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Grandparent Dilemmas

Boundaries in the Sand

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I subscribe to your general philosophy of the grandparent’s relationship with their grandchildren taking priority over the small stuff. So, here’s the thing—my mother can’t be around my daughter alone. Possibly ever. She certainly can’t stay with her alone. To shoehorn a lot of issues into as little space as possible: when I was a child, she, among other things: pointed a loaded gun at me while hallucinating (twice), slapped me, convinced me spies were watching us from the trees to kill us in our sleep, often saw double on the road while driving me home from school (for which she often didn’t show up), kidnapped me and moved across the country from my other parent (she intercepted his phone calls and his mail to me until college).

Until recently, I excused this on the basis of a supposedly chronic physical illness she claimed to have. But, while I was pregnant, I had to come to terms with her addictions and mental illness as almost everyone else in the family pulled me aside to tell me incidents I didn’t remember (hooray) that had happened when I was a baby or a toddler–such as the time my father left for a weekend and came home to find her blind drunk and alone with the baby. Between that and her increasingly obvious alcoholism, pain pill addiction, and (maybe?) Munchausen’s, I decided that I had to draw my own line in the sand. She can see my daughter, she can spend as much time with her as she would like–but another adult has to be in the room at all times. Even with those restrictions, she still showed up drunk to a visit and almost dropped her (she claims it was a new medication she was on-—ignoring, of course, that she mixed it with a bottle of vodka).

Wow. I’ve never actually had the guts to write all that on paper without excusing it all or saying it wasn’t that bad, other people have it a lot worse, before. Here’s the thing—she’s a lovely and sweet person in a lot of ways. I’m fairly certain a lot of her illness is the result of severe and early abuse. She is very financially generous and helps with our expenses. She taught me a lot of great things about how to be a woman, the value of a good education, and how to stand up for myself. I know she loves us all very much. And I don’t want my daughter’s image of her to be of this distant, drunk rich lady she was never allowed to be alone with. But I just don’t have any idea if there is any road back to a full grandparent relationship for us. I mean, seriously, Amalah, she lied to me about seeing a therapist. She sneaks vodka in her soda. Her hands shake, all the time. She had a dangerous and unnecessary medical procedure immediately after I finally womaned up and told her my decision about her and the baby.

I told her that the line here is that she can’t mix alcohol, narcotics, benzos and caffeine and still babysit. But other than asking to see blood tests before each visit, I have no idea how to enforce that when she lies to protect the addiction. And that’s not even touching the mental illness and delusions. I know there’s no easy Advice Smackdown answer for this one, other than to just keep making my peace with it, every holiday and every visit. But damn it, I did not expect it to be this hard. Which is idiotic, frankly, because what the heck else would it be. I’ve Googled around for “parent’s with Munchausen’s support” but all I get is results for Muchausen’s by proxy, which, thankfully, she doesn’t have (although a lot of my pets died mysteriously growing up).

My husband and I actually spent the holiday apart from each other this year, because I did want to see her for a short visit, but couldn’t deal with feeling like I had someone else to protect. We have a pretty nice time when it’s just me, I have mad boundaries at this point. But now I miss the damn baby like it’s going out of style, hence the angst-ridden email. (And, yay, she had another dangerous procedure right before I came out sans baby.)

Anyway. EMOTIONS. I HAVE THEM. Support and advice from fellow children of addicts appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Conflicted in Canada (ok, I am not actually in Canada, or anywhere that begins with a “C,” but I have always wanted one of those alliterative signoffs)

You’re absolutely 100% correct about a couple things here: First, there is no easy breezy answer to this one. (PUT A MIRACLE BLANKET ON IT! 2/3/4 NAP SCHEDULE! GO FULL SATTER!)

And second, the boundaries you’ve put around your daughter are justified, necessary and practically downright generous. If you wrote that your daughter simply could not be around your mom at all, even supervised, I’d say that sounded pretty damn reasonable too.

She’s showing up visibly impaired and intoxicated (possibly driving?? noooo. nonono.) for visits. She is not making any effort to face her addictions or get help for her illnesses (the mental ones, obviously, not the drug-seeking factitious ones). She’s actively lying to you. She should not be doing ANY of that if she really expects to be a part of her granddaughter’s life.

I want you to get back on the Google and this time, find an Al-Anon meeting near you. I want you to go, like, yesterday. Yes, I know your mom’s addictions and issues go way beyond “just” alcohol, but this isn’t about HER and the specifics of HER sad life trajectory. This is about YOU finally, fully escaping from the tractor beam of her decades-long downward spiral, finding strength/support to hold firm the boundaries you’ve set for your daughter…and to also take another hard look at the “mad boundaries” you’ve set for yourself and your (understandably) complicated emotional/financial ties to this woman.

Part of me wants to tell you to stop accepting money from her completely, and to call her doctors and the hospitals she’s getting prescriptions and procedures from and sound the Munchausen/drug-seeking alarm. Part of me wants to tell you to never spend another holiday away from your family because you feel guilty or sad that she can’t/won’t get well enough to spend it with anyone else. And part of me wants to tell you to downgrade her grandparent privileges to nil until…I don’t know…she’s in actual treatment for her actual problems. Until she’s able to NOT SHOW UP HIGH ON PILLS AND DRUNK ON BOOZE WHILE LYING TO YOU ABOUT IT. Maybe then you could talk about upgrading her to supervised visits. Or maybe just Skype, at first. If you can’t realistically enforce the rules you’ve set for your daughter’s safety because she’ll just lie about it, that’s really not the fault of the RULES, you know?

But I don’t think I’m really qualified to give you that advice — though if we were having coffee together and you were detailing this story to me I probably wouldn’t let that stop me from being all, that’s a Liz Lemon Dealbreaker, gurl. FOR REALZ. I really think regular meetings with Al-Anon or a similar support group are imperative for you, as the adult child of a (major, continuing, multi-substance) addict, to deal with this entire situation.

I’m so sorry this is all so hard. I’m so sorry your mom won’t step up and clean up for her sake, for yours, or for your wonderful new baby. I’m so sorry that real life is so messy and complicated, because addicts are real people and not one-dimensional movie villains who are easy to cut out of our lives because they’re “weak” or “brought it on themselves.” Of course it doesn’t work like that. Of course your mom is your MOM and has all kinds of wonderful, human qualities, which makes it hurt even more to watch her drown those qualities away in vodka and pills. And it’s hard not to make excuses for the people you love, especially when there are some damn fine excuses to make — your mom’s very real mental illness, her own childhood, the continuing cycle of abuse, etc.

Your mom raised an amazing person, obviously. An amazing person who has broken the cycle and is standing on her own two feet, healthy and sober and gaining clarity and wisdom at a breakneck pace. It’s okay to feel a little carsick about it all, and to question yourself. Because doing the RIGHT thing can still feel so dang WRONG and AWFUL sometimes.

I’m glad you reached out and wrote this email. Please keep reaching out to other adult children of addicts, in person, online, whatever. I know this sounds terribly cheesy but I’m proud of you already, lady.

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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  • Kerry

    December 2, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    My question would be if your mother even wants to be alone with your daughter. And if she does, is it the lovely, sweet, and impressive side of her that it’s absolutely great that you’re able to appreciate despite everything else that wants it…or the delusional, dangerous, and sick side of her? Lots of grandparents will never be left alone with their grandchildren because of all kinds of different mental or physical health problems, or even just temperament issues or because circumstances never really create a need. I think you need to give yourself a pass on worrying about her babysitting, now or ever. 

    • canadia

      December 3, 2013 at 10:07 am

      She does, it’s why the conversation came up.  But in terms of actually *wanting* to–well, she usually creates circumstances where she can’t, just like she does with driving.  Some part of her seems to know that it’s not a great idea.

      • Kerry

        December 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm

        Maybe you can just go with this then? If it’s hard for you to make the no way, ever, declaration…then maybe your daughter is going through a separation anxiety phase right now. And then you’ll be potty training and you really think consistency is so important for that that you wouldn’t want her staying in a new place. And then…something else. Ultimately, you’re protecting your mother from how horrible she would feel if her inability to make good decisions finally caught up with her, so I think any lie (or hard truth) that you have to tell is ok given the circumstances.

  • Kat

    December 2, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    This is painfully familiar. My biological father is an alcoholic. A sad, depressed drunk who is actually a wonderful, sensitive, funny and shy person underneath all that booze. But he is still not allowed to spend any time in my home, and will never be with my son alone. Holidays are the hardest – I spend them with my husband’s family and my adoptive family, but I know he is alone and it kind of rips my heart out. I know that he has made the choice to not get help, and that it has nothing to do with me. I also have decided that my job as a parent comes before any guilt I may feel about setting such firm boundaries. It is not my job to make him feel better by allowing him to see my son in anything less than a completely sober state. It IS my job to make sure that my child is safe and not being exposed to behavior I consider inappropriate or dangerous (physically or emotionally). I don’t know that any of that really helps, other than to say: yes, find an Al-Anon meeting. You might feel weird/exposed/vulnerable at first, but I promise you there will be someone else in that room who knows EXACTLY what you are going through because they have already been through it or are struggling with the same things in that very moment. If the first meeting doesn’t make you feel less alone, go to another. Or try an ACA meeting (Adult Children of Alcoholics) – the meetings can be a bit harder to find, but that is where I felt most at home and was able to talk most freely about my issues with my biological family. If you can’t find a meeting, you can order their book online (it’s called the ACA Fellowship Text).

  • L

    December 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    My mother is an alcoholic. She isn’t allowed to be with my children unsupervised. We haven’t had the conversation about this because I’m not looking forward to the fight, and she hasn’t asked me, “Why can’t I babysit?” I think one of the worst things was having to square with my in-laws when I gave birth to my second child. They were surprised because she hides it so well. I also recommend adult children of alcoholics al-anon meetings. I don’t go that often – two small children keep me busy, and my parents live far away, but it really helps me stay sane when dealing with her.

  • Ginger

    December 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Dear Conflicted,

    I’m so sorry that you had to have such an unfair childhood.  Your letter really hit home with something my family is going through. (Young child alone a lot with a mentally ill mother; the father pretty much checks out and doesn’t seem to have any protective instincts toward his kid). If you don’t mind me asking…. Did any of your relatives try to intervene during all this turmoil, or were they able to track you down when your mom kidnapped you?  Did anyone call Child Protective Services or try to get custody of you?  I mean this in a gentle, honestly curious way: what do you attribute to your ability to survive your upbringing and turn out normal? Do you think you just have a naturally resilient personality, or did other adults in your life help you realize you could eventually get away from your mom, etc?  I only ask because I worry a lot for the youngster in my family and how to help them.

    • canadia

      December 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

      I told some relatives about it, actually.  They went to my mother, and then didn’t believe me.  THAT went well, trust me.  My mother’s former partner tried to get custody, but as she’d moved to a mother-favorable state, that also went poorly.

      I’ve thought about pulling the all-out intervention card, but she’s married to a severe enabler (and I mean SEVERE, as in highly connected to her hospital system severe) and I’m afraid it just wouldn’t do any good.  

  • A.

    December 3, 2013 at 12:43 am

    Do not excuse her behavior. I know how tempting it is, but don’t do it. My mother was endured some bad, bad emotional, sexual, and physical abuse during her childhood and adolescence. What I’ve heard anyway, was some messed up stuff. And though I can point to those times and say this is WHY she does what she does now, it does not excuse why she won’t stop. My mother got some help. She’s mostly better now even if she treats me like second-class compared to my brothers. She’s mostly better even if she’s manipulative and controlling. I understand now that this is as healthy as she’ll ever be, and accepting that was so hard. I don’t love her anymore. I don’t love her or my father anymore. They will never be the kind of parents I need them to be: unselfish and okay with me just as I am. That is what I needed to do because I refuse to excuse their behavior. I refuse to be subjected to the anxiety and self-loathing that comes hand in hand with being emotionally connected to them.

    However, even if I don’t love them, they are lovely with my nephews. My nephews are the light of my parents’ life and the boys are always super excited to see my grandparent’s when they visit. You, too, should expect behavior deserving of that same excitement. Stay firm if she tries to manipulate you into letting your child stay the night, because that time will come, and when you feel it’s appropriate, mention getting help. There’s such a stigma attached to addiction and recovery that your mother may feel like you won’t love her anymore if she admits to her very real problem. It’s not likely she will be cured of her issues in one go, if ever, but I suggest continuing to encourage her to healthy behaviors. That’s what I do. I also found an old advice column on here about a con MIL and her enabling son, which linked typical behaviors of adult children of alcoholics, and I recognized myself in nearly all that list. I’m beginning to change my behavior, and you should expect that your mother can, too, even if right now, she won’t.

  • A.

    December 3, 2013 at 12:46 am

    to see my parents when they visit*

  • AE

    December 3, 2013 at 1:56 am


    I feel for you in this situation.  As an adult of an alcoholic parent I will say this: I don’t have children yet but have already consciously decided that my alcoholic parent (my parents are divorced) will not be left to babysit my future children. 

    That being said, I have found that you have to eventually make a decision, to accept your wayward parent as is, love them, or be done with them totally.  They will only change if they choose to.  Not because we love them, or because we want them too.  

    Finding a balance between loving your mother, and protecting your child from the destructive parts of her personality may be like walking a tightrope, but you, from your writing, seem to have turned out pretty well considering.  It’s probably worth letting your mother and your child have a relationship, albeit one managed by you, and even with you imposing restrictions on your mother.  

    Good luck to you, I hope your mom finds help, and wants to change for the better.


  • Marnie

    December 3, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Hi, fellow adult child of an alcoholic single mother here with a bipolar sister. I’ve gotten exposure to both sides when growing up, it has not been easy. There has been a lot of stuff I’ve brushed aside over the years and it wasn’t until this past year, while dealing the post-partum depression after my 3rd baby I realized, I can’t ignore it anymore. I’m now in therapy and on medication for depression and anxiety. I have learned SO MUCH about traits I thought were particular to me but really, were indicative of traits exhibited by adult children of alcoholics. Like always trying to cater to other people’s needs (ie. making sure Mom has someone to spend a holiday with) or feeling the need to cover-up or rationalize why awful behavior is really okay because really, she’s such a great person underneath. I saw echos of those in your letter. Do some googling about ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics’ or ‘…addicts’ and see for yourself.

    What changed the most for me was having children and realizing, I could no longer emotionally and mentally afford to continue supporting my mom and her issues. My #1 focus for me in my life is keeping MY family happy, the one I choose to make and create…my husband and 3 children. I can’t control my mom’s behavior but I can control what my children are exposed to to give them the best shot. Having my supportive husband and a great therapist to work through what are realistic boundaries has made such a difference. If looking into Al-Anon is intimidating (which it still is for me!!), definitely considering going through a therapist route to better understand healthy emotional boundaries. Your statement of “… couldn’t deal with feeling like I had someone else to protect.” sounds like your boundaries still aren’t quite healthy enough for you. And you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a holiday with your child for the sake of your mother.

    Good luck!! You are not alone!!

  • Lrj

    December 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Oh boy do I feel for you LW. My biological father was a horrible alcoholic till my daughter was about 6 months old. Even when he got sober his mental issues and entitlement issues have led me to stop all contact. I am now pregnant with my second and my new MIL is an alcoholic and opiate addict. She claims she has fibromyalgia and takes so many opiates that she regularly falls down and injures herself (in one week she broke both her wrists in two separate incidents). Also she adds to all those meds 3+ bottles of wine a day. There are weeks she doesnt get dressed its very depressing but my husband and I can not do anything about it. My FIL has offered to send her to whatever treatment center she wishes (they are very well off) she refuses. We did let her have limited contact wit my daughter but things got out of hand like she is too messed up to realize what she is saying and has said terrible things in front of my daughter. We finally drew a line and said she would no longer be allowed around my daughter or this baby when he gets here until she is sober. She said some truly despicable things and I am standing firm. I feel terrible because this is her first biological grandchild and she wont even meet him but I refuse to let my children be damaged because she simply wants to be messed up.

  • AnonToday

    December 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    My paternal grandmother was a raging alcoholic and narcissist who terrorized 2/3 out of her children. My dad happened to be the ‘favorite’ which exempted him from much of the abuse but he spent his childhood trying to protect his siblings and making excuses for her. It was a bad situation all around but much harder for him as an adult because his 2 siblings hated her for the abuse and for the most part cut her out sometime in their 20s. My dad saw glimpses of her good sides. She was a strong woman, passionate and very intelligent. So he let her in, creating boundaries along the way but they were not enough to protect us or my mom from her awfulness. She is responsible for so much pain and awfulness and while my dad tried his best to reel her in, all it did was enable her. She is not evil as so many people in my family think, she is a mentally ill, addicted human who made very bad choices and ruined a lot of lives. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. It’s so much harder when you see the good and want so badly for that aspect of the person to finally shine through. Maybe miracles happen, but my dad dropped dead at 59 with the stress of trying to take care of that woman and wow. It’s just not worth it. Take care of yourself {al-anon is a prefect place to start) and take care of your daughter. Let her go for now.

    • Christina

      December 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Completely agree. Time to let her go, get therapy/Al Anon and stop feeling guilty.

  • June

    December 3, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    One of my parents is an alcoholic. I love him and he’s intellegent and funny and incredibly interesting. However, after my parents divorced and we stayed with him on the occasional weekend he’d become this total other person at night after he started drinking. Rambling, stumbling, occasionally violent. That frankly, sounds like a picnic compared to your mom’s behavior. Even so, it was so disturbing to be around a grown up you are supposed to be able to trust and have them act in this frightening, unpredictable way. Serious issues there. Please don’t do this to your daughter. Even supervised visits are too much if she’s not 100% sober. Kids know that something is amiss and it’s scary to not understand why a grown up is acting like that or why mom or whoever is trying to pretend that it’s normal. I realize this is kind of coming from my own issues/experiences but it sounds like YOUR desire for your child to have a relationship with your mom might currently be trumping the safety and mental health of your kid.

  • Autumn

    December 3, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    My MIL isn’t an addict, just a passive aggressive middle aged lady.  She is not allowed to be alone with my child.  We haven’t told her that, but hints about her babysitting have started and we just kinda nod and change the subject.  She doesn’t respect our boundaries and hasn’t earned my trust.  

    Do what you need to do to protect your child.  Is a  crummy relationship with a bad grandmother really better for her than not knowing her at all?  

  • Jacob

    December 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    You have to remember that an addiction is an addiction, no matter the form it comes in.  Until mom is ready to address the issue head on, you need to take baby steps and help her get back on a healthy path.  Most addicts need help getting better, and by drawing the line in the sand, you’ve started the process.  Good luck and God bless.

  • OlderSister

    December 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    My sister is an addict.  I have two girls and we have made the choice to not let them be alone with her.  She has offered to watch the girls on many occasions and we never allow it.  She lives with my mom and I have made it very clear that if we leave the girls with my mom that my sister is not allowed to be there.  My mom understands this and respects it.  I have made the choice to not even tell my sister where we live.  

    My father is also an addict and I cut him out of my life all together about ten-years-ago.  He was not invited to my wedding and he has never met either of my girls.  He also has issues with pathological lying and deception.  I will not allow my children to be exposed to that type of behavior.

    Do what is best for your girl, not your mom.  It’ll suck for you and hurt for you, I know that pain.  It is just awful, but in the end you won’t have to worry the entire time she’s around.  Her behavior is not okay to be around kids (grown or otherwise).  I’m so sorry- real life can really suck sometimes.

  • Metoo

    December 5, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    One of my parents has addiction and mental health issues, but also has many wonderful qualities. It’s a hard place to be…I feel for you Canadia.l have decided with my husband’s support that they will never be alone with my child.

    I agree with many of the things said here, and therapy has allowed me to finally set (and continue to maintain) healthy boundaries with this parent. I love them and I’m sad that they don’t have the grandparent role that I would love them to have, but not at the expense of my own comfort level and safety of my child. Also, I think it’s important for my child to see and learn that healthy boundaries are important even in families. I hope she will learn that whether someone is your family member or not, it’s not ok to be extremely demanding, manipulative, dishonest, hurtful, seriously inappropriate, etc. 

  • Biotelyn

    December 9, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Growing up my Aunt had a terrible drug problem with some personality disorder. My grandmother had a slight drinking problem that got worse.My mother didn’t recognize either until they were profound and that’s when we stopped having them as baby-sitters and only saw them for family outings and events- never alone. I was relived, It’s horrible to know that you’ve outgrown adults in your like at about 6, but that was my childhood. I went to the meetings when I got older. I know addicts lie, it’s part of the disease. So now my daughter sees my Aunt and Grandmother at my house under my supervision. I’m trying not to foist my baggage on her, but at the same time I have to look out for her first and everyone else later.