When Your Parenting Dealbreakers Are Different
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: ThinkstockPublished March 9, 2012. Last updated March 12, 2018.