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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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