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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,

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.

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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