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When Smoking Grandparents Just Won’t Quit…Or Compromise

By Amalah

Photo by Xurble

I have been having issues with my in-laws for the past two years. I have asthma. My in-laws both smoke in their house. They said that they would go outside when the baby in there. But I don’t think that is good enough. So when I was pregnant my husband and I decided that we wouldn’t take my son in to their home. It is a tiny two bedroom. When I go into the house I had a hard time breathing, also with my son having a fifty percent chance of having it himself. I told my in-laws if they wanted to see my son they would have to come to my house. They are refusing. It is getting really hard again, because holidays are coming up. I offered to have it at my house. They said no. Now my mother in law is treating my husband and I if we don’t bring him over he will not get a present. They haven’t seen my son much, because they won’t come over. They say they don’t do it for their other grandchildren, so they are not doing it for my son. Now I am pregnant again. Please help me, what should I do? Am I being too hard?


You know, we’ve covered the imperfect grandparent topic before, and in your situation, my opinion remains the same: Yes, the relationship is important, and we as the parents and go-between should respect the relationship and do everything we can to facilitate it…TO A POINT. To the point of our personal dealbreakers. We all have them — its the stuff you simply cannot tolerate exposing your child to.

Once you cross over the line of “my mother-in-law insults my cooking!” or “my father-in-law talks crazy conspiracy theories at the dinner table!” and into stuff like…oh, I don’t know, spanking without permission, health risks, drug use, pervasive use of racist or homophobic slurs, general irresponsibility…being an involved grandparent becomes a PRIVILEGE, NOT A RIGHT. No one has the “right” to your child if they are going to put your child in danger. And that danger can be actual abuse, neglect, risk of injury or really, anything from your list of dealbreakers. If the grandparents (or other relatives) are willing to make changes and accept that such-and-such will not be tolerated, then you can go ahead and cautiously move forward.

In your case, your dealbreaker includes smoking. And by extension, asthma and the general respiratory health of your children and yourself. I…think that’s entirely reasonable. My father smoked when I was young, and I was plagued with asthma and chronic bronchitis until he quit. Not until he “smoked outside” or only when I “wasn’t in the room.” Quit. Second- and third-hand smoke is no joke, particularly for people with existing breathing problems. Particularly PREGNANT and/or VERY YOUNG people with existing breathing problems, or who are at high-risk for potential breathing problems.

Plus, you have offered an entirely reasonable compromise: You aren’t barring access to their grandchild until they quit, you’re simply asking them to see him on smoke-free grounds. (I’m assuming they would be allowed to smoke outside while they visit — read my column and the comments here on third-hand smoke and how they can further reduce its effects on your house and health.) They’ve refused, on the basis that they didn’t do it “for the other grandchildren.” They’re trying to blame the appearance of favoritism instead of the more likely, more painful truth: They are simply choosing cigarettes over family. That hurts. I know. It really, freaking HURTS when family members choose a vice or addiction or ANYTHING over a relationship with you or your children. Because good people wouldn’t do that. And we want to believe that our parents are good people.

So. What do you *do?* I don’t really know. If you simply needed to hear that you aren’t being unreasonable, then I hope I’ve done that. But you can’t make them change. You can’t make them change their priorities and stop being so stubborn. You can let go of any guilt you have over any lack of close grandparent/grandchild relationship being *your fault.* This is their choice, as bizarre of a choice as it seems to be. So they’re threatening to not send their grandson a Christmas present? Jeez. Whatever. That’s very small and petty and again: NOT YOUR FAULT.

I say stick to your guns, though I ALSO think it’s your husband who should be communicating the rules and offers to them (and maybe he is, and it’s just how your question is worded that makes it sound like YOU are personally delivering the ultimatums and invitations). And the only other option I can possibly suggest is that if you do end up caving and visiting them, stay in a hotel. The cost probably will mean not as many grandparent visits as you might like, but seriously, you are entirely within your rights to protect the lung health of your family…and yourself.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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  • Linsey

    December 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    My parents smoke (and have since they were both 16)… my mom did quit when she was pregnant with my brother and then later with me. She even stopped smoking until I was a couple years old.
    I have tried numerous times that I don’t like it when they smoke and that my BROTHER HAS ASTHMA AND OH HEY, MAYBE YOU SHOULD QUIT. They don’t listen. Seriously, no matter what I do, they don’t seem to care.
    When I go home for the holidays and stay at home, they “super clean” the house and smoke outside. It doesn’t work and I end up doing 2 loads of laundry immediately after leaving their house.
    I’ve even stayed at friends’ houses over the holidays, much to my parents’ dismay. But at least I smell good.
    I don’t have kids but definitely plan to when I am married someday. I have told them flat out that my kids will not visit their house if they continue to smoke. I cannot even imagine sending my children there to visit and coming home smelling like smoke. That would break my heart. I remember my middle school locker smelling like smoke from my winter jacket every year. Embarassing is an understatement.
    I say, stick to your guns. They are doing something not only deathly to themselves, but also to your children. They are the ones missing out on watching their grandchildren grow up.

  • Diane`

    December 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Oh, I have had these issues too. My in laws quickly caved in and smoked outdoors all the time (well, 90% when we weren’t there, and there is only so much you can do).
    Stick to your guns. And maybe provide them with some literature on second hand smoke and asthma etc. This might help them see your side.

  • Bethany

    December 4, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Hold your guns. I cheered when NY disallowed smoking in restaurants because it finally meant I could see my grandmom without having an asthma attack. We lived in a different state and always stayed in a hotel when we visited her and my other relatives. I did feel hurt that this woman who I knew loved me so very much, chose to smoke even though it made me cough and tear up, but I had so much respect for my mom saying “okay, it’s time to go” as soon as my grandma lit a cigarette.
    As time went on and we met Grandmom for dinners out and in other places where she couldn’t smoke, she and I did develop a relationship. We wrote letters and talked on the phone and, despite my not seeing her a lot because of the smoking, had a wonderful relationship until she passed away this fall from various cancers (yes, including lung cancer). I loved her. She was a good person who loved me and did try to curtail her smoking around me to the best extent she could. Your kids are not being denied a relationship with their grandparents. They are simply seeing how much their mother loves them and having an opportunity to have that relationship at a later age when events can be arranged (surreptitiously) to prevent smoking.
    Good luck.

  • Heidi

    December 4, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    When my daughter was born, I stayed for a week at my mothers house. She’s a very heavy smoker AND drinker, and yep- she smokes inside. I told her that if she was going to smoke, it MUST be outside and she MUST wash her hands and change her shirt before she held the baby.
    She put up on helluva fight about how she smoked around us girls and didn’t have breathing problems, how it was HER house, bygod, and she was entitled to do whatever she damn well pleased. I told her she was right, but if she was going to take that stance I’d pack up and drive the 3 hours home myself.
    I also told her she was NOT allowed to drink around my baby girl. (Woman drinks 2-3 bottles of wine a NIGHT and has a DUI.) I told her I was doing what I considered to be the responsible thing and again, if she didn’t like it well then I guess visits would be few & far between.
    She quickly caved in. However, it was a legendary fight between us.
    Your inlaws may or may not cave in. It seems like they have been explained the health risks involved. If they choose to ignore the physical implications that their lifestyle has on your child, then explain that is certainly their choice. However, it’s also your choice to limit the time spent with them.

  • Jessica V.

    December 4, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Can you try to put it back on them a bit – have your husband (I agree that he should be having the discussion) talk to them about the issue and see if they have any suggestions on how you can all handle the situation without exposing you and your son to their smoke? Since they are not happy with your solutions, then they need to step up and offer some of their own. If nothing else, it may help start a more positive discussion about it where you can voice your concerns (again) and they can see that you are trying to do what is best for your family, including them. Good luck!

  • DJ

    December 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Perhaps there’s another angle here – instead of seeing that this is a serious matter of health, they’ve interpreted it as a rejection of their hospitality. I’m a med student, and it’s astonishing how many people (including asthmatics!) don’t realize how very, very serious asthma is, especially in children who don’t understand or can’t communicate their symptoms. Maybe the in-laws have jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that the health issue is a camouflage. After all, they raised their son in a smoking atmosphere and his lungs turned out fine (their logic).
    So maybe you could shift the issue squarely into the area of health while soothing any wounded feelings. Let them know that, while their family has good lungs, yours has lung problems (the phrase “weak lungs” sometimes does the trick). Emphasize how much you enjoy visiting them, but places with smoking, no matter how well-cleaned, are a huge problem for asthmatics. Avoid comparison to restaurants and bars, as their home is neither – but if you have the same problem with close friends or family members who also smoke or have pets, make sure to mention this. Comparing asthma to a severe pet allergy may help your in-laws understand. (Also, if there’s someplace harmless and attractive that your asthma keeps you from visiting — the botanical gardens in spring, for example — maybe throw that in as well.) The goal is to let them know that it’s not that their house is “yucky”, but that you have potentially serious health problems and that their grandson may, too. You have to be careful since he’s too young to tell you if he can’t breathe.
    Also, you mention that they live in a tiny two-bedroom and both smoke (expensive! health problems!). Are there issues with money or mobility that keep them from visiting you? Do they have a comfortable place to smoke when they do visit?
    You have nothing to apologize for, of course – but it would be so sad to split with grandparents over a misunderstanding. Good luck! I hope you guys can figure something out!

    • Althea

      March 17, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      Such Wisdom!  Thanks for sharing.

  • fuzibuni

    December 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Usually people who smoke indoors have no idea their house smells. It’s like someone who has bad breath, but no clue. And if you try to tell them, they either get embarrassed or defensive.
    Also, sounds like your in-laws see YOU as the problem (she thinks our house stinks! She hates smokers!) and are digging in their heels. Of course they want to see the baby… but they have made you into the road-block… not their smoking.
    So now you’re in a show-down.
    Since they don’t sound remotely interested in giving up smoking, the harder you try to get them to quit, the more they will dig their heels in and tune you out. Its just the mechanics of addiction.
    If you and your husband actually care to have a relationship with them then you are going to have to out-psych them.
    First, hard as it may be, try not to take it all personally. Thank them for offering to smoke outside if you are there with the baby. While this doesn’t work for you, agree with them that they should be allowed to smoke in their own home when you are not there. You understand how hard it is to give up smoking, and it IS their house after all. If you haven’t already, give them details about asthma and how it can affect babies. Explain that you realize you are asking a lot, and if they are not ready/able to quit, then you would love to invite them to your house, or a neutral location near their house like a park.
    Say this with love, compassion, and sincerity. If they still chose to ignore the truth of the situation and won’t agree to visit or quit smoking, then it is what it is.

  • fuzibuni

    December 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    oh, and one other option… if it’s not too cold where they live, and they have a back yard, perhaps you could visit them for ‘picnics’ and remain outside for most of the visit?