Dear Prudence

Who’s Your Mother?

My mom thinks she can do a better job with my baby than I can.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie, 
I have a 5-month-old baby. My mother came to help out when he was born, and my husband and I are grateful to her for that. But we both began to notice while she was here that she would disparage my ability to breast-feed. I didn’t think that much of it, even though my husband felt she wanted to be holding our son more than I did. Now when she visits she routinely says that my son is “making do” with the mother he has, that it’s unfortunate for him that she isn’t around us most of the time. On her last visit she pointed out that she was a stay-at-home mother and I am not, so I need to have more of a routine in order to be a good mother. When she comes, I feel constantly judged, which is making me feel more distant from her. I think that she is jealous that I have a baby because her days of being a young mother are long past. I don’t know if I should bring any of this up to her. She is a very touchy person and I’m not sure it would do any good. How do I deal with this?


Dear Concerned,
Your mother has a classic personality combo: She is the highly judgmental person who gets outraged when judged herself. Whatever is fueling her behavior, you have to do something because it’s intolerable and is ruining your relationship with her. Instead of boasting about what a great mother she was back when, she needs to start being a great mother to you now. If she doesn’t put a lid on it, you will have to put a lid on her visits, and then everyone loses because your son will miss having the close presence of an (appropriately) loving grandmother. So the next time she comes, prepare yourself to speak up. When she inevitably makes a snide comment, calmly call her out. Say something like, “Mom, you may not even be aware of this, but since I had the baby, you’ve issued a stream of insults about my mothering skills. You’re not giving me useful advice, you’re just hurting me and it needs to stop.” If she has a tantrum, or escalates the insults, then you tell her you’re going to take the baby for a walk. When you get back, if she won’t back down or have a calm talk with you about this, then cut the visit short. Either she will adjust her behavior or she will have a whole lot fewer opportunities to boast about her superior mothering skills.


Dear Prudie,
I have been in a relationship with a wonderful man for a little over a year. He has three kids with his ex-wife, two teenagers and a school-age student. Overall they are sweet kids. His ex-wife is your garden variety narcissist and not completely stable. My question is about my relationship with his kids. We have the youngest girl most weekends while the ex leaves town to see her boyfriend, so I am around her a lot. There are lots of things these kids are picking up as acceptable behavior from their mother, such as buying clothes she cannot afford, not paying her bills, not having car insurance (she allows the oldest teen to drive), etc. Is it OK to ever say that something their mother is doing is wrong? Is it my place? I feel like I was put in their lives to be a good example, but how can I do that if I can’t ever say anything negative about their mom?

—New Sheriff in Town 

Dear New,
You are not the new sheriff—you are their father’s girlfriend. You can play an important role in these children’s lives, but you’re not going to be able to do it if you tear down their mother. What you can do is quietly offer the example of your own behavior, which will demonstrate the value of wise choices and delayed gratification. (And if a teenager is driving without being covered by insurance, that’s potentially catastrophic and the father must intervene.) If designer clothes come up, you explain you know it’s important to dress nicely, so you shop for attractive clothes that are within your budget—then explain what a budget is. Take the youngest grocery shopping with you, tell her you’ve got $100 to spend, and have her keep track with a calculator the cost of the things you put in the cart. Do low-cost activities with the kids: cooking, hiking, visiting museums. You will forge connections with them and even give them some life skills. You do not want to initiate discussions of how their mother is screwing up. Their loyalty is to her, and you don’t want to undermine that. If on their own they bring up things that disturb them about their mother, within limits you can be a sounding board. You can acknowledge that an event or a behavior does sound upsetting, while you also explain that sometimes their mom must get overwhelmed because it is hard to raise a family by herself. But mostly stay out of it and refer the discussion to their father. It sounds as if you and the boyfriend are actually or virtually living together. Though you may feel you were destined to be in their lives, these children need time to be with their father without Dad’s girlfriend always being around. So arrange to do your own thing during some visits so the kids have time alone with their father. You may indeed become an important mother surrogate over the long-term, but you aren’t their mother, or stepmother, and this family needs to function as a healthy unit even without your influence. 


Dear Prudence,
I enjoy a warm, loving relationship with my two sisters and their daughters and granddaughters. Every year they get together for a Mother’s Day lunch somewhere and have a lovely time. I am the only female in the family who isn’t included in the luncheon because I’m not a mom or daughter, I suppose. (My mother passed a few years ago.) I understand that I don’t “qualify.” It’s just hard for me to understand why my loving female relatives choose to exclude me from the fun. If there were an Aunt’s Day or Niece’s Day, I surely wouldn’t exclude any of them. I certainly don’t expect to be honored in any way; I would just like to join in the celebration of women I love. Am I being silly to feel left out?

—Odd Aunt Out

Dear Out,
You should certainly be there if only to celebrate your sisters’ giving you such lovely nieces and grandnieces. I hope this is just one of those situations where two sides, in trying not to offend each other, inadvertently give offense. Maybe your sisters feared that if they included you it would be rubbing it in that you weren’t a mother, without realizing that the alternative was a kind of exile. So speak up! However you most frequently communicate with your sisters—phone, email—get in touch and say you feel awkward in raising this issue, but you would love to join them on Mother’s Day and celebrate what a great job they’ve done. Say you’ve heard reports from this annual event that everyone has a wonderful time, and you’d like in. Let’s hope they’re apologetic for leaving you out all these years.


Dear Prudence,
I married my husband more than eight years ago. We both have children from previous marriages. My husband was divorced for a couple of years prior to our meeting—and I for eight—so neither of us are responsible for the dissolution of the other’s marriage. My husband had a neutral relationship with his ex-wife until she learned he had remarried—at that point she ceased all phone and email contact with him. In eight years she has never answered one of his emails or phone calls! Now their daughter is getting married. It will be a very small wedding, perhaps 40 people total. My husband is paying for the wedding. I have never met this woman, and have no idea what to say or do when we come face to face, or how to avoid the awkward situation that will ensue. Any suggestions?

—Other Mother

Dear Other Mother,
There is something off about a woman pretending to climb into a bunker simply because her ex-husband married someone else—now the stepmother of her children! A wedding is not the ideal place to meet someone who may be volatile and weird. I hope there is a rehearsal dinner or a cocktail gathering where family members can mingle prior to big event. But if not, and the wedding day is going to be your first encounter, when you are introduced, take her hand, look her in the eye, and say, “You have raised the most wonderful daughter. I feel blessed to know Marissa, and it’s so lovely to meet you.” If she stomps away or has a fit then she will be providing more entertainment for the guests than the band.


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