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The Gift That Keeps On Giving: In-Law Drama

The Gift That Keeps On Giving: In-Law Drama

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Help! I need some advice on an ongoing extended family headache.

Early this summer we were invited to go spend some time with husband’s entire extended family on vacation. I have to admit, that was a bit intimidating, but husband really wanted to go and it was a good opportunity for everyone to get to know our two year old, so off we went.

I should elaborate here that Kiddo and his seven year old cousin were the only kids with a dozen or more adults. We live pretty far apart and, despite the age difference, the pair of them had a great time. No problems there at all.

The problem was more that Kiddo is a pretty placid non-tantrummy two year old – he does have his moments, but they don’t tend to be in company and usually mean he needs food or a nap. Cousin, on the other hand, tends to throw screaming fits when told “no”. I didn’t invite comparisons – in fact I spent a lot of the holiday trying to praise him when he was behaving nicely, or pointing out when they were playing nicely together – but with a dozen adults, most of whom have no kids or only grown kids, they were inevitable and I’m pretty sure Cousin’s parents heard some of them.

And to be honest, a lot of Cousin’s issues seemed to be amplified by the fact he was a seven year old whose parents were expecting him to behave like an adult. A kid of that age expected to wait to eat at adult dinner at about 8 or 8:30, who rarely went to bed before 10 if not later, and who was whisked out daily on trips that were great for the adults but tended to involve things like historical buildings – it wasn’t that surprising he wasn’t having fun. After two days of screaming fits at dinner I offered to feed him when I fed kiddo about three hours earlier – screaming fits stopped, and several people including his father thanked me. (This was primarily self-preservation – I can’t enjoy my meal if I’m meant to ignore the child sobbing pitifully two seats away).

We’d been avoiding the big group trips – I’m not that interested in historical buildings so I don’t expect a toddler to be! However, there was a big wildlife park nearby I was interested in. Feeling like being nice, I suggested to husband that he asked his brother if Cousin would like to come. I don’t mind having an extra kid along for a trip, not when they get along well, and I thought it would give the adults space to adult without a bored and miserable seven year old. Brother was all in favor, and seven year old (who was only told after brother approved) was delighted. Everyone else seemed pleased at the idea of a properly adult day. Awesome, I thought.

I honestly didn’t realize that no-one had asked Cousin’s mom (honestly, I assumed either Brother didn’t need to or that he’d done it before approving. Not my relationship, not my business.) I definitely didn’t expect to be cornered in the kitchen early next morning when we were doing breakfast for the kids – before anyone else was up – and told very angrily that Cousin wasn’t going, that no-one had consulted her, that he was her kid and she didn’t need a break from him. I was kind of flabbergasted, in that way you are when an attack comes from nowhere, and muttered an apology and escaped. Husband, when I explained, was fuming and ready to go make a scene about her manners but I managed to calm him down. We went on our trip (it was lovely) and left them to deal with their kid.

Awkwardness persisted for the rest of vacation even without us making a fuss, to the point where people politely moved where they were sitting at dinner to keep us apart because Cousin’s Mother would just pointedly ignore us if we sat together. Several people even approached me to check I was okay because it was that obvious (I was fine, and even enjoying the holiday more than I had expected). I figured fine, holidaying together is a bit of a forced situation, ignore it and it will blow over.

They visited Husband’s parents last week. Husband and Kiddo went up to see them (I am pregnant again, and not up to much travel at this point due to complications so stayed home). Husband suggested they call in on their way back for an hour, have a drink and to say hi, so they did. And Cousin’s Mother ignored us from the moment she stepped through the door.

She didn’t say hi. She didn’t ask about the pregnancy. She didn’t join in conversation. She spoke only to her son, looked distinctly displeased to be there at all, and spoke to us only when Husband produced Cousin’s Christmas present to take back with them (we aren’t traveling for Christmas this year because.. pregnant!) At that point we got a list of things the present had better not be (it wasn’t!). I’m not sure what we should have done if it had fallen into one of those forbidden categories – taken it away and said “sorry, Cousin, no present this year”? Even when assured it was none of those things we didn’t get a thank you – or a bye.

It takes a lot to piss me off, but I’m starting to get annoyed. Being standoffish on a holiday together? Fine. Coming into my house and being rude? Grrr. And while it isn’t a problem this year, we do usually all see each other at husband’s parents over Christmas. I’m not inclined to avoid them just because of her, but at the same time I’m not thrilled by the idea of spending subsequent Christmases with someone who hates me, to the point of seriously considering “oh dear, there aren’t enough beds for all of us now we have two kids so we’ll come when they go!”

Advice? Help?

This is one of those situations where there’s not really much to do besides step back, take a deep breath and repeat “it’s not about me” a million times.

I mean, it’s so obviously not about YOU. Your “crime” amounted to little more than a miscommunication hiccup that SHE chose to blow completely out of proportion, because there’s something else going on. Something else that is not about you.

I’m sure she’s aware her son’s behavior is not great and hard to take. She’s feeling defensive of him (or more likely, her parenting) and probably dreads these family get-togethers because she feels judged or like a typical in-law outsider, or I don’t know, maybe she’s just kind of prone to dramatic overreactions. I’m guessing she totally picked up on what you were doing to “help” her son (the praise, the meals) and read it as you trying to “fix” her parenting, which in her mind is JUST FINE. She was already been irritated at this perceived overstepping and thus was primed to take offense at your offer to take him for the day.

And I’m also guessing that there was even more than that going on. Other adults made comments about her kid, compared him to your kid, which pissed her off. Maybe she and her husband were already fighting about something else, or different parenting/discipline styles are a long-running point of contention for them. Maybe the cousin is getting evaluated for delays or there’s developmental stuff going on that she’s not ready to share.

And again, none of those “maybes” have anything to do with YOU. You were just a sadly convenient target, and the fact that she’s continued to be rude and angry about this incident speaks volumes about the kind of person she is. She holds a mean grudge. I wouldn’t want to spend my holidays with that kind of toxic personality either.

But, you know. Family. Unless she and her husband split up, she’s going to be hard to completely avoid, so I suppose there’s an obligation to at least TRY to clear the air and patch things up.

I’d personally probably try sending an email, mostly because I’m so bad at choosing words on the fly on the phone or in person when dealing with stressful/intimidating situations. Apologize once again for the miscommunication about the trip, tell her that you had no idea she hadn’t been consulted and never would have put her in that situation on purpose. (Basically what you probably would have said at the time, in person, if she hadn’t shocked you into silence by being so over-the-top angry with you.) Say you’re sensing she’s still upset about it and are very sorry, blah blah blah, kill her with kindness and be the bigger person.

(And then brace yourself for either complete silence and/or a long tirade of other slights/accusations, at which point you have my complete permission to be all, “I tried, she’s crazy, I’m OUT.”)

The other approach is more classic in-law. You enlist your husband to talk to his brother and find out what in sam hill is going on, and why his wife is treating you like you don’t exist, she can’t STILL be that mad over that stupid trip, right? RIGHT? Dude. Talk to your wife already because everybody in the family notices and it’s just getting childish and embarrassing.

(If the BIL won’t intervene on your behalf, that’s a sign that their relationship isn’t all that great, or that he’s probably used to living with her temper and grudges and has given up on dealing with her.)

No matter what, though, do your best to ignore her behavior, or at least let it roll off your back. Because I am 110% certain there is a LOT more going on here than what you’ve detailed, and just as certain that most of it? ISN’T ABOUT YOU.

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

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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  • Rachel

    It’s not about you. And I know this is cultural, but unless she was outright rude I would just ignore. If you spoke to her and she did not respond, that is worth addressing. If she just didn’t initiate conversation, ignore. If you choose to address, I would not address something that happened this summer. It seems to score keepy. I’d send an email that said, “I noticed you weren’t speaking to me when you were in my home last week. Is this something we can make right?”

    • Kathryn

      I agree with not bringing up the summer stuff and focusing on in the moment stuff. “You seemed really upset when you were here and I’d like to have a better relationship with you than that, is there something we should work out here?” And see where it goes. If she will at least engage, you can probably patch this up. Apologize for what you actually feel bad about – you do sound sorry the summer trip was rough for her and her kid – don’t get defensive about stuff that isn’t about you. Emphasize that you enjoy having her and her son around for general family stuff and see if you can work toward a better place.

      If she refuses to engage or doesn’t stop blowing up at you, you don’t have to put up with it. I will meet passive aggressive with not so passive aggressive, but many people are more conflict averse than I am. At the least, remember that you don’t have to invite someone who hates you and mistreats you into your home. Ever.

      • OP

        Honestly, I do feel bad for her a lot. It’s frustrating because if she hadn’t been so hostile I would have loved a conversation that went “Hey, sweetie, look, these people either don’t have kids or have kids in their forties. Kiddo is awesome right now, but might not be in a year. I get it. You want me to take your kid out so you can have a break?” Because I get it. I do. I’m really lucky in that my kid usually behaves in front of company, but three days ago my beautiful drama-free two year old screamed “NO NO NO NO DON’T LIKE YOU” all the way up the stairs on the way to a nap, while husband was on a conference call. Everyone has those days. And I suspect from what has been whispered that Cousin is being assessed for special needs which is extra-rough – but I’m not meant to know that so I can’t openly sympathise.

        Which means when they’re not around and MiL or SiL starts commenting on his behaviour I point that out, that my kid won’t always be perfect, that dealing with this stuff is rough. But argh, there’s really no way to say “I defend you when you’re not around” without saying “Yeah, your husband’s family talk about you when you’re not around”.

  • OP

    OP here! Slight problem in that I don’t actually have her email address – that side of the family doesn’t seem to use email (or even facebook). I’ve got her husband’s as he sends out occasional photos but it feels a bit weird to send to his!

  • Jacquie

    Agree with the first two comments and want to soundly repeat: You are under no obligation to host someone in your home who is not nice to you.  Demonstrating self care and healthy boundaries is a good example for your kids.

  • Hollie

    OP, you said you don’t have her email. Do you maybe have their home address and can go old school letter writing?

  • K

    Without an email address, I say just call. Maybe for the upcoming holiday? Since it sounds like there aren’t a lot of kids in the family, maybe you can call her in advance of the get together to “come up with some fun activities for the kids while we are at (insert host’s name)”. Make it about how much your kiddo loves her kiddo, and how helpful it would be to you to have a way to occupy your kiddo/have both kids occupied? And if she gives you the cold shoulder on it, then you can ask what’s up. That way you started with a nice neutral gesture of goodwill. If she doesn’t engage, then yeah…you might just have to ignore her. It’s a shame, sounds like she’s missing out on a really nice mom friend!

  • Em

    As I read this, I thought how eerily similar this is to my situation with a sister-in-law (wife of my brother’s brother). Our relationship is strained (for no apparent reason or specific incident to my knowledge), but rather because my sister-in-law suffers from at least 1 diagnosed mental illness that she decided to stop treating. It takes it’s toll on EVERYONE around her, especially her children and husband, and although I feel terrible for her and her family, I’ve decided after 7 years of trying, that it’s not my place to either 1. fix the relationship 2. subject myself to an abusive, toxic relationship. So as hard as it is for me, I’ve stopped trying. I act civil in her company and love on her kids, but there’s nothing more I expect of myself in regard to maintaining anything that even resembles a relationship. Best of luck- hope you can find a healthy balance!

  • S

    My sil is like this, she is slighted by everything. My husband even says what is it next? She thinks we compete with her family for il time, gifts. She was mad my daughter was born within one week of her sons birthday. She wanted family heirlooms, more money for the wedding. She was mad that I did not visit her newborn with myself with stomach virus. The list goes on and on. The latest is my family is not moving a holiday so she can have her dinner exactly the way she wants. My extended family is hosting with their family so we can’t move the time.I am just polite and rarely engage her. She also ignores my husband. Be the better person, you are just the latest target. It’s hard, it doesn’t make for easy holidays. We say nothing to the children as we don’t want to be reprimanded.
    Good are not the only one in this situation I have a friend in a same situation, we swap stories.