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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?


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.

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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