Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Girls: I am married with a toddler and have a 12-year-old stepdaughter. It is hard to build a relationship with her, but one of my fundamental rules is I want her to have a good relationship with her baby brother. None of my stepdaughter’s chores involve picking up or watching her brother unless my husband and I specifically ask her if she wants to babysit. And we pay her. (I am the eldest of four and grew up with a lot of resentment for being forced to be the second mom.) This runs into conflict when we visit my in-laws. All of my husband’s sisters are married with children. Most of the older girls get wrangled into child-tending while their older brothers get to run around. My stepdaughter either plays with her boy cousins or goes upstairs to read her books. This has generated complaints. Worse is when I hand my son over to his father rather than my stepdaughter. (The men get to go fishing and drink during our visits.) We get the stereotypical whip sound effects and mumbles of us spoiling my stepdaughter. I made things worse last time, after one of these comments, by reminding my sister-in-law that her oldest was her 13-year-old son and not her 9-year-old daughter. Why let the oldest run around and give chores to the younger one? She took offense. The situation is prickly. I don’t want to make it worse. Any thoughts on how to deflect?
A: This seems like a really great opportunity for your husband to intervene with his family! Talk to him before your next visit to the in-laws and tell him that you’re being pressured to push your stepdaughter into full-time babysitting work and that the in-laws are choosing you rather than him to hassle about it because you’re his wife and it’s therefore your job to manage child care. I think the two of you should go in prepared to offload this conversation to him. If anyone asks you about it or tries to make little digs about your daughter reading a book, you can say, “Oh, you should talk to Frank about that; he’s the child care coordinator.” My guess is that most of your in-laws won’t give him the same hard time because he’s a man, so you’ll solve half your problem with that. If they do give him a hard time, it’s his family, and he can tell them that he’s not looking for feedback on how you two look after your kids. But this really shouldn’t be your sole responsibility, and if he hasn’t noticed—or if he has chosen to overlook—this irritating habit of his relatives’, it’s time for him to step up and help you deal with his family.