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Tug of War

The In-Law Tug of War

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I started to ask you on advice for one very specific situation regarding my husband’s family, but in trying to explain the complicated mess, realized the problem at the core is really much broader. What I’m really wondering, I guess is, how equal do the two sides of the family need to be in our lives?

In the past we have always lived closer to my in-laws, so we saw them more often, but we still tried to keep a balance: traded off holidays when we could afford to fly to my parents, etc. Mostly because we have a 2 year old son who is the first grandchild on both sides. Up until now I’d say it’s been pretty equal.

However, we recently moved closer to my parents in the mid-west, and a situation arose where, to sum up a LONG story, his family basically failed to plan ahead when they wanted us at a family reunion and we made other plans to visit my parents, instead. We have seen my parents more recently, but they INVITED us for this next event, whereas his parents never said anything and figured we would just show up if we could. This is typical of both sides of the family. My side are planners, his side are… well, dis-organized and inconsiderate if you want my opinion.

The thing is, I know if I had taken the situation into my own hands and planned ahead, we could have worked something out. I could say I’m sick of their lack of planning and the way they seem to expect us to be at their beck and call, which I am, but if I had wanted it to be fair, I would have gone ahead and planned it with or without their help. I feel like in a situation like this they SHOULD be the ones making the effort because they planned the event, but I know them well enough to know that they wouldn’t and probably never will.

Now, my question is, as someone who is adept at planning and thinking ahead, whereas his family is extremely handicapped in that department, should I just accept that this is the way it’s going to be and learn to deal with it, or do I have a right to put my foot down and say “we will not be participating in family events unless we are given sufficient notice and treated with proper courtesy” (in less stuffy terms). Basically, “I’m sick of the last-minute changes and complications and the stress you add to my life, so get better or you can just come visit us when ever that is convenient for you”.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I think part of me likes the “out” they give me by being such bad planners. I don’t mind that they make it impossible for us to participate sometimes. I’m not someone who truly longs to spend time with my in-laws, let’s be honest. If I could choose on any given holiday between his side or mine, I’d choose mine. In addition to the chaos, his father can be pretty… harsh, arrogant, politically incorrect, offensive, insensitive, so on and so forth and the family lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere. When we go there I end up either hanging out with the cows or in a tense battle of wills with his dad wherein I am the ONLY member of the family who refuses to submit to his judgment-filled Patriarchal reign. Are they good people? Yes. Would I prefer that my son spend more time with my parents than his, though? Yes. Is that wrong? And if so… how wrong, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Sincerely,
Prejudiced-but-Honest

Advice Smackdown ArchivesSo you know that old rule of dating and marriage, about thinking you can “change” a boyfriend or spouse, either with ultimatums or sheer force of will? I’d say that rule probably applies TIMES FOUR BILLION AND SEVEN to in-laws, give or take a few billion.

Is there anything you can do to make his family bend to your preference of planning ahead and advance invites? Hellllll no. And you know this. And I absolutely can’t get behind the idea of laying down ultimatums with them over something that — I’m sorry — isn’t any kind of cardinal sin, by any stretch of the imagination. Some people are planners and like details worked out and all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed well in advance. Some people aren’t, and prefer a more go-with-the-flow, spur-of-the-moment type of pace. This is just a personality difference, and NOT a question of one personality being RIGHT and one being WRONG. (Though I say this because I’m not, personally, a very good planner either.) But these two personality types are usually ripe for conflict, or for at least bugging the crap out of each other. “Why can’t they get their act together? I can’t be expected to drop everything for them like this!” you say. “Why is she so inflexible? We didn’t do it on purpose!” they say back.

So. No. You can’t — or SHOULDN’T, at least — tell them that they simply MUST cater to your personal preference of getting stuff on the calendar at least X months in advance, or else you will boycott ON PRINCIPLE, SO THERE. I get that this drives you crazy, but you’re going to have to suck it up and meet them in the middle. Or probably somewhere even past the middle (see: changing, not gonna happen).

You can — and SHOULD — tell them, when avoidable scheduling conflicts arise, that “Hey, we could have made this if we’d just had a little more notice. Since we’re kind of stuck in a juggling act between two sets of grandparents, it would be SO GREAT if you could let us know about events as far in advance as possible, even if the dates are just ‘maybes’ so we can keep track of potential conflicts and stuff.”

A nice, neutral request, with no hint that you think they are a bunch of flaky, irresponsible calendar clowns who offend your delicate planner-person sensibilities. They might completely ignore that request, of course, but seriously, don’t turn this into some kind of deal breaker because of Other Feelings about them.

So moving on the the bigger problem: You don’t particularly like them, or spending time with them, which fans every little conflict into something HUGE and OMGSOANNOYING. I think you know this, and are looking for a forgivable “out” that will soothe a guilty conscience over keeping your son from his grandparents. Who, as far as I can tell, haven’t done anything worth complaining about in THAT department? They aren’t ignoring your parenting wishes with him? Feeding him things you don’t want him to eat? Overstepping the discipline bounds? Putting him in dangerous situations? Teaching him swear words? Taking him to strip clubs and dogfights?

These are all things that merit serious reconsideration of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. Everything else does tend to fall into a “suck it up” heap, be it with in-laws or your own crazy side of the family. I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND that you don’t like hanging out with them and they drive you crazy. But these are the people and the atmosphere — however imperfect or politically incorrect — that produced your husband. Who I assume turned out okay and doesn’t have any reasons to say that HE doesn’t want his child spending time around them. Because that’s really his call to make. You don’t mention his opinion about any of this, and it’s a really important one.

My husband and I used to have a lot of problems with the in-law tug of war, once upon a time, because we each preferred our “own” families and hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the every-other-holiday fairness routine. (Our parents live super-close to each other, which actually created a whole other set of problems, like who-we-stayed-with vs. who-we-ate-Thanksgiving-dinner-with vs. who-got-more-alone-time-with-the-baby vs. OH MY GOD.) It improved almost immediately once we agreed to drop the combative “my parents” and “your parents” type of thinking. We both belong to both. His parents are my family, vice versa. That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to complain liberally about both sides, but it does lead to more unconditional acceptance of the other side of the family as exactly that: Family. Totally not perfect, totally not going to change, totally absolutely important to value anyway family.

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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Heather
Guest

I like Amy’s way of SAYING something, “We’d appreciate, just fyi” that sort of thing. Heck, blame the baby for making spontaneous things hard heh. But I also agree to not issuing an ultimatum. And that your husband’s wishes are important, obviously. Also, speaking in sentence fragments is my thing, apparently, other than obnoxiously agreeing with everything Amy says. Tada!

Leigh
Guest
Leigh

It is important to get everyone on the same page that there is only one of you (or your child) and everyone is going to have to share and be considerate of the whole picture. Both sets of grandparents need time and so do you. Both our families live far away and I am upfront about how our visits divide up (My parents got the first Chirstmas, his get the second, them we will stay home). When I am traveling alone (frequently) I spend more time with my parents because it is easier for me there and I will not… Read more »

Cassie
Guest
Cassie

I, too, hate my inlaws. It’s not that they are horrid – although they have the MOST anoying quirks, etc – it’s just that there is absolutely no middle ground between us and we don’t mesh. AT ALL. I, too, would prefer family holidays and such with my parents, all the time. (Like Amy, my parents and my husband’s parents live near one another and we live… not near either. So I get those issues too.) But! When we had our kiddo, I immediately understood that I had to put aside my feelings, because – as flaky as I find… Read more »

Thayet
Guest
Thayet

Amy, can you explain more about how you negotiated the in-laws who live near each other thing?  My husband and I live about 11 hours away from both of our parents, but our parents live in the same state about 2.5 hours away from each other.  So whenever we visit, we are expected to see both families.  Neither of our families is any good at planning the events we are expected to be at, or telling us about time conflicts.  It still feels like a struggle to get them to acknowledge us as a single unit rather than their individual… Read more »

Bethany
Guest
Bethany

Ok I know how it is. I would much rather do things with my family than the in-laws…at least when it comes to the parent-in-laws. The first thing I consider though is my husband. I would never deny him his family. I can suck it up if it is important to him. Other than that though, I have no notion that things need to be “fair.” In a lot of ways I take on a first come, first served attitude. But being in the same situation as you, me being the planner and his family being very poor at that,… Read more »

Lydia
Guest
Lydia

This is so perfectly timed…I’m getting married in just a few short weeks and family time being split is already an issue. And that’s without babies! It’s even come up on the wedding weekend where now we have both mother’s planning things to do the day after and we are feeling pulled. My almost-husband absentmindly suggested we split up the day after and I flipped my shiz. I am not spending our first day married with our seperate families, did he miss the part where we made a whole new family unit the day before? He got it and we… Read more »

PaintingChef
Guest

OMFG. I could have written this question. I didn’t… but I could have. I have the same kind of in-laws, and I will go ahead and tell you that Amy takes the high road. She is a better wife and mother than I am. (Well, I’m not a mother at all but she’s a better wife and person than I am.) I will go to the grave trying to train those a-holes. I say no to last minute plans every time simply as a matter of principle. My in-laws are out of town about 6 months out of the year… Read more »

SarahB
Guest
SarahB

Why not have your husband deal with scheduling events with his parents?  And set the “we need to know x weeks in advance” together.  So, you and your husband decide you need to know, say, a month or whatever in advance what your weekend and travel schedule will be.  It’s your husband’s responsibility to determine with his parents when you’ll be visiting with them (and you, together, might have some idea in mind that x visits per year would be about right).  And if your husband doesn’t schedule them, oh well!  Take the responsibility (and guilt) off your shoulders, and… Read more »

SarahB
Guest
SarahB

Why not have your husband deal with scheduling events with his parents?  And set the “we need to know x weeks in advance” together.  So, you and your husband decide you need to know, say, a month or whatever in advance what your weekend and travel schedule will be.  It’s your husband’s responsibility to determine with his parents when you’ll be visiting with them (and you, together, might have some idea in mind that x visits per year would be about right).  And if your husband doesn’t schedule them, oh well!  Take the responsibility (and guilt) off your shoulders, and… Read more »

natalie
Guest
natalie

Oh this is a tough one for me too. My husband is not very close with his family and they don’t make much effort to see us. His sister and her family actually lived in the same city as us but moved back home (a state away) a month ago…with out telling us. Not close knit at all. His mom and dad (divorced) have called us maybe 3 times each this year so far. On the other hand my mom lives less than 5 minutes from our house, watches our daughter everyday and in general is a second mom more… Read more »

T
Guest
T

My in-laws live walking distance from my house and absolutely could not understand that my family flying in from way out of town for last Christmas meant they couldn’t just have us come over whenever it suited them. Then when I tried to be the bigger person and invite them to 2 events over that holiday, they showed up late to one event and not at all to another. You absolutely cannot issue any ultimatum regarding advance notice or expect that their family dynamic will change in any way regarding scheduling. This is simply how they are, and the good… Read more »

Tracy
Guest
Tracy

It’s a mistake to confuse “fair” and “equal.” Being fair does not mean everyone is treated the same. Being fair means everyone gets what they deserve. Now, to me, people who assume you are sitting by the phone waiting for them to call and say “Can you come see me NOW! RIGHT NOW!” are getting exactly what they deserve when you politely say “Oh, darn, I’m sorry, but I have plans.” Amy is right that you will not be able to change your inlaws. But you know what? That means they don’t get to change you, either. If you prefer… Read more »

Lee
Guest
Lee

My in laws do this to us. They never plan ahead and if we are busy we just say “Sorry, we are busy”. If we are not doing anything better then we will go, but often times we can’t attend and I do not feel one bit guilty. 

Kristin
Guest
Kristin

This is an old thread but I came to it via the sequel “Grandparent and In-Law” post. While there is no hard-and-fast rule for negotiating relationships with in-laws (who might also be grandparents, thus upping the emotional ante quite a bit!) there ought to be one constant principle: There is no “your family” or “my family”. You and your spouse (and your children) *are* the family. You and your spouse are the adults of the family. And you and your spouse are the time-managers, guest-list composers, and social planners of your family. So when receiving or issuing an invitation of… Read more »

Sissy
Guest
Sissy

I’m a new grandmother of twin girls which is amazing. I have 4 boys now men and 3 are married so I know there will be many grandchildren to come. This is the first Christmas and the twins are only about 2 months old. My son and his wife are coming to town and we live near the in laws. They will stay with us 3 days and spend Christmas Eve at our house and 5 days with the in laws and Christmas day. We decided to join them for Christmas dinner. It’s really hard to split the time feeling… Read more »

Tonnie
Guest
Tonnie

I hate my mother in law. She is an interfering old hag with no life of her own. She takes it upon herself to do whatever she wants without consulting me first. I told her if she continues she would not see the kids, point blank……

Tonnie
Guest
Tonnie

A person that does not respect other people’s wishes has serious issues. She is obsessed with her own son, she thinks she is suppose to know every single detail of our lives. She sits in the room all day yapping on the phone or watching and over analyzing every news tragedy then freaking out and worrying my kids about it. She has “Somebody owns me something” attitude. She beings nothing to my home.