Care and Feeding

My Parents Just Died, and My In-Laws Have Claimed Every Holiday

Am I wrong to ask them to sit a few out?

Woman looking sad in the foreground. Elderly couple smiling in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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 am the mother of twin 5-month-old boys. Both of my parents died recently, while my husband’s parents are both still alive. Now that his parents are the only grandparents, he and they have decided that it’s a given they’ll be present at every holiday. This is beginning to slowly shatter me. Not only do I enjoy myself a lot less when they’re around (really, isn’t that the truth for all of us with our in-laws?), but I also feel (perhaps unreasonably) like it’s a betrayal to my own dead parents to be giving my in-laws every holiday when my own parents never got any. My mother was a huge Christmas person, and she never got a Christmas with grandchildren. It’s going to be damn hard for me to be joyous and carefree with my in-laws as I also mourn my own mother at Christmastime. Add this to Thanksgiving, birthdays, Easter, Halloween, etc., and you can see how I’ve come to dread holidays. I’d love to have some of the holidays be just our own little family, without the grandparents, but my husband thinks this is cruel and illogical. Is it wrong to request the grandparents sit a few holidays out?

—Overdosing on In-Laws

Dear OoI,

Losing both of your parents when your children are so young, being orphaned at the same time you are just beginning to be a parent yourself, is awful. I could not be sorrier to hear about your parents’ deaths.

They haven’t been gone long, certainly not long enough for you to fully grasp what life will be like without them. I don’t know what it means when you say that your husband and his parents have decided that from now on they will be present at every holiday. Did they announce this? If so, your in-laws might have thought it would be a comfort to you—it might have been their way of saying, “You have lost your parents, but you have us. We will be your parents. And your children still have one set of living grandparents who love them.” That it’s too soon for that doesn’t make it any less lovingly intentioned. You can tell them, and their son too, that you need time to sort things out, that you are still in shock and deeply grieving your recent loss. You can tell them that you need to take things a little at a time—including making decisions about how to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are still many months away—and see how you feel as the holidays grow near. You can tell them—and your husband—that you know they will understand. (If you tell people you know they’ll understand, they’ll often make an extra effort to live up to your expectations of them.)

But if you mean that they seem to have decided on this, because they’ve been present for every holiday since the twins’ birth—and how many such holidays could there have been at this point?—that’s another sort of conversation. It sounds like you’ve been spending a lot of time with them, way more time than you want to. I can’t tell if this is because you do really dislike them (I don’t think it’s true that everyone has less fun when their in-laws are around—I think that’s a sitcom trope) or if you just need to be alone right now (and who could blame you?). There’s a lot going on. And your husband doesn’t seem to be as sensitive to this as he could be. You might need to spell it out for him more clearly than you have, and not in terms of fairness or a competition between the living and the dead. You might need to tell him that you’re just (just!) very, very sad.

It would be nice if we didn’t have to tell our partners these things. You’d think they’d know. He should know that you’re not being cruel or illogical—you’re grief-stricken. And probably overwhelmed, too. Five months in as a new parent, things are still pretty hard. Being a new parent can always be a mix of exhaustion, frustration, confusion (from sleeplessness if nothing else—but there is plenty else), and pure joy. Being a new parent in the midst of fresh grief? That’s incredibly hard. That’s what’s “slowly shattering” you.

And while I don’t believe there is anything cruel or illogical in wanting to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with just your own little family (full disclosure: I have always been a fan of this myself), I think framing it the way you have isn’t going to be productive. And honestly, I don’t even think you mean it. I think when you are able to see the world without the scrim of grief through which you’re experiencing everything now, you will be grateful that your children have two living grandparents. I don’t believe you are going to hang on forever to the idea that because your mother never got to celebrate Christmas with her grandchildren, it isn’t fair that your husband’s parents should get to.

Why not be completely honest with everyone? You need more time alone with your family right now. You are too sad to make plans for the holidays just yet. And yes, you may need to ask your in-laws to sit out some, or all, of them for a little while. Not for good. Just for now. You’re sure they’ll understand.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 9, and she has a best friend I will call Jennifer. They spend a lot of time together. Jennifer’s parents are fitness buffs who are obsessed with eating healthy (to the point that it feels more like a thinly veiled eating disorder). I’m worried that this is manifesting itself in unhealthy ways in Jennifer and that it could rub off on my daughter. Recently, Jennifer has been talking about other kids’ weight, including comparing them to my daughter. For example, “So-and-so is even skinnier than you are.” And Jennifer is constantly commenting on the number of calories and sugar when we give her anything to eat. Any recommendations for how to keep this from impacting my daughter? And do you think I should mention this to Jennifer’s parents?

—Don’t Talk to My Daughter About Calories!

Dear Don’t Talk,

Mention what to Jennifer’s parents? That their 9-year-old counts calories? That she notices and remarks on other people’s bodies? There’s only one place she could have learned to do this. And I guarantee that if you tell them that you fear they’re instilling in their daughter an unhealthy obsession—much less that you think they have eating disorders themselves—that conversation will not go well.

It would be a kindness toward their daughter, however, to casually present an alternative way of thinking about food—and bodies—when she’s visiting your home. Don’t lecture her (“We don’t talk about food that way in this house,” “We believe it’s rude to comment on other people’s bodies”). Just model different ways of thinking and behaving. Laugh off the nonsense. Change the subject in a relaxed way. She talks about so-and-so’s skinniness as compared to your daughter’s? You talk about that child’s spelling ability or how fast she runs or how good her jokes are. She points out how many calories are in the snack you’ve offered her? You say, “Yum, this is so good!” and take a bite of one yourself.

I assume that you’re offering healthy snacks when the kids play together—not healthy like “a thinly veiled eating disorder” but just minimally processed real food that tastes good. If this assumption is wrong—if you’re giving the kids nothing but Oreos and Lunchables—then maybe don’t do that. I’m not saying you should be draconian about it (I live in the world too) but if Jennifer’s parents have taught her that these are not the healthiest choices to make, well, they’re right about that (even if I think they’re wrong to have focused on the grams of sugar and number of calories, and yeah, it’s worrying that 9-year-old is measuring everybody’s relative skinniness).

As to your own daughter: The best way to keep Jennifer’s preoccupation with thinness from being contagious is to make sure she is being taught, by example and otherwise, that bodies are of value to us for reasons having nothing to do with how small they are. And that—to boot—we don’t talk about other people’s bodies. If you never do, she likely never will either.

If healthy, non-obsessive eating habits and a nonjudgmental way of encountering other people and their bodies are things your child has absorbed at home, you don’t have to worry about Jennifer’s influence on her. Kids are exposed to all kinds of ways of looking and thinking about the world once they start venturing out into it. We can’t—we shouldn’t—keep these experiences from having an impact on them. The question is: What sort of impact? Passively accepted? Or observed, considered, measured against what they know to be true—and rejected, if they have the tools to figure out that what they have observed does not in fact make sense?

Note: This reader also sent this question to the hosts of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, Slate’s parenting podcast. Listen to their answer here!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old who for the last year or so has only written the four letters in her name. A few weeks ago, she had a breakthrough and found she could write all the letters. Since then, she has been filling every scrap of paper with letters—she’s proud of her accomplishment and so are we!

This past weekend we went to a family gathering at my in-laws’. During the course of the day my 4-year-old wrote out “presents” for all the members of the family. They were just pieces of paper with strings of random letters on them. Beaming, she passed them out to everyone.

The next day my mother-in-law texted us a picture of one of those pieces of paper. My daughter had unwittingly (because she can’t read yet) handed her aunt (who is quite overweight) a piece of paper that included f-a-t in its string of letters. My mother-in-law said that she was shocked and upset that our daughter would do this to her aunt (who, by the way, is 37 years old and did not come to us about this) and demanded that we and our daughter apologize.

My 4-year-old is still a long way off from being able to read and further still from being able to spell—and even further still from being able to send coded nasty messages to family members. I know that my daughter is at the pre-alphabetic stage of her literacy development, where she is just discovering that there are letters and they all have a shape and sound. (If that sounds surprisingly technical, I should let you know that I am a K-12 reading specialist with a master’s degree.)

My husband and I are hurt and angry right now. What bothers me most is that it shows that she thinks our daughter is capable of such deliberate malice. She was trying to do something sweet by handing out “presents” that she wrote herself and her innocent gesture has been corrupted (by her grandmother, of all people!).

Our immediate reaction was just that we don’t need to see my husband’s parents for a long time. My father-in-law is a sweet man who loves his grandchildren and I don’t want to hurt him, but my mother-in-law has a history of “not staying in her lane” and this latest episode—accusing a 4-year-old of fat-shaming!—can’t go unchecked. What should we do?

–Protective Mom

Dear Protective,

If your immediate reaction to this incident is to cut your children off from their grandparents, it’s not what happened last weekend that’s the problem. Sure, your mother-in-law was over-reaching. It’s absurd that interpreted your daughter’s “present” to her aunt the way she did when she could see for herself that the “words” on her own slip of paper spelled nothing. And yes, she wasn’t “staying in her lane” by complaining on behalf of her own grown daughter. But not minding your own business is not a capital offense; nor is being thin-skinned. Nor is just being stupid, which it sounds like she was being on this particular occasion. Her son and her daughter-in-law are ready to put her and her sweet husband in grandparent jail for this? Nah.

Call her up. Tell her she’s being silly: Your 4-year-old can’t spell or read, the combination of letters was coincidental. Don’t mention any of the rest of what you’ve said here, including how she’s making a complaint when her grown daughter didn’t seem offended: Your mother-in-law may be a protective mother, too. If she argues with you when you call, go ahead and have an argument. Argue with her whenever she does something that makes you angry—why not? Feel free. Arguments aren’t unhealthy. Grudges are.

—Michelle

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