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Mother-in-Laws, Grief & Boundaries

Mother-in-Laws, Grief & Boundaries

By Amalah

I would like to preface by saying the MIL is really good with my son. They play well together and he seems happy to see her when she arrives. I love that he loves his grandma and I hope they have a good relationship going forward. I honestly, want that to continue.

From the day my son was born she has been bossy, demanding, and intrusive. I realize part of this is our fault. We knew we should set boundaries from the beginning and when I became stressed with her we planned to do just that and then boom…her longtime boyfriend and love of her life passed away. It was unexpected, and very sad and it just felt like “laying down the law” with her needed to wait. She took the loss very, very hard. She immediately made very needy comments about needing to be involved with us more. Needing to see our son every day. Needing to be like a third parent. At the time, my very weak husband just nodded and shushed her through the tears and went with it. Honestly, I don’t know that I could have handled it better. When someone is in that much pain how do you say – absolutely not you need a life of your own!

Well, now here we are 4 months after her partner’s death and she has driven me so crazy I can barely be around her. First of all, she is over all the time. Pretty much daily. I work full-time so when I get home I want to spend time with our baby, not to be selfish, but because I miss him terribly. And maybe having her around all the time would be okay if she didn’t feel the need to comment on everything that has to do with our son. What he eats, what he wears, how we hold him, how he sleeps, whose house he goes to, how he gets there, I mean there isn’t one thing this woman hasn’t had a comment about. And the way she does it is just ridiculous. She gasps, sometimes even jumping in front of us as if to cover him and says stuff with a horrified look on her face as if I am Michael Jackson dangling him from a balcony. It is the most over-dramatic stuff I have ever seen. And every time she can tell we are annoyed, she goes totally self deprecating. I guess I’m no help at all. I guess I just annoy you guys. I guess I am a bad grandmother because I care and love him so much. Cue the tears… Ugh!

So, the obvious dilemma is that I need to set boundaries and I need to do it quickly. Her partner’s memorial service is mid-March and I feel like that will bring her some closure as far as that goes. I thought maybe I’d give her a week or two and then sit her down and let her know how I am feeling and my husband is somewhat on board. She is driving him nuts as well, but he says she has been treating him like he is a 5 year old since he was an actual 5 year old and he has got use to it. He does; however, understand it is upsetting for me and agrees that she needs some boundaries set. Basically I need help doing this:

1) I want to make it clear that I am NOT willing to co-parent with anyone other than my husband. I will never be willing to do so, and I will always be firm on that. I appreciate her advice, and have taken some, but that I want her to keep the role as grandma and my husband and I are his only parents.

2) She recently mentioned she wants to be our only sitter and when she retires very soon she wants to watch our son full time. And maybe she could help out with child care occasionally, but I do not want her as a full time nanny. I don’t want to cross professional and family relationships as far as child care goes. I like that I can tell our daycare and our current sitter exactly what I want and they understand if they want to keep getting paid, they need to comply. Not to say I am a tyrant, but like most parents I want my child raised a specific way and I don’t want to have to worry about someones feelings or how they think it should be done. When you outsource care to qualified strangers, it is just easier to list your demands and if they can’t handle it they quit. With family it could end relationships. What is a gentle way to say thanks, but no thanks?

3) How do I handle my husband. I love him to death, but he can be kind of a wet kleenex at times. He seems to feel like his mother is very fragile and that she is alone in the world and she needs to be always involved in our lives in order to be happy. He thinks that if I tell her stuff like I refuse to co-parent or I don’t want your help as a nanny, she will be hurt and sad and he feels bad about that. I’m talking about a man who felt badly about destroying an ant hill in our yard because he felt guilt killing the ants and their families. He really hates to hurt people and really hates to disappoint them.

In closing, I want to keep things civil, but I also want her to hear me and know that I am not going to back down. I can get heated quickly and I don’t want this to turn into me yelling at her until she runs out in tears. I get she doesn’t have much other family and she sees us as all she has. And I get we are now family, and she will be in our lives, but don’t we (myself, husband, and son) get to have our own lives too? Do our feelings not matter because she is all alone? Am I a horrible bitch for doing this to someone that has had such a huge loss?

Any advice you can give would be great. Thanks! –Feeling Suffocated

I wonder if instead of framing the discussion solely as a Come To Jesus, Layin’ Down the Law sort of thing, you make it more of a “hey, we’re seeing more and more of X. Y. and Z since your partner’s passing, and we’re getting a little concerned about it. Obviously we can’t be a replacement for him, and we think you might benefit from some grief counseling or a loss support group.”

Like, I know she’s ALWAYS been this way to some degree, but the conversation might go a little better if you start from a point of “we’re bringing all this up because we love and care about you” rather than “YOU’RE DRIVING US CRAZY, STOP IT.” (Though believe me, I know she is genuinely driving you crazy. Everything you wrote 1) gave me secondhand anxiety, 2) was eerily fa-millllll-iar, and 3) is why we live three hours away from my in-laws.)

You can point to the self-deprecating comments and crying after every little perceived slight as one example of a concerning behavior, along with the drastic increase in visits/involvement and the lack of any other social outlets. Could she be struggling with some (understandable) depression? Again, you understand she’s suffered a major loss and of course it’s wonderful that she loves her grandson so much, but you guys can’t be her partner’s replacement, and you’re worried she’s starting to think of you that way. Tell her gently that you will not be making any changes to your childcare arrangements during the day after she retires, so she’ll need to find other people and activities to fill her time. Perhaps a grief counselor or support group would be better able to get her to a point where that’s more doable.

It’s very normal for people’s worlds to shrink dramatically after the loss of a partner, at least temporarily. I would actually recommend your HUSBAND talk to a therapist or counselor as well, to help HIM navigate HER grief, and how to gently set boundaries and assert himself more. A grieving but condescending/overbearing mother is STILL a condescending/overbearing mother and her grief shouldn’t be an all-access pass to run roughshod all over you both. But since she IS his mother and IS deeply grieving, I think the situation warrants a level of professional advice, beyond just some rando writing an online advice column.

One of (many) things I was unprepared for after my father passed away was how his death impacted my relationship with my mother. We were both grieving, but grieving VERY differently. Without getting into too many specifics (which really aren’t relevant to your situation), I wish that I’d been talking to someone. I felt like I was handling my grief pretty well on my own, but I was at a complete loss on how to handle my mother’s, and what to say (or NOT to say) to her. As a result, we had some conversations needlessly go very badly, lots of misunderstandings and hurt feelings on both sides. Since you’ll be dealing with quite a boundary balancing act here, perhaps have a practice conversation with a grief professional before unloading it on the actual grieving person.

Photo source: Depositphotos/SRphotos


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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 [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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  • C

    March 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    We are always in a very similar situation with my in laws. They are big time boundary breakers. My mother in law suffers from depression (likely bipolar, per some professional views of our situation) and uses her grandchildren and expectations of our family to fill a void left because of her illness and lack of coping strategies, medication, etc. It’s always been an issue, but by the time we had our second kid in less than two years, I had it. My husband, who was quicker to forgive and forget, would repress any emotions and take it out on me. Finally, after a pretty bad fight, I used my EAP services and scheduled couples’ counseling, which my husband agreed to really reluctantly. We have an otherwise strong marriage. After 3 sessions, it was seriously life changing. Talking it out in a neutral setting makes a huge difference because the two of you have to be on the same page. I realized that I was letting some secondary trauma (from my high stress public service job) allow me to set up walls and my husband realized that he needed to be more flexible when situations occur as far as when we see them and being willing to reschedule. Our marriage is so much better and this situation is so much easier to deal with (it will never go away, but now we have a plan in place and execute it, thus preventing bad situations from spiraling out of control with my in laws and in our relationship.). Please consider couples counseling. If it’s not this, there will be other boundaries broken and you need to have a plan moving forward that works for both of you. Good luck!

  • JIllian

    March 20, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    I’m an only child and my mother is a widow who lives half a mile away from us. Additionally, my mother is 100% Italian and we Italians often have a different cultural perspective on boundaries. We see my mother almost every day and she’s extremely involved with our children. All that to say that I totally get the idea of a very, very present grandparent. My mom is much more respectful than your MIL now, but when her husband died she was an absolute needy basket case for at least a year (sorry). I just have two thoughts for you: One is that our situation may indicate that she will mellow over time and be much better at coping, thus less of a nightmare for you. The second is that there seems to be one obvious way your husband could help here. He is her first baby. I think it could go a long way if your husband made a concerted effort to spend some more 1:1 time with his mom, not just helping her manage her grief but also reminding her about life outside her grandchild. If he goes to the movies with her, takes her out to dinner, takes her for a walk, just goes to her house and eats with her, etc, that could help fill that void that right now seems to be only filled by the baby. He could even help her work out how to build her own social life. He sounds like a sensitive guy. I know time is precious and that he wants to spend time with the baby, with you as a family, etc. But some time for her might be a very good long-term investment and also truly good for everyone. I always try to think through grandparent issues from the perspective of how I hope my sons will handle me some day (and I also make mental notes about the way I should treat their some-day partners).

  • Caroline

    March 21, 2017 at 4:36 am

    I think the idea of raising the idea of counselling to help HER is a great one, and probably very needed. One fairly-easily won battle will be the ”I prefer to use professional care-givers for our son (for the reasons you outlined, which have nothing to do with her personally and are very valid and fair)”. She cannot make you cave since you’re likely the one who does the arrangements, regardless of what her son says. You just keep up the arrangement. The end.

    I like the idea of him spending a bit of time with her and her alone, as in, not with the baby or you, because this will give A/ you alone time with YOUR CHILD and B/ her a bit of interest and perspective and a chance to see that the outside world does continue to exist.

    Ultimately you and your husband need to be on the same page, and if he is prepared to sacrifice you, his wife, and your happiness and comfort, then that’s not kind and giving at all. Tell him you feel relegated and you and he need to work out some fair compromises (there will be some) for how to deal with his mom, but that when he reneges and back tracks, it makes you feel awful and undermined. He’s got used to a domineering and manipulative woman treating him like a toddler (and that’s what the self-deprecating remarks and tears are, simple manipulation), but you haven’t. If she does that, just agree with her and see what she does (snivelling, lots of… and then?). She will leave in a snit but when you don’t call and don’t apologise, she will very, very quickly come to realise that it doesn’t work. I’ve had to do it with my own mother ”I’m so silly, I get everything wrong”. Me ”yes, well I did ask that you NOT DO XYZ a few times”. Outraged silence. Tears.,, ,,, ,,, ,,, ”well I’ll just leave SINCE I’M UNWANTED”… … …

    A few days later, all smiles again. Like a toddler.

    Anyway. Only you can best judge what points to be 100% firm on, and where there might be give and take. her partner’s death is obviously extremely sad, and I’m sure she DOES need care and attention, but not at the expense of your mental health. Had he lived, you wouldn’t have seen her until it suited her. Now he’s gone, you’re expected to immediately leap. She would benefit from some counselling and ideally from joining in activities / groups with interests she has. By enabling her to not do any of that, her depression and glomming on will continue forever.

  • lindsay

    March 21, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    One thing I want to point out about your husband’s disinterest in helping you in this situation . . . while he might be trying to save his mother from disappointment, he is letting you and your baby down. He needs to help you navigate this.
    Adding that I agree that you should absolutely not allow her to do full time child care. If she brings it up again, just gently explain that your baby will continue to go to his current child care provider to keep with the current routine. Or whatever simple excuse you can think of.

  • Laura

    March 22, 2017 at 10:29 am

    I think Amy’s advice is great, and great you recognize an issue so quickly. Your husband needs to show her/clearly let her know there is a bigger world out there, and your family cannot be her only support and social circle, and to set boundaries with his/your family time. Your relationship with your husband will only deteriorate if he doesn’t. One thing I might add, is you can seek counselling for yourself, regardless of if your husband and/or his mother refuse to.
    I was in a very similar situation (minus baby) where my future MIL’s boyfriend unexpectedly died, and 18 months later my finance was still talking to her daily (and always got off the phone stressed/upset and unable to support me if I needed it). I do not think he realized how much it was wearing on him. We almost broke up after 7 years together because of this. Talking to someone myself really helped me deal with my own feelings surrounding the whole situation and communicate better with my finance what I needed from him – which included setting boundaries with his mother. Once he set some expectations and followed through with them (i.e. mom, I said you can’t call to complain about work/friends again, if you don’t change topic I’m hanging up), his mental health improved and our relationship improved (married for a year with baby on the way now!). And, for the most part, so did his relationship with his mother.

  • SarahB

    March 22, 2017 at 11:22 am

    I do hope your husband steps up here. I think you need to remind him of short term versus long term gains here–that she was already driving you crazy and around too much, that you’ve put up with it for awhile in her grief, but that you’re fast approaching your limit again, and you’re afraid that you could easily blow up at this point and do damage to the long term relationship.

    So, for the sake of having a good long term relationship, you need some space now. Start thinking about some practical boundaries–like calling before she comes over, maybe not even coming over on weeknights for awhile (blame the baby’s early bedtime or say the baby is going through a fussy stage). Set dates for her to come over that are progressively further apart–and DH needs to handle some of these solo.

    I might even argue that you and DH and the baby ought to go away for a weekend as a family. Say it’s some time to rejuvenate *just the three of you* and that you won’t be calling or texting. Anything to create some space so you can breathe, and it might provide some time for you and DH to talk about how nice it is to have some nuclear family time (a positive thing) and what to do to get more of it.

  • SarahSS

    March 24, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    This response is the reason I love this site. 1) Amy’s amazing. 2) She’s dead on. 3) It’s giving me tertiary anxiety.

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  • Lisa

    April 28, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    As the mother of 3 grown children and having lost the youngest, I think your life will be a lot happier if you look to changing yourself and your own response to these issues before you “set boundaries” with someone who is having a hard time grieving. The only way to change a situation like this harmoniously is to change the way you respond to it. If you demand your husband lay down the law with his mother, that puts him in the middle of a no win situation. If you tell your mother in law to back off while she is having a hard time emotionally it makes you look like you are uncaring and hard to deal with when times are tough. It’s absolutely normal for your m.i.l. to want to be near her son and her grandson after she has lost someone who is so near and dear. People who are grief stricken have an irrational fear of loosing their remaining loved ones. Also, no two people ever grieve the same way or for standard lengths of time. So comparing her grief to that of other people isn’t fair. I wish you peace, love and joy and hope you can try to be empathetic with your mother in law. Someday, God willing, you will be a mother in law too.