Care and Feeding

Oh, Mother

My mother-in-law disapproves of my “alternative” parenting choices. How do I deal with her?

A woman holding her baby closely.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tatyana_tomsickova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently had my first baby, and I feel like I’ve found my life’s purpose. I gave up my successful job and am happily at home. You could say I’m a “crunchy” person—meaning I had my son at a birth center, eat a plant-based local diet, am working to become a midwife, and love living a minimalistic outdoorsy life.

My issue is with my mother-in-law. My husband (her youngest son) and I had a pretty tumultuous dating relationship. We both were selfish and didn’t have great communication skills. His mom made it apparent she didn’t like me, and his entire family was cold to me for our two-plus years of dating. We had a huge falling-out when I accidentally (promise!) came across some extremely rude, mean, and hateful emails she had sent my husband (then-boyfriend) about me. I couldn’t hide my hurt and had to tell him, which caused an extremely awkward six months of his mom and family completely ignoring me even though we lived in the same town.

I finally decided to be the bigger person and just move forward in the relationship. I was afraid to bring it up because I didn’t want to cause a bigger rift, and she’s not the best at confrontation (even though I just wanted to talk about it and not fight). She didn’t formally apologize until we were married for over six months. The day we got engaged, every member of his family acted like I was the best thing that had ever happened to them, which HURT, given our past. However, I just chose to let it go because I hate trying to change things that can’t be changed, and I don’t want to spend time being hurt and bitter. I can’t make his family love me. I forgave them and moved on. We have a pretty good relationship now, even though there are still inklings of her and his family’s disapproval of me. Again, I just let it go.

Now that I have a baby, I’m starting to be frustrated with my mother-in-law. She has spent her entire career in medicine, so my “alternative” choices bother her. She was vocal in our choice to use a birth center and still isn’t over it. Things like “Why would you have a baby without drugs?” and “A hospital is the only place to have a baby” have come out of her mouth, which irk me for multiple reasons. She thinks my husband and I are too healthy (if that’s a thing?). She was annoyed we hadn’t started our son on solids yet, even though his pediatrician said he wasn’t developmentally ready. We’re very laid-back parents, and there’s not much we have a strong stance on. I want my son to have a good relationship with her since I didn’t have grandparents, but gosh, how do I navigate this for (probably) the next 20 years? My husband is involved and this bothers him too, but he’s also a mama’s boy, which makes him more understanding of her opinions.

—Can I Live?

Dear CIL,

LOL, in-laws. This is rough and I feel for you. Also, I will point out that this is a classic situation in which you have to keep track of the difference between what you can control and what you can’t. The thing that is bothering you most deeply, namely your mother-in-law’s thoughts and feelings about your choices, falls totally under the category of things you can’t control. And I get that this is difficult—nothing is more frustrating than when you’re laid back about everything except for whether or not people accept your laid-back-ness.

I think it’s entirely possible for your child to have a great relationship with his grandmother even if she disagrees with many of your parenting choices. As far as I can tell, there are only three things that would prevent this: 1) If you allow your own resentment to stand in the way of that relationship; 2) If she allows her resentments to do the same; or 3) If your kid grows up and on his own is like, “Wow, MeeMaw’s kind of an asshole.”

You can only manage No. 1 and one very tiny part of No. 2, so if a good relationship between your child and his grandma is what you crave, those are the things I would focus on. You need to get out of your feelings about the fact that this woman has some opinions about your choices. It’s fine. Life is a rich tapestry, and we’re not all the same. You can accept that and love her regardless. Let her know that while you appreciate her concern, you’re perfectly happy with the choices you made, and you don’t love having to re-state that over and over. After that, you are free to legitimately and entirely ignore any side commentary she has on the topic.

Secondly, you need to keep your side of the street clean. Don’t let your hurt ego trick you into behaving aggressively or hurting this woman unnecessarily. That just perpetuates the cycle of shittiness for no good reason. She’s formally apologized, and you’ve accepted it. You say that you’ve put it behind you, so let it stay behind you. Her feelings can be her problem, and they don’t have to be yours. You will be amazed at how little they will matter in the long run.

Oh, one last thing. You didn’t mention this in your letter, but it bears saying because it’s important: Crunchy is great. Home birth or natural birth is wonderful. Plant-based diets are lit. But whatever you do, please make sure you vaccinate your children.

Thanks for writing.