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Parenting Choices & Passive-Aggressive Mother-in-Laws

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I have never emailed a stranger before but I am in need of advice. I had my first child 8 months ago, it took my husband and I a while to get pregnant, try 5 years. My son Ryan is my heart. I am 34 years old and a stay at home mom.

The issue… My Mother-in-Law. She is a great lady, full of life and love. My husband is one of three. His sister who has two children a girl 8 and a boy 3. His brother is now single with one child a girl of 15 years.

My husband and I are financially stable, independent and take care of most things on our own. My husband’s other two siblings depend on my mother-in-law for baby sitting sometimes for weeks on end, my brother-in-law needs financial help along with parental guidance with his daughter. Mike and I need nothing and honestly I think that pisses my mother-in-law off. She likes that the other two depend on her and she does not like that Mike and I are so independent.

We took a small vacation down to my In-Laws a few weekends ago and it is not something I would do again. My husband and I went out and left Ryan with his Mom Mom and Pop pop. Now the week before my mother-in-law called me about a doctor she heard on TV with some sleeping advice. She explained the advice to me and I explained back to her that if we had done that with my son since he was born, it would have been a good idea but since he is not used to that he would probably just freak out. My husband and I had lunch and then called to check in on Ryan. My Mother-In-Law explained that when she laid him down for a nap he was crying so she did exactly what the doctor on TV said to do and what I asked her not to do. Surprise, because he was not used to it he cried even harder, eventually falling asleep.

It hurt my feelings so deeply that she called asked me about the advice, we talked about it and then she did just what she wanted to do anyway. She obviously did it on purpose but I can’t figure out why?

After that, everything that she did I took as spiteful. Example: She told us she had an umbrella stroller at her house so we left ours at home. Surprise! No umbrella! My son was out at the shore on the board walk with nothing but suntan lotion. She said she wanted to take Me to the movies for my birthday but, invited everyone of her girlfriends that she talked to that day to go with us. People I don’t even know.

I also don’t think that she understands that my son is my life. It took us so long to have him and I am so blessed to be able to take care of him that I really see no need to leave him with anyone. I want to take care of him.

Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated! I have number 2 on the way! I am 4 months pregnant.

Thank you for listening,
K

Let me tell you a little story. My mother-in-law — also a lovely, loving, generous woman who does many lovely, loving, generous things for us — came to stay with us a few weeks after Noah was born. Jason was back at work and my own mother had to get home and so she arrived for an open-ended visit.

One night she encouraged Jason and I to go out for a little while, just the two of us, and of course we jumped at the opportunity. I was in breastfeeding HELL at this point, trying to up a completely inadequate supply via on-demand feeding and round-the-clock pumping and also fighting off a thrush infection and a baby who routinely went on nursing strikes thanks to the bottle supplementing we had no choice but to do.

I nursed right before we left, and prepared one small bottle of expressed breast milk — the proud but sad results of countless pumping sessions — but told my mother-in-law to go ahead and give him formula if he seemed hungry before we returned.

We went out, ate dinner and had some wine. When we returned, Noah was screaming. SCREAMING. “He’s hungry,” she told me, and handed him to me.

It turned out that after feeding him the breastmilk, she never offered him anything else to eat. She demonstrated, in the most passive-aggressive way possible, her opinions of my choice — my lactation-consultant and doctor-recommended choice — to give my baby formula.

I remember, as it slowly dawned on me what she’d done, absolutely trembling with righteous fury. How DARE she let my baby go hungry. How DARE she judge me for a problem that I was working my ASS off to fix — a problem that she openly admitted she never experienced, as she always breastfed her children without any difficulty –and…and…just…how dare she.

But I didn’t say anything. I handed Noah off to Jason and told him to prepare a bottle of formula– I was going to pump and dump, because I’d had wine too recently to feel comfortable nursing. That was…well…sort of true, but looking back I think I was responding with a little passive-aggressiveness of my own.

I can’t lie and say that’s the ONLY time she and I have butted heads over Noah and my parenting choices. It’s actually happened many times, usually surrounding his diet and what we choose to feed him and what she thinks we SHOULD be feeding him. (During his potty-training days, she babysat him while my father was in the hospital, and upon inspecting his bag at the end of the day I realized she’d refused to give him a single solitary M&M.) Oh, and religious stuff. Lots and lots of religious-themed gifts and books and videos that I am never given the opportunity to vet and approve beforehand, which isn’t too much of a problem now (it’s not like a 2-year-old will really remember if something he opened at Grandma’s house somehow never really appears back at his house), but I imagine it will be the next big discussion we have. (Jason has already warned her to lay the eff off the breastfeeding issue completely when the next baby gets here, and WE MEAN IT THIS TIME.)

And yeah, it drives me crazy. It makes me angry. Jason and I have been direct with her about a lot of things, but I know when she is alone with Noah she’ll basically do whatever she wants. And this is where you must have your own personal come-to-Jesus moment.

Is your mother-in-law going against parenting choices that — beyond just feeling strongly about — you feel could put your son in harm’s way? She may be misguided and even a little passive-aggressive, but in her heart do you believe she’s mostly motivated –like you are — by love for your son and probably DOES think she has his best interests in mind? This is a really important distinction between a typical mother-in-law hair-pulling situation and one that actually requires serious action and discussion and possibly a change in allowing her to care for him unsupervised. I’m guessing your situation is mostly the former.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that my mother-in-law is really just…quirky. She means well, and if she wants to feed Noah carob chips and dehydrated vegetables and wheatgrass juice all day, then fine. If she hates that we put our babies in their beds while still awake and wants to rock them to sleep during the one or two nights she spends with them, then fine. If they want to say prayers before bedtime when they visit, even though it’s not part of our routine? Fine. Noah adores his grandparents and they love and worship him right back, and I think that trumps any under-the-skin annoyances that crop up over what kind of granola bars we give him.

But if she wants to let my baby go hungry rather than give him formula? Not fine. Same goes for fire-and-brimstone scary end-times Bible stories. You need to figure out what your non-negotiable choices are — spanking, for example, or CIO (cry-it-out sleep methods) or watching R-rated movies, and be super, ridiculously direct about them, complete with the consequences. These choices are going to be different for everybody, and only you can really sit down and prioritize what you absolutely will not put up with.

You have every right to be majorly put out over the sleeping thing. You would have been completely within your rights to tell her that while you really appreciate her caring for your son, she simply MUST respect the way you’ve chosen to do things, full stop.

But. Recognize her motivations — while obviously she disagreed with you about the sleep training approach (which, honestly, it’s a hot-button topic among MOST mothers, and there’s never going to be a shortage of people ready to shout that UR DOIN IT WRONG), does she really, REALLY think you’re an awful mother or wife and wants to mess with you at the expense of your son’s safety and happiness? Don’t let a single situation color your entire outlook. My mother-in-law’s trick with the formula opened my eyes a bit — oh, I see how it’s gonna be now — but it’s not like I harp on it to this day (this column aside, obviously) or see everything she does through the lens of that night.

And I think you might be doing that, a little bit. The umbrella stroller thing, for example, sounds like a straight-up misunderstanding. Your mother-in-law and I probably have the same definition of an “umbrella stroller” — it’s a small, lightweight, collapsible stroller that folds up LIKE AN UMBRELLA. Some of them have sunshades, but I still call the shade-less ones “umbrella strollers.” I really, really don’t think she meant to viciously expose her grandchild to UV rays. You misunderstood each other. It happens. Let it go.

As for the birthday thing — is it possible that she is picking up on your resentment and mistrust of her and was worried about being alone with you without other people to buffer the situation? I have no idea either way, but am just playing devil’s advocate here.

You now know that if she feels very strongly about something, she may go against your expressed wishes and opinions when she is alone with your son. This is no small thing and a valuable piece of information. You may need to be very clear with her about certain instructions, or have your husband have a talk with her.

But you know…babysitters might one day let your son stay up late and go to bed without brushing his teeth. His friends parents might let him watch shows you don’t approve of. It doesn’t make them bad people who can no longer be trusted in ANY situation, it just means you need to sit down, prioritize, pick your battles and make your non-negotiable wishes known. A babysitter can be fired, sure, but a loving grandma is an important, wonderful figure in your son’s life and when push comes to shove: Yes, you’re his mama, and you’re in charge, but you also owe it to him to make this relationship work.

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 [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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mom24
Guest
mom24

Very well said. I have a mother in law who is NOT delightful in any way shape or form. She doesn’t like me — end of story. However, she ADORES my four boys. She and I developed a live-and-let-live policy. I know she loves my husband and boys and would never do anything to harm any of them. Also, my boys are all old enough (4, 7, 9, 11) to know Grandma’s rules and my rules are not the same. So, I release them to their grandmother’s care, grit my teeth and let them have fun. The more people who… Read more »

mrspooley
Guest

Amalah – you’re right on the money, again! How do you do it? 🙂 Kristen – I’ve had a similar situation. we do let our son cry it out because we’ve found that he whines himself to sleep. It’s usually no longer than 10 minutes and he’s out. But if we go in to reassure him or rock him, he screams louder and longer and sometimes never goes to sleep. So sometimes the method has to fit the kid. Crying it out worked for us (and is still sometimes torture) but it may not work for your family. This may… Read more »

Jenny
Guest
Jenny

OMG it sounds just like MY MIL!!! It’s like no matter what I say, she has her own agenda. And she can be rude about it. She even goes so far as to make us wait in the car for a good 3o minutes while fools around in her hotel room when she comes to visit and then acts like “time got away from her”. My advice is to keep your distance so you can keep your sanity. No matter what I say to my husband, we end up arguing and then he points the finger to my family. We… Read more »

Lisa M
Guest
Lisa M

Great advice! And it’s worth noting that the more upfront and direct you are about it now, the easier it gets down the road. If you start off by letting her get away with it now, it’s much harder to present a position of strength later. And that’s not to be mean, and “I’m not gonna let you hurt my son”, but just be upfront, that you’re hurt that she didn’t listen to you. You’ll be setting the tone for future negotiations. Such as, yes he can spend the night at your house, bedtime doesn’t matter, but he MUST brush… Read more »

mtngray
Guest
mtngray

I had the same problem, but with my mom, not my mil. Funny, but I trust my mil to better follow my wishes than my own mother. Sad, I know. When my older son was an infant, I told my mother that he didn’t need water. His breast milk and formula were all he needed. I left him for half an hour with her while I took my brother out for ice cream. MONTHS later she told me that she gave him a bottle of water that day while I was gone. She claimed not to have said anything at… Read more »

Liz
Guest
Liz

First off, congratulations on both successful pregnancies after such a long road for you to get there. Also, I think you have a lot of insight into the situation already (recognizing that she may not fully appreciate where you’re coming from with how long it took you to have Ryan, and that it was only after the sleep thing that you started to view her actions as ill-intended). Now, as for your actual issue, I agree with Amy that it’s important to pick your battles and realize that the overall goal is to give your child a good relationship with… Read more »

Marnie
Guest
Marnie

Great advice, from everyone. I learned quickly that being firm and setting expectations was the best way to go. Not mean, not accusatory, just firm and pleasant – as if you know they would never even DREAM of going against your wishes. Also, keep in mind that it’s not a bad thing for kids to learn that different people do things differently. As Amy and others pointed out, it’s not acceptable for kids to be put in danger, so not using a carseat is just not going to fly. But, it’s OK for my daughter to learn that her grandma… Read more »

Kelley
Guest
Kelley

My MIL is actually better now than she was when my almost 3 year old daughter was younger. In fact, she didn’t get to babysit until my daughter was around 18 months because of it. She was the type that would throw out the “well, WE used to do such-and-such THIS way and OUR kids were just fine”. Things like sleeping on tummies in wooden cradles where the gap between the spindles were just wide enough to get an infant sized noggin securely stuck. She and I were not getting along at all, and it pissed me off so much,… Read more »

Galsaturday
Guest

Oh Amy, how I love you. Not in a love, love kind of way, more in a, holy crap, I wish you were my neighbor sort of way. I am so annoyed with my in-laws that we’re contemplating moving states away just to be further from the craziness. You are right though. There’s no love like a grandparents love. I just hope to Jesus that someday when I’m a grandparent, I don’t irritate the crap out of my future children in-laws.

Alison
Guest
Alison

I wanted to comment on this part of the original letter: “It took us so long to have him and I am so blessed to be able to take care of him that I really see no need to leave him with anyone. I want to take care of him.” I would urge you to look at this a different way: It is GOOD for your son to spend time with other people. It will teach him not to freak out when others care for him and hopefully help him build an adaptability that will be a great part of… Read more »

Katina
Guest

Perhaps your MIL isn’t trying to alienate you with her friends, but show you off. I know my MIL does that–she insists that my husband and me (non-religious types) go to church with her when we visit because she wants to show us off.
back when the hubby and I were dating, I used to think she was doing it because she wanted to convert me. once we moved away, I realized it was because she wanted to show us off, as demonstrated by trying to take us around to EVERYONE at the church.

Lissie
Guest
Lissie

You have already received really good advice here and I can’t add but one thing. The person you really need to have a heart-to-heart with is your hubby. Momma’s little boy needs to be the one to lay down the law with the MIL. I could talk myself blue in the face with mine, but it wasn’t until DH started backing me up that my wishes were followed.
Enjoy the little ones!

bessa
Guest
bessa

Amy, I can’t believe your MIL let your baby get hungry to prove her point! I would be furious. Maybe it’s my 9-month pregnant hormones getting the best of me, but, oh, that makes me seethe. I agree with many posters – my own mother is like this. She, too, gave my baby water before she should have it because “that’s what we did.” She also thinks I *must* switch my 17 month old to 2% milk because “she just doesn’t need all that fat!” (My 17 month old is slender, too.) I think she may give her 2% when… Read more »

Jen
Guest
Jen

I dated my husband for two years before marriage and waited two years after marriage to have kids, my point being that I had 4 years of living around my MIL to know what she was all about and just how she was going to be around my kids. We decided a direct and upfront approach was best and we laid out the rules before our first was even born. To this day she has followed those rules. I think you just have to be direct, no passive aggressive stuff, flat out say how you feel and what you expect… Read more »

jodifur
Guest

My mil is such a piece of work it requires more space than I have here. But, I will tell you, i have learned from my mistakes. Whatever the behavior is, nip it in the bud. Don’t let it go on for months and then say something. Then you get, I’ve been doing it for months and you didn’t have a problem. Also, your husband should do it. It’s his mother, he should stand up for you and take care of it. Otherwise, at least with my mil, she turns things around on me and denies stuff to my husband.

nonsoccermom
Guest

Yes, yes yes. I could have written this. My mother-in-law is the most passive-agressive person I have ever encountered, and unfortunately I didn’t nip it in the bud like I should have.
HOWEVER, that is a mistake I do not intend to duplicate with my second child.
Anyway, I think Amy’s advice was spot-on, and I am going to try to put it to use myself. I think my relationship with my MIL may be too far gone, but maybe I am letting past issues color current ones…

Kira
Guest

Oooh, oooh, oooh! Can I tell my bad mother-in-law story? PLEASE? When my firstborn was four months old, my husband (at the time) convinced me to leave him with my mother-in-law for the evening so we could go out to a movie. I was…uncomfortable, but he convinced me I was being controlling and unkind. So fine. I left my baby with this woman. I nursed him right before we left, and left her with a bottle of breastmilk and very explicit instructions about how to warm it. When we returned, a few hours later, my son was fussing. I asked… Read more »

Nadeen
Guest
Nadeen

Isolde – Oh my dear dizzy lord you have to be kidding right???  And your husband ACTUALLY considered this?  Classic passive agressive behaviour on his part.  My hubby does that too – instead of growing a set and telling his mother to rack off he puts the ball in my court ALL THE TIME.  He is French.  HIs mother is French and short from sounding racist – I can tell you something – the French mother son thing is true. She thinks she rules everything he does. He runs around for her like a lapdog.  Until I got pregnant and… Read more »

Isolde
Guest
Isolde

Isolde here – no, not kidding about my husband wanting to leave me in labor to be with his mom while I was in labor.  But then he invited to come live with us on our honeymoon (the day after we got married) because we were moving out of state and she said she wanted to spend every minute with him before we left.  She also stole my wedding bouquet to enter the room on the arm of my husband at our wedding.  Serious issues is an understatement.  At this point I’m wishing I had your French mother in law… Read more »

Colleen
Guest

Bravo, Amy. I think you covered it all.
Also, I’m like you: I call any small, compact-folding, lightweight stroller an “umbrella” stroller. And I usually envision the ones you can get at BRU for like $7…and didn’t even realize those can come with a shade or not until like 2 yrs ago! 🙂

happy
Guest
happy

12-14-08
Dear sweet mom,
Know your enemy. MIL–she’s passive aggressive & very,very hostile. Inviting her friends to b’day was just to snub you. Calling for advice on sleeping plan for baby, only to do the reverse, a clear power play. Umbrella stroller promise, then revoked…pre-planned lie. She’s dangerous. Beware. Young women are too kind & good & can’t see the hardness of the older woman’s heart, especially a hostile, manipulative control freak who’s jealous of you & baby & wants to have her say regardless. I WARN YOU, NEVER DEPEND ON HER. She’s dangerous, it will escalate. Your enemy.

Better late than never
Guest
Better late than never

My mommy in law is an adoptive parent who never intentionaly interferes with personal matters. During my mariage of over 10 years my husband an i have mistakinily accepted gifts of too intamate a nature. I now have dificulties accepting any gifts because its just too much. Last christmas the shampoo and condioner i enjoyed using at the time. Weve recived a posterprdic bed, sheets ,towels (which my husband used solely until 2 years ago when i pusuaded him to get new towels that we purchased together he and I)and also it was ineviable the bed was sent to a… Read more »

Better late than never
Guest
Better late than never

My mommy in law is an adoptive parent who never intentionaly interferes with personal matters. During my mariage of over 10 years my husband an i have mistakinily accepted gifts of too intamate a nature. I now have dificulties accepting any gifts because its just too much. Last christmas the shampoo and condioner i enjoyed using at the time. Weve recived a posterprdic bed, sheets ,towels (which my husband used solely until 2 years ago when i pusuaded him to get new towels that we purchased together he and I)and also it was ineviable the bed was sent to a… Read more »

Isolde
Guest
Isolde

Oh, PLEASE! I’ve got you all beat with the MIL stories! Did your husband plan to ditch you in labor at the hospital to go out to “dinner and a movie” with his mom (leaving you alone to give birth) because he “felt bad” for his mom being alone? No? Well, that is what happened to me. My MIL was a terrible, physically and mental abusive mother who treats my husband more like a lover than a son. She actually quit her job to move in with us when we got married (didn’t happen). When I got pregnant she immediately… Read more »

Catherine wehr
Guest
Catherine wehr

I read all of these descriptions on what a mil has done or said about their dil’s baby/ child. But I think that’s just it, it is their baby not the mil’s. mil’s are not the mother, they have no right and need to keep their outdated opinions to themselves. Why do we think that the mil’s should have any say about the new baby in anyway shape or form.We all need to be saying ” mind ur own fuckin business period!”.. Really!!! it shouldn’t even be debatable. What gives these arseholes the right, WHAT? Because they gave birth to… Read more »

Catherine wehr
Guest
Catherine wehr

Furthermore mil’s are NOT a third parent, and we shouldn’t give them the time of day to even for one second allow them to believe that they are by paying attention to their input. MIL’S simply need to love their grandchildren nothing more nothing less. They do not get a say on how to raise YOUR child in anyway shape or form.

jessica lee
Guest
jessica lee

i read all these posts and finally think, IM NOT ALONE!!! i have a 3 year old and my MIL has been caring for her since she was 4 months old. we have had major issues since but seemed to get along through it, somehow. imnot faced with a new dilemma though. my son recently started school and MIL offerred to fetch him. i said yes it was okay but then, after fetching him myself i enjoyed seeing the smile and excitement on his face from seeing me. i now changed my mind and told her i will fetch him.… Read more »