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I'm Being Guilted Back Into The Toxic Family Sludge

How to Make Changes When Your MIL Won’t Change

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

I’ve been reading up on your wonderful MIL/DIL relationship advice and am coming to you for help.

Struggles with my MIL started about nine years ago when my husband and I got engaged, and have ebbed and flowed since then. My MIL has lived her entire life being in charge and in control, she’s passive aggressive, plays the martyr card often, lacks empathy, gossips, is fake, doles out the guilt trips, and is judgmental. She’s undeniably the matriarch within my husband’s extended family and everyone simply falls in-line under her direction. If she wants it, she gets it and doesn’t care about the feelings of others. She’s never had a MIL of her own, doesn’t have a daughter or sisters and was the sole focus of her parent’s attention.

There have been countless hurtful things she’s done… from sending out her own save-the-date cards to our wedding, to having a separate first birthday celebration for my firstborn while I was at work, to even accusing my husband and I of not caring about family because we celebrated New Year’s Day with my mother (who was recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy) instead of her. The latest incident was a hurtful message she sent to my husband filled with her “thoughts” about my mother, sister and I, trying to drive a wedge between my husband and my family. Truly, I could go on and on.

In full disclosure, I am a pretty sensitive person, I’m intimidated by my MIL, I do not like confrontation, I want to be liked by all and I take everything to heart. I’m working on letting things “roll off my back.” I’ve made some improvements, but this just goes against the way I’m hardwired.

My husband has never had a particularly close relationship with his mom (even strained at times), but has also made it clear to me that he is exhausted with hearing about my grievances with her (which I completely understand and have no resentment towards my husband about).

My husband and I have two children and a third child due to arrive in a couple months. My childcare situation is as follows: I work from home one day a week and my mom and my MIL each watch our kids two days a week. We’re so blessed to have this support system – I know… I really, really do.

With baby number three due to arrive soon, I’m looking to make some changes while I’m on maternity leave. After nine years of major and minor issues with my MIL, I’m looking at myself and not liking the woman I see. I’m carrying around so much hurt that I’m bitter and resentful. Even if my MIL does something genuinely nice for me or my kids, I can find fault with it. I’ve noticed I’m spending a lot of energy venting about her to others and stewing internally. I’m allowing this person, who I know I cannot change, to suck up my happiness. I don’t like this about myself. In short, I need a MIL break. I need distance and time so I can forgive and forget. At some point, my happiness and well-being has to take priority, right?

I want to hire a part-time nanny and remove childcare duties from my MIL. I think this will help me, but I know this will not go over well with her. At the end of the day, I want to be a great wife, mom and even DIL, and I just can’t be those things when I’m unhappy and practically hate her.

What do you think about this idea? Am I missing alternative solutions to solving my problem? Any recommendations for kindly communicating a change in childcare to her?

Thank you so much for your advice.

Signed,
I need a MIL break.

Hmmmmm.

So two things I am historically not a fan of: Horrible mother-in-laws and anyone who assumes that “free” childcare provided by family members is always going to be awesome and wonderful and yay. Two things I AM a fan of: Taking control of your sanity and happiness and also paid professional childcare.

And yet I can’t say I’m feeling your plan here 100%.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE YOU’RE SAYING. I get it. I really do get it.

But after reading your letter, it doesn’t seem like most (or any?) of your issues with your MIL actually stem from the care she provides for you children? So I worry by hiring a part-time nanny and doing away with — frankly — the one actually really nice thing she does for your family is not going to resolve any of your issues with her, but will instead open up a whole new can of worms and drama.

You admit that after years of petty slights and personality clashes, your perspective on her is pretty skewed and that it’s hard for you to give her credit for anything genuinely nice or helpful, and I think changing up the childcare arrangement for her (and only her) is an extension of that mindset. Maybe if you were going to get a part-time nanny for all four days, that would give you the disentanglement you desperately want without…well, nuclear-level family fallout with a woman who already is engaged in a weird competition with your mother. I really don’t see ANY way you can tell her you’re replacing her with a nanny (but not your mom) and have this end in anything other than a really ugly, big old mess, and strain the relationship to a breaking point.

So am I saying you’re trapped and are completely obligated to continue this arrangement indefinitely while sinking further into a bitter soup of MIL hatred? No. I’m just thinking that there are better ways to climb out of that soup bowl without blowing up the one thing about her that you COULD actually look at in a positive, grateful way. Or at least just neutral, or zen. And without her screeching off the rooftops about you “firing” her and not your mother and without dragging your husband into an awkward spot between his wife and his mother.

I feel like I’m suggesting therapy and counseling an awful lot these days, probably because I (re-)started therapy a few months and hooooooo boy, it’s been eye-opening to discover just how off your perspective and/or coping skills can get, and how great it can feel to get a clean reset via a neutral third party.

Here are the things you say you want:

  • You want to let go of your bitterness and hurt.
  • You want to stop venting to everyone you know and internally stewing about every little thing.
  • You want to separate her jackass behavior from your happiness.

These are all EXCELLENT, healthy things, and I think they are indeed essential goals in order for you to be happy and focused on being a good wife, mom and person.

But.

A part-time nanny isn’t going to give you any of those things. A therapist won’t automatically give you those things either, since those are all changes that need to be made internally. An external change in childcare might feel good in theory (and even in practice, eventually), but all the ugly feelings you’re hoping to purge will still be there under the surface.

And if — nay, when — your MIL feels super hurt and unfairly treated or infers that you’re making the change because of something babysitting-related she did (rather than all the other crap she’s done), you’ll basically be handing her more ammo to passive-aggressively wield against you. I can already hear it: “She thinks a STRANGER can take better care of MY GRANDCHILDREN!!!111!!”

Again, I don’t want you to feel hostage to your current arrangement. But to maybe first focus on those good, internal changes that need to come from you. Work on the “letting crap go” and a better sense that while she’s never going to be your favorite person, she’s probably not a murderous Disney villain incarnate. Promise to only vent about her to your therapist. Go ahead and rehash and unpack everything nutbar thing she’s done for a few sessions. Then do the internal work on letting it all go. (“It all” meaning the bitterness, old hurts, and the temptation to stockpile every tiny thing — good or bad — that she does into your arsenal of soul-stealing hate.)

Once you’ve done all that and gotten to a better mental space about her (and I’d be remiss not to point out that pregnancy hormones might not be helping you get there right now), you can then objectively re-visit the childcare arrangement with a clear heart and eyes. Maybe you’ll find an ability to kill with kindness or focus on nurturing a feeling of gratitude rather than your grudges. Or maybe you’ll clearly see that yes, your mother-in-law undermines your authority too regularly or won’t let a pick-up or drop-off go by without getting in a hurtful dig. At that point go ahead and say, “I’ve done everything I can to make this work. It’s not working, and I’m not dealing with it anymore. And whatever tantrum she throws over that decision is not going to affect me one way or the other, because I’m above it, and completely over her.”

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 amyadvice@gmail.com.

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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