Co-Parenting With a Mother-in-Law
My husband and I had a lovely yearlong romance before getting married. Soon after our wedding we were pregnant and moving across the country to start our life together in California, where my mother would be (and currently is) the day-care for our beautiful son. Along with us came my 14-year-old stepdaughter to live full time. Her biological mother is not in the picture and my husband – though he has always had an involved and loving relationship with his daughter – hasn’t recently lived with her until we all moved out to California. It has been a giant transition for all of us, especially my stepdaughter. She moved across the country, got a new stepmother (and a new brother), started at a new high school and had to make all new friends. She has done this with grace and courage, and a few hiccups. Nothing we can’t handle.
The advice I need, however, is about my mother-in-law (my husband’s mother), who had been my stepdaughter’s primary caretaker since she was a little girl. Although we encouraged my mother-in-law to come with us to California, she is a very independent person who very much does things on her own terms (and has other grandchildren and family back where she lives). Although we asked for her permission to bring my stepdaughter along as we started our new family, and we all agreed that it would be good for her to have a few years with her father fully involved in her life, she has been blaming us for taking her “daughter” away from her.
My stepdaughter calls my mother-in-law “Mom”, and has for a long time, even though she knows it’s really her grandmother. Their relationship goes far beyond your average grandchild/grandparent relationship. I don’t doubt that their separation weighed heavily on them both. It was why we tried to get my mother-in-law to move out to California with us, and why my stepdaughter goes back to the east coast every summer. We know it’s not easy for her to be away from where she grew up. But I also know that there is a benefit to having my stepdaughter live in our family. We provide more structure, more discipline, a more functional family setting, higher expectations.
My mother-in-law makes accusatory statements, that we are overbearing, controlling, borderline abusive. That we are too hard on my stepdaughter, demand too much in terms of grades and chores, and don’t let her do things that she should be able to do – like get a driver’s permit or a smartphone. We believe, on the other hand, that my stepdaughter has some issues that came precisely from being raised by a coddling, overloving grandparent – namely, a bit of laziness, selfishness and lying. She has little experience with enforced consequences, discipline or simply the word “no.” We believe things need to be earned, and sometimes taken away when trust or promises are broken. We believe in working toward goals rather than having things handed out. In other words, we have a vastly different parenting style.
It is clear to me that my husband and I are being a little insensitive in trying to newly raise a teenager who was raised just-fine-thank-you-very-much before we intervened and changed their worlds around. But we also feel that there will be some good that comes out of our approach, some balancing out to the coddling that has gone on for more than a decade. But it’s currently shattered our relationship with my mother-in-law and strains the one with my stepdaughter.
At this point I feel I have a good relationship with my stepdaughter, with a fairly equal amount of “this is great” and “this sucks”. But with my mother-in-law, it is a dead zone. She doesn’t speak to me, I don’t speak to her. Her conversations with my husband are more loving and polite, but often turn to screaming matches about how we parent. What I’d like to know from you is, who do you think is right?
Yeah, I don’t think this is really a question of one side being “right” and the other side being “wrong.” And I couldn’t possibly make that call, especially since your entire letter is written in a way that clearly presents your side as the right one. (It’s okay, I’m used to that.)
Of COURSE, structure and limits and discipline are important. Of COURSE overly-permissive parenting has behavioral consequences, and I have no doubt that you are doing worlds of long-term good by teaching this girl the word “no” and personal responsibility and all that.
But quote marks around “daughter” and “Mom” aside, it’s clear that both your step-daughter and MIL are hurting so deeply right now, grieving over their separation. A 14 year old just moved across the country away from the only mother she’s ever own, and a woman went from raising a child to living alone. We can all agree on paper that the arrangement is good and “what’s best” for your step-daughter, but dang. I can’t imagine being in either of their shoes. I’d be a mess either way. Grieving, hurting people lash out and sometimes say things they don’t mean, or say things they DO mean but the feelings behind the words are rooted in grief and anger. It’s not right, but it’s also not something I’d call “wrong” because grief is an irrational mood monster.
Now, you may have left this out, but since it’s not mentioned specifically: Family counseling. For all of you. Get MIL on the phone for a few sessions, and also get a professional your step-daughter can talk to on her own. If she can vent to a third-party who will both validate her feelings of grief and upheaval while also upholding your behavior expectations, maybe she won’t feel so compelled to run back to her grandmother to tell her how mean y’all are being. Make sure she knows the therapist isn’t there to “fix” her or is some kind of punishment for the “hiccups along the way,” but is really just a safe space for her to talk about her feelings about having her entire life turned upside-down.
If she is in therapy/counseling, awesome. If the three of you have attended family counseling, great. Even better if you have a counselor who is willing to include your MIL with a united goal of successful co-parenting. You may be dealing with your MIL, but in this situation it’s remarkably similar to dealing with an ex-wife with a different parenting style. Only it’s your husband’s MOM, which…yeah. Family counseling, dudes.
I certainly can’t fix this from my computer screen. Obviously it’s your step-daughter’s best interest for you guys and her grandmother to present more of a united front, and I don’t know if your MIL is capable of that, at least not right now. I know it must SUCK to constantly be made to be the “bad guys” over what you see as appropriate parenting, but since your step-daughter spends every summer with her grandmother this is not a relationship that you can just let ice over or ghost from. (You KNOW she’ll just overcompensate for your mean-y meanness with even more indulgence, which will just make everything much harder.) You guys need to take this to a neutral third party — one other than me, and thus more qualified to help you all work through the differences and accusations and grief.