Building a Long-Distance Bond
I’m sure at this point in your column you’ve answered dozens of questions about mothers-in-law and the complex relationships we have with them. And even though you see them all the time, I’m still going to ask for your help with some issues that I’m experiencing with my own mother-in-law.
Let me preface this by saying that my MIL is a very kind woman who has successfully raised three wonderful kids. She loves my 16 month old, E, very much. The problem is that she is also insecure. We live four hours away and MIL and her husband rarely travel to visit our family, which means she only sees E 4-6 times a year. When she does see E, it takes him a long time to warm up to her and he usually cries when she holds him or gets physically too close to him. As a result, she gets her feelings hurt. Whenever this happens, MIL will distance herself from E and focus on E’s cousin (six days older), M, who lives in the same town and who she watches several days a week.
If M is not around, we begin to hear about how intelligent, handsome, and wonderful M is and how much he adores her. Then she talks about how E doesn’t like her and begins to note the many different ways that she feels that we can improve on parenting. If we happen to be around M (as we were this past Christmas), she will ignore E altogether and focus on taking care of M’s needs.
When this occurred over Christmas, we had just arrived and were about to open presents. After she greeted E and he wouldn’t let her hold him, we let the babies start opening presents and she began taking pictures of E and M. The next day when we downloaded the pictures of the boys, we were shocked to find FIVE pictures of E opening presents and TWENTY FIVE pictures of M during the same time.
My husband told her that this was unacceptable, but this has been a problem since E was born. Then I get upset with her, and it creates a distance that doesn’t have to be there. I’m at a point of sheer frustration because I don’t want E to grow up feeling like he’s second best whenever he’s around MIL and I want her to see that it’s not his fault that they are not close yet because he is a BABY.
How do I work towards ending this pattern of behavior? My husband says he’s going to address any issues that come up right when they occur in the future, but I don’t know that it’s enough. And I’m worried about saying too much because she and I have never been close. When we sat down to try to work through our issues a few months ago, she accused me of judging her parenting and pushing her out of E’s life. Now I don’t feel as though I can be direct with her without other accusations surfacing. Please help me find a way to resolve this, while being the best mother, wife, and daughter-in-law possible.
Here’s the thing: biology doesn’t equal bonding. Your son has not bonded with his grandmother, and she has not bonded with him. In a perfect world, she’d be able to get over her hurt feelings at his (perfectly natural) stranger anxiety and figure out creative ways to form and strengthen the bond despite the distance and infrequent visits, but she hasn’t.
But I gotta say, I don’t think the accusatory tact you and your husband are taking is helping AT ALL. Stop blaming her, and stop getting bent out of shape over the (also perfectly natural) bond she’s formed with M and letting it hurt YOUR feelings. Stop counting photos and getting angry with her reverting to her multiple-days-a-week caregiver role with M. Smile and ask how M is doing and then turn the conversation around to focus on the similarities between the cousins instead. There’s nothing particularly jumping out at me in your email to suggest she’s doing it deliberately or callously. Maybe “carelessly” is as far as I’d go, because she’s not really going out of her way to establish a bond with E (though as an aunt to half-a-dozen nephews, I can attest that it is kind of wounding when a baby cries every time you try to hold him or talk to him, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that he doesn’t “like you”). But regardless, I don’t think getting upset or confrontational with her, basically trying to GUILT her into bonding or pretending to bond or hiding her closeness with M, is the answer here.
So. If you really do want E to have a close, wonderful relationship with your mother-in-law, you’re going to have to pick up the slack here, and you’re going to have to do it cheerfully and without resentment and without all the “SHE never comes to visit us, SHE gets upset when he cries, etc.” thinking. Even if it’s totally true! But it will drive you nuts, and the negativity will eventually undermine your own efforts, if that makes sense.
1. Webcams. I’ve written about these before — we routinely set up webcam chats with my in-laws so they can talk to the boys in-between visits. Two inexpensive webcams and a free video chat/messaging program (like Skype, Live Messenger, etc.) are all it takes, and your mother-in-law could be part of a special bedtime routine where she reads a book or sings a song to E, or just plays a funny game of peek-a-boo with him. Even if E has no idea what he’s really looking at, he’ll probably still be entertained and entranced by the screen and give your MIL the confidence boost she needs of the he likes me! he really likes me! variety.
2. Recordable storybooks. Send her a book that lets her read and record a bedtime story for E, and then send it back to you. If E digs it, you’ll have another regular chance to expose him to Grandma’s voice (show him a picture, too), AND Grandma will feel like you guys are going above and beyond in finding ways to include her in E’s life, rather than her accusation that you guys are pushing her out. (You could also send her a small blank photo album and ask her to fill it with photos of her, her house, and yes, even M.)
3. Make more of the visits you get. We’re guilty of this too — we see certain family members only at big, crazy holiday get-togethers, and yet somehow expect a small toddler to form relationships with six, 10, 20-plus people all on big, crazy day. It’s a sensory overload for them, getting everybody’s name barked at them and ordered to wave, say hi, high-five, whatever. Next time you visit, try to plan some nice E-centric activities that your MIL can do with him. Find an awesome public playground or kids’ theater or museum…or something that involves buying a set number of tickets so it’s clear that this is about a special “E and Grandma” day instead of morphing into another big family outing with M and other people that might defeat the purpose.
4. Write letters. E is probably a little young for this right now, but since I can tell you’re scared that The Way Things Are Right Now is going to turn into a lifetime of favoritism and conflict, file it away for when he’s two or three. Kids LOVE mail. They love stamps and envelopes and putting things in the mailbox and getting stuff with their name on it from the mailman. Have E draw pictures for Grandma and dictate letters to her…that always end with a “I hope you write me back soon!” to invite her to drop a note or card back to him. It will THRILL your son and again, involve her across the distance and give them both a point of reference when they see each other.
5. Remember that kids expand time. Your son WILL outgrow the stranger anxiety, particularly if you give him cues and reminders at home about who his far-away relatives are. And while you won’t be able to change the disparity in face-time that his cousin gets with Grandma, you may discover that it really doesn’t matter in his eyes. One awesome memory is all it takes — he may not remember that he only saw Grandma four to six times in the year 2011, but he may remember her funny cat who hid under the couch, or that she was there when he saw that amazing fountain he was allowed to run through, or at the mall with the fish.
Kids are sensitive, yes. It certainly dawned on me as a (much older) child that my grandmother played favorites and did it deliberately, but I don’t really see that as the case here. It’s just…a belated bond, right now. It’s not anyone’s FAULT, insecurity or not. Nurture that bond however you can instead of attacking or accusing or cataloging every bit of perceived preferential treatment — even if it means swallowing your pride and your anger at other non-deal-breaking issues — and things will be okay, in their own time.Published March 16, 2011. Last updated March 12, 2018.