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Full-Time Grandma Is a Full-Time Problem

Full-Time Grandma Is a Full-Time Problem

By Amalah

Myself, my fiancé, her 5 year old son (who’s life I’ve been a part of since he was 2.5 years old), and my mother-in-law-to-be (grandma) live in the same house. At first, it was just the three of us and after she suffered some financial issues we let grandma move in with us.

Well, after a few months of her living with us we’ve faced a fair amount of issues. For example, if our little guy doesn’t sleep upstairs in her room at night with her, she sobs and won’t speak to us (tantrum like). And when he sleeps in his bed at night, she sleeps downstairs in his bed. During Dr. appointments she answers the doctor’s questions that were asked to mom. If our 5 year old wants to spend time with us as opposed to her, she makes him feel bad with guilt trips until he decides he doesn’t want to spend time with us but rather with her. At the slightest cry for help (even during tasks he’s very capable of doing) she jumps to assist him, limiting his independence and making herself the one he needs to depend on.

We’ve tried to tell her that these behaviors are unacceptable and that she is grandma and not mom. Our requests have gone unnoticed. We don’t want to make her find her own place until she is ready but we also need her to respect our wishes. I put my foot down when things get too out of control, but being step dad, I’m met with criticism and a lack of “power” in the situation. Grandma is our little guy’s go-to-person for personal issues and comfort because she’s put him in a position where he needs to rely on her instead of teaching him independence, so when we intervene he becomes very upset at us. When it’s just us three, he’s a phenomenal kid. Respectful, independent, well spoken, and fun. The moment grandma walks in the door he turns into the opposite of those things. We’re just not sure what to do.

Shop talk: This question has sat in the queue for awhile, unanswered, because…well. Jeez. Talk about a culmination of every common in-law/grandparent complaint (spoiling! boundary-crossing! guilt-tripping!) only all the time, 24/7!

I completely sympathize and understand the particularly awkward position you’re in as a not-yet-married step-dad-to-be, since it’s a more extreme version of what one typically goes through when dealing with a partner’s parent. It’s not “your place” and a weird power imbalance. There’s a lot of “we’ve tried” and “we want” references in your letter so I’m going to assume you and your fiance are on the same page about Grandma’s behavior, but in the end, the only Foot Put Downing that’s going to change anything has to come from her. This tends to be true in most in-law disputes, and other than pushing up the timeline for her to move out, I don’t really see any other solution here.

I would focus on a couple Non-Acceptable things and have your fiance make more than a request, but make a rule. (And of course you can be present and supportive as a united front, but I think the words need to come out of her mouth.) Staying home and NOT accompanying your fiance to doctor’s appointments, school conferences, stuff like that is one thing that needs to happen. And OH MY GOD: The sleeping arrangements need to change, like, IMMEDIATELY. It is so totally weird and unhealthy that a grown woman is throwing tantrums over sleeping alone and dragging a small child into it as her sleep crutch. Nope nope nope. Your son needs to learn to sleep alone and so does Grandma. Full stop. Ignore her tantrums like you’d ignore them from a toddler.

If she refuses to sleep in her room alone and breaks the rule, she needs to move out. I know that sounds so heartless (HAPPY HOLIDAYS) but that behavior is completely unacceptable. A 5 year old should not be sleeping in the same bed as Grandma. Especially when the arrangement is really All About Grandma.

If she’s not financially ready to secure her own place, is there any way you guys can help? Put down a deposit on an apartment and maybe commit to a small portion of the rent for a set period of time? Because given what you’ve laid out here, I feel like the “cost” of having her stay with you is already getting pretty out of hand and your son’s general development/independence is being seriously stunted by her presence in the home.

Occasional spoiling by grandparents isn’t a big deal, but her full-time over-attachment to her grandson kind of is. (Again! With the sleeping in his bed! WTF NO NO NO.) The fact that you’re seeing a regular, definite regression in his behavior around her elevates this above your typical “ugh my 5-year-old gets too much sugar at Grandma’s house during Thanksgiving and it takes us a couple days to regulate his behavior at home” issue.

I’ll be interested to hear if the commenters can find any middle ground here, but like I said, I’ve been sitting on this situation for awhile now hoping to come up with anything other than what I’ve said already. Which is basically: your fiance can try one last Hail Mary Foot Down Here Are The Rules and seeing if she’s capable of obeying…or doing whatever you guys can do to get her out on her own and back to the appropriate role as Grandma Is A Sometimes Food, as it were.

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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  • Amy

    November 30, 2015 at 9:35 am

    I have never been in love with someone who had kids from a prior relationship, but if I were the letter writer I would be thinking long and hard about whether or not to break off this engagement.  

    Grandma is not going anywhere.  If she won’t go to bed without a tantrum about the son, do you honestly think she’s going to move across town – or even next door – without an epic meltdown? Hint: she won’t.

    You have to assess the situation you are in, not the situation as it would be ideal.  Do you really want to live with Grandma until she dies?

    And what if she doesn’t croak before the kid is 18?  Fastforward this ten years – what is manageable in a 5 year old is quickly going to become a nightmare when he’s 15. Imagine a disrespectful, dependent, uncommunicative, and un-fun teenager living in your house – potentially with your biological kids (his half-siblings) – making your life miserable and teaching your future bio-kids by his poor example. Imagine your future bio-kids feeling like second class citizens because live-in granny dotes on the son and not on your future kids, because they aren’t “hers.”  

    I have step-relatives who I care about and get along with very well, but they aren’t relatives.  As much as I might care about someone I happen to be related by marriage to, blood is thicker than someone else’s vows, and my real siblings/relatives are always first.  The steps come somewhere behind my entire bio-family and all my close friends, and I’m a really nice person and I get along with everyone, honestly. But after 25 years of being steps, they’re on the level of “friend, but not close friend, someone that I would send a Christmas card to if I sent them, and I might have lunch with once in a while – not someone I call often or care to spend holidays with” – and that’s from an ideal situation where none of us were assholes.

    If the LW has any sense at all, he will give one last ultimatum, in the form of “Grandma is ruining your son, and you either get her OUT of this house or I will go.”  And that conversation needs to be private, because her son is going to resent you for kicking his doting granny out.  Either that, or don’t complain in 10 years when you’re dealing with a nightmare of a teenager, because I told ya so.

    And in the future, if you let someone move in with you, you have to put a timer on it.  “You will get your life together and be out by January 31, 2016,” or they will never leave.

    (I feel like a hypocrite saying this, because my husband let my dad live with us when his life fell apart, and he never asked for anything or told him to get a job – but he knew that *I* was pushing my dad to get his sh*t together, so it wasn’t the same situation at all, and Dad wasn’t ruining my kids while he was with us, and he did move out after about 8 months.)

    • Stephanie

      November 30, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Not that I don’t agree with your comments, but those new children would still be her biological grandchildren, not her step-grandchildren. They’d still be “hers”.

      • Amy

        November 30, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        Oh, good point. Duh.

  • Caroline

    November 30, 2015 at 10:55 am

    I’m with the previous poster. You go out with your fiancée and explain that though it breaks your heart, you cannot continue like this and granny must move out on a set time line and unless she can agree to and stick to boundaries (the sleeping thing… ew…), she must leave immediately. I’d make it a 3 month timeline because that is long enough for her to get organised re another place (no you do not have to in any way facilitate nor finance any of this. Clearly this woman has raised at least one child, hasn’t she? A great big grown up lady can put on her big girl panties and get her life organised). It sounds like a total power struggle and I’m sure your fiancée is completely beside herself about it, but really, your stepson is the one being harmed here and it must end. It’s weird and inappropriate and unless those boundaries can be enforced with no backsliding, I see no real happy future in this relationship unless and until granny goes away, ideally somewhere far, far away.

  • Kerry

    November 30, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    There’s a biography of Lyndon Johnson in which his younger brother describes how he used to end up a pawn in Lyndon and their fathers’ power struggles, with both of them wanting the younger brother to sleep in their bed to help keep warm. However….this was in the 1920s in the foothills of Texas, in a house they couldn’t afford to heat in the winter. But remembering that makes me think that the first question you might need to ask if there are some major cultural differences (either generational or foreign) between you and the grandmother about what bed sharing means. Not because the grandmother’s behavior doesn’t need to stop, but because the better you understand it the better equipped you will be to explain to her and maybe your wife…if she doesn’t understand already…why this could quickly become uncomfortable for your son in modern day American culture. 

    But I’m with the commenters above. This whole situation signals to me that you have to have some serious conversations with your fiance about child-rearing philosophies, and they have to be the kind of conversations where you are willing to leave if it becomes clear that you won’t be able to raise children in a healthy way in this relationship. That includes if your wife is going to prioritize an emotionally unhinged mother (if she is emotionally unhinged) over her/your children, and that includes (if there are cultural differences) confronting how far outside of the American mainstream you are willing/able to adapt to. 

  • JPG

    November 30, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Anybody else want to agree with Cry It Out sleep training for grandma?

    • Autumn

      December 1, 2015 at 12:10 am

      Like my 4 year old is learning, temper tantrums are less fun if nobody pays attention.  Also around here you loose your netflix privileges.  Which might be enough to get Grandma’s attention

      All kidding aside, not a healthy situation and Grandma needs to follow some rules (including why is she coming to doctor appointments?) or move out.  

      OP:  I’m glad you are trying to solve the problem and be supportive of a better situation for this little boy rather than just walking away.  

  • JPG

    November 30, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    This paradigm that Grandma is sowing is a presage for a toxic relationship in the future with all parties involved. It’s very controlling, manipulative, and quite frankly reminds me of controlling, emotional abuse type behavior that I experienced with a former partner and continue to see in other relationships that have some form of emotional abuse, narcissism, and boundaries issues. I can recall a former partner of mine who isolated me, made me rely on his financial and emotional support, and essentially crippled me from extricating myself from the relationship. I don’t mean to be so dramatic, but when a child forms these kinds of relationships early on in their life, they then to find ways to mirror that in other parts of their life in the future. OP, follow Amy’s advice. It’s perfect.

  • M

    November 30, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    when I first read this alarms were SCREAMING in my head. THIS IS NOT GOOD this is not healthy. Then I got to thinking why on earth someone would act that way.
    Is something going on or has something happened in gma’s past that is making her feel like she needs to guard that child when she is sleeping ??
    have her daughter talk to her calmly. set some firm boundaries and expectations. I think the answering questions issue is normal to being the mom – the one is charge – I imagine it is difficult to turn that off – but just gently, respectfully let her know – hey, I’ve got this.

  • Jeannie

    November 30, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    If it were me, I’d be wondering if Grandma wasn’t suffering from a mental health crisis. If this behaviour in keeping with how she’s been all her life? Or is it new? Because it sounds like a woman who is mentally ill and needs help. It’s simply not normal to weep over not being able to sleep with a five year old grandchild. And it’s certainly unhealthy to guilt blackmail a small child (even if alas more common than we would all like). So maybe if the family isn’t comfortable with ultimatums, a doctor’s visit might be a good idea?

  • Robin

    November 30, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    The sleeping situation is INCREDIBLY concerning to me. It is very inappropriate, and I don’t know your family, so I can’t know for sure if anything beyond an “emotional crutch” is happening, but what your letter describes sounds a lot like Emotional Incest. Please look into this immediately, as even if nothing physically inappropriate is happening, this type of situation is very emotionally damaging.

  • K

    November 30, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    Everyone is so kind and supportive on this site – even Amy suggests possibly paying to help Grandma move out. That sounds…a lot like taking responsibility for someone else. And I’ll even be meaner and say that this doesn’t sound like just a “grandma’s overbearing/crazy” but a “‘my fiancé isn’t capable of setting normal, healthy boundaries for herself and her child”. My mom/parents are very close to us (we live a few blocks from each other), but I would never allow her/invite her to my son’s doctor appointment. That seems…very strange. As strange as having anyone sleep in my son’s bed. So. I would say maybe focusing on your fiancé and how she’s choosing to handle this, and as some have said, have a very frank conversation about how you envision parenting in the future. And maybe talking about what happens if Grandma “refuses” to honor your boundaries. And maybe grab a therapist for those conversations. Because I see red flags alllllll over. Good luck!

    • Rachel

      December 4, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you!!! How is giving yourself new financial obligations to someone going to free you from their control? They need to set a deadline for her to be out and stick with it, no matter how much she throws a temper tantrum. It’s not setting boundaries if you are just switching which area she has control over. Her behavior is at best controlling, manipulative, and borderline abusive!

    • Another K

      December 5, 2015 at 7:44 am

      YES re: fiancé’s poor boundaries. LW, let me tell you, if she’s close enough to grandma to invite her to move in, these are family dynamics with a long history and a long reach. They WILL factor into your relationship going forward, and your fiancé’s tacit acceptance of this behavior should be a huge red flag for you. Proceed with caution, possibly with therapy. 

  • Kari

    December 1, 2015 at 2:07 am

    I agree with Jeannie, if this is new behaviour for grandma, I’d definitely concider something like early onset dementia. But if she’s always been like this, a hard line is the only way to go, because her behaviour is totally unacceptable.

  • S

    December 2, 2015 at 1:40 am

    Get out. Holy crap, get out. Are you thinking about having kids? I mean, more, your kids? If so, holy oh my God now GET OUT! This isn’t something you need advice to fix. It’s beyond effing insane.

  • Kim

    December 4, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I have an uncle who married a woman and their marriage was toxic. When they had kids (my cousins), they had his mom (our grandmother) move in to take care of the kids. What happened was that the kids ended up being very dependent on grandma but in my opinion it was a healthy level of attachment. She was more of a caregiver than the parents were because both parents worked. We all would prefer that grandma goes back to our home country to retire than to remain an unpaid babysitter to my uncle and his back-then-wife. But she was doing it to help out and was often made to feel emotionally coerced.

     Now the woman my uncle married was ungrateful and conniving. She resented the attachment and would say things like she didn’t want her kids to grow up dumb like grandma (grrr!). This was said when she and my uncle fought (which was often). So I can imagine that if this woman were to write in for advice, her story would be very different. And the person I blame the most for grandma’s predicament was my own uncle for guilting grandma into sticking around or never defending her in front of his ex-wife back then. So I just want to say that either there might be more to the story, or the fiancée should be the one responsible for making changes. The fiancée should put her foot down and stop this madness if it’s as bad as the OP said. Maybe it’s not the grandma who wanted it, or maybe the grandma doesn’t know her boundaries. Either reason, it’s up to the fiancée to set her straight. And if the fiancée won’t, then OP should get out before it’s too late.

    My uncle and this woman have divorced and are currently still locked in courtroom proceedings. The people who suffered are the kids, now 16 and 12. It was a loooong miserable marriage. Please think about whether this family is right for you to join before innocent people get hurt.

    • Jay

      December 8, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      Just wanted to point out that working parents can also be caregivers.  And just because someone isn’t working doesn’t mean they are a good caregiver.

  • Kim303

    December 14, 2015 at 8:17 am

    I’d like to offer a perspective from the child’s POV, if I may…

    Speaking as someone who was sexually abused by a close relative and had a caregiver (not the same person) who was extremely emotionally manipulative, I feel I can speak to both points here: The inappropriate level of physical intimacy your MIL is requiring of your stepson and the manipulative manner in which she’s running your house. 

    The long-term damage done by both people in my young life was extensive. I certainly don’t know your family well after reading only one letter, but oh my–it was like reading a piece of my own history: emotional abuse, forced physical closeness, weird power plays and dynamics. 

    Sure, it may seem your stepson prefers her company, but I promise you–he knows something is very, very off in this situation. Whether there is a physical abuse component or not, he hears, sees and understands more than you think he does. He’s aware the dynamics are off and it is affecting him (as evidenced by his behavioral changes when G’ma is around.)

    It’s no longer a “let’s not upset the old lady” situation. It is now a “we need to protect this young man from emotional and possibly physical abuse” situation. As his stepdad, I know you love him. Show him by giving him a home where emotional abuse is not tolerated and healthy, loving relationships are created. 

    Personally, I think the situation is big enough that it warrants some outside help. A counselor to help your fiance with whatever issues are keeping her bound so tightly to her mother and to help the young boy understand that this is NOT OK.

    If your fiance won’t step up and demand changes from her mother, I agree with the above poster that you may need to leave the situation. If you do, though, please make sure someone is aware of what’s going on there. Silence is the enemy when it comes to abuse. (I know you may not like the term ‘abuse’, but emotional abuse–with a physical component– seems to be an appropriate word here.)

    I wish you three all the best for a healthy, happy future.