Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two grown children, Thing 1 and Thing 2. T1 is 25. T2 is 20. T1 has always been an excellent artist and it was apparent from a young age that she would be one professionally. So when she was in college (where she had a part-time campus designer job) during the summers, we allowed her not to work in a formal job, as she occupied herself learning Photoshop, learning how to make websites, working on her online comic, and doing commissions. The final year, she tried to find a summer internship but was unsuccessful. Today, she has a savings account full of money and has her own apartment.
T2 is an average student whose main occupation is playing D&D and video games. We gave him a car and give him $200 a month for gas and expenses. He also has a small inheritance of about $4,000 in his savings. He is now facing his second summer break and we are insisting that he get a job—preferably an internship in his field. And he is having a fit about it. He calls out that we didn’t force T1 to get a job and says we are being unfair (insert yelling, door slamming, etc.). He complains he can’t find one. (A quick internet search pulls up two requiring no experience.) He insists he will not work full time or maybe won’t work at all. I have told him that if he doesn’t, he will get no money from us.
Please tell me I’m being reasonable. He’s been so depressed and volatile in recent years—and lazy. I believe that in addition to gaining valuable experience, making connections, and making some money, working will help him gain confidence and lessen his depression.
—Sitting in the Dungeon and Dragon His Ass
I love this question because at its core it’s so simple and the solution is so straightforward. You let T1 not work because she was legitimately training for a career. You are making T2 work because he’s not. That’s really it, and T2 needs to hear that in a pretty straightforward way. You should know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with treating your kids differently in situations where they are, in fact, behaving differently.
I’ll go a step further and suggest that unless there is a medical or mental health issue that demands it, no 20-year-old should have a life entirely supported by parental money without actively training for a career. It is too late for that. Such an arrangement unfairly stretches the parental contract, breeds resentment for both parties, and is ultimately damaging to the relationship. Because $200 per month is nowhere near enough to live on, it may not seem like a lot, but its impact on the situation is significant. It should not come for free. It needs to be tied directly to him being in school or in active career training, and when he’s not doing either, he needs to go earn the money he needs with his own two hands.
He will of course complain about unfair treatment, but he can just go ahead and be mad. If he wants to be treated like his sister was, then he needs to do what his sister did. The audacity of this kid! Cut out the stipend during the summer and know that you are perfectly right to do so. You can also remind him (and yourself) that he doesn’t have to stay in your house if he has such a problem with the rules. And if he’s going to complain, throw fits, and slam doors, then he can certainly go do that in his own home that he pays for with his own money.
The transition to adulthood and self-determination is just as hard for some parents as it is for some kids, but the moment is upon you, my friend, and you need to change your point of view on your youngest. He’s a grown-up now, and it’s time both of you acted like it.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Several years ago, I went through a messy divorce, the details of which would make excellent fodder for a Lifetime movie. To sum it up, I was awarded sole custody, and my sons’ biological father has very limited (and often underutilized) visitation. Through it all, my former mother-in-law (“Mary”) was one of my staunchest supporters, continuing to be the ally and friend she’d always been throughout our relationship.
I have since remarried a wonderful man with an equally wonderful family whom I love deeply. My current in-laws treat my sons just like their own grandchildren and nephews. I truly feel as if I’ve won the mother-in-law lottery twice. Additionally, both the former MIL and current one are acquainted and friendly with one another.
I’ve worked hard to keep my sons involved with their paternal relatives and especially Mary. (Their father makes no attempt to do so.) Not only was she an integral part of their early years, but I also wanted to instill in them the values of respecting and honoring our elders. Sadly, I also know the acknowledgment they give her on Mother’s Day, her birthday, etc., is the only acknowledgement she receives. She has also withdrawn socially due to shame over the “scandal” of my ex-husband’s behavior. (It was several years ago, but we live in a small town; memories are long, but life goes on.) I feel like I’m her only friend.
I love this woman. However, it’s a weird dynamic now that so much time has passed, and I’m not sure where or if I need to draw some boundaries. My present MIL doesn’t seem the least bit jealous; in fact, knowing the situation, she encourages me to show Mary kindness—as does my current husband. However, my sons are teens now, with phones and spending money and driving privileges, so they’re able and willing to maintain a good relationship with her without my help. Most importantly, my ex-husband recently remarried and now has a new baby. They live out of state, but his wife seems open to herself and the baby having a relationship with Mary. For that to happen, I’d think she needs to let the old daughter-in-law go to make room for the new one, although she doesn’t see it that way yet. I also want my boys to be able to know their sister, and I feel like I need to “get out of the way” to avoid resentment on their stepmother’s part from preventing this. How do I gently create a “loving distance” that will hopefully foster a relationship between Mary and her new grandchild (without hurting her further)—not to mention my boys and their new sister?
—Are Two MILs Too Many?
No, two is not too many. A thousand is not too many, at least not if everyone is getting along and loving, caring relationships are happening. Why would we ever want to limit the number of loving people present in our lives, or our children’s lives?
You are looking for a problem that doesn’t exist yet. If you’re lucky, it may never exist. You say that the dynamic is weird, but I’m not seeing weird dynamics in this letter. I’m seeing caring, good communication, support, and family. You also say that you’ll need to get out of the way in order for your mother-in-law to bond properly with her son’s new partner, but I’m not sure that is necessarily so. Most of us are able to have loving relationships with multiple people without having to jettison one to make room for another, and I don’t know why your MIL (or you for that matter) would be any different.
Sure, there may be a time in which she says, “OMG, I feel overwhelmed with both a current and former daughter-in-law, and I’m going to have to kick one to the curb!” or that the other DIL is like “Why are you keeping this old bag around when you need to focus 1,000 percent on me?!” but that’s a bridge I believe you can fall off when you come to it. For now, neither of these things has come to pass, so you don’t need to behave as if they already have. I invite you to relax and enjoy your family. You have a great and lucky relationship going on and I would avoid messing with it until you absolutely have to. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I don’t know if you can help me or not, but here goes. A few years ago, my sister went through a divorce. Her children were small at the time and she spent a lot of time in front of them crying and ranting about what a piece of dirt her ex-husband is. During this process, she seems to have treated my older nephew as a companion or the man of the house more than as her child. (He is only 6.) She babies him and favors him over her other child: She makes comments about how she would be happier only with her older one, he never has to share, etc. I think he has developed some issues that need to be addressed. He swears angrily at his babysitter, calls people fat, and hits. She tries to say it’s normal behavior, but I know it isn’t. During her divorce her oldest child was recommended to counseling but she has never taken him. She goes to a counselor, but she enjoys it because her counselor tells her she’s pretty and perfect and she can’t believe her husband left her.
My sister began dating someone who has a temper (among many other issues) and I can tell that her son is terrified of this person. I know there is a power struggle between these two for my sister’s affections. My nephew’s behavior seems to be escalating. My husband also seems to baby him—as an example, younger nephew gets a $20 birthday present from us, but for older nephew, hubby will go balls to the wall and want to spend over $100. I worry that my nephew has a lot of trauma and my sister is not helping him deal with it, but I’m at my wit’s end. And I worry if she takes him to counseling, the minute the doctor or whoever criticizes her parenting or her perfect child she will go running out of there and never take him back when he needs help. I worry that her new boyfriend may not be physically abusing my nephew but could be verbally or emotionally abusing him. I don’t have any idea what to do.
You are describing a lot of things here. You’ve got a sister, a sister’s partner, a nephew, and even a husband who are all behaving in ways that don’t meet your approval. One common thread, however, is that you are consumed with worry about a litany of things over which you have little to no control. It may be that pulling yourself out of that state first will go a long way toward helping you see how you can best support them.
Some of the things you fear may well be happening, but they may not be as bad in the long run as you think they are. Humans have long survived by imagining worst-case scenarios. When we see a branch, we imagine what would happen if it were a snake, and in this way, we do a reasonably good job of avoiding the real snakes. But it is not unusual for us to misapply this very helpful tool to the point where we think every single branch stands a good chance of being a poisonous snake and so the whole forest should be burned down. Your sister and her family sound like they have some problems for sure, problems that I think therapy or counseling may be able to help with. But I don’t know that they’re problems that you specifically need to swoop in and rescue anyone from.
Which is good news because you can’t swoop in and rescue anyone! Remember that you are not solely responsible for—nor are you capable of being solely responsible for—the experience and behavior of your sister’s nuclear family. It’s just not within your power to make these people behave as you want them to. You get to contribute; you do not get to control.
So, what can you do? How can you contribute? You can show up with consistency and love for your nephews. You can provide a safe, drama-free place for them to be kids, and not emotional support pets for someone. You can listen to them when they want to talk and let them be quiet when they don’t. You can give them space to work through their frustrations and let them know that your opinion of them doesn’t change if they act out or behave “badly.” As far as your sister goes, you can certainly suggest that her family has been through a lot and that therapy might be appropriate, but whether she takes that suggestion is out of your hands and what she does in that office is certainly none of your business. And new boyfriend? You have absolutely nothing to do with that, so you need to turn that one over and let it go. In short, let go of burdens that are not yours to carry, which I think will allow you to treat your family more kindly and realistically. Because if these people whom you love have been through as much as you describe, then the one thing they don’t need is a stressed-out and worried auntie judging them all. Good luck.
Ask a Teacher
I work as a music-teaching artist for a major symphony orchestra. In this job, I visit a school intermittently throughout the year (roughly every other week). There is one student in this class who is especially disruptive. He often makes homophobic remarks directed at me (such as f—-t and “gay” in a derogatory way). I’m a gay man, and I am much more flamboyant than any of the other male teachers, though I’ve never spoken about this to the students. Ack! I feel so ill-prepared to handle something like this.
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