Care and Feeding

My Alcoholic Mother Can’t Be Trusted With My Kids

She ignores my boundaries, but I don’t want to keep my kids away from her.

Photo illustration of a grandmother drinking besides a new mother holding her infant.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by vestica/iStock/Getty Images Plus and monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 38-year-old married mom of two (a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old), and my mom is an alcoholic. I had all sorts of rules about her drinking and her interaction with my children, but she has broken every one of them, including one with my then-7-day-old son, which has left me not speaking to her and at a loss as to how to move forward.

After my daughter was born, I wanted my mom to have a year of sobriety under her belt in order to be trusted with babysitting responsibilities. That had seemed to go well until she confessed that she had secretly been drinking while staying with us in our apartment. She swears it was never while our infant daughter was under her care, but I do not believe her. We have never allowed her to be unsupervised with our kids again.

This past December, as it was getting closer to the due date for my second child, my mom booked 15 days in a hotel directly across the street from us without asking me first. I told her three days would be more appropriate, but she didn’t listen. She was a nightmare. She blew up my husband’s text messages while I was in labor and showed up, I suspect, drunk. A few days later she again showed up to see the baby while drunk, and when I confronted her, she said she wasn’t going to ask for visits anymore because obviously they are too stressful for the both of us. I completely lost it.

It’s been three months, and I don’t know what to do. She’s effectively our kids’ only grandparent, but she has always ignored my boundaries even when she wasn’t drunk. I want my kids to have some experience of having a grandparent, and she can also be sweet and wonderful when not drunk, but I don’t want them to have to suffer as I have in a relationship with an alcoholic. Also, I know my mother is getting older, and I don’t want to keep her grandchildren away from her in her last years, but I want to do right by my children. The whole thing seems like a puzzle I can’t solve. I’m having an extra hard time right now because I’m in the thick of caring for a newborn and a toddler and having some postpartum health issues as well, so I’m at a loss. Can you help? What would you do?

—Bottle Blues

Dear BB,

Trying to make sense out of an alcoholic can be its own kind of addiction—a behavior that is both nonsensical and compulsive. This is especially true for people who have been raised by alcoholics. It’s jokingly said that your family knows how to push your buttons because they’re the ones who installed them. There’s truth to this. You cannot underestimate how much of your way of being, your fears, anxieties, insecurities, obsessions, and attachments have been shaped by growing up under an alcoholic.

You note in your letter that she has always violated your boundaries. To me this means that, over the course of your life, you have probably learned to move, adjust, and reconfigure your boundaries in order to get the relationship with her that you’ve always hoped for. Oftentimes for the children of alcoholics, this turns into a cluster of other relationship confusions, people-pleasing behaviors, and weird sacrificial dishonesties with people close to you. It’s messy. And relief only comes with knowing how to establish and keep reasonable, healthy boundaries and to not feel responsible for managing everyone’s feelings about said boundaries. The thing about alcoholics is that you cannot keep yourself safe and make them happy at the same time.

It is sad for your children that they might not have a good relationship with their grandmother as along as she’s in her bottles, but that is not your fault, and you are not responsible for that. She is unsafe, so you don’t put her in your children’s lives until she’s safe again. If a coyote wanted to climb into your newborn’s crib, you would prevent that, and you wouldn’t feel responsible for the coyote’s feelings. (This is presumably because the coyote didn’t spend your entire life making you feel guilty and responsible.) It’s not your fault your mother’s an alcoholic. It never was and it never will be. And perhaps more importantly, it’s not your responsibility to manage. She needs help, and you are not the one who can save her.

My advice is this: Do not invite her into your children’s lives unless she is sober, and if you are so inclined, attend meetings for the family of alcoholics, of which there are many. You are right that this is a puzzle you cannot put together. So let it go. And as painful as it is, begin your work on letting her go too. Good luck, and my heart is with you.

Dear Care and Feeding

Our baby is 6 weeks old. She fell asleep a little after 9 p.m. in the Dock-a-Tot, which apparently was not ideal. My wife felt very strongly that we should change her into her pajamas and move her to the bassinet and put the Owlet on her foot, all without waking her somehow. I am very much against waking the sleeping baby. I volunteered to stay up and hang out in the living room with the baby while my wife slept and to deal with the diaper, feeding, and putting down when the time comes. I feel like I am being eminently reasonable, but apparently, I have missed something.

—What Did I Do Wrong?

Dear WDIDW,

It sounds like you have a family on your hands, and I hope you can appreciate it. I don’t think you did anything super-duper wrong. It’s fine if a 6-week-old falls asleep in a Dock-a-Tot, and it’s fine if you get her into jammies and she wakes up, because at that age, she’ll probably be right to sleep very soon.

But this is probably about more than Dock-a-Tot versus bassinet. This is about your wife having a vision for how things are going to go and you not aligning to that vision. This is about having a brand-new baby and being terrified out of your mind that if you don’t do every little thing right then you’ll do some kind of permanent and unimaginable damage. Part of the reason couples struggle when there’s a new baby is that all of a sudden the stakes seem very high, and the things your partner does that you don’t love move out of the realm of annoyance and into the realm of “threats to the very emotional safety and well-being of our precious little bundle.”  Human babies are so tiny and fragile, born so far before they’re done cooking (blame our big-ass heads for that), that the introduction of one into the home is like having a bomb in your living room. Tensions rise, tempers flare, and small things become big.

Your wife needs a lot of support, so if I were you, I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Move the baby if she wants the baby moved and try not to take it too personally if she happens to get upset. Just keep showing up as a father and husband and ride this one out.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-month-old son has been in full-time day care (30 hours per week) for the past two months. Overall, the transition has gone really well. He doesn’t cry at drop-off anymore and seems happy in the pictures and videos the day care sends. Our biggest issue is with day care pickup. He is thrilled to see me and runs over to me and hugs me. But when we go out to the car and I try to get him in his car seat, he reacts as though I’m murdering him: shrieking, flailing, arching his back, sobbing. I cannot physically force him into the seat, and to be honest, I don’t want to. Usually we end up sitting in the backseat of the car together while he rolls the windows up and down and plays with toys for 15 to 30 minutes until he’s finally ready to get in the car seat. It’s annoying but doable, except when we really need to be somewhere, like a doctor’s appointment, and we don’t have an extra 30 minutes to chill in the car. What’s going on here? In all other circumstances, he’s totally fine with his car seat and doesn’t react this way.

—I’m Tired of Sitting in the Parking Lot for 30 Minutes

Dear Tired,

When you have the time to sit with him and help him transition, then do that. When you don’t have the time due to appointments or whatever, then suck it up and take the tantrum. If you want this problem to ultimately disappear, I would try slightly decreasing the time you sit with him each day while keeping the activities more or less the same. Ultimately you want to get to a point where he knows the routine and maybe all he needs is a transitional object like a toy car to get in the mood for some car time. But even as you do this, some days you’ll get a tantrum, some days you won’t. In the end the only thing that will make this go away for sure is that your kid will outgrow this issue and replace it with an entirely different one.

—Carvell