Grandma The Underminer
I had a bit of a disagreement with my mother-in-law last week and I can not stop thinking about it or figure out how to move forward. Our situation is that I work part-time (four days per week) so my two boys who are 2 and 3 years old right now go to preschool for three of those days and to Grandma’s house the fourth day. This arrangement started back when my oldest was born and I had to return to work when he was about 4 months old. I hired a nanny to come to our house to take care of him. My mother-in-law went on and on forever about how heartbroken she was that I did not ask her to care for him and hired “some girl” to come to our home. This “some girl” was (and still is) a friend of mine. I had already known her for about 5 years and she was a college student who needed some part-time work. So my husband asked me to compromise and have his mom watch our baby for one day per week while my friend was at our house with him for the other three days. I decided that it would be a fine arrangement and we have continued with that plan even after our nanny graduated college and needed to move on. At that time, I transitioned the kids to the preschool where they currently attend.
I could go into a lot of reasons why that one day at Grandma’s is totally inconvenient for me (her house is a 30 minute drive from ours and in the opposite direction from my office!) but I decided that the relationship and bond that my boys were building with their Grandma was worth all the extra effort. Even so, I have found myself continuously frustrated with her and the decisions she makes while taking care of my kids.
For example, I have always provided all the food my kids need for each day at her house. When they were little I packed up their bottles with milk and when they were ready sent my homemade purees, etc… I asked her not to give them peanut butter just yet when they were less than 2 years old along with some other foods to avoid based on our pediatrician’s recommendation. One day she tells me, “I had N eat a peanut butter sandwich today and he liked it!” And when I asked why, she replied, “I always gave peanut butter to my kids at this age and they turned out fine. I thought you were being too cautious about that.” I could have choked her. I was so mad and it was not even about the peanut butter, it was the fact that she has no regard for basic requests that I have. She thought my request was dumb and she chose to ignore it and do it her way. I could go on and on about examples of things that she has done that make me upset.
But each week, my boys so look forward to their day with Grandma! They adore her and have a lot of fun with her.
Now I am working on potty training the 2 year old. He is doing a great job wearing big boy underwear and we remind him frequently that it is time to go to the bathroom. At home, he has been able to stay dry and go in the potty. He has had a few accidents, as expected, at home and at preschool. I feel he is very normal for a kid learning to be in control of his body. Last week was the first time I sent him to Grandma’s house in his big boy underwear. I explained to her how we ask him to try and go to the potty about every hour and reward him with lots of high fives, etc. I provided several changes of clothes, just in case he needed them. And she seemed totally on board with the plan. At the end of the day when I picked him up, she tells me “Oh, by the way, I just had him wear a diaper today.” I asked why and she said it was because she does not want to deal with possible accidents so she asked him if he wanted a diaper and he said yes. I just looked at her and said “But you are the adult and he is a kid, he does not get to decide to wear a diaper.” I couldn’t handle it and just walked away. I felt that was complete nonsense.
Later that night, she wrote me a lengthy email about what it is like to be a grandma. She said that she wants to make sure that my boys have a special, fun adventure each and every day with her. So basically, if there is something that could be unpleasant or that my kids will not want to do she would prefer not to ruin the day by pushing them. She feels that if she asks him to go potty and he says no, then she would rather not argue with him so they can continue having fun. In this case, she thought the more fun option would be to just wear a diaper. What?!?!?! As I read her email, I started having flashbacks to all the things that have annoyed me and I can see how most of them probably stem from her not wanting to say no to my kids.
I wrote her an email back and let her know that this week I will take a vacation day so she does not have to deal with helping me potty train my son. I do not want her to just put him in a diaper because it is more fun for her. I get that she wants to be special to my kids and she is! My kids love her. But if she wants to be the care provider for them when I am at work, she needs to tackle some of the unpleasant stuff too like a potential potty accident. Am I totally crazy? Am I over-reacting here? What do I do next week and the week after that? I honestly feel like asking their preschool if they can start attending four days per week and we eliminate this day with Grandma. At least that way, my boys would have some consistency. We could visit her on the weekend (with me present to discipline, etc.) and she can be special and fun then. I don’t want to wreck my relationship with her and make things awkward forever.
Sorry for the long question, but gah!
You know how “they” say there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Little-known variant on that saying is that there’s no such thing as free childcare, either. And any other readers out there who get hassled (like I’ve been in the past) over their decision to use a professional daycare/nanny arrangement over family members — because that’s the best! for everyone! you’re crazy not to do it! so terrible to let your children be raised by STRANGERS! — has my permission to print this letter out, glue it to a phonebook and smack that person with it.
What’s most concerning about your letter — beyond the individual infractions — is that it’s a PATTERN, and it’s a pattern of behavior that, even when you’ve directly confronted her and/or expressed your displeasure at your wishes being ignored, she’s made it clear she has no intention of changing going forward. That if she disagrees with anything you tell her, she will simply go ahead and do whatever she wants to. On the record and everything! This is…not okay. You said it best yourself: I get that she wants to be special to my kids and she is! My kids love her. But if she wants to be the care provider for them when I am at work, she needs to tackle some of the unpleasant stuff too like a potential potty accident. She also needs to remember — ALWAYS — that the boys are your children, not hers. She had her time to raise her kids her way, and now it’s time to defer to your judgement and rules, no matter what.
I’m curious as to what your husband thinks about all of this — he’s weirdly absent from your letter and the situation, other than being the one who pushed for you to accept this arrangement in the first place. You’re sending your kids to stay with a Serial Underminer once a week, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask him to have a chat with his mother and issue a friendly ultimatum: Either do things our way (his AND yours, united parental front, what you say is what he says), or we will have to find other arrangements, because WE NEED TO TRUST YOU, GRANDMA.
Feeding peanut butter to your toddler could have resulted in disaster. A completely not-fun-or-special DISASTER. And I say that as someone who has always introduced peanuts at one year because OH MY GOD THE CONFLICTING ADVICE ABOUNDS, but still. I would have gone apoplectic on anyone who fed my child a potentially dangerous food I specifically asked them not to. Your son didn’t have a reaction, thus bolstering her belief that you are rigid and over-cautious and you now don’t know what other pediatrician-approved guidelines she’ll toss to the wind and ignore. And the potty training/diaper thing is just…ridiculous. (Her, not you.)
The ultimatum doesn’t have to be done harshly — honestly she sounds insecure about her place in your boys’ world and has mistaken spoiling them rotten as the best path to keeping their affections. When in fact, kids need boundaries and consistent behavior from authority figures to feel most secure. She needs to be assured that look, they LOVE you, Grandma, and they will love you even if you — gasp — occasionally have to do “not fun” things, like potty breaks and timeouts and healthy snacks instead of a non-stop cookie buffet. And since she’s agreed to be their caregiver for that one day a week, she absolutely MUST agree to be a caregiver, and not just Super Happy Fun Time Grandma. You have to trust her to follow your wishes, even when she doesn’t agree with them. The undermining has to stop, NOW, because you can’t spend your day worrying about what else she may decide is “being too cautious.” (Seat belts? Bike helmets? Choking hazards? Medicine dosing? Good God, the what-ifs alone could turn the most laid-back mom into a helicoptering mess.)
If she really values her day with her grandsons — and it sounds like she does — I would hope she’d do whatever you guys asked in order to keep it. But there’s also the worry that instead, she’ll just get more sneaky and simply not TELL you whether N wore a diaper or underwear or start telling the boys to “not tell Mommy” about the M&Ms or TV shows or whatever. I don’t know if that seems likely to you (I don’t really know the woman, after all), or how to prevent that other than to start talking to your three-year-old about secrets and why we don’t keep them from Mommy and Daddy, or cut out of work early occasionally and “surprise” her.
But lord, who needs THAT kind of relationship with their child’s caregiver? Free or not, family or not, I certainly couldn’t deal with it. Even if things are just fine most of the time, it really doesn’t take that much for trust to be shattered. And I don’t care who is watching your kids — Grandma, a nanny, a daycare center, Good Dog Carl — you absolutely HAVE TO TRUST THEM. If you simply no longer trust your mother-in-law going forward, I’m not entirely sure this arrangement can (or should) be saved.
Could the boys go to preschool during the day and then you and your husband set up a standing weekly Date Night where Grandma watches the boys? Because Super Happy Fun Time Grandma sounds like a perfect evenings-and-weekends babysitter. Pizza for dinner! A movie! Popcorn! Forts in the living room! Staying up a little late because it’s not a school night! Five different bedtime stories! There’s a different vibe and expectation from a nighttime sitter, you know? The worst she can do is get them amped up before bed and maybe skip brushing their teeth. Then you and your husband can stay out late until you’re sure the kids have simply crashed from exhaustion. And Grandma can have her special fun time to spoil without being asked to do anything “unpleasant” like actually assist in the messy business of raising children, the horror.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com.