I am a married woman in my late 20s. My parents divorced a few years ago after 35 years of marriage. My husband’s mother died around the same time. Recently, my mother and his father have started to see each other. They did not sit down with my husband and me before they started dating to discuss how this would affect us but have since said they would be open to talking about our issues. However, every time we bring something up, my mom gets defensive, my father-in-law gets mad, and they end up convinced that we are trying to sabotage their relationship. One thing is especially trying for me: My mother has started to attend my church with my father-in-law. I made it clear to my mother that her going bothered me. She said that she would continue to go as long as my father-in-law asked her to. I have also told my mom that if they marry, I would like her to keep her name so I can have my married name for myself. She asked if I wanted to bind her to this horrible last name forever. I can’t continue to be miserable for the sake of their relationship, so how can I get her to listen to my point of view?
—I Just Want To Be Heard
Think of the possibilities if your mother and father-in-law get married: You and your husband will be step-siblings, and you each will be the aunt and uncle of your own children! This reminds me of the novelty song “I’m My Own Grandpa.” Sure, it is awkward to contemplate this turn of events, but although each of your parents has said they’re open to discussing the complications inherent in this situation, it actually turns out they’re not. They’re especially not when you come to them with a list of restrictions that includes where they are allowed to worship and what name your mother may use. I don’t understand your hostility to your mother attending your church. You may have noticed that often generations of one family sit together in the same pew. As confusing as your family situation may become, keep one thing in mind: They’re your parents, not your children, and you don’t get to tell them whom they can socialize with. I know of another family in which this exact thing happened. A widowed father and divorced mother met through their married kids and fell in love; the older couple ended up having a much happier marriage than the younger. One way to keep your own marriage happy would be to focus more on it, instead of concentrating on being “miserable” about your mother’s relationship. And if your mother does become your mother-in-law, you can smile at the fact that God sometimes works not only in mysterious, but also amusing, ways.
My wife and I have a dispute that has been ongoing for years, ever since my hair started to turn gray. She would like me to dye it, and I do not want to. Recently she brought it up again, and the discussion grew more heated than usual. She says I would look sexier and not so old. (I am approaching 40.) My hair is dark, so I have a salt-and-pepper look, with about 20 percent salt (like George Clooney—enough said, right?). She would like me to try a new treatment that leaves some gray, so maybe I could just maintain my current level and not get any “worse.” I don’t object to hair-coloring in general (she has hers dyed), but I have no interest in coloring mine. I have explained to her that I would feel silly, fake, self-conscious, and almost embarrassed. She insists that she wants to know the “real” reason, because for any reason I give, she has a counterargument. I am, in any case, adamant that I won’t color my hair. How can we resolve the conflict?
How can you resolve this? Maybe you can start leaving literature for your wife about breast lifts, liposuction, Botox, and other tweaks she can make in her appearance so that, as she approaches 40, she can look sexier and not so old. When people complain about the appearance of their spouse, most often it’s because the spouse has put on poundage equivalent to a mule deer, not because the spouse resembles one of the best-looking movie stars of the day. I agree with you about men with dyed hair; they always seem a little bit silly. Tell your wife that there are some conflicts for which there is no compromise solution. Say you’ve heard her out, but this subject is closed, now and forever. You can add that as a sign of appreciation, in the years to come, you will not point out to her the many ways she’s aged.
A childhood friend and her husband came to visit me and my boyfriend recently. This was the first time we’ve seen each other in a number of years. She and her husband talked at great length about their 7-year-old daughter, “Betsy,” who is the light of their lives. They began discussing Betsy’s behavior, which led to them telling us that Betsy eats markers. They said that they’ve had to restrict her marker use because she was chewing on them so severely that she was getting ink all over and inside her mouth. They went on to say that Betsy recently had some baby teeth pulled; when we asked why, they said very nonchalantly, “Oh, she likes to eat the wall.” Evidently, Betsy gnaws on the drywall to the point that she’s eaten the wall to the studs and worn her teeth down. My friend and her husband said nothing about seeking treatment for her, and their attitude was that this is just a normal stage of childhood development. Since they left, I’ve done some Internet research, and it sounds like Betsy might be suffering from pica, which can lead to a number of difficulties, as well as being an indication of possible developmental disabilities. I’m concerned about the welfare of their little girl—am I morally obligated to share my worries and the information I’ve gathered, or should I stay out of it?
It’s hard to believe that the doctors and dentists who have treated Betsy haven’t taken a thorough history and discussed with her parents how to deal with what’s wrong. But there is always a chance that your friends are so unwilling to face that something is awry that they aren’t addressing this. And pica, a disorder in which people have compulsions to eat strange substances, certainly seems like a possibility. You are hesitating to say something because it’s always touchy to sound as if you are criticizing someone else’s childrearing. But if your intervention could prevent damage to a child, then you are obligated to speak up. You can call or e-mail and say you were concerned about their description of Betsy’s behavior. Say you know what devoted parents they are, so you’re sure she’s getting the best medical care. Acknowledge that you’re no doctor, but since they didn’t mention a diagnosis for Betsy, you wanted to make sure that Betsy’s doctor had looked into the possibility of pica. It’s worth risking your friend’s ire to make sure you’ve done everything you can for the health of this girl.
My soon-to-be mother-in-law is a compulsive shopper. Her basement is filled with items she has no use for but couldn’t resist buying, which drives my fiance crazy. She is a very sweet lady, but her manner of welcoming me is to inundate me with gifts. Some of them are wonderful, but many are items that I can’t use or don’t like. She means well, but I feel like when her son and I have a house of our own, there won’t be room for us after all of the stuff she donates makes it in! How can I politely indicate to her that while I love her dearly, I do not share her love of clutter, and would rather have her company than the constant results of her shopping trips?
—Not a Pack Rat
Compulsive is the crucial word here. Whatever you say won’t make any difference because she’s not shopping for you; she’s shopping for herself. So accept her gifts graciously, keep the few you like, and ruthlessly return, donate, or toss the ones you don’t. When she comes over and asks where is the fabulous fondue fountain or the wonderful Wall-E plush toys she got for you, do not get defensive. Simply say you didn’t have room for them, then point out the place of honor you have given her ravishing rhinoceros lamp.