The Mother-In-Law From Under the Sea
I love the way you give such balanced advice and get right to the heart of things. I’m hoping you might be able to help me. My problem(s) might be too hairy for someone else to weigh in on, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a kick up the backside I need to get my head straight – or maybe not – I don’t know how completely unreasonable I’m being and need some perspective.
I’ve always had a fundamental dislike of my mother in-law, beginning well before getting married. It’s basically just a (fundamental) clash of personality, opinion, lifestyle, values, I guess… the works. She’s narcissistic, self-absorbed, dramatic and ignorant (but confident) and she often uses emotional blackmail (bullying, guilt, acting like a victim) – on her own kids… and me.
From your ‘grandparent field guide‘, she’s part meddler, competitor, and a little bit toxic (I don’t trust her to respect my wishes in terms of what my daughter gets fed, exposure to her second-hand cigarette smoke, etc). She played a big part in raising her first grandchild (our daughter is 4th grandchild of 5) because my sister-in-law had her baby as a very young single mother. Both my sisters-in-law live close to my in-laws and those grandchildren spend a lot of time with them. It seems that my mother in-law expects to assume the same kind of role with our daughter.
I’ve been raised to treat people with respect, and am totally a people pleaser, often to my own detriment – but I’ve lost all respect for my mother in-law’s behaviour and now her as a person. She’s not really a bad person, but maybe because of our differing values, it’s got to the point where I now feel a huge amount of stress and adrenaline when I see her, and I’ve started questioning all the decisions in my life that brought me here.
After discussing boundaries with my husband and agreeing that he’d discuss them with his parents, he failed to do it a couple of times so I did, in a pretty direct and assertive way (she doesn’t understand subtlety). This was a big deal for me, and I was quietly proud of myself for standing up to her. My husband was upset with me. He says he’s supportive of me but just doesn’t seem to follow-through when it comes to his family. I think he also thinks it’s unfair I don’t treat his parents equally to my own. I’d be willing to speak to my parents about any issues my husband has – but he doesn’t have any.
I don’t plan to interfere in the relationship that my husband or daughter have with my in-laws, but in my dream world, I’d send my daughter (who’s still too young to be away from me for long – she’s 10 months old and they live interstate) with my husband for visits and I’d stay away. This seems (even to me) up there with unreasonable – but what’s a compromise that I can live with? How do I prevent my mother in-law from making me feel so powerless and crazy?
Unfortunately, there’s more… Having spent more time with my in-laws since our baby was born, I’ve noticed the same emotional blackmail behaviours in my husband. I didn’t pay it a lot of attention in the past but have realised that it’s a bigger part of him than I realised. The more I see of my in-laws, the more I recognise my mother in-law’s characteristics in my husband. You might think this would make me more accepting of those behaviours, but it hasn’t. I don’t want my issues to affect my marriage but I’m having trouble preventing my feelings for my mother in-law from infecting my feelings for my husband.
I know I’m in control of my reactions, so it’s possible for me to take the power back, but I’m really at a loss for how to do it and turn things around. Please help!
Okay. Bear with me if some of my thoughts come out in fits and starts — this is a big hairy question for first thing on a Monday morning.
A couple things you’re going to need to realize and accept here:
First, your mother-in-law is never, ever going to change.
“But! But! What if I say X, Y and Z and say it SUPER AWESOMELY ASSERTIVE-LIKE?”
Nope. Not even then. This woman is who she is. I do wish (mostly because NOSY) that you could have included a couple concrete examples/scenarios of her behaviors beyond a long list of adjectives and generalization (and the second-hand smoke thing), but even if we take your word for it that this woman would make all of decent society want to peel their faces off in rage, you admit that she’s been this way for as long as you’ve known her. Which means she’s probably been that way since even before you knew her, and frankly, there’s just nothing to be done about it. And I’m guessing your husband knows that, which is way he conveeeeeeeeniently neglected to have that little uncomfy chat with her. (That doesn’t excuse him or anything, by the way, but we’re gonna get to you two in a bit.)
It sounds like, rather than her (long list of adjectives) behavior driving wedges through relationships left and right, that the rest of her family kinda…is okay with it all. They actually sound…close? That doesn’t mean the family dynamic is 100% healthy or anything, but it does put you in the position of being completely outnumbered here in staging any sort of CHANGE OR BE SHUNNED/NEVER VISITED/LOSE GRANDCHILD PRIVILEGES coup.
Which leads me to the second thing you need to accept: Your mother-in-law is a package deal with your marriage. She is going to be part of your life. You are not going to convince your husband that his mother is evil and terrible and he should declare emancipation from her and start calling your parents New and Improved Mom and Dad. (By the way, I would bet cash money that there are indeed things about your parents that bug your husband. He probably just deems his issues not worth the hassle of confrontation — especially if later he can throw his amazing ability to get along with your annoying family back at you, passive-aggressive MIL-style, right?)
So. Say those two things out loud. She’s not going to change; she’s not going away. In fact, I suspect that the more you fight this situation — the more you needle your husband to lay down the law, the more you explode at her with your list of slowly simmering grievances, and the more you imagine scenarios where your husband and child go off to visit her while you sit at home, alone and smug in your principled victory — that the WORSE things will get. Just reading through the timeline in your letter, has anything you’ve done over the past year actually…helped? Even a little bit? It sounds like your I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS ANYMORE ultimatums have simply given her — the large, Disney-villain version of her — MORE power over you. She’s an awful person but NOW — holy crap — you can’t stop thinking about how you’re sleeping next to a mini-her every night. That right there is one toxic-ass relationship. And while there isn’t a sure-fire cure (save for getting an acrimonious divorce, petitioning for full custody and spiriting your daughter away to Alaska), you’ve GOT to figure out how to stop letting your poisonous feelings for a poisonous person spread and take over.
And again, I’m NOT saying that you aren’t completely freaking justified in everything you feel for this woman. But I do think at some point the scale tipped and everything became overly fraught and this became bigger than her. The birth of your daughter, I assume, would understandably raise the stakes and make you feel like it was time to demand more control over her behavior. That CAN be true, in the case of certain dealbreakers. Without specific examples I can’t tell you whether or not your MIL has crossed any of those lines — though the fact that you’re fine sending your baby to go spend time with her so long as you don’t have to go too suggests that we’re mostly talking about things of the non-dealbreaker/child endangerment variety.
Grandparents feed kids junk food. Grandparents forget about bedtime. Grandparents get confused sometimes because Stuff Was Done Differently In Their Day And They Don’t Understand The Big Deal About Peanut Butter. You absolutely have the right to demand that she not smoke around your daughter but you don’t have the right to demand that say, she stops smoking in her own house altogether for three months leading up to your visit or something. Running a meth lab in the garage? Dealbreaker. Being a general pain in the ass diva with politics you abhor? Not a dealbreaker. Just smile and nod and be the bigger, more Zen-ed out person. Go fake a phone call or go meditate or put on your running shoes and jog it out around the neighborhood. (And whatever you do, don’t drink too much and start yelling and sink to her level.)
I’m actually tempted to tell you to just drop the MIL issue completely and focus on your marriage right now. Maybe she’s a symptom and not really the cause. I always think in-law issues should be resolved by the child of said in-law whenever possible, but that requires open and honest communication and support between partners. You guys obviously don’t have that now, since he’s placating you and telling you want you want to hear (“Yes, yes, I will tell my mother that tricking mermaids out of their voice boxes in exchange for legs is totally not cool with us”) but then doing absolutely nothing about it. (“But if I actually tell my mother that I run the risk of being turned into a seaweed newt. PASS.”) This is also understandably rage-making, because it suggests that he thinks you’re being unreasonable or unrealistic. And maybe you are! I don’t know! This whole courtroom is out of order!
But he should be able to TELL you that hey, honey, this is who my mom is and I love her anyway and I think you need to accept that. Or he should be able to stand up to his mom, if he really does agree that her behaviors are out of line and unacceptable. He’s desperately trying to not take sides — maybe because he grew up playing the perpetual peacemaker in a big household full of lots of manufactured conflict and drama. We’re all a product of our upbringing, so the fact that he has stuff in common with his mom is not super surprising. But if he completely fails to recognize that those behaviors aren’t cool (and not just because he’s trying to get you to stop bugging him about his mom so FINE I’LL TALK TO HER) (TOTALLY NOT GOING TO TALK TO HER), well…that is definitely something you guys should hash out with a real-life neutral third party, rather than an Internet advice column.
Oh my God, I’ve thrown so many words at you! And I’m still not done. For your part in that open and honest communication, I’m going to assign you some homework. I’m a very visual/list-focused kind of person so this is a little writing exercise a therapist once gave me for anxiety that I’ve adapted for high-stress situations in general (especially those where I suspect I might have lost my perspective or be overreacting). Take your adjectives and general feelings about your MIL and write them down in order of the crazy-making, or just scattered around the page like clouds. Then start writing down specific behaviors/instances as evidence underneath. And I mean SPECIFIC. No “she always undermines me” generalizations. You’re basically outlining your personal legal case against her.
Then cross out anything that really isn’t that bad — the difference in personality stuff that 1) could easily go both ways, and 2) we all occasionally have to overlook in order to exist on this planet without going apeshit at people. Then for everything that’s left, write what you believe the consequence will be. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you and your husband and your daughter continue to have regular contact with this particular habit or behavior? Cross off anything that doesn’t have a consequence other than you being annoyed by it (“I Will Eat My Own Hand Off During Dinner”) or stuff that’s super unlikely to actually happen (“Daughter Will Become Chocolate Cake Junkie By Age Four”). Everything that’s left? Those should be your dealbreakers, or the stuff that’s solvable, with an actionable plan supported by your husband for avoiding the undesirable result. Some might require him to put on his big boy pants and talk to his mom. And for others, the plan might be more about you getting the fight-or-flight adrenaline reaction under control or loosening up your need to control your daughter’s diet/schedule/environment to an unrealistic degree.
That stress and adrenaline bit stood out to me, by the way, and if I was a more organized writer I probably would have mentioned it earlier: It sounds like you’re having anxiety attacks around your MIL. That’s why I suggested the layered writing exercise, since it helps unpack the anxiety and break it down from “I’M AFRAID OF DYING ALONE” to what the real, underlying issue and fear is. (Which is often something unpleasant yet solvable that you’re avoiding.) In this case, it could stem from fears about your daughter, your parenting skills, your marriage, or hell, even a general postpartum depression/anxiety issue that you’re looking to pin on something concrete and rational. (If that’s even remotely a possibility, like you’ve noticed a marked escalation in anxiety/OCD/anger-type feelings since your daughter’s birth, please see a professional– like your OB/GYN– immediately.)
Or it could be none of those things because your MIL seriously is Ursula the Sea Witch and that lady is terrifying.
Either way, tell yourself she’s not going to change. No fight, no flight, just a deep cleansing sigh of acceptance and “Her Behavior Is Not My Problem Or Responsibility And Is No Longer Going to Occupy My Precious Brainspace.” Or maybe she WILL change — it does happen, but it’s best not to count on it in this sort of situation — but she probably won’t change just because you freaked out at her on Christmas Eve and everything got all awkward and weird.
But remember you also have no such peacekeeping obligation to accept MIL-like behaviors from your husband. Nuh-uh, Not even a little bit. If you really are seeing emotional blackmail and a lack of support and honesty from him (MAKE A LIST!), that’s where your focus belongs, because THAT’S got the potential for some real and serious consequences — for you, your marriage and your daughter. Approach his behaviors as HIS behaviors, by the way, and not framed in a “UR JUST LIKE UR MOM” argument. When he does something that’s not cool, call him on the thing that is not cool and leave his parents out of it, because he’s a big boy who can take responsibility for his own actions.
And again, if you sense that your stress and anxiety to the situation is no longer really in proportion to your MIL’s actual behavior and this is possibly postpartum in nature, speak up and ask for help. That doesn’t make any of this your “fault.” (And your MIL can still totally suck as a person. You just don’t need to deal with anxiety attacks on top of her nonsense.)
Good luck! And hey, even if I’ve gotten everything wrong here and said nothing remotely helpful, perhaps just picturing your MIL as a giant purple whiskey-voiced Disney villain the next time you visit will help you smile a little bit. Poor unfortunate soul, indeed.Published October 7, 2013. Last updated March 12, 2018.