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The Alcoholic Mother-in-Law and Grandmother

The Alcoholic Mother-in-Law and Grandmother

By Amalah

Dear wise, witty, wonderful, neutral third party Amalah,

I’ve been reading your blog and Advice Smackdown since my 4 year old was a non-sleeping, cloth-diapered boobie monster newborn and I want to thank you for making me feel not so alone in this crazy life of being a mom. I’ve written this email in my head over and over for the last couple months, so here it finally is. I’ve got a mother-in-law situation. Or maybe it’s a husband situation. Or maybe I need a reality check. In other words, HALP!

My MIL is an alcoholic. My husband and his sister have known she’s had a drinking problem for at least the last 10 years. My SIL is a recovering alcoholic and has in the past confronted her mom when she has sent nasty emails while drunk or when she found her passed out with a dislocated shoulder. But that was years ago, before I joined the family. To my knowledge, neither has said anything to her since, despite multiple incidents that most likely were due to her being drunk (broken ankle!) MIL no longer openly drinks in front of SIL, but she does in front of my husband.

My MIL is a very sweet lady, and she and I get along just fine. I’m thankful that she is not the overbearing, nightmarish stereotypical MIL that many of my friends have. She loves her grandkids very much and tries to respect our parenting choices. However, that is where the good ends, really. She is physically and emotionally unhealthy, I believe in large part due to her drinking. She once told us she was trying medical marijuana to see if it would help her drink less (what in the actual F?!) She has an unhealthy attachment to my oldest child and clearly favors him over her other 3 grandchildren. She says things like “one day you’re going to love me more than your parents.” She takes videos nonstop of him, and when he asks why she tells him “so I can watch them over and over every night. (While she drinks.) You just don’t understand!” We have never trusted her to babysit, though she has offered numerous times. Once when I finally thought that maybe I could be okay with her watching our firstborn for less than an hour while my husband and I went out for Fro-Yo, she showed up smelling like liquor. As in she was sweating it out.

She also seems to have difficulty remembering things we tell her, such as don’t give the baby water, or that a toddler can’t play with the tiny plastic lid from her water bottle, no matter how badly he appears to want it. I’ve spent countless hours in self-reflection trying to decide if I’m being over-sensitive and over-protective. I just can’t get past it. I don’t trust her to keep my kids safe.

We moved out-of-state somewhat recently, and now that we have the distance between us, the problem actually looks bigger than it did when she lived five minutes away. We went back for a visit and stayed with her. She was drunk every single night. She followed me around one night trying to take the baby from me, stumbling and slurring her words together. She got her feelings hurt when my oldest didn’t want to sleep in her bed with her. He noticed she wasn’t acting right and was clearly weirded out by it. He was 3 at the time. She is currently visiting us, her second time since our move, and has stayed up late drinking each night.

My husband and I had a long conversation after her last visit about my concerns: 1. Her health 2. Not wanting our kids around her when she’s drunk 3. My strong discomfort with her emotionally unhealthy relationship towards our oldest 4. Enabling her by continuing to buy her beer without ever even acknowledging that we know she has a problem. The last one is really my biggest issue right now. My husband agreed after the last visit that he needs to talk to her about it. His sister won’t say anything anymore unless she sees her mom drinking or is somehow directly affected by it. He’s angry that he’s in this position in the first place and feels it’s unfair that he has to be the one to address it. I understand all of that and feel absolutely terrible about those things.

But it’s what’s happening. Pretending we don’t see it doesn’t help things get better. It’s causing him to resent his mom even more (she was not a good parent when he needed it most and he subsequently has put up strong emotional barriers). So I guess my question is am I being unreasonable or asking too much of him? I’m not asking him to stage an intervention. I feel like a simple “mom, I’m worried about you and how much I see you drinking” would be a good place to start. She goes home tomorrow and he has yet to say anything. He keeps coming up with reasons he can’t or shouldn’t.

I literally had to sneak out of the house today to go pick up some medicine for a sick kid because I didn’t want her to ask me to pick up booze for her. (My husband and I agree that I don’t need to be the one to address the situation.) Our oldest saw her putting beer in the fridge the other night and wanted to know why she needed so many. She told him it was soda for the morning, but he knew better and continued to question her while she continued to lie to him and try to redirect him. I watched her try to hide her cans throughout my fridge and then try to sneak a fresh one out and get rid of an empty can without anyone noticing. Let me assure you she is not as stealthy as she is very clearly trying to be. I feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for my husband. But I’m also just plain mad now that my kids are noticing things and that my husband won’t say anything. I’m pregnant and emotional and having a complicated pregnancy. Please set me straight here so I can take this off the list of things that are keeping me up at night.


As I started to work on my answer to your letter, I stopped, deleted the entire thing and instead forwarded it to someone in my life who is a recovering alcoholic. Someone who kicks addiction ass now, mentoring other addicts and doing all kinds of good things with their sobriety. I trust their view and opinion on this kind of situation completely.

Their advice is that contrary to the agreement that you “don’t need to be the one to address the situation,” in this case, you should. YOU be the one to speak and to put a stop to the enabling. (The enabling that you are complicit in as well, along with your husband.) Here’s why, and what should come next:

Sometimes when someone removed (her, not the husband/son) calls an alcoholic out it has more impact. You can take it from family but an outsider (even if she has been in the family ages) is a frightening wake-up call.

Call her out on everything (also a great wake up to realize you aren’t as clever as you think you are, and aren’t getting away with shit). Stop enabling. No, I won’t buy you beer/booze or have it in the house when you are here. You show up drunk you go home, or to a hotel.

Tough love really. Anything else prevents her from reaching “bottom” and is prolonging the fall. You can’t be nice or reason with an alcoholic.  You also have to be prepared to back up the tough talk with action. Talk to her when she is fairly lucid or suffering a bad hangover. If she is drunk you won’t get anywhere or get anything but excuses and denial.

The most terrifying thing any alcoholic can hear is “I know, and the gig is up.”

Obviously she and her husband have to be on the same page with setting (and enforcing) boundaries.

This makes sense to me. You’ve put your foot down on babysitting but you need to go much, much farther. No alcohol will be allowed in your house during her visits. (Give whatever stash you have to a friend or neighbor…don’t just hide it somewhere and assume she won’t go looking for it. She will.) If she shows up drunk or manages to sneak a drink at any point during the visit, she goes to a hotel. Because yes, Mom, WE CAN TELL YOU’RE DRINKING, YOU’RE NOT THAT CLEVER. You will not visit her again either unless there is no alcohol and no drinking, because you’re done with it. You will not have your children around her at all when she is drunk. Full stop. Because you know. The gig is up.

Those are the ground rules going forward, and they are set in stone. This sets her up to choose: Access to alcohol or access to her grandchildren. She cannot have both.

Tough, tough love. You are offering her a “bottom” — the loss of her beloved grandchildren because she chose alcohol instead.

And yes, this is rooted in the AA approach. Another recommendation from my source is to buy the AA book and read the first 164 pages, or The Doctor’s Opinion that explains why and how her addiction is a disease. The disease distinction is why some heavy or even problematic drinkers actually CAN drink less with medical marijuana (that is indeed a thing), but why swapping one substance for another won’t work for a true addict/alcoholic. The denial and the problems will continue, and most eventually return to their substance of choice and continue the fall. (Which sounds like your MIL already, definitely has.)

She might continue to drink. She might agree to the rules with every intention of breaking them, either because she thinks you aren’t serious about them (OH BUT YOU ARE) or because she thinks she can sneak/hide alcohol without you noticing (OH BUT SHE CAN’T). She might very well end up at a hotel instead of your house, drinking alone, waiting for you guys to “be reasonable” and give in. It might take awhile before the reality sinks in, that no, seriously, she can drink or see her grandchildren. Not both, not even once or a little bit.

Hopefully, ideally, she will realize what she’s doing: Choosing booze over her grandchildren. And it will be a sobering realization (literally), because that’s a really awful, scary thing to realize about yourself, your life, your choices. And it will be the realization that finally allows her to stand up and admit that yes, she has a problem and needs help. Help that her entire family will immediately seek to provide (support, rehab, detox, counseling, all of it), because under all the toughness, there is, and always will be, a deep and abiding love for her.

One last note: Your husband should connect with a local Al-Anon group, before/during/after you guys confront his mother and start enforcing the tough love rules and boundaries. You should  attend too, as someone deeply affected by your MIL’s drinking, and I think you’ll both find it incredibly helpful, eye-opening and validating for everything hard/tough choice you need to make from this point on. Please please give a local meeting a try, for the sake of EVERYONE involved here.

Photo source: Photodunenet/Devonyu


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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

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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  • Grace

    Amy, I don’t usually comment but thanks for addressing this topic. More couples than you know have a similar problem with a family member.

  • LMo

    This is so heartbreaking. My father is a problem drinker, not an alcoholic. By which I mean he is not physically dependent on alcohol (as far as I know), but he has a very hard time controlling his drinking on those occasions when he partakes. My mom (they are long since divorced) always said it was some type of allergy. I don’t know. But whatever it is, he’s ruined more than a few events with his drunkenness. And my brother and I noticed, and it (among a whole host of other issues) has really impacted the way we see him as adults. We view him as a distant family member, maybe a zany friend, but not a father who we trust and confide in. For the sake of your children’s relationship with your mother in law, you should definitely confront this. If she straightens out, your kids may only have lovely, fond memories of their grandmother. If she doesn’t, they’ll remember a drunken, emotionally manipulative woman who made them feel uncomfortable instead of loved. Just my two cents.

  • Vickie

    It is so interesting that the writer was supplying/buying the booze. Enabling at the highest level. And by doing so saying the behaviors were “okay”.

    I think the advice was spot on correct. Well written. Good topic.

  • IrishCream

    Please, please protect your children from this. They may not understand exactly what’s going on, but they can see that something’s wrong with Grandma, and that is very scary. It undermines a child’s sense of security and wellbeing to see a beloved adult out of control and behaving inappropriately. They will not have happy memories, and they may resent you down the road for exposing them to that situation.

    You’re not responsible for your MIL’s choice to drink, and you’re not responsible for her feelings if you enforce the very reasonable rule that you won’t be around her when she’s drinking. You are responsible for meeting your children’s needs here, and your own–you’re unhappy and anxious about this situation, and you deserve to take care of youself by setting some boundaries.

  • MR

    My first thought was, why is she being allowed to stay with you, and why are you staying with her? No. No more. And tell her exactly why. It doesn’t have to be your husband. He clearly isn’t able to have that conversation with her, so you can. But stop the visits completely as long as she is still drinking. There is absolutely no reason to subject your kids, or yourselves, to that. That isn’t you telling her to go away, that’s you setting an expectation, and she can decide whether she wants to meet it or not. So, her not meeting it is NOT your fault. That’s on her.

  • painfulboundaries

    All I have to add is: with your boundaries, make it clear that you do want her around and that you value her as a grandmother and want your children to be able to have a relationship her. She may not clean up for herself, but she might for the children.

    We have a parent living with us who has a history of prescription drug abuse. We have made it clear to this person and their doctors that if there are early refills, pill counts don’t match anticipated numbers, or behavior is impacted, they will lose their (free) housing with us, we will turn their car keys over to the police, they will be on their own to find new housing, and there will be no relationship with the grandchild. Then we make it really clear that we think that would be a huge loss to the grandchild– no story time, no meal times, no sharing toys with grandparent. This child has already lost one grandparent, and the other two are on the other side of the US. So the grandparent’s drug abuse would take very precious things away from the child.

    Lucky for us, doctors can be sued for over-prescribing, (we don’t have the energy for that, but they don’t know that) and they start typing madly when I deliver this spiel. Grandparent is at this point above buying on the street… Alcohol is much more difficult to control, I know. But you can live without alcohol. It would be cruel to deny meds in this instance.

    Don’t beat yourself up for the past… It’s very weird to be in a normal place with alcohol and then suddenly exposed to alcoholic levels of intake and try to sort out the boundaries. And it’s very weird to be treating a parent in this way. It’s for their good, your good, your children’s good. You can do it!

  • Jess

    Please, please, please keep your kids away from her (or only short, supervised visits) until when/if she gets cleaned up. I grew up having to spend a lot of time (alone) with my alcoholic grandmother, and it still affects me, decades later. Kids notice these things; it’s scary and uncomfortable for them, and it will affect them. You’re not overreacting at all. Please don’t make your young children deal with this.

  • Wow this hit close to home. My late MIL was an alcoholic and my husband would never address it. No one in her family would. She tried to hide the issue and the cans, but we knew. She passed away just over a year ago and we were finding empty and half empty cans hidden all over the house. Some of her health problems became even worse because she refused to quit drinking and her condition spiraled down very quickly. I didn’t get pregnant until after she passed, but my husband and I had both agreed that she would never be allowed to babysit. I had to hold my tongue so many times, as I felt it wasn’t my place to say anything to her. This makes me think I shouldn’t have held back…perhaps she would still be with us.

  • Shan

    My mother is an alcoholic, and for a long time, I as a teenager (starting around 13) was the only one in the house offering up the ‘tough love’ approach. And it sucked. I had zero patience for her bullshit from day 1, and while she is no longer drinking (rock bottom does often come), those years were awful and our relationship will never be what it could have been. You have to step up and set hard boundaries, even if your husband won’t. He’s obviously not ready/able to do that on his own. So you do it, because your kids need you to, and because YOU need you to.