Care and Feeding

I Can’t Wait for My Mom to Be a Grandma, but My Stepdad Is a Nightmare

Grandparent trouble for an expecting mother with a history of family abuse.

Photo illustration: A pregnant mom thinking with a looming sweet grandma and stern grandpa behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am expecting my first child and the first grandchild for my parents. My mom is a really sweet lady. I love her. I am not close to my stepfather. He is crude and sexist and makes inappropriate jokes and comments. He was also extremely emotionally abusive while my sister and I were growing up. They also have two much younger boys that are my half-brothers. Once, when I was 16, my mom told me, “If he ever starts treating the babies like he treats you girls, I will leave him.” I remember agreeing because, of course! They are just babies and we needed to protect them! Looking back, I realize, we were kids too. One of my brothers, “Nolan,” is autistic and requires (but does not consistently receive) constant supervision. When he was young, he started to hit my other brother, “Reed,” when he was frustrated. This behavior was never ameliorated, and Nolan is now a 250-pound adult man who violently hits Reed such that Reed won’t even visit my parents because he understandably doesn’t want to be attacked.

My mom is pestering me already about letting their future grandchildren stay with them so that we can still have time as a couple and go on vacations, etc. They live across the country, so they wouldn’t get a lot of opportunity to bond with them otherwise. My stepdad has stopped drinking and has changed a lot, but I still don’t want him around my son, especially not when I am not there. I also don’t trust my mom to step in since three of her four children were abused and she did not take steps to protect us then. I love my mom, but how do I tell her no, my kids can never come for a week or two to visit their grandmother? Am I being unreasonable? I want these dysfunctional family dynamics to end with me.

—How Do I Say No?

Dear HDISN,

I am so sorry for your childhood abuse, and I wholeheartedly applaud your commitment to ending the cycle. I deeply regret to inform you that your mother is not actually a really sweet lady: She allowed you and your sister to be abused by her husband, she allowed her son to be abused by his brother, and I would be very surprised if her parenting of Nolan was up to snuff either. Even if she was a saint on earth, the one inarguable fact you know about your mother is that she will 100 percent allow your stepfather to abuse children. That’s more than enough reason to refuse to let them visit them at all, let alone on a trip without your active supervision.

I am not in the business of telling you to stop seeing or loving your mother. If you want to send her a plane ticket so she can come get to know your children under your careful eye, you have my blessing. Honestly, I would be interested to see if you learn anything about your stepfather’s treatment of her once she’s in a safe and neutral location. I would not allow your stepfather to visit your home. That may be a deal-breaker for your mother, as it would be for most married couples, and so be it.

This is not an easy message to relay to anyone, least of all your mother. You don’t need to say anything at all until your child is at a visiting age, at which point you should employ a simple, potent phrase: “That won’t be possible.” I was 35 before I realized the beauty and power of “that won’t be possible.” But why? “Again, it’s simply not possible.” Should you then invite your mother to visit you, you will have to make explicit the fact that your invitation does not include your stepfather. This might be a difficult conversation, but a necessary one. If you get any sense that the two of them may materialize on your doorstep, tell your mother he will not be admitted if he arrives, and that if she wants to prevent such a scene, she knows exactly how to do it.

It seems extremely clear to me (and I hope to you) what your responsibilities toward your son are: Kids should never be used to prop up the emotional or psychological health of an adult, and you are on this earth to protect him from harm. It’s less clear to me what your responsibilities toward your brother are as there are so many variables at play: Is he being cared for adequately in their home? Do they have a long-term plan for him other than that eventually they’ll die and you’ll sort it out? Do they have guardianship of him? I do not usually recommend dropping a dime to Adult Protective Services except in very dire circumstances, but if he’s violent toward Reed, he may also be violent toward his parents and probably himself, and I would be very surprised if he’s receiving the care he needs and deserves. Just something to start carefully probing.

One final note: In my experience, people who have suffered abuse as children often react very strongly when their own first child is placed in their arms. Those of us lucky enough to have had good—or good-enough—parents are often suddenly struck by how much our parents love(d) us, and how many mistakes come along with the job, and develop a whole new appreciation for the work they did. People who’ve been abused as children often go in the opposite direction, as they realize how tiny and vulnerable kids are, and memories they’ve pushed aside or moved on from can resurface in a powerful, traumatic, and angry way. Just be ready for that if it comes. Prepare your partner if you have one, talk to your therapist, be kind to yourself. I’ll be thinking about you; please stay in touch.

Dear Care and Feeding,

The other night while my husband was away, I had neighbors around for a glass of wine. One guest let me know she’d be bringing her toddler.

All night I was stressed by this mother’s limited supervision of the toddler: wandering everywhere, leaving food around the house (we recently had a mouse problem and are sensitive to cleanliness), dipping fingers into lit candles then wiping wet wax on my wooden table, pulling out my darling husband’s Lego sets and opening their boxes. I noticed a small but sentimental item was broken but didn’t say anything at the time.

Everyone was delighted and encouraging with the sweet child but me.

Mom ate like a horse and then left a mess with everything on the table when she excused herself to return to her husband at home, who had prepared dinner. I felt stressed, unsure about realistic hosting expectations, and unappreciated by my guest. How can I do this better next time—if at all? What would be good boundaries for me with someone else’s child in my home?

—Toddler Fingers Everywhere

Dear TFE,

Oh, good gravy, how unpleasant. You generally do not have to painstakingly childproof your home for someone else’s child, especially if the child has not been invited and merely appears like an oddly-sticky Ghost of Christmas Future on your doorstep. If you do know a toddler is coming to an adult event (it sounds like you had some advance warning), simple common sense does suggest a five-minute dash to move breakables off grabbing-level and immobilize your Ball python. That’s for your own good and for the good of your liability insurance premiums.

In your case, it was silly not to expect a toddler to make a beeline for your husband’s Lego sets. They should be out of sight. (If he has a less precious Lego set that a child could, you know, play with, perhaps that one could be dragged out for visiting youths.) This was your only real boner move! It is not at all unreasonable to expect a kid’s parent to take responsibility for watching them when they are both in your home. Your neighbor acted badly, and I’m not entirely sure why she didn’t just leave her child with her husband.

Next time? My advice is not to invite your neighbor over again. You seem like you have a nice adult life filled with nice, clean adult objects (and Lego), which is a very reasonable thing for a person without children to have and to want. I have a very nice decorative table that I plan on using again one day when my children are off at that horrible cold-water Scottish boarding school we dream of sending them to. This doesn’t mean you never have to see or be friendly to this woman (or her husband) again! Meet for coffee at her place, if you enjoyed her company, or at a third party’s home. I could absolutely give you a tight little script for “Watch your own damn kid, I am not a Chuck-E-Cheese,” but it’s better to parry this one.

Your home is your castle, and good moats make for good neighbors, as Robert Frost might have said.

More Care and Feeding:

How Do I Convince My Son I Still Love Him When He’s Been Taken Away From Me?

Protecting My Trans Son From His Judgmental Relatives

Stop Moving My Decorative Teapots Around!!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend (like a sister) and her boyfriend are talking about a quick engagement and wedding next year: married at the courthouse, and then a small party for friends and family. I’m happy for them and so excited but (there’s always a “but” or I wouldn’t be writing, right?) … she doesn’t want kids at the party.

I know this is somewhat common for weddings, but I feel like it puts me and many others in an awkward position. My husband, my toddler, and I are several states away. Her other closest friends from our hometown also have families of their own and are nearly eight hours away from where the wedding celebration would be. She has cousins she is close to who have multiple children and also live out of town.

We can’t just get a babysitter and leave the kids at home and go out for a few hours. None of us are affluent enough to have nannies that we could cart along with us. Attending would mean booking flights or committing to a lot of driving and then … what are we supposed to do with our kids? My options seem to be not to go at all—which I can’t imagine—or to go alone, which isn’t fair to my husband because he’s good friends with the couple too. (And honestly, may or may not even be feasible: We are planning to have another child next year and if I’m nursing, I can’t be away that long from a newborn.)

Their friends where they live are all childless by choice and I know she doesn’t plan on having children, so they likely don’t realize the implications of this. I know it’s her day and I don’t want to be a crappy best friend but she’s going to exclude a lot of people from being able to celebrate with them. I’m not sure how to broach it with her without sounding like I’m making it all about me, but I want her to realize the position in which she will be putting at least one-third of her guests. Is this a mind-my-own-business situation, or is there a kind way to change her mind now before plans are set?

—Child-Free Wedding

Dear CFW,

I do think this is a mind-your-own-business situation! Which is not to say you cannot have a different kind of conversation around the matter, just that your goal should not be implying that refusing to have kids at her wedding is rude or inappropriate or that she hasn’t made an informed decision.

Because you can just get a babysitter and go out for a few hours. Every hotel worth its salt has a babysitting service available for its guests; even hotels not worth their salt have a list of phone numbers at the concierge’s desk. Call now to check, email all your hometown friends with toddlers, and make a plan to split the cost. You might be nervous about it, but never fear! However precious your child, hotel babysitters are unlikely to decide they must have your toddler for their very own. I left my 6-month-old baby with a hotel babysitter in San Francisco for a few hours so I could go to a speaking event this year. It was fantastic.

Is it pricey? Sure. But she’s like a sister to you. And anyway, once you’ve gone to the expense of flying your kids out—which you were going to do if they were invited to the party—the cost of hiring a sitting service for a four-hour block so that you and your husband can scream your hearts out to “Livin’ On a Prayer” seems exceptionally reasonable. I guarantee your toddler would not enjoy the wedding.

To return to the conversation you can reasonably have with your friend, I recommend this: “It might make sense to look into child care options so that your guests with kids—I’m thinking of your cousins June and Bobby-June in particular!—can celebrate with you more easily. A lot of wedding couples hire a babysitting service for the evening and use one of their booked hotel rooms as a central location. Is that something you’d like me to look into?”

If it is, gravy! If she doesn’t bite, go it solo. You’ll have made your case.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m looking for a spot of advice on being a mom who needs friends and the struggles that come with having other friends who are moms. I moved abroad before I had my kid and left behind my family and friends. I didn’t make friends here until I had a kid, and this is where it gets rough: Most of my friends are other moms who have kids of a similar age. And when things go sour between our kids, the friendships die, too.

We all know that parents think their little Jrs are perfect. I think mine is, too. I get it. But I have lost three very close friends because I have aired an issue with the moms thinking that we, as friends, could find a mutual solution. In two cases, their sons were doing physically inappropriate things to my now–8-year-old daughter (i.e., hitting, body slamming, threatening a girl who is tough and likes to play with boys and girls alike). In one of the cases, the boy has already been suspended from school twice for bullying and hitting other girls—girls who, the mom claims, are major drama queens and need to learn how to suck it up—so I know it’s not just me and mine.

In a third instance, my daughter’s friend did not understand boundaries and basically told mine that it was her way or the highway. When my daughter chose the highway, the mom and her daughter lost their minds and screamed at us for over an hour, then began stalking us: sending inappropriate text messages and emails to me, cornering my daughter on her way home from school. It has gotten shitty enough over the last year that I have taken a step back to reflect on all of our friendships. And now, I have none. My daughter still has school friends and is really well-liked in her class. But I’m struggling. I’d like to have other friends but don’t trust getting close to any of their moms JUST IN CASE.

How the hell do you make friends with kids and navigate your own friendships when the kids have a falling out? How can I teach my kid the value of friendship when mine keep dying in front of her because she’s standing up for herself?

—Needs Mom Friends

Dear NMF,

Where on earth do you live, the town from Big Little Lies? I strongly suggest you not engage in any swinging behavior, I fear you’ll wind up dead.

Generally, if you have had three mom-friendships go up in flames due to parenting dustups, I would assume that you (or your daughter) are actually the difficult one. I am still not completely convinced this is not the case, though it is hard for me to see how the third situation could possibly be your fault. It does seem that in the first two cases, you befriended mothers with physically aggressive sons, which might not be the best choice in finding appropriate playmates for your daughter.

What’s most important to you right now, finding playmates for your daughter or a friend for yourself? This is not meant to be a leading question: Those are two important things! But I sense your problem is a desire for one-stop shopping in a more complex world. Looking for a grown-up friend and then assuming your respective children will get along as well often doesn’t work at all.

It’s easier for (most) children to organically acquire friends (from school, from the park, etc) than it is for adults to make new and lasting friendships with people whose chief commonality is Also Has Kids. Why not take some time to let your daughter turn that well-likedness in school into some close friendships, without having to worry about you sizing their parents up as potential friends? As for your own friendship needs, it sounds like you find yourself in a slightly alien place and are at a bit of a loss. I understand! I think it’s time to start thinking about your general level of happiness in your current situation and see what can be done to improve it. Hobbies, meet-up groups, volunteering … your friendships do not have to involve your kids. As you’ve discovered, it’s usually less messy if they don’t. Let your tough, smart daughter find her own way. Take some time to focus on what you want and need from your nonparenting social life, then make it happen.

—Nicole