it–also grounds for immediate disqualification as a babysitter–as is the spouse of said person who goes along with that.

    Especially if said spouse is the one who drove with the child on her lap, OMG.

    The fact that your husband questions any of this means he has some major blinders on with regards to his family and, as Amy said, he’s going to need some help from someone other than you to see clearly.

  3. Heather / solitarysunrise Mar 09 at 1:03 pm Reply Reply

    I am a licensed mental health therapist, and work at a mental health clinic. I have also worked in a state hospital as well as a county mental health inpatient hosptial. Please, please do not let your inlaws watch the baby while you are away. It just isn’t safe with a someone there who obviously needs medication and therapy, but refuses to take it. I think everything Amy said is spot on. You guys should see about some counseling, not only for your communication with each other, but also to learn how to set up appropriate boundaries with the inlaws together, with a team approach. I would recommend looking into your local NAMI support group (google it), or contacting your local county mental health clinic and asking for a reference to their family advocate if they have one available. You are not at all being unreasonable. It sounds like you are doing a great job of being a mom and protecting your son like you should. Good luck!

  4. AmyKate Mar 09 at 2:26 pm Reply Reply

    If your child is somehow involved when your FIL has a psychotic episode and the police are called, he goes to CPS and you’ll be in the court system getting him back. I was really shocked to read this post because this just happened to a friend of ours. FIL was forcibly hospitalized and the police made the call that the MIL was incapable of caring for our friends son. It has been a nightmare for our friends getting him completely back. Their parenting has been called into question since they made the decision to leave their child there.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Mar 09 at 5:27 pm Reply Reply

      how awful for your friend. i hate scare tactics. but sometimes people need to hear a “bad-case scenario” story to understand the risks.

  5. Cristin Mar 09 at 2:58 pm Reply Reply

    You are not crazy. You are not overreacting. Take Amy’s advice. And I hope you get to Italy soon!

  6. Corinne Mar 09 at 4:13 pm Reply Reply

    Another option that I didn’t see mentioned is to bring your child with you. Obviously not the super fun romantic honeymoon, but you got married after you already had a kid, so that’s just sort of what happens. You could have a wonderful trip as a family (a familymoon!).

    Totally yes about seeing a counselor. Your husband his putting his parents desire to watch your child unsupervised above your comfort, and oh yes, your child’s safety.

    In a much less productive way than talking with a therapist, I would be tempted to turn it around on your husband – “You hate my mom” – “Not at the moment, but I would if she had killed our child through her negligence, wouldn’t you?” “She raised three kids and we’re fine” – “Well she apparently doesn’t love our child as much as her own because she’s willing to endanger his life.” Honestly, even more than the untreated mental illness (it’s hard to get unwilling adults to get treatment for mental illness), the driving with your child on her lap thing makes me see red. How dare she take such risks with your child. A rational, non mentally ill adult decided that she would rather endanger your child’s life than listen to him cry. That pretty much makes her a bad person in my book, certainly someone who would never be alone unsupervised with my child, and possibly not at all.

    • Sara Mar 12 at 5:51 pm Reply Reply

      I agree with the first half of this response–why not take your whole family on a trip. This is what I would do. Mind you, I was not raised in a family where parents took vacations separate from the kids, so the idea of leaving my son behind and going so far away feels uncomfortable to me, and also a bit selfish–but that’s my background, not everyone’s.

      The second half of this response, retorts to give back to her husband, are inflammatory and I don’t think will help their communication as a couple improve. Instead, they could be a lot more destructive. She may bend him into agreeing to her terms regarding this trip but break the relationship in the end.

      My vote is also for couple’s counseling to work on their communication together and boundary setting with the in-laws.

  7. Grammy Mar 09 at 5:09 pm Reply Reply

    A grandmother chiming in here. I agree with everything Amy said (again). The in-law problem is not going to go away and the couple with a child needs to be able to deal rationally with the issue before it causes even worse rifts between a husband and wife.

    For the record: I often think my daughter and her husband are too overprotective of my grandson. But I accept that he is their son, and abide by whatever rules they’ve established. It’s arrogant and unfair to do otherwise. In return, they’ve concluded that Grandpa and I can be trusted and give us a little leeway.

    And we bought a child safety seat for our car when the little guy was born, and have upgraded for his growth. It doesn’t matter how few times we need it — ONE TIME is enough. Yes, my children (both over 40) stood up in the front seat of the car when they were small. Everybody did. But times have changed and safety seats are the rule for everyone, all the time. Just like putting them down on their back instead of tummy. Anyone who can’t understand that times change and follow the new rules shouldn’t be allowed to care for a baby without supervision. Ever.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Mar 09 at 5:25 pm Reply Reply

      fist bump, Grammy. Appreciate your balanced perspective.

    • Christen Mar 11 at 1:35 pm Reply Reply

      I would be psyched to have you for my mother-in-law  :)   

    • Jadzia@Toddlerisms Mar 12 at 7:52 am Reply Reply

      Grammy, I wish you were my mom!  Or my MIL for that matter.  Your clear respect for your daughter and her husband is so refreshing and I think you will have a much better relationship with them AND with your grandchildren because of it.  I can’t tell you how I long for relatives who would show me the same respect.  We would see them a lot more often, that’s for sure.

    • Sara Mar 12 at 5:53 pm Reply Reply

      Agreed! Thank you, Grammy!

  8. Nikasha Mar 09 at 5:22 pm Reply Reply

    I absolutely agree with everyone else here, but another way of looking at “neutral third party” would be to develop a relationship with a nanny that could care for your son in your house while you are gone. I can see why you’d prefer to have him go to your parent’s, but it’s another option if you need to compromise with your husband. (Obviously, you would need to develop a working/trusting relationship with the nanny before such a big trip though.)

  9. Helene Mar 10 at 5:04 am Reply Reply

    I agree with the big communication problem. Saying “I don’t trust your parents” will raise anger and lead to nothing but confrontation. Care for your husband’s feelings, too.
    If you can’t get a third party, could you try to change the way of communicating (there used to be a lot of anger and resentment in our way of communicating, my husband and I have been married 20 years and have learned how to disagree now…)
    “I have a problem : I won’t have a good time and I won’t enjoy our holiday if we don’t leave him with my parents. Okay I might be overprotective, but please be with me on this one, I Can’t.
    I dearly love your parents, I love the way they love and dote on our son, but please let us ask my parents to look after him whilst we are away. It is already a huge worry for me to go overseas and leave him for a week, please let us do it my way.”
    It’s about you two also, and repeatedly saying that you don’t trust his parents won’t help your relationship. Talk about a more relaxing and comfortable holiday for you, talk about your peace of mind, and remind him that you love his parents.

  10. Christina Mar 10 at 10:41 pm Reply Reply

    Gonna be blunt: NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER leave your child(ren) with them. EVER EVER EVER EVER. Under NO circumstances. Do not ever question your decision. They will be the grandparents who visit WHILE YOU ARE THERE always and forever. (Sorry for the shouting, but that’s how strongly I feel that your child is in danger with either of them. At all. End of story.)
    Also, agree re: counseling w/your spouse. It will likely only get worse not dealt with.

    • Susan Mar 19 at 9:01 am Reply Reply

      Yes, yes, yes. I wholeheartedly agree. I love my inlaws. It was heart wrenching to feel I couldn’t trust them with my kids. ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. There were some hurt feelings and it was hard but I don’t regret not leaving the babies alone with the GP’s, I am thankful I trusted my gut. PLEASE TRUST YOURS!!
      I think counseling will help too. It’s not about your Husbands feelings, it’s about the safety of your child. Your MIL has poor judgement. You don’t need to prove that or convince your Husband, it’s just a fact.

  11. Liz Mar 11 at 11:08 am Reply Reply

    I actually am a family therapist and I just wanted to pipe in and recommend that you seek out a therapist who uses EFT (emotionally focused therapy). This focuses on exactly the types of conflict you are having where one partner escalates and gets upset and the other withdraws. For a self-help approach check out the book “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson.

    My guess would be that your husband isn’t even really hearing that you are scared for your child’s safety and instead is hearing that you think he is a bad parent for wanting to leave baby with his folks. And the louder and more scared you get about it the more shut down he will become until you can both change your approach.

    This book is a classic, seriously, any couple can benefit! (no I am not a paid endorser)

  12. J Mar 11 at 6:34 pm Reply Reply

    I have to slightly disagree with Helene here. I agree that the communication is broken down, but if she’s going to use the “let’s due it my way on this one” he’s eventually going to come back with “ok we get it my way next time” and I think the OP is trying to avoid a next time all together forever. It’s going to make it harder every time they want to go away because he’s going to say “your parents watched him last time so it’s my parents turn.” He absolutely truly needs to come to terms with the fact that his parents are unfit for unsupervised visits, especially overnights and why.

  13. z Mar 11 at 6:42 pm Reply Reply

    I agree– OP shouldn’t have to act like the most basic safety standards are some sort of special favor or exception from the norm.  It’s not a favor to your wife to keep your child safe.  

  14. Original Poster Mar 12 at 11:28 am Reply Reply

    Hi, OP here. Thanks Amy, for your advice…. you’re totally right. We are usually pretty good communicators but this family thing is SUCH a trigger for my husband, anything that relates to them makes him honestly into someone totally different and irrational, which makes me super frustrated, and…that’s how I ended up here! And thank you to everyone for confirming what I definitely knew, but needed to hear from others: that I’m not crazy. The “you do it your way this time, my way next time, ” scenario mentioned above is exactly what I’m trying to avoid, so the issue is much larger…for the record my husband agreed to leave the baby with my parents shortly after I sent this (and hasn’t been resentful or pouty about it at all) but I know this is part of a larger discussion about boundaries and mental health that needs to happen in a therapist’s office. So thanks everyone, for your support and help!

    • Christina Mar 12 at 3:30 pm Reply Reply

      That’s great — happy to hear that it’s resolved for this short-term, and that you’re committed to working out the larger issue. One thing I just wanted to mention (because it happened to my cousin) is to make sure your parents know what happened w/the car seat and FIL’s mental health and are 100% clear that they cannot leave the baby with your inlaws for even a few hours. Meaning if inlaws contact your parents behind your back while you’re out of the country and BEG for “just a few hours” with the baby “it will give you a break,” “we’re grandparents too” etc., that your parents know they cannot leave the baby under any circumstances, regardless of what they’re told.

  15. The gold digger Mar 12 at 3:38 pm Reply Reply

    Though since the pastor who married my husband and I would probably tell me to respect my elders and submit myself 100% to my husband’s opinion,

    Thank goodness for moderate Protestant clergy! My husband’s pastor married us. She met his parents. She knows they are mean drunks. When I asked her if forgiving them (for many things for which they have never sought forgiveness, the least of which is that they threatened two weeks before the wedding not to come) meant I had to be around them, she said NO!

    I know I am on a tangent, but I wanted to make the point that not all clergy are hard line on certain issues.

    OP, you are not crazy. You have crazy inlaws. But you are not.

  16. Tracy Mar 12 at 4:07 pm Reply Reply

    AmyKate’s post is chlling, and your poor husband needs to read it every time this topic comes up. How would his mom feel if she caused your child to be put into the foster care system just because his father had a psychotic break? (Of course she doesn’t deserve to babysit anyway after the carseat incident, but he may not accept or understand that).

  17. Lindsey Mar 19 at 12:06 pm Reply Reply

    I have to back up Amy’s point that since he grew up with a mentally unstable father and enabling mother, his communication skills probably suck. My husband had the same situation growing up, with a crazy mother and enabling father, and he does the exact same thing when we have “conversations” about them. I hate his mom, she raised five kids, blah blah blah and he immediately turns from an emotionally intelligent man into a thirteen-year-old kid.

    Fortunately, with time, I’ve been able to trust is mom with our oldest for short excursions because my husband deep down knows she that though she can be unhinged, she’d rather die than endanger access to her grandkids. It took a LOTS of unproductive conversations over the years to figure out there was a compromise somewhere. However, overnights are still off limits.

  18. S Jun 21 at 1:09 am Reply Reply

    Limits and appropriate boundaries are needed. The children come first. Adults can deal with hurt feelings. Total supervision is needed, end of story.

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